Archive for June, 2009

Reading After Virtue

My suggestions on reading Alidair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

Unless you are dedicated in following him through his whole argument on virtue and modern discourse’s loss of it as a coherent category, read MacIntyre’s work in sections:

  • Read chapters 1-3 as an introduction to his project and for his assessment of what is wrong with moral reasoning post-Enlightenment. You’ll find here his critique of emotivism, as well as reason to ponder what moral discourse ought to be doing in society. (And that word ‘ought’ – some interesting discussion of that as well…)
  • Then read chapters 14-18 where he begins to make constructive moves on what virtue is, how it functions in society etc. Practice, narrative and tradition are all discussed here – very important to his overall framework. He also makes his most challenging suggestions for what virtue and integrity in life would be here. The title of the last chapter should whet your appetite for this section: “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.”

Then relax. The middle sections of the book are his reading of virtue throughout the history of philosophy. Unless you are dead set on following him through this, I suggest using this part of the book as a sourcebook for interesting and unexpected readings of philosophy and literature.

  • Kirkegaard & his Enten-Eller in Ch. 4, together with Kant and Hume. In fact, Chs 4-6 as a whole are his assessment of the Enlightenment.
  • Nietzsche and Aristotle in Ch. 9. Aristotle in more depth in 12.
  • Sophocles in Ch. 11 with a nice comparison between Sophocles and Aristotle at the end of 12.
  • Stocism in Ch. 13.
  • Abelard and Aquinas (amazingly, a small role for him! — “a highly deviant Medieval figure”) in Ch. 14, together with an interesting reading of Becket and Henry II.
  • Sartre n Ch. 15.
  • And if nothing else, read Ch. 16 for a surprising and interesting look at Jane Austen (she features at various points, actually). She is the hero of the piece:

It is her uniting of Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context that makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues which I have tried to identify.

Happy reading!


“We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

I admire Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday. The quote above was one of my favorite moments, though not the most important in the speech by any means. His gestures toward cooperation, mutual understanding and respect and his ability to speak to his audience, using terms of importance to them and addressing issues of importance to them were most impressive.

Sticking points are still there for me: The distinction between wars of choice (Iraq) and of necessity (Afghanistan) is facile. All wars are wars of choice. And his statements on nuclear weapons are all hard to swallow given the overwhelming size of our arsenal. The analogue to his statement “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other” doesn’t hold for our nuclear policy – we seek precisely to impose on others a vision of how that technology is used that the US will likely be the last to embrace.

For better commentary than mine, however, see Andrew Sullivan’s response, David Brooks, and as usual, useful reports from the News Hour with some American and world Muslim reaction.

I can’t help but notice, however, a major player in Obama’s speech:

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradiction between development and tradition.

Progress is invoked throughout the speech — Obama’s faith in progress seems paired to his faith that mutual understanding leads to a better world. Progress, though, is defined vaguely or not at all. What happens when Obama confidently asserts this idea? Is it clear at all that there is no contradiction between development and tradition?  He supplies examples of Japan and South Korea, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai – but aren’t these mostly shining examples of a combination between development and tradition precisely because tradition has not, in these places, strongly put the question to fast-paced economic development and acquisitiveness? I think he vastly oversimplifies.

I need to find out more about how American law makes it hard for Muslims to practice zakat, but might this stand as an example of how American-style progress and tradition have been incompatible?

If there’s hope to negotiate well between tradition and progress there must be dialogue on the substance of ‘progress’ and any faith placed in it.  This seems to happen somewhat in Obama’s treatment of equality for women in the speech. To advocate at once an unconditional promotion of education and to recognize that a woman’s choice to cover her hair need make her in no sense less equal shows a hint of a dialogue between traditions on what sorts of progress are really good. Exposing the American faith in ‘progress’ to the critique of Islamic traditions would be a really good thing and would give hope for a cooperative and peaceful future even better that an undefined hope in this ideal.