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While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.

This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. MacIntyre, in the 30 years since his famous After Virtue, has been telling us a story of regret and decline – one focused largely on ethics, but ethics broadly defined. In After Virtue, MacIntyre described the Enlightenment project of “justifying morality” as performed most famously by Kant and Mill, but also more recent analytic figures like Alan Gewirth. And he argues that this project has not only failed, but had to fail. (MacIntyre picks Gewirth for entirely the right reason: he sees Gewirth as the smartest and most incisive of such analytic figures, and his argument is that even someone as well suited to the task as Gewirth can’t manage to figure this out.)

“Morality”, in this sort of modern context, nearly always stands opposed primarily to “self-interest”. (In Aristotle or the Pali suttas, any words one could translate as “morality” would have quite a different connotation.) What the modern figures cannot answer, he thinks, is the question “Why should we be moral?” The moderns set up an opposition between egoism on one hand and universal concern on the other, and they have no compelling way of justifying the transition from one to the other. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry he makes his claim explicit: that the idea of “morality” in a modern context is a survival, an atavism, something very much akin to the taboos of Hawai’i. And it was the genius of Nietzsche to figure this point out.

Now contrast Wilber’s account of ethics. Like a good deal in Wilber’s thought, it revolves around Jean Piaget‘s theory of child development, where children progress from a magical “pre-operational” stage of thinking to a myth-focused “concrete operational” stage and then a rational “formal operational” stage. Most of Wilber’s ethical writings derive in turn from Lawrence Kohlberg‘s extension of Piaget into a psychology of moral development in relation to social conventions, where where the pre-operational stage is also “preconventional”, the concrete-operational is “conventional” and the formal-operational is “postconventional”. At the first, a child is simply egocentric and refuses to go along with social convention; at the second, the maturing child absorbs the conventional teachings of her parents and teachers; and finally, if things go well, eventually learns to criticize those conventions and think independently.

But Wilber adds an additional element to Kohlberg. For him, the story of moral development is a story of wider, expanding concern: preconventional is “egocentric”, conventional is “sociocentric” and postconventional is “worldcentric”. What’s more, this pattern of child development follows the development of human history: the warlike pre-Axial empires were themselves egocentric, the age of the great traditions (from the Axial Age to modernity) sociocentric and modernity worldcentric. And despite the avowedly universal ambitions of premodern Christianity, Islam and Buddhism – their aims to save the whole world – they counted as sociocentric because truth could only be found within their tradition. (“All Christians anywhere, of whatever color or race or sex, were equally saved; but all Hindus would go to hell.” Sex, Ecology, Spirituality 181)

MacIntyre, by contrast, argues explicitly for the idea that truth about ethics can only be found within a tradition. There’s a break with the premodern in MacIntyre, in that he argues only for a tradition rather than for this tradition. But what one cannot fruitfully do, in MacIntyre’s view, is present a universal account like Wilber’s that does not situate itself specifically within a historic tradition of inquiry (or perhaps two specific traditions that one combines after long and detailed study, as Thomas Aquinas did with the traditions of Augustine and of Aristotle). That is what the Enlightenment project tried to do – and why it failed.

Why did the Enlightenment project fail? Because it abstracted the individual self from its commitments and relationships, rather than viewing those as constituting the self. When the self is viewed as an autonomous individual, MacIntyre says, it has no reason to choose to help others in ways that go against its long-term self-interest. I’m not sure whether MacIntyre is right about this, but I see his point when it comes to thinkers like Mill and Rawls – and, I would argue, Wilber himself. Asked why someone would be a utilitarian rather than an egoistic hedonist, or why someone should care about the original position rather than her own position, Mill and Rawls both respond with psychological and sociological accounts of how we might socialize people so that they will be altruistic. They don’t provide reasons that can convince an egoist why he should be altruistic.

And the modernist Wilber also does not offer a logical transition from egocentrism to sociocentrism to worldcentrism. I noted before that this transition is not dialectical. The later levels are larger, more encompassing, and typically later in human development; but none of these is a reason why Ayn Rand, say, should expand her concern beyond herself to the world (or even her society). There is no attempt to show why egocentric or sociocentric ethics breaks down on its own terms and needs to move to a higher level. That it typically comes later in human development does not matter, unless we wish to take Alzheimer’s patients as the highest model of human achievement: the move from sociocentric to worldcentric could be a simple degeneration. MacIntyre, I think, suggests that that is exactly what it is, at a social and individual level: a loss of the social conditions of community that cause altruistic behaviour to make good sense, once the modern self is abstracted “from its place as a member of a set of hierarchically ordered communities within which goods are so ordered and understood that the self cannot achieve its own good without achieving the good of ohers and vice versa.” (Three Rival Versions 192)

As I understand it, that ordering of communities has been central to Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism: a key reason why MacIntyre’s engagement with Asian thought has been primarily with Confucianism. We may note here again that mentions of Confucianism appear extremely rarely in any of Wilber’s works. I think this absence points to deeper elements missing in Wilber’s ethics. That’s not to say MacIntyre is right and Wilber wrong – MacIntyre similarly leaves Indian thought aside, and misses the potential of individual Ascending traditions. But it does suggest a reason why a full synthesis needs to draw heavily on both South and East Asian thought. For my own part, that’s a reason I’ve been trying to think about East Asia more in the past couple months and will likely continue to do so – both sides are important, but I’ve personally so far spent too much time on Wilber’s side of the fence.