I’ve had the good fortune in the past couple years to attend multiple events held by the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME). (To answer the question that is most often asked when I first mention the ISME: yes, it exists!) The 2020 and 2021 events (the second of these happening last week) were virtual, for the unfortunate reasons of the COVID pandemic, but that virtual status did give me the ability to attend. Previously in summer 2019 I had a wonderful time this summer at a conference called To What End?, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. It was only unofficially the annual ISME conference, held in honour of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 90th birthday: unofficially on both counts, apparently because the guest of honour did not want to attend a conference named after himself.
Attend he did, and it was my first (it could well be my only) chance to see MacIntyre in the flesh. But perhaps the more interesting phenomenon was to be in several rooms full of MacIntyreans. (And to find out that apparently others pronounce it “mac-in-TEE-ree-an” rather than the more obvious “mac-in-TIE-ree-an”.) It was a lovely opportunity to think and discuss more about the living thinker I have probably learned most from in my lifetime. And, perhaps, to observe the sociology of my fellow admirers of him: something MacIntyre would likely approve of, since his philosophy has always had a sociological bent.
These conferences broadly confirmed an impression I’d got from the MacIntyre festschrift published for his previous decade milestone. That is: though the events were all very collegial and I never saw major disputes arise, the MacIntyrean community nevertheless seems significantly divided into left-MacIntyreans and right-MacIntyreans.
This should not be so much of a surprise: MacIntyre began his career as a Marxist, became a Thomist Catholic, and has expressed a renewed interest in Marx in his most recent work while still remaining Catholic. So the conferences have drawn significant interest from both Catholics and Marxists. The two are not necessarily at odds, but they often turn out that way. The 2020 conference had a fascinating discussion of MacIntyre’s reception in Latin America, which turned out to come primarily from conservative Catholics. I asked the members of that panel whether they had any interest in liberation theology, that distinctively Latin American tradition that explicitly fuses Marxism into Catholicism. The answer was unanimously no: they had little interest in Marx themselves, and they thought liberation theology overrated –something that, they claimed, North Americans care about way more than Latin Americans do.
As for me: at other conferences (perhaps especially the APA) I have sometimes found myself gravitating to the company of conservatives. Even though I am not one of them, they often seemed to be the ones sharing a concern for virtue and self-cultivation. It was interesting to me that the opposite happened at the ISME: there, I found myself decidedly more in sync with the left-MacIntyreans.
An obvious reason for this is that the right-MacIntyreans wear their Catholicism on their sleeve, much more explicitly than any conservatives at the APA or AAR (though many of those were Catholic too). The in-person conference’s dinner was preceded with a formal Catholic grace delivered by a Benedictine monk, during which about two-thirds of the room visibly crossed themselves. It was a slightly awkward moment for those of us present who have no Christian faith of any kind – though there was no expectation to participate, so we could just let the moment pass in silence.
The Catholic/Marxist distinction was already apparent in the festschrift, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. But there was another reason I felt more at home with the left-MacIntyreans, one that emerged gradually to me over the course of the three conferences: the right-MacIntyreans tended to be a lot more concerned with applying MacIntyre’s ethics.
Application has never been MacIntyre’s strong suit. If you hunt hard, you can find him making occasional published statements on concrete politics. These are usually rather huffy broadsides asserting that every actual party is unjust and we should walk away from all of them, but one does at least find positions taken there on questions like abortion and economics. Even that much takes some dedicated Googling to find; in MacIntyre’s professionally published discussions of abortion, you’ll instead see more about the meta-ethical question of how hard the issue is to resolve.
And that’s just application to broad political questions, never mind to the relatively burgeoning academic fields that we usually describe as “applied ethics”, like medical ethics and business ethics. In his chapter “The irrelevance of ethics”, MacIntyre explicitly pours scorn on the very idea of business ethics, claiming that the nature of capitalist economic institutions like finance is such as to be opposed to ethical practice.
And yet – this is the weird part – interest seems to be rapidly growing in a MacIntyrean business ethics. Many presentations at the ISME focus on that area. This week’s ISME had a panel on MacIntyre’s reception in Italy, which focused on the application of his ideas to business ethics. Some of these presenters at least expressed awareness that they were doing exactly the thing MacIntyre said not to do. Yet nevertheless they find it valuable to take MacIntyre’s concepts, most notably the concept of a practice, and try to apply them in the context of business and even finance.
I’m not necessarily opposed to such an approach. MacIntyre’s occasional “burn it all down” broadsides against liberal modernity are not my favourite parts of his thought. There are plenty of aspects of my own thought that stand quite opposed to MacIntyre’s even as I learn from him. My own presentation at the in-person 2019 conference tried to express an idea of individual teleology, which is not an idea that MacIntyre would endorse, even though it draws from him. I have still found myself scratching my head as to what exactly is to be gained by taking a MacIntyrean perspective on business ethics, and thus have not found myself at home at those panels. But maybe that just indicates I don’t understand business ethics as a field.