Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, February 13, 2012

Marilynne Robinson on Alasdair MacIntyre: Where’s the Decline?

[Note: I am very belatedly posting two final entries about the Alasdair MacIntyre conference, which I attended and blogged this past July.]

My final post on last year’s Alasdair MacIntyre conference is about what was effectively the keynote address, delivered by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist, and author, most recently, of Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), a bracing critique of scientism. (Her novels Housekeeping and Gilead, incidentally, are among the best I’ve ever read.)

Her conference talk was titled “Metaphysics and Value Statements,” and was part explication of the work of John Calvin, part unabashed challenge to MacIntyre’s claims. The former was fascinating, but rather far afield for this blog, and I couldn’t possibly do justice to it in any event; the latter I’ll discuss for those who are interested in a critical voice on MacIntyre’s relevance to questions of modernity.

Robinson established her talk as adversarial from the start, declaring herself as a liberal and an individualist — each of which, in a certain sense of those terms, are what MacIntyrean theory is set out to demolish. Her attacks against his work were roaming, but here are some of the major points as I understood them, with some attempt on my part to roughly organize them:

Methodological Flaws and Illiberalism

• MacIntyre’s work is excessively polemical. His language distorts his arguments out of any proportion or moderation.

• MacIntyre’s work is rife with nostalgia for social settings like classical Athens in which there supposedly existed unified moral traditions, but it does not account for the fact that in all of these settings, that ideal life was available only to a privileged few people, usually all men. Conversely, he offers no account of the myriad positive sociological changes that have led to what he sees as a philosophically fractured society.

• The notion of “virtue” that is so central to MacIntyre’s work is a cipher, and seems to just mean acting in a way consistent with fulfilling social roles. But there are countless examples of people acting in a way that would so qualify as “virtuous” but that are obviously morally wrong — particularly since so many social roles have been defined by their subjugation of less privileged people.

Distortive Notions of Ourselves and Others

• MacIntyre’s work posits that we are living in the midst of a great disaster. But where is the great disaster? Most people (Robinson herself included) seem to be able to live without much sustained incoherence or anomie.

• Consequent to the notion of disaster, and fueled by MacIntyre’s polemicism, there is a streak of victimhood running through MacIntyre’s work, and especially through the attitudes of his adherents — “we poor moderns” and such. (Robinson especially criticized many of the Marxists whose talks she attended, whose abstract language and sense of victimhood, she said, seem entirely out of touch with the real suffering of hundreds of millions of laborers worldwide today.)

• The polemicism of MacIntyre’s work, combined with its argument about the will to power behind modern moral inquiry, leads us to picture all modern arguments as inherently manipulative. It thus leads us to assume that the arguments of others are insidious, and to avoid engaging in the hard work of trying to understand their arguments or to appreciate them either as rational agents or as human beings. In short, it makes worse the problem of irresolvable moral arguments between people.

Missing the Full Nature of Reason and Truth

• MacIntyre’s picture of the fractured nature of moral argument also leads us to believe we have no faculties for understanding except our current ideas and our reason. But this is doubly wrong:

• First, placing so much faith in reason offers us no account of the fallibility of the mind or the mystery of the soul. By contrast, John Calvin says we should strive for virtue but never assume that we have attained it. “This,” she says, “makes life very interesting.”

• We do not have only our current ideas. Take the Biblical parables, which hold up values that, she says, might be called aesthetic, that seem to fly in the face of reason. These represent enduring truths about human nature, and so the radical philosophical break MacIntyre speaks of can only be a relative break, because these aspects of existence do not change.

Clarifying MacIntyre’s Relationship to Liberalism

Robinson has offered here a strident critique of MacIntyre’s work, and the first thing to note is that there are many places where she gets it wrong. Some of these are essentially factual: For example, consider her claim that MacIntyre dons rose-colored glasses when looking at such classical settings as ancient Athens. But the subjugation of slaves in Athens is explored in After Virtue, and MacIntyre notes that we are today “rightly” “affront[ed]” by slavery.

