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.

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