Monday, January 11, 2010

A Three-Legged Stool

Alasdair MacIntyre convinced me of why modern approaches to ethics are broken and contemporary ethical debates interminable. Classical ethics, to paraphrase him, was part of a three-legged stool: the actual, current human state, the human telos (or the proper goal of human life), and ethics, which was guidance on how to move from the current state towards the goal.

With the Scientific Revolution, however, the Aristotelian baby of ethical teleology was thrown out along with the bathwater of Aristotelian physics. As a result, we were left with a current state, and a set of instructions. Instructions for what? Hmm, no one quite knew. How do we tell if those instructions are working? Again, it wasn't clear.

Thus, we experienced an onslaught of attempts to make sense of those instructions, to revise them according to some novel interpretation of what they were for, and so on. It's as if we were in the situation of a people whose ancestors had left them detailed instructions on the best ways to get to New York, which they still held to be very important, even though it had become an article of faith for them that there is no such place as New York!

And this analogy explains why it is true that morals are both relative and objective, and why it is so off target to accuse anyone who points out the contingent, situated nature of ethics as holding that "hey, anything is as good as anything else!" After all, the way in which it was best for an ancient Athenian to try to reach New York (involving heading west, sailboats, a gradual exploration of the Atlantic, etc.) is very different from the best way for a current resident of Tokyo to get here, perhaps by booking a plane ticket. And yet that doesn't in the least mean that we can't say that lying down in bed, or burrowing towards the center of the earth, are very bad ways of heading towards New York, and the ways mentioned previously are objectively better.

And so, when I was noting the culturally situated character of all ethical reasoning, it was not only uncharitable but also rather obtuse for a critic to say, "So, you think there was nothing wrong with the Holocaust, since that was OK per the Nazis culture!" Well, no, son, the Holocaust was a lot more like burning down all the vehicles in the area, killing the drivers, hacking off one's own arms and legs, and then screaming in rage that the drivers had betrayed you.

And that, we can see objectively, is not much of a way to get to New York.


  1. Ethically speaking, I can say "ugg boots ugg boots ugg boots."

  2. Anonymous2:31 PM

    "And this analogy explains why it is true that morals are both relative and objective"

    So if I punch you in the face, your ethical relativism will fly out the window. But after you've successfully beaten me/restrained me/etc... it will fly back in?

  3. Yes, in the other thread I should have said "an ethical sceptic," not relativist.

    I was wrong. Objectively so.

  4. Or I made have said "an ethical relativist as that position is commonly adopted and understood."

  5. Anonymous2:57 AM

    Doesn't MacIntyre overstate the degree of ethical consensus in the pre-modern world? Aristotelian ethics was not Thrasymachian ethics, which was not Epicurean ethics, which was not Christian ethics. That a Christian-Aristotelian synthesis became dominant for a long time in the West may have had less to do with the inherent philosophical merit of the system than with extrinsic political, religious, economic factors, etc. I'm not saying that is the case, but the possibility ought to be considered. During the centuries of Christendom, ethical consensus was stronger in practice, at the socio-political level, than in theory, at the philosophical-theological level, where there was almost always some intelligent disagreement. (And unintelligent disagreement, too.)

    To put it another way, wouldn't Oakeshott say that ethics comes from practice, not the other way around? That doesn't mean that ethics doesn't influence practice -- that's the whole point of ethics, after all -- but this isn't a chicken-and-egg problem. We can say that the chicken, practice, definitely comes first and continues to be the driving force. Ethics is a planet orbiting the sun of practice. The planet's gravity does move the sun a little, but the sun moves the planets much more.

    If we lack consensus in our ethics, it's because we lack consensus in our practices. That lack of consensus in turn derives from our political and religious splintering. A more authoritarian political-religious system would not have to coerce most subjects into seeking ethical consensus (though it might do so for the hell of it) because it would encourage practical consensus by the mere exclusion of practical religious and political alternatives. MacIntyre might even agree, but if he does, he should be talking about power politics not virtue ethics.

    Or, to go back to your analogy, directions for traveling to New York make sense once again when somebody tells you, "This is New York, go!" They make little sense when lots of different people have their own notions about what New York is, whether it exists or not, and whether anybody should go.

    p.s. My "word verification" captcha is "horing."

  6. Who dat anonymous? You must be someone I know!

    In any case, I think MacIntyre is well aware of the diversity of moral practice, and of the dependence of theorizing on a tradition -- those are major themes in his work. But that doesn't mean that some practice, like 'science', can't have a τελοσ, such as 'achieving an absolutely objective world of fact,' even though how to go about that will be a matter of practice. So, too, with ethics, no?

    And I'm pretty certain MacIntyre has no interest in any authoritarian ethics -- he has said, in our world, politics (meaning 'decent, ethical politics') is impossible, and the best answer to the lack of ethical consensus is to form voluntary communities of like-minded thinkers.


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