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Our lost morality.

At least within conservative and Christian circles, Alastair Maclntyre's influential 1981 book, After Virtue, has become fairly well-known. But I wish it would be read even more widely, because it offers deep insights into our contemporary predicament. Maclntyre argues his thesis as befits a professor of philosophy and that may deter some readers. So, at the risk of doing irreparable damage to the subtlety and scope of Maclntyre's thesis, let me try to summarize what I consider to be its essential message in eight propositions.

1. We have lost our comprehension--both theoretical and practical--of morality. In this respect, he compares us to survivors of a nuclear holocaust who emerge from the rubble faced with the task of piecing together, from scraps and fragments, what was once a comprehensive and binding moral authority, the cement of a lost stable society. One sign of our predicament is how few people recognize that what they inhabit are only ruins.

2. A capacity to use moral language, and to engage in moral reasoning, is the sine qua non of moral beings. Virtue provides the vocabulary for moral discourse. Friedrich Nietzsche demolished virtue. Why Nietzsche? Because "the philosopher who understood best that the Enlightenment project had failed decisively and that contemporary moral assertions had characteristically become a set of masks for unavowed purposes was Nietzsche". Since Nietzsche, we cannot speak comprehensibly of virtues; therefore language, even "decline and fall" or "pendulum-swing" language, is meaningless in the face of our dilemma. "We are already in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it."

3. Crucial to Maclntyre's analysis is what he repeatedly calls "the failure of the Enlightenment project". The principal Enlightenment thinkers--Hume, Adam Smith, and Kant--believed that if one could strip away tradition and superstition, it would be possible to formulate a set of moral principles that would compel assent by reason alone. This has failed. What the Enlightenment has actually bequeathed to us is "a set of mutually antagonistic moral stances each claiming to have achieved a rational justification."

4. Because moral discourse is no longer possible, political discourse has become meaningless. For example, debates over abortion or euthanasia, become impossible because they occur in a vacuum. Each side invokes what they believe to be "principles" in a society in which the very concept of "principle" is impossible.

5. Despair or pessimism is irrelevant: "If we are indeed in as bad a state as I take us to be in, pessimism will turn out to be one more cultural luxury that we shall have to dispense with in order to survive...

6. Nietzschean man, secure in his egoism, creates his own values: domination, sensual satisfaction, diversity, etc. In a pluralistic society, the virtues become meaningless; then the single virtue, which is the embodiment of all individual virtues, namely God, also becomes meaningless. The Christian does not face today the atheist arguing that there is no God; the Christian faces blank incomprehension because he speaks an ancient language no longer comprehensible.

7. As the gap between the Virtuous man, Christendom's ideal, and postmodern man yawns ever wider, rival conceptions of what is art, social science, even natural science, become unbridgeable. If there is any analogy for our predicament, it is the story of the Tower of Babel, but of course the analogy is not understood outside the dwindling Judeo-Christian remnant.

8. Western society now operates on fictions. The two most prevalent fictions are: (a) the utility of welfare; and (b) human rights. These fictions can be sustained only by "emotivist", not rational, discourse. Therefore, most contemporary discourse is emotivist: expressions of attitudes and feelings.

Let me conclude by saying that I know of no one who has provided a more compelling diagnosis of our sick contemporary society than a sometime Marxist (now a Roman 'Catholic) philosopher, Alastair Maclntyre. Those who wish to understand the times we live in should read and heed. +

Inn Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario.
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Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:May 1, 2003
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