Alasdair MacIntyre has probably done more than any other single individual to spread awareness of the modern virtue ethics movement. From the minute I took an interest in the subject of virtue, people have recommended his big hit After Virtue to me. Now that I’ve finished reading the four books of his I intend to read as part of my research, I thought it might be another good moment to pause and look at how the project is proceeding.
MacIntyre: Tradition, History, and Community
These are the books of his that I read, in the order that I read them:
Chronologically, Three Rival Versions came out after Whose Justice and before Dependent Rational Animals. But Drew convinced me that I should start where I did.
The first three books are deeply historical, and the common thread between them is that reasoning and rationality—and reasoning about justice—are highly contingent to specific traditions of thought embedded in specific historical contexts. In MacIntyre’s view, criticism of a tradition of thought cannot be accomplished effectively from outside of that tradition. Instead, the critic must familiarize themselves with that tradition as if they were themselves a member of it. Then, they can identify the problems—problems identified by the members of that tradition, and problems by the standards internal to that tradition—which the tradition of thought lacks the resources to adequately address in order to make progress. Finally, the critic presents an alternative framework and argues that it has greater resources available for addressing the deficiencies of the tradition under critical examination, and is also better able to make progress on its own terms.
One of my rhetorical takeaways from this project has been to feel comfortable talking about reason, rationality, and rational justification for the first time. So long as these are not understood in some antiquated Cartesian sense, these are perfectly good terms for describing deliberation and critical discussion within the context of particular traditions of thought.
The most relevant aspect of MacIntyre’s work to my own project is his take on practices; on goods internal to those practices, and the tension with the external goods that are used to entice people into being inculcated into the values of the practice. I’ve wrestled with this idea a bit, but in retrospect I think I had a better handle on where I need to go with it when looking at it from a McCloskeyan point of view. Which makes sense, given that MacIntyre is highly hostile to commerce and especially modern commerce, while McCloskey is an evangelist on its behalf. But MacIntyre has provided me with a more concrete framework for thinking about internal goods and practices specifically.
The last of the four books, Dependent Rational Animals, is a drastically different sort of work. Of the four, it is the only one where he advances a specific moral theory in an attempt to win allegiance on its behalf. The character of that theory will surprise no one who has read the other three books—it is Aristotelian and Thomist, but also draws heavily on MacIntyre-specific work on internal goods and such. But the focus of the book is on our biological nature—in particular, what our reasoning has in common with the reasoning of some animals, and how our vulnerability and dependence on others needs to be factored into our ethics.
In MacIntyre’s view, a good parent—in the Aristotelian sense of “good” meaning a good example of X—is one who engages in uncalculated giving; a given with only the good of their child in mind. It is uncalculated because the parent is prepared to give as much as is necessary whether their child is perfectly healthy and responsive to instruction or chronically ill and struggling with their schoolwork. Moreover, a good community is characterized as a network of mutual uncalculated giving of this nature. In that network, we acknowledge a debt to those who have helped us and our loved ones by being prepared to similarly give—even if it is to members within that network who have not been the ones to give to us directly.
For personal reasons, I also find this related passage to hit something on the nail that I rarely see addressed:
There is however another sense in which prudent calculation is not only permitted, but required by just generosity. If I do not work, so as to acquire property, I will have nothing to give. If I do not save, but only consume, then, when the time comes when my help is urgently needed by my neighbor, I may not have the resources to provide that help. If I give to those not really in urgent need, then I may not have enough to give to those who are. So industriousness in getting, thrift in saving, and discrimination in giving are required. And these are further aspects of the virtue of temperateness.
Moreover, one’s network of uncalculated giving cannot be expanded to include all of mankind (or even a meaningful fraction of it) without reducing our capacity to look out for any one individual within it. This is part of the basis for my various criticisms of telescopic morality.
I cannot do justice to everything I have learned from MacIntyre here, but I think in the final analysis his footprint will be quite large in the work I intend to write.
