Posts Tagged 'alasdair macintyre'

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?