Archive for the 'ethics' Category

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!

Narrative and accountability

Some challenging (and sobering) corollaries to MacIntyre’s attention to life as narrative.

I am forever whatever I have been at any time for others — and I may be called upon at any time to answer for it — no matter how changed I may be now. There is no way of founding my identity — or lack of it — on the psychological continuity or discontinuity of the self. The self inhabits a character whose unity is given as the unity of a character.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is is, I remarked earlier, to be accountable for the actions and experiences that compose a narratable life. It is, that is, to be open to being asked to give a certain kind of account of what one did or what happened to one or what one witnessed at any earlier point in one’s life…

The other aspect of narrative selfhood is correlative: I am not only accountable, I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, as they are part of mine. The narrative of any one life is part of an interlocking set of narratives. Moreover, this asking for and giving of accounts itself plays an important part in constituting narratives.

— from After Virtue

Life and narrative

From Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

Narrative is not the work of poets, dramatists and novelists reflecting on events which had no narrative order before one was imposed by the singer or the writer; narrative form is neither disguise not decoration. Barbary Hardy has written that ‘we dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.’

This has of course been denied in recent debates. Luis O. Mink, quarrelling with Barabara Hardy’s view, has asserted: ‘Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in the story is it America which columbus discovers and only in the story is the kingdom lost for want of a nail.’

MacIntyre agrees with Hardy that we not only understand life through narratives but that life is inherently intelligible and storied. He argues that the elements of narrative are so bound up in life that to separate them out as retrospective impositions is wrong. We hope and plan in the middle of the story, we find things tragic or comic in the middle – how can this identification be made without knowing the end unless narrative is inherent in life? And what would a life stripped of narrative even look like? Can one picture it in a such a way that no narrative cries out for recognition?

I think MacIntyre’s arguments do not justify the full strength of his conclusion. At best he can say that Mink’s position is facile – it may not be logically wrong but it does not account for the complexity of how we experience life. But it strikes me that it is more MacIntyrean not to expect an answer to this question via argument. What is true about life and narrative must be sustainable by actual lived lives. Our belief on the question of life and narrative the quotes above raise must be narrated as well. And which would be more convincing: a life that can coherently trace a narrative of its life intertwined with belief that it inhabited a real (broken, troubled, often incoherent) story all along, or a life that must narrate even the belief it held that all meaning is retrospective as another imposed story? I see a very definite distinction, if I can give no argument for the one over the other.

More from After Virtue

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for the Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless, he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such an understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of life. Thus the question of the relationship between being a good citizen and being a good man becomes central and knowledge of the variety of human practices, barbarian as well as Greek, provided the factual background to the asking of that question.          — Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I like how, later in his discussion of the virtues at Athens, Sophocles (rather than Plato) becomes the hero of Athenian moral discourse, for providing a narrated account of the coherence of virtues in society.

The emotivist self at home

Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes the modern self as emotivist — cut from objective, rational criteria for basing moral judgements, it sees all moral discourse as only expression of preference. This has social correlates:

The bifurcation of the contemporary social world into a realm of the organizational in which the ends are taken to be given and the means are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available … is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their internal political debates. These debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. … But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign, and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. … Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.      

After Virtue

I feel like we can recognize the opposition he describes, and actually see these two forces alternately holding sway over this or that part of our society. (For example, a single person might be an individualist on abortion, and a collectivist on poverty.)

I do not know if MacIntyre is right, but I’m intrigued by his analysis. He’s saying that absent an ability to conduct moral discourse together from some agreed-upon starting points we get two competing (and secretly conjoined) impulses: individualism (moral judgements are my own to make) and collectivism (bureaucracy takes over to organize this mass of individuals and runs itself on inertia, its means not open to moral judgments which are only individuals’ own to make). This should put the question to the church, the university, etc: can you narrate together a framework for moral discourse robust enough to work at the levels of the individual and of the group so that something more coherent than oscillation between individualist and collectivist emerges?

Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?


* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.

Colossians Remixed reaction

Just finished reading and discussing Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed with a couple of my favorite peeps. I would describe it as ok but not good or good but not great, depending on my mood.

Their overall project is to reread Colossians from a somewhat postmodern perspective with a view towards how it might inform and be meaningful to postmodern readers who are suspicious of absolutes, feel ethically paralyzed in a world of diverse choices and viewpoints, or are anxious to cut themselves off totally from any external metanarrative.

In the earliest parts of the book they point in interesting directions:

In this discernment of our cultural context, postmodern emphases on choice, diversity, difference and otherness simply function as a smokescreen simply function as a smokescreen to cover the homogenizing forces of global capitalism. (32)

They go on to indicate that modernity and post-modernity, viewed via political/economic lenses represent a similar set of political/economic choices oriented towards autonomy and acquisition.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Too often postmodernists turn out to be liberals in their ethics and politics who no longer believe in the conceits of liberalism but have no where else to go.” Economic globalization is late capitalism without the framework of a modernist ideology of progress to provide it a narrative foundation and ethical direction. (33)

This attention to the interplay between the political/economic and the epistemological really piqued my interest and seemed part of the basic grounding of their project. Unfortunately, they mostly ditch this insight in the rest of the book. As a result, the book — an argument for embracing elements of postmodern epistemology as a better way to conceive of the message of Colossians — is approached in a thoroughly modernist way! They set the problem in Part I, discuss epistemology (working with the individual) in Part II and then attack praxis in Part III. We attack knowing first, then doing can follow. And most of this can be done at the level of the individual (their Ethic of Community has to wait for p. 169).

I think they didn’t read their Hauerwas or their MacIntyre well enough. These things can’t be separated like this, certainly not with knowing preceding doing. If anything, doing precedes knowing or, better, there ought to be a dynamic and ongoing interplay between these. My ability to understand and conceive of moral choices is shaped by the practices I am a part of, my ethical choices, the story I am a part of, and this happens by involvement in tradition, a larger community.

I would have loved a book written holding the epistemology and praxis in interrelation throughout, diagnosing their connections in the problem, observing how our practices shape our knowing and imagining, working out how a newly conceived, engaged knowing re-informs practice. Alas, not quite in this book. But still there are a lot of fruitful pointers here for our own work on this project. A project that is definitely communal and definitely the work of being the church and will be way more convincing, inviting, exciting and engaging for the suspicious, paralyzed or hostile folks Walsh and Keesmaat want to draw in.