Archive for the 'society' 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!


“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.

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

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.

Hubble – You Decide: let your Weltanshauung shape science

As part of an extended program celebrating the 4ooth anniversary of Galileo’s telescope, you can help decide what the Hubble space telescope looks at next by voting on six candidate targets. Click here to vote. If you need some help choosing, here’s some advice on what might be interesting to see:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Dr. Summers advocates deciding by what you find interesting, but I propose that we vote according to our larger conception of existence in this universe. Interested in being hopeful, excited about new things? Vote for image 1 — a region where new stars are being born. More inclined these days to the red in tooth and claw vision of the universe, want to look destruction in the face? Vote for target 2 or 3 — planetary nebulae where stars are silently expelling their last gasps into space. Images 4 and 5 seem utterly boring to me, scientifically and existentially. But if you’re in an apocalyptic frame of mind, perhaps the colliding galaxies in image 6 will appeal to you.

I think I will vote for image 2:

Image 2

Let me know how you decide. And do it soon! Voting ends March 1!

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?

PBS strikes back!

In an odd cultural moment (for me at least, as a watcher of both shows) PBS’s NewsHour fired back at Comedy Central’s Daily Show yesterday. Jon Stewart mocked Paul Solman’s (deliberately) low-budget explanation of credit default swaps a few months ago. I imagine Solman, in stereotypical PBS fashion, patiently and thoughtfully considering the situation for a few months and then, in the context of actually supplying information, poking back:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


more about “The Business Desk with Paul Solman | …“, posted with vodpod


We can only hope the Daily Show will respond. Nothing like watching the hippest of the hip and the smartest of the smart go at it. Seriously, The Daily Show’s stylish, quick irony vs. The News Hour’s calm, self-assured and totally uncool competence — this is a fascinating little cultural interchange.