In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. I don’t agree with the Christian MacIntyre on substantive answers, but I am finding him ever more convincing about the method we should take to reach those substantive answers.
Like Wilber, MacIntyre has been an influence on me for most of my philosophical life. He is in many ways a conservative, known for polemical attacks on liberalism and modernity, which I’ve examined at most length in my series of posts on his provocative critiques of the idea of rights. It is through these attacks that people most often tend to discover his work.
I was one of them, even though at the time I would have recoiled from the mention of anything conservative. For MacIntyre’s critiques of liberal modernity also serve as critiques of analytic philosophy, and it was in that respect that they gave a voice to incoherent ideas I had not yet expressed. While struggling as an undergraduate with a utilitarianism I was still in the process of rejecting, I took a course in ethics with Susan Dwyer, a brilliant professor whom I’m told was a student of John Rawls. Dwyer’s course repelled me from analytic philosophy – ironically, not because Dwyer was bad, but because she was so good. She had solid answers to every question I asked, really helped me understand Mill and especially Kant at a deep level.
Every question, that is, but one. And that question was this: We keep talking about what morality consists of, what the moral thing to do might be in various hard cases (of the trolley problem variety). But why should we do these supposedly moral acts at all? Why be moral? There were few if any opportunities, as I recall, to ask that big question in that most direct form, as we spent the class caught up in the details, whether of particular hard cases or of interpreting Mill and Kant. And nothing in the course ever seemed remotely like an answer to it.
Because Dwyer was so smart and so good at answering questions, though, I did not come out of that class with any reason to think that she had failed to cover something essential to the course’s content or approach. Rather, I came out feeling confident that in her person I had been seeing analytic philosophy at its very best – and that its best was not good enough.
And that is where MacIntyre had his opening. MacIntyre’s After Virtue said to its readers: if analytical moral philosophy provides no reason to be moral, perhaps that is the fault of analytical moral philosophy. Perhaps there is something about that entire approach that keeps you from an answer. The devastating polemics about the analysis of taboos, or even about witches and unicorns, were intoxicating to a searching 20-year-old mind that was looking for answers and had not found them. (I later came to make my peace with analytic philosophy: it is the scholasticism of the liberal tradition, and scholasticism has a necessary place. But that sort of nuance is not what a young man seeks.)
And then of course the next question was: if not in analytic philosophy, where could you find answers? I proceeded to read more of MacIntyre’s works, especially Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, and knew then that I was not about to accept his worldview. The MacIntyre of After Virtue had chosen to follow Aristotle – at the time a murky and enigmatic figure to my modern mind, one whose promise I was intrigued by. But by the time of Three Rival Versions he had come to embrace the Catholic Christianity of St. Thomas Aquinas, and that – at least at that time – I could not countenance. I still cannot imagine accepting Christianity, in MacIntyre’s form or another, but these days my biggest reason for doing so would be the problem of suffering. In those days it was very different.
To secular North Americans, it is all too easy for Christianity to appear as The Enemy: that which denies us abortion and gay rights and contraception and all the other sexual liberties whose availability we take as essential to a good society. In Ontario, there is an additional factor: the evangelical Protestant fundamentalism that characterizes the American South is as marginal as Jehovah’s Witnesses, experienced mostly as annoying people who accost you with pamphlets and are easy enogh to bat away. Conservative Christianity in Canada – at least in the ’80s and ’90s – largely found its voice through Catholicism. So Catholics were the bad guys in my upbringing, and not only because of Catholicism’s place as a home for the conservative ideologies I hated. I am as few generations removed from the explicit anti-Catholicism of the once-dominant Canadian Orange Order as modern European leftists are from the anti-Semitism of the 1940s, and as far as I can tell, that old anti-Catholicism is as much a part of Ontarian secular anti-Catholicism as anti-Semitism is of modern European critiques of Israel: probably not the driving force, but still very much a presence.
All of this is to point out that for my 20-year-old brain, it would have been hard enough to accept Christianity as an answer worth exploring; Catholicism was a bridge too far. And so my investigation of MacIntyre did not go much further at the time. I would look elsewhere for answers: to Buddhism, but even more so to Hegel. Buddhism offered satisfying answers to the immediate existential crises I was facing at the time; it seemed that in a long study of Hegel might lie the answers to the philosophical questions I had asked as an undergrad. But how on earth could I put the two together? I have been asking those questions ever since, and I have encountered MacIntyre anew because I am increasingly persuaded by his answers to them. I will discuss them next time.