Monday, June 22, 2009

The Perils of a Single Vision

Monolithic, Up To a Point

One of the elements of the Aristotelian tradition is the view that the ideal-typical human is of a singular type. There is one best way to be, one way to be perfectly virtuous. This coheres well with the view that there is one best way for the State to be, and finally, on Aristotle's view, a single Unmoved Mover whose fundamental unity is the telos--end or function--toward which all things aim. The world, for Aristotle, is a cosmos, an ordered unity. And so it is that Aristotle, like Plato, believed that there is one kind of best man, the man that has all the virtues. And importantly, the virtues will never come into conflict with each other. Confusion about what to do is confusion about what the good is, and it can be remedied with the application of clear thinking and philosophizing.

This view of ethics is more than a little optimistic. For MacIntyre, the tradition more or less takes the place of the cosmos and the Aristotelian biology. Telos is provided by common agreements about what constitute the good for man. And it is never entirely self-consistent; as I noted in my last post, the struggle to clarify and understand the good is an integral part of the tradition.

Nonetheless, even for MacIntyre, differences about what constitutes the good--and thus what constitute the virtues--seem to be framed in terms of conflict. One might suppose, from his scanty words on the topic, that whichever conflict is present at the moment is not irresolvable, for the conflict presupposes certain broad agreements, and the terms used by the various sides are commensurable. Though resolving this conflict will lead to another, it can be resolved. And it remains the case that all interlocutors within the tradition agree that there is some best way to display the virtues in a particular time and place, even if they cannot agree what that way might be.

That MacIntyre would seem to take this view is unsurprising. Much of After Virtue is dedicated to the task of showing that the abandonment of the Aristotelian tradition by society as a whole underlies the fractured and irresolvable nature of modern ethical conflicts. For instance, in the middle of his discussion of Sophocles, MacIntyre writes:

There is a sharply contrasting modern tradition which holds that the variety and heterogeneity of human goods is such that their pursuit cannot be reconciled in any single moral order and that consequently any social order which either attempts such a reconciliation or which enforces the hegemony of one set of goods over all other is bound to turn into a straightjacket and very probably a totalitarian straightjacket for the human condition... I take it that this view entails a heterogeneity of the virtues as well of goods in general and that choice between rival claims in respect of the virtues has the same central place in the moral life for such theorists that choice between goods in general does. And where judgments express choices of this kind, we cannot characterize them as either true or false. (AV 143)
This way of characterizing the idea is typical within After Virtue. While MacIntyre does not say outright or explicitly that he believes a tradition is to be characterized as the sort of unity I outline above, he certainly implies it. I wish I knew if he wrote more clearly on the topic elsewhere; I can only assume, since he has characterized himself elsewhere as having an Augustinian Thomist viewpoint on moral theory, that my interpretation is more or less correct.

But even within After Virtue, there are indications that this understanding is not the only position that the savvy virtue theorist might be able to support.

Pleasures, not Pleasure; Goods, not the Good

MacIntyre at one point presents a blistering critique of utilitarianism. He attempts--and, I think, succeeds--to show that it is not possible to simply add up the various pleasures and subtract the various pains to determine an action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. How does one compare, he asks, the pleasure of drinking coffee on a bright sunny morning with the pleasure of swimming in the ocean? As he points out, there is not merely quantitative but qualitative differences between various pleasures. They are incommensurable.

Likewise, the goods internal to the various practices can be incommensurable. The goods internal to playing chess are not the goods internal to playing basketball--though there may be commonalities and similarities. The goods internal to practices--and thus what might be considered virtues specific to those practices--might even come into conflict.

MacIntyre seems to view the tradition as unifying the virtues, reconciling all those characteristics that might be considered virtues under a single notion of the Good--or at least, the notion that there might be a single Good. But why must there be a single Good that everyone strives toward? Why must there be only one way to be virtuous?

I believe that pagan traditions both ancient and contemporary present a potential rejoinder to MacIntyre's view of a monolithic--and not irrelevantly, monotheistic--tradition. The very notion of polytheism seems to present a contrary view of tradition. Worshiping shining Apollo is not the same as worshiping the Great Mother--but why should they be? Polytheistic traditions seem to present a way to reconcile the various ways of being virtuous without reducing them to each other.

Exactly how this might work out within a contemporary paganism deserves to be worked out more carefully, but the necessary groundwork has not yet been worked out. There is at least one more topic that I will have to address--in my next post.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics

I've finally finished something I have been meaning to get around to for months. A night or two ago, I finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre's important book After Virtue. Within, MacIntyre sets out to vindicate a broadly Aristotelian tradition within ethics. Though he comes from a Catholic perspective, I think his perspective on ethics might not be unprofitable to Pagans.

