Alasdair MacIntyre’s Marxist Sweet Spot

Alasdair MacIntyre presents Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative as a summation and restatement of central ideas in his moral philosophy, ideas that will be familiar to readers of his earlier major works. He says he wants to minimize technical discussion of the writings of professional philosophers. Instead, he aims to make his arguments accessible to non-professionals. Those who will read this book, however, are most likely to be already familiar with his work and want to see how he now formulates his arguments. Those who have not previously entered this world of philosophic debate will not find it easily accessible. As MacIntyre admits, most human beings will never read books of this sort.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is a guide to practical reasoning in the tradition of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas, a tradition he has spent much effort to reformulate in ways that take account of the cultural environment of modernity, so different from Aristotle’s and Aquinas’. He thinks these thinkers identified basic questions that are perennial even if they did not always offer responses to those questions which fit with the modern situation.

This carefully, often laboriously, written work actually does refer quite often to other professional writings, but the author’s concern is for those he calls “plain people.” The intended audience is those who will study the issues in order to be able to teach ordinary people something about how to manage the tension between their desires and what they ought to desire. MacIntyre thinks this tension is the natural beginning of reflection; our desires and what we ought to desire arise together in normal human experience.

In the spirit of Aristotelian and Thomistic methods, MacIntyre begins by outlining fundamental disagreements in moral philosophy. His goal is to show that he is fully informed about the most powerful arguments against his position. The basic dispute is between “Neo-Aristotelianism” and “Expressivism/Emotivism,” which is a dominant position in contemporary moral philosophy. Out of fairness, he fully elaborates the arguments of his expressivist opponents, and acknowledges that his alternative is resisted by them.

“No argument that an honest and philosophically sophisticated expressivist would find decisive,” he writes, “has as yet been mounted against expressivism.” But he also thinks that Neo-Aristotelians can accept features of the expressivist description of our situation without compromising their view whereas expressivism cannot absorb Neo-Aristotelian arguments without lapsing into contradiction.

MacIntyre defends Aquinas’ thesis that every desire is for some good. He says, for example:

We become intelligible to others just insofar as they can identify and understand as possible goods the goods that furnish us with reasons for desiring as we do and acting as we do. If, therefore, someone were to give as their sole reason for acting as they do that it achieves the satisfaction of some desire, without also claiming that in satisfying their desire they were achieving some good, they would have done nothing to make their action intelligible as an intended action, let alone to show that it was justified.


If the NeoAristotelians are right, then there is a truth waiting to be discovered both about how it is good and best to act on particular occasions and about how in general it is good and best to live out our lives . . . whether it may not be best to conceive of our lives as extended enquiries into how it is best to live . . . By contrast on an expressivist view there is no such truth to be discovered.

Against the objection that people are inevitably in contention about goods, he says: “rational enquiry into and consequent disagreement about what human flourishing consists in in this or that set of circumstances is itself one of the marks of human flourishing.”

In short, disagreement is a sign of the natural concern for how we ought to conduct our lives, not proof that there are no intelligent responses to such questions. We can and do question the prevailing views of our own culture and can look beyond them. We are constrained by our time and place, but we are not predetermined by our time and place. There are numerous ways in which human beings can flourish but also numerous ways in which we can fail to flourish.  MacIntyre suggests that historical context, while it constrains our moral reasoning and affects how we define flourishing, does not eradicate persisting insights into flourishing which get differing but equivalent expressions that historical conditions do not make impossible.

What is the ethical conflict in modernity? MacIntyre describes it this way:

The histories of expressivist agents are primarily histories of their affections, of what they have cared about and of how they came to care about what they care about. The histories of NeoAristotelians are histories of how thy succeeded or failed in becoming better judges of what it is for a human being to flourish qua human being and to act accordingly . . . expressivists are unable to reckon with important aspects of themselves…their activities over extended periods of time can only be characterized and understood adequately in Aristotelian terms.

The common task of disciplining our feelings and of honestly recognizing moral failure shows that “the fact that our judgments express our feelings becomes irrelevant to the question of whether or not we are justified in making those particular judgments.”

In the end the Aristotelian describes more completely the elements of moral choice-making. This is because the Aristotelian acknowledges how everyday questions of “plain persons” appear without translating them into sophisticated theories about the status of everyday questions. We experience the practical life before we theorize the practical life, theorization which demotes the importance of the ordinary or the “plain,” turning it into a different sort of inquiry which does not aid the task of making moral decisions. “We all of us, whatever the time and place that we inhabit, begin as practical reasoners from some received view of things into which we have been initiated and educated.”

Thus MacIntyre critiques modern philosophers and social scientists, especially free market economists, for abstracting from actual human experience: “Expressivism is . . . a metaethical theory, a second order theory about the meaning and use of evaluative and normative expressions” that separates the normative from the experiential. Aristotle, on the other hand,  “took the philosopher’s task to be primarily that of identifying and elucidating concepts embodied in and presupposed by the utterances and activities of nonphilosophical plain persons.”

