Alasdair MacIntyre (Photo: Sean O'Connor)

Modern academic philosophy is a strange and solemn game, to convey whose spirit would require the genius of a Kafka or a Borges. Participants in this game must pretend that they are progressing stepwise toward Truth, as bad theories are discarded and better ones put in their place. Yet in fact there is no progress, only an endless subtilizing of rival opinions. All philosophers know this, yet few dare admit it, for the game can continue only as long as no one acknowledges that it is a game.

Alasdair MacIntyre has opted out of the game. Human reason, he insists, is properly at home within some particular tradition of practice—in his case, that of the Roman Catholic Church. Divorced from such a tradition it must degenerate into sterile technique, masking arbitrary will. These views have made MacIntyre an outsider to his profession. Mainstream moral philosophers don’t know what to make of him. They grudgingly acknowledge his brilliance—and carry on playing the game.

MacIntyre’s latest book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, kicks off with an innocuous-looking line of questions about action and desire. Can we explain our actions, to ourselves or others, by saying what desire they satisfy? In certain contexts, the answer is patently “yes.” (“Why are you waving at the waiter?” “Because I want more chocolate cake.”) But note that we accept this explanation only because eating chocolate cake in a restaurant is typically a pleasant and harmless thing to do. Substitute an alternative explanation—“because I want to create a nuisance,” “because I want to imitate a poplar swaying in the wind”—and the action becomes perplexing. (Why would anyone want that?) Desires, concludes MacIntyre, cannot on their own explain action. They can do so only insofar as they have some intelligible point, aim at some good.

MacIntyre is here reiterating, in somewhat different words, Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum that “every desire is for some good.” Aquinas’s claim was not that all desires are good but that even bad desires aim at some good—typically pleasure, reputation, or gain—at the expense of the superior goods of virtue and God. A desire that aimed at no discernible good would be unintelligible to us. This has important practical consequences. If every desire involves the apprehension of its object as good, then insofar as that object is not good, or not as good as some alternative object, the desire stands condemned. Asceticism, the disciplining of desire, is an imperative of desire itself. This is the meaning of the saying—often attributed, falsely, to G. K. Chesterton—that “the young man knocking on the door of the brothel is really looking for God.”

MacIntyre’s Thomist conception of action and desire is today a minority one. The dominant modern view, derived from David Hume, is that desire itself, independent of any idea of the good, suffices to explain why we do what we do. Economists in particular see all human action as endeavoring to maximize satisfaction of some given set of preferences. This is not quite the bald assertion of egoism it is often taken to be, for the preferences in question might include preferences for, say, social justice and world peace. They might even include preferences for other preferences, as when someone earnestly wants not to want another glass of wine. Homo economicus need not be a Caliban. Nonetheless, inasmuch as the promptings of his better nature appear to him simply as one set of preferences among others, he has no overriding reason to obey them. Why should he not go with the desire to drink wine, as opposed to the desire not to desire to drink wine? What if it is the former, and not the latter, which represents his “real self”? If for Aquinas desire moves naturally upward, from lower to higher, for his Humean rival it might just as well move downward, from higher to lower. The young man looking for God is really knocking on the door of the brothel.

The young man looking for God is really knocking on the door of the brothel.

The dispute between these two accounts of human action, Thomist and Humean, is ongoing and to all appearances interminable. It fills volumes in university libraries. MacIntyre does not seek to contribute directly to this dispute. He has no knockdown arguments to offer. His goal is rather to win over the Humean by showing him that his view of human action is the intellectual counterpart of a specific social development, which it both reflects and conceals. He aims to provide “a sociology and a psychology of philosophical error.” How does he go about it?

MacIntyre’s first step is to outline a contrast between two forms of human association. The first might be illustrated (with a touch of idealization) by a painters’ workshop in fourteenth-century Florence. Members of this workshop act in concert to achieve the ends internal to the practice of painting: beauty of form and color, fidelity to life, and so forth. Success in this enterprise may bring other benefits too—profits, prizes, etc.—yet these are sought not for themselves but as tokens of recognition or as means to the workshop’s continued existence. Workshop apprentices are taught to recognize and value the goods intrinsic to their craft, to accord them a proper place—not too low, not too high either—in their deliberations. They are trained to discipline their desires, to direct them toward what is for them, given their social role, objectively desirable. Insofar as this training is successful, they will deliberate in the way described by Aquinas, not Hume.

Now contrast this workshop with another (no doubt equally idealized) organization: a modern advertising agency. Writing advertising copy is a highly skilled activity. It requires wit, versatility, imagination, and empathy—all the talents, in fact, of the artist and the poet. Nonetheless, the end of advertising is external, not internal, to the activity of advertising itself: it is to sell goods for clients, and ultimately to make money for the agency. Making money can be a shared end, but not a genuinely common end; partners in a commercial enterprise are “in it for themselves,” though their interests may provisionally coincide. Advertising, then, can provide nothing equivalent to the kind of education of desire fostered by the medieval atelier. It is simply a milieu within which existing desires may be (or fail to be) satisfied. Workers in advertising will usually deliberate in the way described by Hume, not Aquinas.

