In an extract from a forthcoming book, Kenan Malik summarizes some of Alasdair MacIntyre’s views.


In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument.  This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)

A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power…

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Tag, you’re Hitler

The 7 June 2010 issue of The Nation includes a review of some book about Ayn Rand. 

The part of the review that I wanted to note came about halfway in, where the reviewer, Corey Robin, quotes some remarks from Hitler and Goebbels that sound eerily like things Rand and the heroes of her novels habitually said.  Applying the Führerprinzip to the world of economics, Hitler in 1933 told an audience of business leaders:

Everything positive, good and valuable that has been achieved in the world in the field of economics or culture is solely attributable to the importance of personality…. All the worldly goods we possess we owe to the struggle of the select few.

Robin has an easy time finding examples of Rand saying very similar things.  Robin goes on:

If the first half of Hitler’s economic views celebrates the romantic genius of the individual industrialist, the second spells out the inegalitarian implications of the first. Once we recognize “the outstanding achievements of individuals,” Hitler says in Düsseldorf, we must conclude that “people are not of equal value or of equal importance.” Private property “can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different.” An understanding of nature fosters a respect for the heroic individual, which fosters an appreciation of inequality in its most vicious guise. “The creative and decomposing forces in a people always fight against one another.”

Again, Robin can open Rand’s works almost at random and find passages that are almost identical to these translations. 

Robin attributes these similarities to the common influence of Nietzsche on Rand and the Nazis.  Certainly Rand did study Nietzsche’s works; and certainly there were periods when the Nazis tried to use Nietzsche’s name.  But I think that there is a simpler explanation. 

The Nazi party existed for about 25 years.  It ruled Germany for half that period.  During those years, Hitler, Goebbels, and the other Nazi princes made speeches and issued other public statements numerous enough to fill a library.  That Robin can rummage through those countless pages and find a few remarks that sound eerily reminiscent of the works of Ayn Rand tells us nothing about Rand and next to nothing about the Nazis. 

As a critique of Rand’s ideas, Robin’s argumentum ad Hitlerem is ludicrously unfair.  As a way of playing a game with Rand and her acolytes, however, it can be justified by the old maxim “turnabout is fair play.”  In 1963, Rand gave a speech titled “The Fascist New Frontier.”  In this speech, she claimed that the strongest influence on the ideology of the administration of President John F. Kennedy was not Marx or Keynes or Harold Laski, as the president’s right-wing critics sometimes claimed, but that the Kennedy administration was a fascist group.  To support this claim, she juxtaposed snippets of President Kennedy’s public statements with snippets of similar-sounding statements from Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.  So, if President Kennedy or his spokesmen said that ideological labels were of little importance, or that personal sacrifice was the index of patriotism, or that strong leadership is essential for national greatness, she would track down some remark from some Nazi or Fascist making the same point.  That the Nazis and Fascists did not invent these ideas, that they have been commonplaces of political discussion for centuries and may very possibly be true, did not seem to her to matter very much.  In Rand’s view of history, Naziism was simply an unfolding of ideas that were already fully developed in the philosophies of thinkers like Kant and Plato.  So, the fact that an idea was familiar long before the end of the First World War doesn’t excuse it from being a symptom of Fascist orr Nazi ideology.   

Robin’s invocation of Nietzsche may suggest a similar theory of history, but the rest of the piece shows a different view.  Robin praises Aristotle at length:

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

So Robin praises Aristotle precisely for his sense of change and development, his attempt to explain how the same action or idea can have different significance in different circumstances.  Robin thus jettisons the idea that gives Rand an excuse for her method of using quotations from historical villains to play “gotcha” with her adversaries.  The comments Robin quotes may drip with menace when we reflect on their source; spoken by another person in another setting, the same words might be rather anodyne, or even true.  For example, the claim that “Private property ‘can be morally and ethically justified only if [we] admit that men’s achievements are different'” would seem to be eminently defensible, even if words to that effect once appeared in a speech delivered by history’s least defensible man.

Virtue Engendered; or, Big States Breed Small Souls

I found two highlights in this issue: a review of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and a review of David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is a major figure in the revival of “virtue ethics,” the school of thought pioneered by Aristotle.   As its name suggests, virtue ethics tends to emphasize the importance of developing particular character traits.  Virtue ethics was out of fashion among academic philosophers for quite a long time, but now it seems to be on an equal footing with the two other leading schools of ethical thought, utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a set of approaches that take their cue from Jeremy Bentham’s definition of the Good as that which brings the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest number of people; deontology first crystallized in the work of Immanuel Kant, defender of the idea that moral duty and rational understanding are inseparable one from another.  So, an advocate of utilitarianism might argue that we should sustain friendships because societies composed of people who like each other tend to have lots of healthy and cheerful citizens, and an advocate of deontological ethics might argue that we should sustain friendships because the universe only makes sense to people who recognize a duty to grow close to each other.  An advocate of virtue ethics, on the other hand, might argue that being a friend means developing traits of character that are valuable in themselves and that can be attained in no other way.     

