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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. I do not expect to develop this rejection at any length in the project – in part because Jeffrey Stout has already done so better than I could, as I will discuss below. But it is worth going over here.

The methodological MacIntyre articulates the need for substantive standards of rationality beyond basic standards like non-contradiction. He argues that those standards need to be provided by some tradition (much like a Kuhnian paradigm) in which one situates oneself, accompanied by the recognition that there are other traditions out there with their own standards. But one’s “selection” or “identification” of a tradition is not arbitrary; it is based on the reasons one already starts inquiry with, in one’s own historical situatedness. From that tradition-based starting point, one can then rationally supersede other traditions (and thereby avoid relativism) if one truly understands them in their own terms and judges them by their own standards.

My main methodological criticism of MacIntyre is that he tends to assume we need to situate ourselves in only one tradition, even if that tradition (like Thomas Aquinas’s) is a synthesis of others. I argue in the project that that won’t do, and I expect to talk more about the point on Love of All Wisdom in the future. But that is a modification of a method I largely accept. Here I want to focus on the parts of MacIntyre’s work that I mostly reject: the substantive MacIntyre.

Readers of MacIntyre likely know him better for his substantive thought than his methodological thought. By “substantive” I mean his ideas on what the content of our ethics and politics should or should not be (and why) – as opposed to the methodological position on how we should come to ethical and political ideas. The substantive MacIntyre is rightly known, above all, as a critic of modern “liberalism”, whatever that means. This critique of liberalism takes its best-known form in After Virtue, the book where I first discovered MacIntyre. By far his most rhetorically powerful book, After Virtue attacks important elements of liberalism like rights and analytical moral philosophy with a brilliantly acidic wit, worthy of Nietzsche at his epigrammatic best.

My longtime readers will know I have significant skepticism about both rights and analytical ethics, and I have drawn a great deal from the substantive MacIntyre in thinking through this skepticism. But on neither point would I go as far as MacIntyre does. I consider analytic philosophy to be the scholasticism of the liberal tradition – and while its partisans might well balk at that characterization, tradition-based scholasticism is a great thing from a MacIntyrean perspective. And while I once entirely shared MacIntyre’s characterization of rights as a modern fiction, my own research into the history of rights – especially based on the work of Brian Tierney – convinced me that there are deeper roots to the concept, notably roots in that very Thomist natural-law tradition that MacIntyre himself accepts.

But my problems with the substantive MacIntyre go further than this. Even at my moments of greatest hostility to analytic philosophy and the concept of rights, I’ve never pushed this – as MacIntyre does – to a full-fledged attack on liberalism. I take liberalism to mean that modern political philosophy which takes the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy as among the highest values a state can aspire to – probably with some degree of support for a capitalist economy with varying elements of government intervention (at least preferring it for the moment to any other form of economic organization that has been tried). The vast majority of us are liberals in this sense, including the conservatives. With the intellectual resources currently available to us, to reject this ubiquitous liberalism in toto is difficult; it typically requires either turning to some form of Marxism as a move to a future beyond liberalism (as MacIntyre has at various times been tempted to do), or innovating through conservatism and fully embracing a pre-liberal tradition, such as the Thomistic Catholicism that MacIntyre himself embraced.

There are two problems with MacIntyre’s rejection of liberalism. First, how much of liberalism is MacIntyre really prepared to give up? Elections of chief government officials? Toleration of differences of belief and opinion? Women’s equal participation in public life? Aquinas supported none of these things, after all. It is disingenuous to advocate a pre-liberal view without either proclaiming why you have embraced these elements of the liberalism you profess to disdain, or biting the bullet and publicly admitting you accept views that most of those around you would deem horrific.

Second, MacIntyre’s substantive critique of liberalism fails by his own methodological standards. Responding to his critics in the volume After MacIntyre, MacIntyre admits that liberalism is not a tradition of inquiry but a social and cultural tradition – and it is the former with which intellectual engagement is called for. If MacIntyre were to apply his method consistently, he should be engaging at great length with the traditions of inquiry within liberalism in order to supersede them – such as utilitarianism, which he admits is such a tradition. But he doesn’t do this. His criticisms of the big liberal ethical systems, utilitarianism and Kantianism, rarely extend more than a few pages. As far as I know, MacIntyre’s longest engagement with either is the chapter on Kant in A Short History of Ethics – and in his preface to the revised edition of that book, he says he has “a good deal of sympathy” for Hans Oberdiek’s accusation that “What is worst about this book may be found in the incredibly brief chapter on Kant.”

In most of MacIntyre’s works, the liberal traditions of inquiry get far less attention than that. Jeffrey Stout, in his article “Homeward bound” (Journal of Religion 69(2), 220-232), shows masterfully just how shallow some of MacIntyre’s caricatures of “liberalism” can be, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. (I believe the points are included again in his Democracy and Tradition.) Stout rightly points out that in the chapter on liberalism in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,

the plentiful proper names that filled out the chapters on Greece or Scotland give way here to such oversimplifying abstractions as “the liberal system of evaluation” and “the liberal self,” as well as to heavy reliance on the passive voice. Readers will be hard-pressed to discover just who is being discussed.

And by MacIntyre’s own standards, this is not remotely good enough. Stout provides a trenchant refutation of MacIntyre on his own terms – one that calls to mind the Nietzschean wit of After Virtue – that I can do no better than to quote:

MacIntyre says [that conflicts between traditions] achieve resolution only when they move through at least two stages: one in which each tradition describes and judges its rivals only in its own terms, and a second in which it becomes possible to understand one’s rivals in their own terms and thus to find new reasons for changing one’s mind. Moving from the first stage to the second “requires a rare gift of empathy as well as of intellectual insight” (WJ, p. 167), a gift Aquinas’s writings exemplify. MacIntyre shows great empathy for ancient Greeks and for the religious tradition from which he was once alienated but none whatsoever for liberal modernity. After three major books and half a dozen minor ones, his dialogue with liberalism has yet to reach the second stage.