Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My father, a congregational pastor, is currently working towards a professional doctorate in educational ministries. So when he caught me readings some Rawls, Habermas, Rorty, etc last summer, he suggested I also try Alasdair MacIntyre -- a professor at Notre Dame who is one of the more prominent moral theologians of the last half-century.

It's taken me a while, but I finally got through After Virtue the other day. Although I disagree with both the starting and end points, along the way there's some really fascinating stuff. The fact that MacIntyre comes at the history and development of modern moral philosophy from an external perspective allows him to offer insights that aren't really available to anyone writing from within that history. In particular, I'm thinking about his chapters on the social sciences at large and on the Rawls-Nozick debate in contemporary philosophy.

Even in more conventional terms, though, MacIntyre is also worth reading. Since he writes in a 'liberal' vocabulary but from a 'conservative' perspective, the result is that both conservative and liberal readers will likely find the ideology of the other camp to be uniquely intelligible.

The best example of this has to do with a passage on patriotism:
Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. The point I am making must not be confused with the commonplace liberal rejection of patriotism. Liberals have often -- not always -- taken a negative or even hostile attitude towards patriotism, partly because their allegiance is to values which they take to be universal and not local and particular, and partly because of a well-justified suspicion that in the modern world patriotism is often a facade behind which chauvinism and imperialism are fostered. But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism as a virtue is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political or moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. When however the relationship of government to the moral community is put in question both by the changed nature of government and the lack of moral consensus in society, it becomes difficult any longer to have any clear, simple and teachable conception of patriotism. Loyalty to my country, to my community -- which remains unalterably a central virtue -- becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.
In other words: religious conservatives needs to understand that for structural reasons the government cannot operate as a moral authority in an advanced society, or conversely, that on an economic and political level alone patriotism as truly understood is no longer feasible. The left, meanwhile, needs to recognize that human agency is often contingent on moral agency, and that if the government doesn't authorize the latter, then that contingency doesn't just disappear.

I'm not saying MacIntyre is a must read, but if you're at all interested in the present chasm between secular and theological morality, he provides an interesting intellectual bridge that's worth checking out.


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