The Antiliberal Philosopher

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Imagine a world in which the whole scientific enterprise has been virtually destroyed by a vengeful public maddened by a series of environmental disasters. Eventually, enlightened people try to revive science, but all they have to work with are shards of the past, devoid of the theoretical context that gave them meaning. They have no way of coherently reassembling the surviving fragments, yet they connect them anyway—and almost no one realizes that what now comes to pass for "science" is not proper science at all.

That, according to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, is much the situation in which moral discourse is conducted today, with words such as good and moral reduced to relics of a lost past.

Currently a professor at Duke University, MacIntyre, author of the influential After Virtue (1981) and other works, "is possibly the greatest moral philosopher of the last 50 years and certainly the most unyielding critic of liberalism writing today," observes Adam Wolfson, executive editor of the Public Interest, in the Weekly Standard (July 26, 1999). "You can violently disagree with MacIntyre, as many do, particularly on the socialist left. Or you can violently agree with him, as many do, particularly on the Catholic right. But you can’t get away without knowing about him."

Born the son of a doctor in Glasgow in 1929, MacIntyre studied at the University of London and other British universities, then began teaching. In 1947, after "hanging around at the edge of the Catholic Church," he told Lingua Franca’s (Nov.–Dec. 1995) Paul Elie, he joined the Communist Party. In his first book, Marxism: An Interpretation (1953), Elie notes, MacIntyre "espoused the Marxist creed while... lamenting ‘the death of religion.’ " Leaving the party well before the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he became involved with a Trotskyist group, the International Socialists. "As MacIntyre explains it now," writes Elie, "Marxism was most valuable to him as a critique of liberalism," with its arbitrary moral judgments. In 1969 MacIntyre moved to the United States, where he would teach at a succession of universities and make a philosophical journey from Trotskyist to Aristotelian to Thomist—a pilgrim’s progress that would leave many on the left aghast and some on the right uneasy. Discussing After Virtue in the New Criterion (Feb. 1994), Maurice Cowling, an emeritus Fellow at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, says MacIntyre contended "that moral inquiry had been impoverished by the destruction of Aristotelianism in the 17th century and the disconnection of ethics from divine law in the 18th century. Existing ‘languages of morality,’ in his view, were merely fragments of a conceptual scheme which was no longer present in its entirety."

For MacIntyre, says Edward T. Oakes, a Jesuit professor of religious studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, "emptying moral discourse of teleological concepts [i.e. concepts of final causes and ends] because of the perceived impact of Newton and Darwin has been . . . the catastrophe of our times." In the Aristotelian tradition, MacIntyre has written, "there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-herealized-his-essential-nature." Were this distinction restored to ethics, observes Oakes in First Things (Aug.–Sept. 1996), then describing something or someone as "good" would not express a merely emotional judgment but would convey facts about the thing or person. For MacIntyre, notes Elie, "the moral choice is between Nietzsche and Aristotle, between nihilism and a life and world teleologically ordered."

In 1983, two years after the acclaimed After Virtue appeared, MacIntyre converted to Catholicism. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), he argued that truth emerges from the conflict of traditions. He proposed Thomism, which reconciles Aristotelianism with Christianity, as the most truthful tradition, "rationally superior" to all its rivals. The book was given a hostile reception on the left, and the reviews, says Elie, "were fragrant with anti-Catholicism." Philosopher Martha Nussbaum accused MacIntyre of "recoiling from reason," of being "in the grip of a worldview that is promulgated by authority rather than by reason." Uncowed, MacIntyre went on in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990), Wolfson notes, to try "to show how the Thomistic tradition can defeat its two main rivals: the liberal Enlightenment and postmodernism." Though conservatives find much to admire in After Virtue and the subsequent works, some are disturbed by what Wolfson calls MacIntyre’s "root-and-branch antagonism towards the liberal tradition, which dates back to his Marxist past." MacIntyre confuses real liberalism with what passes for it in academe, in Wolfson’s view, and overlooks "the moral resources within [the] liberal tradition."


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