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Posted by on Jul 21, 2015 | 4 comments

How one Philosopher became Christian through reading Aristotle

 

In 1981 the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre converted to Christianity during the course of writing his most famous work, After Virtue.

shipwreck

The book argues that today’s Western understanding of right and wrong (morality) is a shipwreck of disconnected fragments that we can’t seem to piece together. Hundreds of years ago the coherent whole into which they fit was smashed to pieces by a series of revolutions in thought, the most significant of which was the Enlightenment.

He noticed that in today’s moral debates (e.g. just war / abortion / poverty) the conflicting opinions have no common framework that could make both sides eventually agree. Therefore everyone’s moral standpoint ends up coming down to how they individually feel, or to an arbitrary decision to take one side instead of another.

According to MacIntyre, we should not assume that this is the way moral debates have always been everywhere. On the contrary, things used to be quite different in the West. The common framework for thinking about moral questions came from Aristotle, whose ethics contained three key elements:

  1. Humans-as-we-happen-to-be.
  2. Morality as the pathway from 1 to 3.
  3. Humans-as-we-could-be-if-we-fulfilled-our-essential-nature.

Aristotle's Ethical Framework

It is probably clear why the early Christians found Aristotle’s framework a helpful one, since it shares so many features with the Bible.[1] So they modified it to describe a Christian view of human beings and morality.

When the Enlightenment came along it removed the third element in Aristotle’s framework – the belief in a final purpose or goal for human beings. This is because the Enlightenment thinkers had lost belief in God. It’s hard to find an ultimate purpose for humans without a transcendent Creator. With only the first two elements left, these thinkers tried to find another foundation for right and wrong that didn’t need a teleology (a belief about the purpose of human life).

what the enlightenment did

The Enlightenment came up with three options:

  1. Morality is grounded in passion/desire (propounded by Diderot and Hume).

According to this theory, if we pursue our desires “with an enlightened eye to the long-run” we shall see that traditional moral rules (don’t lie, don’t steal, treat others well, etc.) are the most likely to bring us the satisfaction of our desires in the end.

Why doesn’t this work?

MacIntyre puts it this way:

First, why should we have any regard for the long-run if the prospect of immediacy is sufficiently enticing? Secondly, does [this] view not entail that even in the long-run we ought to obey the moral rules only when and insofar as they serve our desires? And thirdly is not this indeed the way of the world, that each individual, each class, consults his or its desires and to satisfy them preys on each other?[2]

In short, this view can’t explain why I should ever care about someone else’s needs, or about justice, unless it would benefit me somehow in the end.

  1. Morality is grounded in reason (propounded by Kant)

According to this theory, morality is anything that can be consistently applied to everyone. For Kant, “a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”[3] His ultimate moral rule, which he believed passed this test, was “Always act so as to treat humanity, whether [yourself or others], as an end, and not as a means.”

Why doesn’t this work?

Simply because Kant gives no reason for obeying his ultimate moral rule. Even his test of consistency would work with other ultimate moral rules. As MacIntyre puts it:

[A different maxim, like] “Let everyone except me be treated as a means” may be immoral, but it is not inconsistent and there is not even any inconsistency in willing a universe of egotists all of whom live by this maxim. It might be inconvenient for each if everyone lived by this maxim, but it would not be impossible and to invoke considerations of convenience would in any case be to introduce just that prudential reference to happiness which Kant aspires to eliminate from all considerations of morality.[4]

In short, we can be rationally consistent and at the same time totally self-centred without caring for anyone else.

  1. Morality is grounded in radical choice (propounded by Kierkegaard)

Kierkegaard reacted to both Hume and Kant, seeing both their foundations for moral behaviour as weak. His book, Either/Or, contains two characters who he creatively names ‘A’ and ‘B’. Character ‘A’ tries to persuade the reader to pursue the life of pleasure, and character ‘B’ to pursue the morally upright life. But what reason can you have for choosing one over the other?

Kierkegaard’s point is that you can have no reason that doesn’t imply you have already chosen one of the two ways of life. If you say “I’m going to choose X because it will make me happy” then you have opted for A. But if you say “I’m going to choose X because it is the right thing to do” then you have already opted for B. How can you have a reason for choosing one of them that isn’t already based inside it?

Why doesn’t this work?

Kierkegaard himself was a highly moral person and a committed Christian. His book was probably an attempt to help people see that, when faced with the stark choice, everyone will choose the ethical life over the life of pleasure. But MacIntyre points out that this doesn’t really work:

Consider what kind of authority any principle has which it is open to us to choose to regard as authoritative or not. I may choose for example to observe a regime of asceticism and fasting and I may do this for reasons of health, let us say, or religion. What authority such principles possess derives from the reasons for my choice. Insofar as they are good reasons, the principles have corresponding authority; insofar as they are not, the principles are to that same extent deprived of authority. It would follow that a principle for the choice of which no reasons could be given would be a principle devoid of authority.[5]

enlightenment moral groundings

Conclusion

Every attempt to find another reason for morality that lacks the third element, the purpose for human existence, failed. What replaced it was what MacIntyre calls “emotivism” or a definition of right and wrong that is based mainly on how people feel, because they can’t really justify it any other way.

MacIntyre thinks that we in the West took a wrong turning somewhere. Not that we should go back before the Enlightenment in every way, or even in every moral way. But he does think that we should do our best to recover the coherent picture of morality from before it was smashed to pieces, when we had an agreed vision of our common goal and purpose as human beings, rooted in the Christian view of God as the final cause of all things. It makes sense that when he converted it was to Roman Catholicism, because he probably saw Protestantism similarly, as a bunch of conflicting pieces without enough of a common framework to agree.

