I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.
As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading
In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.
If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. Continue reading
Medieval Christian philosophy (or theology), often referred to as “scholasticism”, is often characterized as being about abstract questions with no relevance to anybody outside the scholastics’ own tradition. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often taken as an example of their sort of irrelevant question, though as far as I know no medieval philosopher ever actually asked that question. People who characterize medieval Christian thought this way would likely also need to say the same about medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy if they knew anything about it (which, typically, they don’t).
You will probably have guessed that I do not share this assessment of medieval thought. True, some of their questions presuppose so much that it is hard to imagine it relevant to those outside their tradition – such as the question of whether angels can occupy the same physical space, which they actually did ask. But every tradition depends on assumptions that others may not necessarily share – certainly including analytic philosophy, where so much ethical reflection depends on taken-for-granted “intuitions”. For these reasons I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition.
Yet analytic philosophy does ask questions that are relevant to those who do not share its assumptions, and the same is true of medieval thought – even on questions that might appear irrelevant at first glance. I note this point with reference to one medieval question in particular: Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
Last time I introduced the idea of supererogatory acts, those that are good beyond what duty and obligation require. The nature of supererogatory acts is sometimes referred to with the noun form supererogation. David Heyd’s Stanford Encyclopedia article makes a good introduction to the idea of supererogation. It also, I think, tells us what analytical moral philosophy gets wrong about the idea – specifically, when it claims that “the class of actions beyond duty is relatively small…”
Says who? Say contemporary ethicists, according to Heyd. But to my mind this does a lot to illustrate what is wrong with their way of thinking. The claim that relatively few actions go beyond the requirements of duty would certainly be true for Peter Singer and most utilitarians and consequentialists, who subject us to an effectively never-ending stream of demands in which little could be supererogatory short of altruistic suicide. Likewise, while I think it would not be hard to allow great room for supererogatory acts in a neo-Kantian position, as Heyd notes this was not Kant’s own view: there were perfect and imperfect duties, but the latter were duties all the same.
But this, I would argue, is one of the many things both utilitarians and Kantians get wrong – and therefore the majority of analytical ethicists, since most major analytical ethics descends from one or both of these sources. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two excellent books on very different topics, both of which I’ve written about at Love of All Wisdom before: Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, and Brian Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights.
The idea of human or natural rights has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Michel Villey, shows us it is not that. Villey takes the work of William of Ockham as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of rights, which brings in a very different metaphysics where rights now play an important role. The brilliance of Tierney’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Ockham to the world after him. It preserves Villey’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined.
The idea of Hinduism has often been taken as something nearly eternal, dating back into antiquity. More careful scholarship, most notably that of Wilhelm Halbfass and Heinrich von Stietencron, shows us it is not that. Halbfass takes the work of Rammohun Roy as a breaking point, a sharp rupture from the previous world that had no concept of Hinduism, which brings in a very different metaphysics where Hinduism now plays an important role. The brilliance of Nicholson’s work is to qualify this point, showing a gradual transition from the world before Roy to the world after him. It preserves Halbfass’s basic point that rights do not go back to antiquity, but shows that the boundary between premodern and modern is much blurrier than previous scholarship had imagined. Continue reading
We have seen over the past few posts that while the idea of individual rights is not just a modern invention, it also is far from a universal one. Rights are not obvious or commonsensical. Contra the American Declaration of Independence, they are not self-evident.
Rather, rights need reasons. If one wants to get to the truth of the matter (and not merely to achieve an expedient political deal), it is never good enough to say something should be done for, or not done to, a person “because he has a right to it”. The right itself requires a justification. Sometimes one’s interlocutor already agrees that the person has this right, but in many cases – the most important cases – they do not in fact agree.
This point is easy to lose sight of, perhaps especially in the contemporary United States where the opposing political sides rarely speak to each other. Each side insists it is defending rights: the employee’s right to contraception, Hobby Lobby‘s right to refuse to provide contraception on religious grounds, the fetus’s right to life, the woman’s right to an abortion. But what is in question here – assuming we acknowledge the existence of rights in the first place – is who has which rights. And then we need to provide reasons.
On Leif Wenar’s modern definition, a right is an entitlement. Historically, when William of Ockham articulated a concept of rights that would get increasingly taken up in the years following, it was a potesta licitas: a legal power, a power of licence. Key to a right is an entitlement or licence that implies an obligation of others to respect it.
But who grants the licence, the entitlement, the permission? Continue reading
Last time I began exploring the history of the concept of rights (as in human or civil rights), through the works of Michel Villey and Brian Tierney. I noted that the concept as we now understand it has its roots in Latin ius, which had a meaning more like law and one’s proper share than like rights. How did this concept become the concept of individual rights that we now have today?
Villey lays the blame (and for him it is blame) on one key thinker, William of Ockham (or Occam). Continue reading