“Man” does not seek to maximize preference-satisfaction; only advertising executives and their ilk do that.

My choice of advertising as an example is not entirely accidental. While reading Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, I belatedly discovered what must surely be one of the great works of art of the past decade, the television drama series Mad Men. Here, it struck me, was a flesh-and-blood counterpart to MacIntyre’s rather abstract diagnosis of modernity and its ills. Mad Men, as readers of Commonweal doubtless know, depicts the ups and downs of a New York advertising firm in the 1960s. Its central character, Don Draper, the firm’s creative director, has talent, charm, and good looks. He is not without virtues either: he is, on occasion, brave, loyal, and generous. Yet something crucial is missing in him, as we soon become aware: a sense of purpose or “character.” His life is fragmented, both diachronically (its various stages have little connection with each other) and synchronically (its different spheres are kept rigidly apart). It lacks “narrative”—a key MacIntyrean term. Yet this very lack of narrative coherence makes Draper a fascinating figure, to women in particular. He seems deep, and in a sense he is, but only because he is empty.

There is, of course, a connection between Don Draper’s personality (or lack of it) and his profession. Ad men are occupational seducers and, like all seducers, prudentially adaptable. They must be ready to put on any tastes, drop any convictions, in pursuit of their target demographic. (In one episode, Draper writes a letter to the papers denouncing the tobacco industry, but only because he hopes for new clients among the anti-smoking lobby following his firm’s dismissal by Lucky Strike.) Advertising is the quintessential postmodern industry, a paradigm of the triumph of surface over substance. But back to MacIntyre.

“Man does not pursue happiness,” wrote Nietzsche famously; “only the Englishman does that.” MacIntyre’s argument has a similar form. It identifies what purports to be a philosophical truth about human action in general as a sociological truth about human action at a particular stage of historical development. “Man” does not seek to maximize preference-satisfaction; only advertising executives and their ilk do that.

Of course, sociology on its own cannot settle a philosophical argument, as MacIntyre is well aware, for it always cuts both ways: if Hume’s theory of action is an expression of its time in thought, then so too presumably is Aquinas’s. To avoid this skeptical conclusion, MacIntyre must show that the two theories are not on a par, that the form of association presupposed by Aquinas is basic and universal, whereas that presupposed by Hume is local and derivative. He does this by demonstrating that all of us today, in large areas of our professional and above all family life, act and think like Thomists, even if the dominant language of modernity conceals this from us. (Gary Becker’s economic theory of marriage owes its plausibility, MacIntyre remarks shrewdly, to the fact that many modern marriages do indeed operate, or think they operate, on the principles he describes; but such marriages are generally headed for divorce.) Even capitalist enterprises depend for their survival on the tiny networks of goodwill that grow up, unbidden, in their interstices, though these are inevitably stifled by the overall logic of the institution. Mad Men depicts several “almost friendships” among members of the firm, which rivalry and mistrust prevent from coming to fruition.

MacIntyre’s goal is to summon his Humean interlocutors to an effort of “sociological self-knowledge”—that is, “to reflect upon the extent to which in their thinking and acting in families and households, in schools, and in workplaces they already presuppose the truth of some key Aristotelian and Thomistic claims concerning individual and common goods.” MacIntyre is making a Wittgensteinian point here: philosophy is a reminder of what we already know, of what misguided theory has caused us to forget.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity contains much more than this superficial summary can convey. There are responses to philosophers László Tengelyi, Galen Strawson, and, above all, Bernard Williams—another shrewd critic of mainstream moral philosophy, though of a very different stamp. There is a bravura demolition of the “happiness” movement, summed up by an exchange between De Gaulle and a journalist unwise enough to ask him if he was happy (“I am not stupid” was De Gaulle’s reply). The book concludes with mini-biographies of Vasily Grossman, Sandra Day O’Connor, C.L.R. James and Fr. Denis Faul—all illustrative, in different ways, of the problem of reconciling personal integrity with public loyalties. One wonders if this is a dilemma that MacIntyre, as a Catholic and some sort of a Marxist, has had to grapple with himself.

This book is not, it must be said, an easy read. Its argument is dense; its sentences struggle to capture every facet of their subject, however unimportant. (A typical example: “What will strike our imagined neo-Aristotelian most, perhaps, is that Nietzsche has excluded himself from and invited others to exclude themselves from just those types of practice and just those types of relationship in which and through which we learn how to become practically rational agents and how to exercise those virtues without which rational deliberation is not possible.”) In other places, though, especially where the misdeeds of the powerful are at issue, MacIntyre writes with great trenchancy; and one detects, underneath a cool and measured argumentative surface, the heart of an Amos or Isaiah, burning with righteous anger. The word “just” is today rarely applied to persons as distinct from laws and institutions, but here it is appropriate. MacIntyre is a just man, as well as a great thinker.


Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity
An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative

Alasdair MacIntyre
Cambridge University Press, $49.99, 332 pp.

Edward Skidelsky teaches philosophy at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. He is author, together with Robert Skidelsky, of 'How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life'

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Published in the December 1, 2017 issue: View Contents
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