Similarly, contra Robinson, MacIntyre does in fact deal with the question of exercising virtue in the service of evil ends. He argues that his account of the virtues is not simply a matter of fulfilling social roles, but must always bear a relation to human nature as such; this allows us to understand certain social structures as oppressive in that they deny striving for the good life to some people. Likewise, though I may have misunderstood her, Robinson’s argument that MacIntyre says we have only our current ideas seems to be backwards: he’s saying we shouldn’t trust our current ideas as sufficient in themselves, and must work much harder than we do now to understand their philosophical and historical origins.

However, while a few of Robinson’s other criticisms are also problematic, in general, they are right on the money — real foundational problems for which MacIntyre and his followers ought to offer better answers than they have so far.

First, although Robinson mischaracterizes some of the details of MacIntyre’s argument, on the substance she is right to argue that he simply gives short shrift to liberalism and the accomplishments of modernity. Perhaps we suffer under a malaise in which human flourishing seems inaccessible or impossible — as so many writers since the existentialists (and a few before) have argued — but what of the fact that, thanks in no small part to liberalism and the Enlightenment, we’re living many times longer, have ended slavery and have granted at least the legal ability to pursue human flourishing to women and minority groups, and no longer have a state that, say, hangs, draws, and quarters people? Robinson’s point resonated with me: even if you basically agree with the argument of After Virtue, it still seems that on balance we’re remarkably lucky to be alive today, and that most people today are still able to live good lives — and these are points that must be at least acknowledged, and then accounted for, before MacIntyre’s work can be considered.

Robinson has also hit on another key point, which she expanded on in the Q&A session: For all MacIntyre’s hostility to liberalism, what better exemplar is there of a community of people free to inquire about the good, to explore the rival claims of disparate traditions, than the modern liberal state? One qualification to this argument is that the crucial social components of traditions, without which the rational components lose their coherence, are vulnerable in the mixing-pot of liberal society.

But Robinson is still right to note that MacIntyre’s work can easily support two totally opposite attitudes toward the modern liberal state: that it represents the fracture and decline of all coherent philosophical-social contexts (clearly his position), and that it represents a near-ideal setting for the meeting of traditions, and consequently the advancement of rational inquiry and the pursuit of the good life. As Robinson has pointed out, MacIntyre’s work points to a similar dichotomy in how we should treat other people — at least, as long as we’re living in our fractured modern condition. MacIntyre’s work does pose a real danger of leading us to view other people, and other ideas, as insidious, Nietzschean exercises of the will (which is part of what was happening in the talk I attended called “Against Medical Ethics,” which could be seen as counseling a sort of ideological entrenchment).

Reason and Beyond Reason

This brings us to another point of Robinson’s: the relative constancy of the human condition. This provides stability against, on the one hand, what she sees as MacIntyre’s tyranny of reason, and, on the other, MacIntyre’s apparent implicit claim that we have nothing but our current ideas.

On the first point, it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent MacIntyre takes human goods and human nature to be a subject beyond reason. Certainly there seems to be no explicit space made in After Virtue for encounters with the transcendent, the mysterious, or other goods that derive their value for us in no small part because they seem to be beyond or contrary to reason.

And it certainly seems that MacIntyre doesn’t account for Yuval Levin’s argument in the pages of The New Atlantis — that the process of drawing out the goods of a tradition and offering reasons for them is prone to drain the significance that those goods hold for us, and so to weaken the force of those reasons. (Indeed, MacIntyre avowedly holds that defending aspects of a tradition by appeal to mystery or other things beyond reason is characteristic of a tradition in decay. In fact, he says, it is what characterizes the modern conservative use of the word “tradition” as contrasted with reason — whereas MacIntyre’s notion of a tradition is closer to the modern notion of a discipline.) In other words, MacIntyre seems to believe that all human goods can be laid bare to reason, without remainder or loss.