[1] N.T. Wright draws out the biblical basis for virtue in Virtue Reborn (London: SPCK Publishing, 2010) (published in America as After you Believe).

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd Revised edition edition (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 47.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., 42.

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Barney

Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Barney, this is a great, cogent summary of After Virtue. My questions to you are these: why do you, presuming you of course agree with MacIntyre, see the loss of teleology as tragic? Do you find something inherently good in Aristotle’s thought, or was its loss lamentable solely because it functioned as a common language for Christendom’s intelligentsia?

    It seems to me that teleology in general is liable to most of the critiques leveled by MacIntyre at these various modern frameworks. Indeed, Hume is quite aware of the fraught situation of teleology in the eighteenth century, and this is precisely why he abandons it for his own model of ethics, which you mention here. Perhaps he, too, made a wrong turn, but that does not necessarily entail that the previously reigning philosophical mode was right. I don’t think modern philosophers by and large had a raging antipathy toward teleology per se, but rather, they began the slow abandonment of Aristotelianism because they perceived its real weaknesses.

    • Thanks, Ryan! Great questions. I have to confess that I am quite new to the ethics debate and probably not equipped to offer a defense of MacIntyre. I had been hoping that some criticisms of him would come out of the woodwork as a result of this post.

      Why do I see the loss of teleology as tragic? I have to say that strikes me as a rather bizarre question. It sounds (to me) like saying “why do you prefer the Universe to have meaning over it being meaningless?” I don’t see quite how (ultimate) meaning, purpose, and teleology can be totally separated, even if they can be distinguished.

      I think I would say that I find something inherently good in Aristotle’s thought, and it is not just because it served Christendom well. But I haven’t thought about it for a long time.

      What were the “real weaknesses” of Aristotelianism which you identify? And, although I am new to this debate, my own reading would lead towards the idea that modern philosophers did, in fact, have an antipathy towards teleology (even if it wasn’t raging), and in fact still do today, for all the reasons given in your previous post.

      • I think you may have slightly misunderstood my point concerning modern philosophers and their so-called antipathy toward teleology. What I had said was that to my knowledge there was not a general antipathy toward teleology *per se*—i.e. an abstract explanation of the word with respect to discrete and collective purposes. I have never read an Enlightenment account that railed against purpose qua purpose. What I do find are critiques leveled against teleology as it is in fact practiced in the world. Both Hume (cf. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) and Kant (cf. Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?) would raise issue with the way teleology operates in the world. Hume would query the whence of the knowledge of said teleology, and Kant would question its authority over the individual. They both reject Aristotelianism because they found it wanting in light of their respective concerns, but it is only when teleology itself ceases to be compelling that these philosophers reject it.

        In other words, the committed Aristotelian/Thomist/generic teleologist would have to provide compelling information regarding the provenance and power of putative teloi. Otherwise teleology appears to be nothing more than the unfounded assertions (Hume) or unjust tyranny (Kant) of those in power or the nostalgic pining of those no longer thus.

        I will admit that their concerns only partially resonate with me. Yes, I am quite skeptical and anti-hierarchical, but I am much more impressed by the existential critiques of teleology, some of which I have addressed in my posts on Bultmann, etc. I think the Kierkegaardian question here would be: where is subjectivity? If there truly be a prescribed telos for the human species, how would one account for the full complement of individual, human freedom? It seems to me that teleology presumes a certain stasis in purpose that one would have a rather difficult time justifying in light of an ever-changing world.

        Can one show that there subsists a robust teleology for human beings, creatures, and creation that is not dependent upon the myopic cultural conceits of one culture at one time? If not, would such an adaptive teleology even be possible?

      • There are a number of reasonable concerns here, and I apprecaite you raising them. I am not sure, though, why a teleology would need to be void of cultural particularity in order to have a chance of being true. If that were the case, then I think one would have to discount every world religion from the outset, since each of them was born in a particular culture and bears the marks of such birth. Perhaps Kant and Hume were quite willing to do this, but I remain in doubt as to why cultural specificity by itself proves any belief wrong.

        I am glad you bring up the existential critiques like that of Bultmann. I still have a nagging doubt about Bultmann’s project which I meant to raise previously and never got around to doing. Any philosophy that is against “tradition” is self-defeating unless it makes an exception of the tradition of itself. Unless Bultmann would be perfectly fine with people taking on board metaphysical and traditional beliefs all over the place in the future, then it can truly be said that there is one tradition Bultmann is not against, and that is the Bultmannian tradition of being against tradition. Is this not fair?

        The more substantive point you make is the Kierkegaardian one. How do we posit a telos fofr humanity that does not curtail the fullness of human freedom?

        To me the answer is twofold. First, the Christian tradition seems to have always had a flexibility to it, encapsulated by Newman’s concept of doctrinal development, in which it responds to new cultural situations it encounters and changes in response to them. There is, therefore, an element of freedom embedded within the classical Christian teleology. It is not a straitjacket, but rather a set of boundaries within which one may freely play.

        The second point relates to it. Our own culture and time places an extremely high premium on individual freedom, and is suspicious of any kind of boundaries as being nothing more than cultural oppression. But is this not a peculiarity of our own culture, to prize freedom above all other concerns and values? And is this in itself rationally justifiable?

        The ancients defined freedom, not as the ability to choose whatever one wanted, but as the ability to become what one was meant to be. We may leave open the question of who decides what one is meant to be and yet still recognise that freedom itself can have a teleological element to it.