Alasdair MacIntyre’s Political Liberalism MacIntyre’s Political Liberalism 271...

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Alasdair MacIntyre s PoliticalLiberalism

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre (Notre Dame, IN: Universityof Notre Dame Press, 1984).

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Vir-tues by Alasdair MacIntyre (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).

Alasdair MacIntyre is known as one of the foremost critics ofliberalism, both liberal theory and liberal practice. As analternative to the utilitarianism and relativism of liberal moraltheory, MacIntyre has proposed virtue-ethics and tradition-constituted rationality. As an alternative to the individualism andbureaucratization of liberal moral practice, MacIntyre has pro-posed the practices and politics of local community. MacIntyrehas presented his anti-liberal moral and political vision in histrilogy, After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? , andThree Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry , in later works such asDependent Rational Animals , and in numerous articles, lectures,and interviews; and he has done so with a brilliance, erudition, andsophistication unmatched by his liberal opponents. Yet, as I shallattempt to show in this article, MacIntyres moral theory containsinternal contradictions that render its practical application ofsmall-scale, tradition-constituted communities defective.MacIntyres political prescription is built upon an incoherentnotion of the state, is insufficiently political, and fosters thepolitical liberalism he so vehemently opposes. Since MacIntyresmagnificent trilogy, though rich in moral theory, does not containmuch in the way of sustained political theory, to substantiate my

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critique of MacIntyres political philosophy, I shall examine hislesser-known Dependent Rational Animals , as well as some of hislectures on politics.

Acknowledging Dependence: A Prologue to PoliticsIn Dependent Rational Animals , MacIntyre brings his thinkingdown, as it were, from the meta-ethical and meta-theoretical levelof Whose Justice? Which Rationality? , with its dialectical-historical presentation of tradition-constituted rationality in gen-eral and Thomistic-constituted rationality in particular, to a muchmore concrete ethical and theoretical level. Essentially, he offersus a revised account of the virtues, one quite different from whatwe find in After Virtue, for it is now biologically, as well asAristotelianly and Thomistically, informed. Most importantly,MacIntyre provides, for the first time, a description of theparticular social and political forms that best sustain and promotethese virtues. In the context of answering the question Whyhuman beings need the virtues? MacIntyre provides us with hisfirst extended treatment of a politics adequate to virtue-needinghuman beings, or dependent rational animals. What is particu-larly noteworthy about Dependent Rational Animals is its absenceof any treatment of tradition, and when one notes that thisabsence coincides with the concrete discussion of particularmoral norms and ideal political structures, one wonders if thereason for the absence is a substantive change in MacIntyresthinking, or simply the effect of a change in philosophical focus.In any event, we note the absence of theological matters inDependent Rational Animals like in other works, but it is aparticularly notable absence here, since the work involves, not aformal, abstract, meta-ethical discussion of the generic structureof the good, or a historical comparison of moral traditions, but acontent-rich, concrete, normative account of the specific virtuesof human flourishing.

MacIntyre asks the question: What difference to moralphilosophy would it make, if we were to treat the facts ofvulnerability and affliction and the related facts of dependence as


central to the human condition?1 This is a variation on MacIntyresconsistent condemnation of the Enlightenments conception ofman the autonomous and independent individual, with itsplacing of the highest moral imperative precisely on the emanci-pation of man from vulnerability and affliction. For the Enlight-enment, these latter are eminently remedial defects, not, asMacIntyre claims, ineradicable aspects of the human condition.The difference an affirmative answer to the question makes is therecognition of an essential defect in the Aristotelian conceptionof virtue, that rational agency requires the virtues of acknowl-edged dependence in addition to the virtues of the independentrational agent.

