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I ended last year pointing out that while one can love all wisdom, it is almost certainly too hard to be able to sift through all the wisdom out there and put it together in the space of a single lifetime. What one can do is get to know a small number of traditions in great detail and attempt to bring them together.

But which? While I think the previous post gave a good account of the process, I have already come to regret its title, “Choosing a few traditions”. The term “choosing” suggests that the process can happen arbitrarily, or at least on the simplest sort of aesthetic grounds – the traditions you happen to like. (“Hmm, I think Ayn Rand, Zhuangzi and Gnosticism are kinda cool. Let me put those together.”) I didn’t mean it that way when I wrote it, but even so, as I’ve been thinking through the issues since then, I find myself noticing that even just thinking of the process in terms of “choice” makes it seem less rational than it is. The process of identifying the traditions in which one finds one’s reflection is only a “choice” in the sense that a scientist “chooses” the best theory to explain the phenomena she has encountered. There is individual discretion and decision-making involved, but it is not up to you. There can be, and often is, a right choice and a wrong choice.

On MacIntyre’s account, it is less that you choose your traditions, and more that they choose you. One should “acknowledge in which of these rival modes of moral understanding he or she finds him or herself most adequately explained and accounted for” (Whose Justice? 398); you find out what mode of inquiry best explains you and your experience, including your experience of other people’s lives.

Even this account, though, runs dangerously close to an approach I have thought of as “identitarianism”: identifying with a tradition on purely cultural or ethnic grounds. Identitarianism was the term I used to describe my Stonehill students when they would write in their papers, “I prefer Augustine’s approach to Mencius’s because I am a Catholic.” This “because” is ablative rather than dative; it explains why one is Catholic in the same way that gravity explains why rocks fall. It is a cause, but not a reason – or at least, not a good reason. That is not good enough.

It is at least partially for this reason that MacIntyre makes an important distinction between kinds of traditions (in his response to the collection After MacIntyre). The traditions at the heart of his theory, the ones that enable us to search for and find ethical truth, are traditions of enquiry (or inquiry), such as Aristotelianism and Thomism (and, he admits in that response, utilitarianism). These are effectively Kuhnian paradigms: collective efforts that search rationally for a consistent account of ethics and are able to agree on a shared set of standards from which demonstrative argument can proceed. He explicitly distinguishes these from “larger social and cultural traditions” such as Christianity and liberalism, which can be hostile to traditions of inquiry even when those traditions are within them: “It is however because enquiry tends to put established beliefs in question, by treating inconsistencies as problematic, that enquiry is sometimes viewed with suspicion by the authoritative representatives of established belief in social and cultural traditions.” (291)

It is important to stress all of this because on the MacIntyrean account, which I accept, traditions are our best available source of reasons for action, reasons to do anything. This does not mean the tradition itself constitutes a reason (“I should do this because I am a Catholic”). It means that when one accepts a tradition, one accepts its first principles and takes those as one’s ultimate reason for action (“I should do this because I have concluded the ultimate purpose of life is to glorify God”, “I should do this because all things are empty, including the self”, “I should do this because human action is good insofar as it brings about the greatest happiness”).

Traditions, again, are paradigms in Kuhn’s sense. To belong rationally to a tradition of inquiry is to have accepted the dialectical arguments to that tradition’s first principles. Then one has been persuaded that those first principles are the best story so far about ethical truth, as recent generations of scientific investigators have been persuaded that the first principles of the Darwinian paradigm are the best story so far about biological truth. Once that is the case, one can and should be persuaded by sound demonstrative arguments from those first principles.

So when I say that I “identify” with or have “chosen” the traditions of Aristotle, the Buddha, Hume and historicism, it is not a matter of my happening to like these traditions. I really like the aesthetics of modern India, but I’m not persuaded by them in a rational sense. Nor is this a matter of feeling a personal cultural or ethnic sense of belonging; the traditions of my ancestors have been various forms of Protestant Christianity on my mother’s side and a devotion to Ganesh on my father’s. The rituals of Christmas and of Holi and Divali call to me far more than does Vesak. Rather, my identification with these traditions means that, based on what I have learned and thought to date, I believe this set of traditions collectively provides us with the best story so far about how things actually are. I may well change that view as the inquiry proceeds. But I believe it now.

EDIT: When this post first went up it said that the identitarian Stonehill students’ “because” was “dative rather than ablative”. I got that backwards; I meant “ablative rather than dative”. Ablative “reasons” express a mere cause, an explanation how; dative reasons express a purpose.