Other Notable Books
A good complement to Dependent Rational Animals is the self-help book Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown, a a vulnerability and shame researcher. According to Brown, and against the Stoics, courage and living well requires putting ourselves in positions of vulnerability. Or to put it differently, courage just is being brave enough to take a chance, risking emotional or material consequences. It’s a great book and one I think that just about anyone will find something valuable to take away from it.
Normative Theory and Business Ethics was a good tour of some of the work that’s been done in business ethics from the academic side, though the book positions itself primarily as bringing in a broader set of normative theory than has generally been done. Not an Earth-shattering work but a good introduction.
The Art of What Works is a pretty good business book which employs the term Coup D’oeil from Clausowitz in a manner very consistent with Aristotle’s phronesis. The book also provides a lot of historical case-studies, which is something that is highly valuable to me as someone who is overinvested in abstract theory. However, the book grew a bit tiresome, returning to the same examples in different contexts and essentially going “there, see? That was a coup d’oeil just as my formula would predict” over and over. It could have been about a third the length that it was.
From Higher Aims to Hired Hands is an excellent history of business schools in America, and the still unfulfilled vision of those who founded the original ones. This book came recommended by McCloskey, and I don’t think I could isolate any one part of it that is valuable to my project—the whole work has provided me with an enormous amount of much needed context.
I’ve read many more books than this, but these three were my first steps beyond virtue ethics so I thought I’d mention them.
On Samuel Hammond’s recommendation, I’m reading Joseph Heath’s Morality, Competition, and the Firm: A Market Failure Approach to Business Ethics. Even though MacIntyre is explicitly anti-commerce, I have so far found Heath chafes me more—perhaps proving the old adage that we hate heresy more than blasphemy. Heath is just close enough to the world of economics-informed libertarianism for me to see a kindred spirit, yet he falls on the other side of a long-standing debate between that community and those who see market failure models as prima facie case for regulation.
It’s not so much his conclusion that bothers me as that I’ve come to think the whole line of reasoning (on both sides) fails on several important margins. But Heath is clearly a very intelligent, very careful, and very bold thinker. Moreover, he explicitly rejects the ethical neutrality that a lot of welfare economists pretend to, and accepts the implications of doing so. If anyone can provide a credible extension of economic theory into business ethics, it seems to me that it would be him.
It should also prove productive to examine the conflict between the frameworks adopted by Heath, MacIntyre, and McCloskey. I’m sure the end result will be a lot of arguments with Sam. At least, I hope so.
I’m basically done with the virtue ethics segment of my research. I’ll finish up with Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire and Russell’s Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, and probably Russ Robert’s latest book on Adam Smith. But these will be deprioritized in terms of when I get to them, in favor of business and self-help books, as well as works specifically about business ethics.
I also have a great deal of rereading to do, I should think. At minimum, I will need to go back to The Bourgeois Virtues, the book that started this whole project, having broadened my perspective since the last time I read it.
The Book To Be Written
I am giving myself until the end of next year to get far enough in my research to actually begin writing the book. I may well start sooner, I just want to make sure I don’t start any later than that.
My current thinking is that there will be three sections to it. The first section will concern those just beginning their careers, the second for those in mid-career, and the third for those looking towards retirement. Of course I intend for all three sections to be useful for anyone at any stage in their careers—we should all be lifelong learners, and should from the beginning be looking towards our legacy.
The awkward thing of course is that in a year, I’ll still only be 30. Who am I to talk about anyone in the middle-to-end of their careers? I will definitely seek to compensate for this in various ways—not just by reading books by and about people with long careers, but by actually talking to people at different stages in theirs. Time will tell if this will be enough to overcome the inherent naivete of the relatively inexperienced writer.
I’ve taken a stab at a few outlines and the only thing that was accomplished by that exercise was to emphasize certain areas I need to probe more deeply in my research. But that’s fine—all part of the process.