Sandel, like other virtue ethicists, is associated with a tendency in political theory called “communitarianism.”  Communitarians criticize classical liberalism for its image of the individual human being as a self-contained unit.  As The Nation‘s reviewer puts it:

Nearly thirty years ago, in his massively influential debut in political theory, Sandel argued that communal belonging precedes individual freedom–that, in his language, the self is “encumbered” and therefore not altogether prior to the ends it chooses. An intrepid technical dissection of his colleague [John] Rawls’s epoch-making A Theory of Justice (1971), Liberalism and the Limits of Justice made Sandel’s name as a “communitarian.” Sandel demonstrated that for Rawls, the freedom of individual choice alone is the morally relevant starting point for inquiry into justice, an assumption that renders things like family ties, religious belief, group loyalty and historical identity irrelevant, except as a secondary extra. Communitarians like Sandel, Charles Taylor (with whom Sandel studied as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford) and Michael Walzer responded that most people, even in liberal societies, prize those things at least as much as personal autonomy. The most attractive part of Sandel’s criticism was his contention that relationships, rather than being the result of previous choices, are the sphere in which identity is possible at all. (To put it in more technical terms, there is no individual subject not intersubjectively constituted from the first.) Ever since making these claims, even as political theory has substantially evolved, Sandel has continued to argue for the priority of the communal good in an account of justice, even as he recognizes its risks for liberty.

Because a person’s virtues are part of his or her identity, communitarianism and virtue ethics inevitably go hand in hand.    

The same review discusses a book by Amartya Sen that prompts the reviewer to mention that many philosophers were dismayed when political theorist John Rawls declared that the nation-state was “the natural forum for justice.”  Otherwise dedicated Rawlsians rebelled against this pronouncement, arguing that justice requires a worldwide framework.  I value Sandel and the communitarians because their position points to a different response to Rawls.  I haven’t studied Rawls’ work deeply, but what I have read suggests to me that his theory does indeed presuppose the nation-state as the standard of community.  The communitarians, on the other hand, have the intellectual resources to challenge that standard, not by arguing that the nation-state is too small to be just, but that it is too big.  The nation-state, especially in the form of continental behemoths like the USA or the former USSR or China or India or the European Union, is bloated beyond any capacity to nurture healthy relationships.  The only connection citizens of such enormous empires can achieve with each other is the one they feel when they cheer their rulers on and rejoice as their warriors smash the Enemy, whoever that Enemy may be at the moment.  The qualities of character that we develop when we do those things are hardly to be called virtues. 

That big states breed small souls is supported by material cited from David Finkel’s reports from Iraq.  The American public is separated from the perspective of the American soldier by official censorship, and so has a distorted view of what is being done in its name in Iraq.  Senior American commanders, too, have a distorted view, in their case because sycophantic briefing officers tell them what they want to hear rather than what their subordinates on the ground are actually seeing and doing.  The reviewer describes a scene in which Finkel reports on a briefing given to the celebrated General David Petraeus.  Finkel attended the briefing, and had been an eyewitness of the firefights deascribed in the briefing.  He makes it clear that what the general heard had little or no relationship to the events Finkel saw.  Even ground troops themselves see an ever smaller portion of what they are doing; “the Pentagon’s continued dependence on unmanned Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan means that even soldiers aren’t seeing the full contours of the global battlefield,” as the reviewer points out.  Of course, it’s long been an axiom of military history that a researcher should ask a participant in a battle for eyewitness accounts only of events that took place within a meter of that participant’s face, and shouldn’t expect extreme clarity even in those accounts.  But these added degrees of separation certainly don’t improve our ability to take responsibility for what is done in our name.  Finkel apparently pulls out the emotional stops in an attempt to protest against this separation:

The chasm between over here and over there is central to another heartbreaking sequence, when the wife of a severely wounded soldier transferred from Iraq to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, remembers a visit from President Bush. Finkel recounts not only what the soldier’s wife said to the president–“Thank you for coming”–and not only what she wished she had said to him–“He doesn’t know how it feels”–but why she hadn’t said it: “Because I felt it would not have made any difference.” Communication is fruitless, because if Bush can’t see the problem staring at him from that hospital bed, he’s already living on too remote a planet.