MacIntyre is not through. His next step is to invoke Karl Marx as a premier student of Aristotle, stepping away from the vast literature on “Marxism,” much of which he thinks misses the point.  MacIntyre’s Marx saw that Aristotle’s method of investigation was valid but had to be updated, separated from the slave economy of antiquity, and adjusted to the modern capitalist economy which its progenitors misunderstood. Capitalism “is not only a set of economic relationships. It is also a mode of presentation of those relationships that disguises and deceives” the commodification of labor, thus obscuring fundamental inequality and “the destructive and self-destructive aspects of capitalism.”

In principle, Pope Leo XIII, the initiator of modern Catholic social teaching, while rejecting “socialism,” nevertheless honored labor and workers’ combinations. Leo recognized the interconnectedness of all persons in society, and he defended the living wage and some degree of leisure time as means to support the traditional family.

To sum up, social life is a cooperative life. Eventually, the modern welfare state came to compensate, in part, for the limitations of capitalism without eliminating capitalism’s “larger ills.” Leo XIII warned against transferring all moral authority to the state; Thomists foresaw the perils of the directed economy in Marxist communism without abandoning the need to recognize the integral character of society.

For MacIntyre, then, dialogue between Neo-Aristotelians and Marxists is essential. The author lists at length the admirable accomplishments of modern liberating movements in the sciences and the arts. “Yet it is this same modernity,” he writes, “in which new forms of oppressive inequality, new types of material and intellectual impoverishment, and new frustrations and misdirections of desire have been recurrently generated.”

Finally, MacIntyre offers “four narratives” of individuals to exemplify what he has been theorizing.

The first is Vasily Grossman, the author who grew up in Stalin’s Russia and faced the question of choosing between stark alternatives. How does one choose, especially when significant sacrifice will follow whatever the choice (as between one’s family and the state)? Grossman lived two incompatible lives: he was a loyal Stalinist yet recognized the crimes of the Stalinist regime. Grossman’s internal conflicts were never resolved and are revealed in his novels. If the reader expects from this a broad critique of Soviet life, one will find such a critique but only balanced against its equivalent in the West. Writes MacIntyre: “For the condition of life in every modern society is inimical to the kind of ruthlessly truthful self-questioning that Grossman attempted to elicit.” Grossman suffered from an addiction to large theoretical ideas.

Sandra Day O’Connor, by contrast, is an American Burkean who adheres not to abstract principles but to a traditional set of attitudes that leads her to approach difficult decisions in an informed but untheoretical way through civil discourse, including taking seriously the views of those who come from traditions different from her own. MacIntyre takes Justice O’Connor to be a conservative but not a theoretical or movement conservative adhering to abstract principles. He admires her for exemplifying a version of practical reasoning, but faults her insulation from or indifference to the radical critique of the established American order that is MacIntyre’s own Neo-Marxist starting point.

Unlike Grossman, O’Connor entertained no large-scale theories, but this limited her ability to see clearly the failures of the world in which she dwelt. Grossman, O’Connor, and the historian and journalist C.L.R. James, in different ways, achieved partial reflectiveness working within but at times standing apart from their historical context.

James, brought up in colonialist Trinidad as an Anglican with Wesleyan tendencies, was inculcated with classical literature and Puritan restraint. A black man raised in the exploited third world, he wanted to write and play cricket. Eventually he moved to London and Bloomsbury, and found Marxism. He criticized Stalin, and eventually Trotsky.

Against the view that there is a universal class of workers, James asserted the need of a separate movement for black workers. He also saw that Marxists did not have compelling answers to why those whose lives had advanced in capitalist society should rebel against it. He came to the view that, even if committed to a movement such as Marxism, one is still an individual who should have the courage to pursue the vocation one finds for oneself.

In the end, James embraced both radical reform of society and the fundamental importance of family, tradition, social life. MacIntyre admires James’s combination of openness to change with respect for fundamental human institutions—elements needing each other in valid practical reasoning.

Denis Faul grew up in the conservative, Catholic culture of Ireland, was ordained a priest, and taught for 40 years in a Catholic school. He opposed the Irish Republican Army, but eventually entertained a Marxist interpretation of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants as a disguised form of class warfare, and he took up the cause of democracy against the Protestant domination of Northern Ireland. Faul became as well a figure of non-violent public protest against the use of force and violence by the IRA. His conservative Catholicism went together with his active opposition to violence on all sides, and he was attacked from all sides.

MacIntyre concludes that these four lives represent successful practical reasoning under very different circumstances. They are exemplary but not generalizable to other quite different situations, except that all enjoyed a good upbringing in sound families and found good friends. But “there is no particular finite good the achievement of which perfects and completes one’s life,” MacIntyre writes. “There is always something else and something more to be attained, whatever one’s attainments.”

Virtue consists in persevering and, for the author, this implies finally moving toward theological inquiry into one’s final end—a topic he leaves to others, perhaps because he does not know how to convey the next step. Nor does he suggest where one should look for such guidance.

To sum up, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity makes a strong argument against expressivism and offers an understanding of Aristotle and Aquinas which makes it hard to dismiss them as out-of-date. It is doubtful, though, that Marx will be raised to the status of these thinkers on the strength of this book, for MacIntyre is a clever but not unprecedented voice for the argument that Marx is misunderstood. Perhaps this is also his justification for his own practical reasoning, which reasoning leads to his alienation from modernity, capitalism, and America. Presumably Alasdair MacIntyre hopes that his moral dialogue might bring others to see the world as he sees it.

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