However, I suspect that that is not quite correct; after all, MacIntyre is a practicing Catholic, and so presumably is not squeamish about the ineffable. And indeed, Robinson’s critique on the limits of reason is arguably compatible with MacIntyre’s thesis, as her idea that we should strive for virtue but never assume we have attained it is itself easily articulated as the virtue of humility. And while MacIntyre doesn’t actually use the word “humility,” he takes pains to emphasize that we can never have complete certainty about our traditions, and that flourishing traditions must be in a continual process of formulation, articulation, revision, and self-criticism.

Relatedly, in offering her account of enduring human truths that seem to be beyond or contrary to reason, Robinson’s criticism seems to rely on impoverished modern notions of “reason” rather than the richer one that MacIntyre uses. When she speaks of the “reason” that MacIntyre thinks can offer a full account of human good, she seems to mean the kind of reason favored by rigidly analytical Enlightenment philosophers: something contrasted to emotion, which is capable of being stated in terms of a few premises and conclusions, and which is equally subject to agreement or disagreement by any rational agent, regardless of his or her history, personality, perspective, and so forth. So when Robinson speaks of Biblical parables that teach us truths about human nature, she notes that many of them seem to “fly in the face of reason.” Yet the fact that we can examine, understand, and discuss these parables shows that their wisdom is not beyond reason — just beyond reason of a certain sort. By discussing such stories, we are already engaging in rational inquiry. Such discussions need not yield axioms or proofs, and ought not to be uncomfortable with initial appearances of contradiction, to be considered rational.

Nonetheless, there remains an essential truth in Robinson’s criticism. Even if we can yield to a more human form of reason in discussing human nature, there does seem something rather dry in MacIntyre’s rhetoric of virtue. It seems to fail to account for that basic aspect of human psychology that in part motivates Yuval Levin’s argument: the fabric of our experience may become parched when exposed to too harsh a glare. Some philosophical account of human life may be true, and clarifying, yet leave a large gap between itself and what our experience feels like. (Bridging that gap is a task, as Robinson hints and shows in her own work, that is much better left to art.) But this leaves us with uncomfortable questions that MacIntyre’s work raises but does not address: Can any rational account adequately articulate human nature and the human good? Is the life well lived to some extent antithetical to the attempt to understand it?

The Takeaway from Marilynne Robinson

Robinson’s talk was trenchant, important, and intimidatingly learned. She managed to hit on many of the major weaknesses in MacIntyre’s work, and she impressively conveyed them, along with her own alternative picture, to an audience that needed to hear these challenges. That audience was basically appreciative, though there was a long Q&A session with several hostile questions, which she handled with aplomb. Above all else, it was invigorating to hear her speak, and a treat to get to watch her parry with the audience. I’ll conclude with a few out-of-context but striking quotes from her off-the-cuff responses to audience questions:

• “We know nothing about time or causality, as looking at any issue of Scientific American will confirm.” (Read Robinson’s book Absence of Mind if you want to know what she’s talking about. And you do.)

• “If academia is not attended to, it is in large part because it is not attending to the world.”

• “It is the fault of religion that it has become such a bitter pill for people to swallow. Religion is an instinct and it has taken a lot of effort to squelch it.”

When asked why the ending of her first novel, Housekeeping, is so sad: “In cultures of the American West, the word ‘lonesome’ has a strong positive valence.”

On why she doesn’t take account of the biographical backgrounds of students in her creative writing courses when evaluating their work: “We don’t know what people are until we see what they do. And then we don’t know what they are.”

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Related 1: If you’re interested in reading After Virtue (which, even with all of these criticisms taken into account, I still consider tremendously important), I put together a chapter summary of the book some years ago, intended as a reference to aid in reading the book.

Related 2: Also for interested readers, be sure to check out this review of the new collection Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, which offers some incisive commentary on why MacIntyre and Marx are up to fundamentally different things, despite some apparent similarities. (Hat tip: Peter Lawler.)

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