MacIntyre asks a second question: What type of socialrelationship and what type of the common good are required, ifa social group is to be one in and through which both the virtuesof rational independence and the virtues of acknowledged depen-dence are sustained and transmitted? 2 To understand his answerto this question, we must first examine what MacIntyre means bythe virtues of acknowledged dependence. In order for humanbeings to flourish, they need to understand themselves as practi-cal reasoners about goods, and they come to learn this identity asreasoners, as well as the particular goods about which theyreason, from arguing about them with others; this is an exampleof our intrinsic dependence. To learn how to stand back in somemeasure from our present desires, so as to be able to evaluatethem, and to imagine realistically alternative possible futures,is required to become an independent practical reasoner, but thislearning itself requires the presence and occasional interventionof others. In fact, our very identities depend upon our beingrecognized by others: I can be said truly to know who and whatI am, only because there are others who can be said truly to knowwho and what I am. Recognizing this is a prerequisite for gainingthe virtues of acknowledged dependence: Acknowledgment ofdependence is the key to independence. Accurate knowledge ofones good first requires accurate knowledge of ones self, and thiscan only occur in consequence of those social relationships

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which on occasion provide badly needed correction for our ownjudgments.3

MacIntyres discussion of the social relationships of givingand receiving is similar to his discussion of practices in AfterVirtue. The social relationships of giving and receiving that allowfor self-knowledge and knowledge of ones good are also indis-pensable to achieve this good. Once these relationships areinstitutionalized, however, they become bound up with unequaldistributions and established hierarchies of power, and sothere is always a possibility of corruption in social relationshipsthat can frustrate us in our movement towards our goods. 4 AsMacIntyre notes in his discussion of practices in After Virtue ,institutions, though prone to corruption, must exist to keeppractices in existence. In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues thatpractices can remain immune from institutional corruption aslong as the goods of effectiveness required to sustain institutionsare subordinated to the goods of excellence that are internal topractices and required for human flourishing. In DependentRational Animals , MacIntyre gives the same argument but indifferent language: The worst outcome is when the rules thatenjoin giving and receiving have been substantially subordinatedto or otherwise made to serve the purposes of power, the bestwhen a distribution of power has been achieved which allowspower to serve the ends to which the rules of giving and receivingare directed. 5

This contrast of the two kinds of subordination is important,for it is one of two fundamental ideas in MacIntyres analysis andevaluation of the social relationships of the modern state. Thesecond fundamental idea is the common good. Practical reason-ing is reasoning together with others, and in order to reasontogether effectively about the means to certain goods, there needsto be agreement on these goods themselves. Our reasoning is onlyas good as the others with whom we reason, since reasoning is anessentially social activity: The good of each cannot be pursuedwithout also pursuing the good of all those who participate inthose relationships. MacIntyre defends this eminently non-


liberal view of the human good by emphasizing our radicaldependence upon others at certain stages of our lives. If othersdid not make our good their good at certain vulnerable times inour lives, such as infancy, childhood, illness, and old age, then wewould have either never survived, or survived only with a severelyattenuated capacity for the virtues and activities of independentpractical reasoning. If I am to have a reasonable expectation ofreceiving this care when I need it, which I must if I am to trust inthe possibility of my becoming an independent practical reasoner,then I must be prepared to give this care to others, and in anunconditional manner. 6 Thus, in a flourishing community, one inwhich there are vibrant networks of giving and receiving, andwhere the virtues of acknowledged dependence are in abundance,one can make the goods of the community ones own. Thesenetworks and virtues, although not reducible to rules, requirethem, else there be a lack of mutual trust in others fulfillment ofresponsibilities and deficiency in fulfilling these responsibilitiesand deliberating about them. The set of precepts that include boththe necessary rules and enjoinments of the acts of the virtues thatthe common good requires is what MacIntyre identifies as thenatural law. 7

Macintyre suggests how diametrically opposed his concep-tions of the common good, social relationships, and practicalreasoning are to those which underlie modern liberal culture,conceptions that suggest that good is no more morally signifi-cant than the satisfaction of desire. In the modern market-basedculture, the only unchosen constraints we