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.