In this post, I'm going to sketch out and more or less regurgitate what it is that MacIntyre means. I'll spend the next couple of posts analyzing what I see as strengths and weaknesses within the account of After Virtue, as well as laying out how I think his ideas might and might not apply to modern Pagans and Paganism.

Aristotelian ethics is the paradigmatic example of virtue ethics. Unlike popular modern ethical theories like utilitarianism, virtue ethics is not concerned primarily with particular actions, but with becoming the right kind of person--the kind of person who possesses the virtues. Not all systems of virtue ethics are Aristotelian, but the majority owe at least some great debt to the Philosopher. Though virtue ethical systems--at least, systems consciously conceived as virtue ethical--languished for most of the modern period, there has been a resurgence of interest in virtue ethics beginning in the late 1950's.

MacIntyre's notion of an Aristotelian ethic is fairly broad. He does not mean that such a system must be a commentary on Aristotle or a straightforward description of how to apply the Nicomachean Ethics. Rather, he means to indicate that there has been an ethical tradition beginning with Aristotle extending up through the medieval world that shares some basic characteristics established by its founder.

There are some serious theoretical considerations that must be dealt with before any attempt like MacIntyre's can get off the ground. The first is that Aristotelian ethics--indeed, all ethics, as MacIntyre argues, and I can't help agreeing--are dependent in large part for their character on the kind of social system in which they are embedded and find their expression. If we are to take this seriously, then it means that we cannot simply take a list of virtues from Aristotle and apply them to our world as Aristotle meant them to be applied to his own world. Furthermore, Aristotle's virtues are rendered sensible by a particular cosmology and a certain view of a teleological biology. No person raised in the modern world could hold to an Aristotelian cosmology or biology and remain intellectually honest.

But these concerns raise the larger question of how to identify virtues in the first place. What distinguishes a virtue from other character traits? Are they merely character traits thought to be desirable in a particular time and place? Could ruthlessness or greediness in business ventures ever be virtues, or are they always vices? MacIntyre merely sketches out the answers by identifying three traits he believes to be essential to a virtue:

Practice: For MacIntyre, virtues are intimately related to what he calls "practices." MacIntyre's definition of a "practice" is long and complex: "By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established coopreative human activity though which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." (AV 187)

That is to say, a practice is a complex sort of cooperative activity that has "internal goods"--that is, there is something about it that makes it worthy of pursuing in itself--and puts into practice and extends wider ideas about excellence and goods. Chess is a practice. Checkers is not. A virtue, for MacIntyre, is a personal quality which enables one to attain those goods, and without which one cannot attain them.

A moment's consideration will reveal that the classical virtues become prerequisites for most practices. Justice, for instance, the virtue of rendering to each his due, of not cheating, is quite obviously necessary. A chess player will not attain the internal goods of chess if he constantly cheats in order to win; he will only attain external goods like praise for his victory.

Unity in Narrative: MacIntyre argues that the unity of one's life--the identification of one's present self with one's past and future selves--is not to be found in logical strict identity, but the unity of a character in a narrative. He argues that narrative is not something imposed upon human events by storytellers after the fact, but an integral part of human life as it is actually lived.

As a result, virtues cannot be seen merely as character qualities which allow for the attainment of the goods arising from practices, but as qualities which make a life seen as a whole, in the sweep of its narrative arc, wholesome or defective. The virtue of justice is not exhibited merely in fairly dealing with others within a practice or profession, but in all one's dealings. And what constitutes fair dealings depends on the intersections of the various narratives involved in those dealings, and which narratives one is attempting to play out. Any action one takes is not to be taken as the atomic unit of ethics, but only becomes intelligible--and thus ethically significant--within a broader narrative context.

Tradition: No life is lived alone. Our own narrative context is embedded within a much broader narrative, one that began long before our own births. This larger narrative sweep, with its inherited notions of various goods, and various notions of how to achieve them, MacIntyre calls a tradition. He locates himself within a broadly Aristotelian tradition, running from Aristotle himself through the Middle Ages up to such figures as Jane Austen. No tradition, he notes, is entirely monolithic, and indeed the conflicts and struggles within the tradition to define itself is an integral part of every tradition; without such struggle, there could be no life, no narrative. These traditions provide us with the apparatus we need to live a good life--though what that is can only be found within the tradition itself.

To qualify as a virtue, a personal quality or characteristic must pass each of these three steps: it must be necessary to achieve the inner goods of a practice or practices, it must be locatable within the narrative unity of individual lives, and it must have a place within the larger tradition.

I will deal with some of these ideas in my next few posts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Challenge of Piety (Filial Piety part 2)

I was somehow unaware when I started on this topic that June has been dubbed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It's synchronicity, I suppose, that I started on the topic of a particular virtue just as a huge chunk of the Pagan blogosphere takes up the topic.

In my last post on filial piety, I briefly outlined a couple good reasons to think that 1) filial piety was important in the ancient world, 2) we have reasons to keep it in mind in the modern world, and 3) it has theological implications. Each of these topics deserves much more attention than I gave them--especially the presence of something identifiable as filial piety in the West--but I'm going to be moving on just the same.

Before I go on, I should probably state from the outset that one problem I do not wish to undertake is the problem of parental abuse or gross misconduct. I lack both the wisdom and the experience to say anything on the topic that would not run grossly astray or cause offense.

The very idea of this kind of piety--and that it might be a kind of piety--might seem offensive to many Pagans. While I suspect that the idea will be much less problematic to reconstructionists and recon-oriented Pagans, I do not expect a great deal of agreement--at least initially--from those oriented toward more contemporary religious expressions. Though I could be wrong.

In fact, the very word piety is almost unused outside recon circles. It is not difficult to understand why. With the last fifteen hundred years of Christian dominance, the word "piety" has taken on connotations that are not at all pleasant. The worst members of that religion have been said to "piously" defend the grossest violations of human life--both of the body and the mind. I would ask any readers who find the term "piety" difficult to set these connotations aside and remember that, just as in Homer Achilles was known for his might in battle and Odysseus for his wiles, Virgil writes about the unflagging pietas of Aeneas. Piety, when I use it, is not the mendacious cover for wrongful thoughts and deeds that it has been used for, but the virtue of properly discharging one's duties especially to the gods, but also to other entities and institutions of great importance. (Patriotism could be construed to be a kind of piety, for instance.)

There are a number of problems that arise when trying to apply ancient ideals of piety to the modern world. Pagans deal brilliantly with some of them. Others require close thinking through.

As I mentioned last time, I believe the primary motivation behind filial piety is gratitude--showing rightful apprecation for the tremendous benefits we have received from our parents. Pagans have been at the forefront of recognizing our duties to the Mother who bore us all, who continues to feed, clothe, and comfort us--and who daily suffers the depredations of our thoughtless exploitation. The importance of protecting the Earth has not been lost on us. Though it is all too easy to give in to complacency and laziness, we should all continue to seek ways to minimize the damage we do in our daily lives and implement them.

Another problem is more difficult, and it is a question that I deal with frequently. The contemporary Pagan movement tends to be made up of rather independent people. We seek out our own paths, are sometimes reluctant to make commitments, and keep our own counsel--though groupthink can rear its ugly head anywhere, and often does within particular communities. This independence is not a bad thing. It gives Paganism its vibrant diversity and prevents spiritual stagnation.

But independence has its prices. For some of us, it may be more difficult to see the benefits that we gained from where we came from. After all, very few of us were born into Pagan families. We took up our respective Pagan paths for good (hopefully) reasons. This can make it difficult for us to see the ways we may have benefited from how we were brought up. And some of us (alas, myself) may sometimes find it difficult or unpleasant to look on ways that we have depended on or benefited from others in the past.

It can be easy to forget our parents, especially given the mobility of the modern world. We might find ourselves half a continent away. In America, we do indeed have certain days set aside for remembering and honoring our parents--Mother's Day and Father's Day. It is my recommendation that, as people who recognize and honor the immanent divinity within a world birth, death, and rebirth, we remind ourselves of those responsible for our own particular births, and honor the way that the Great Mystery worked to bring about our lives.

Of course, this kind of filial piety is not the same kind that existed in the ancient world. It cannot be; one aspect of filial piety in those times was carrying on the religious traditions of the family. Not a live possibility for most of us, I suspect. But in keeping that ancient aspect in mind, we might be reminded that religion is important. Perhaps it is unwise to step away from the tradition we grew up in without good reasons. At the very least, we should avoid the spiritual consumerism that plagues American culture in general, including Pagan culture. Being Pagan ought not be a facile identification to give our lives a veneer of purpose without any substance or real work underneath. (Which all piety--and not just the filial kind--requires)

Speaking of putting substance to our words, my great aunt is very old, and is not getting on as well as she used to. I have too often been negligent in going to see her these last few months, so I will leave this post at that, and pay a visit.