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 LiberalismRobinson 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 ReasonThis 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 RobinsonRobinson’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.”—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.)

Against Medical Ethics?

[Note: I am very belatedly posting two final entries about the Alasdair MacIntyre conference, which I attended and blogged this past July.]The talk I was perhaps most looking forward to at the Alasdair MacIntyre conference was the provocatively titled “Against Medical Ethics” by Daniel Sportiello of Notre Dame University.Sportiello spends the better part of his talk essentially giving a summary of MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue.* What happens in philosophy courses, Sportiello contends, is that instructors “objectively” present students with all alternate sides of an argument, believing and acting as if, because all sides have been presented, the students will use reason to pick the best one. Because this procedure, as MacIntyre shows, is so clearly based on a moral fiction, Sportiello contends (and this is where the talk starts to get interesting, to put it mildly) that by teaching students medical ethics we are teaching them not how to ascertain which arguments are the most right and good, but only how to manipulate each other. (It’s not clear to me why he is singling out medical ethics here, except that it is among the most consequential of philosophical studies.)

* The argument, in short, is that modern philosophical debates use fragmented principles that have been divorced from their original, fully articulated forms, and from the embodied social contexts in which they could find their meaning. Modern philosophical discourse, then, is disordered; it cannot provide sufficient reason to adhere to any one side of an argument, yet it purports to provide such impersonal, objective reasons. Consequently, whatever force of argument does exist, rather than a function of reason, is a function of the Nietzschean individual’s will to power in bringing another to adhere to his own interests. (Although MacIntyre differs sharply from Nietzsche in arguing that this state of inquiry is a contingent feature of modern philosophy, not the nature of philosophy as such.)(Speaking of divorcing arguments from their full context, this is really an inadequately truncated version of MacIntyre’s. Wikipedia’s synopsis is decent and pretty short, while any serious student of philosophy or moral inquiry should read the full book itself.)

Sportiello offers an example of a student who is raised to believe that murder is wrong. The student then goes to a bioethics course in college, where he is challenged to present rational arguments for murder’s wrongness. He is presented also with potential alternatives to this view, and is given each side of the argument from a neutral standpoint so that he may “objectively” decide between them. But here a seed of doubt is introduced, and in a later moment in his life, with his certitude wavered, he might find himself with a justification for committing the act of murder.This may be an extreme or fantastical example, but Sportiello applies the same example to the abortion question. He asks us to suppose, first, that the pro-life side is right, and to imagine a student raised to believe it is right, who is then poisoned with “neutral arguments” for both sides. Then he asks us to suppose likewise that the pro-choice side is right, and to imagine a student raised to believe it is right, who is similarly wavered from his belief. In either case — whichever side is right — should we not greet with moral horror the student who is drawn away from what is true and right (whatever we take that to be), just as we would the student taught to doubt the wrongness of murder?Therefore, Sportiello concludes, we should not teach students bioethics. Rather, we should teach them After Virtue, and when it comes to specific issues, instead of neutrally presenting all sides of an argument, we should reject the frameworks in which these arguments are commonly presented, and instead present the view that is true, and explain why it is true, and offer resources for combating the false arguments.—This talk reveals what is perhaps the most dangerous impulse lurking beneath the MacIntyrean argument if it is not correctly understood: the one that is opposed to the Socratic method, and to the broader defenses of freedom and inquiry provided by liberal democratic states. I think the dangers are so obvious as to not be worth elucidating at length here — except to note that the genie is already out of the bottle: the ethical debates Sportiello is really interested in (such as abortion) are already underway in our society. And they remain unsettled just because, unlike on the question of murder, there are actual rival sides, and neither has yet offered arguments sufficient to convince every rational person.This means that implementing the solution Sportiello prescribes would not be an act of philosophical restoration, but rather would be an entrenchment of the exercise of the will that Nietzsche and MacIntyre agree characterizes so much modern philosophical debate. More practically, attempting to eliminate pluralism and to force in its place the certitude Sportiello seeks would require either abandoning society for enclaves and sects, or moving away from our liberal attitudes about differing ways of life, and away from our tolerant attitudes toward free inquiry.This doesn’t mean Sportiello isn’t on to something in his practical application of MacIntyre’s theory. There is something wrong, even dangerous, with that style of moral inquiry, so commonly found in ethics courses, that simply presents rival arguments on particular issues from a disinterested, ahistorical standpoint and asks students to decide.But on the questions over which there is real dispute, telling (or “teaching”) students that one side is obviously right is not the only alternative. The better alternative is to offer students the resources to understand to the greatest degree possible each rival argument. But this crucially must involve not taking a disinterested, neutral standpoint, but rather following the Socratic method, and learning how each ethical viewpoint understands and attempts to answer the criticisms of the other. And, as MacIntyre so well shows, teaching rival ethical perspectives involves learning not only differing philosophies, but the distinct historical and social contexts from which these perspectives derive, and within which they are fully embodied. Any adequately articulated ethical perspective, after all, consists not just of a set of principles or propositions, but a way of being and living. Teaching this fuller form of philosophy and ethics is not a small task, but it is possible.The preceding is my interpretation of what MacIntyre’s theories imply about the proper approach to conducting moral inquiry. But it is clear from this talk that MacIntyre has not adequately taken pains to emphasize how his approach actually requires a liberal society and a liberal methodology, even if it rejects liberalism as an account of morality itself. And it’s remarkable what a fine line there is in the takeaway from his argument between these two radically different conclusions about how we should regard liberalism.(I should note that the conference audience last July also pounced on Sportiello and made many of these points. And he said he had not meant his talk the way we were taking it and was worried it might come across this way — though I still wasn’t clear after this on what he might have meant instead. So one should not necessarily take this post as a completely fair representation of and response to Sportiello’s argument — although he did publish a version of it as a column in the Notre Dame Observer a month later, and it appears consistent with my description here. [NOTE: See the end of this post for an exchange between myself and Mr. Sportiello about his talk.] Regardless, one could easily take MacIntyre’s work to the conclusions described here, and so it is crucial to respond to them.)—As a postscript to MacIntyre’s account of moral inquiry, I would also contend that coming to the best conclusion in a moral debate requires not only understanding but sympathizing with each side of an argument. This is crucial to inhabiting rival views, to understanding why someone might not only rationally believe them but reasonably live according to them. The act of sympathy can become a rational basis for rejecting a viewpoint — and it ought to be considered a much better basis than one of lacking understanding, of bafflement.It strikes me that this account tends already to support a skeptical view of the reflexively progressive impulse toward bioethics and biotechnology — the impulse that culminates in transhumanism. For (at the risk of overgeneralizing) it seems that transhumanists tend to meet their critics with bafflement. Transhumanists regard their rivals’ viewpoints as fundamentally irrational and superstitious, and their approach is more often to dismiss those arguments as such than to provide criticism based on a deep understanding of their rivals. By contrast, I think critics pretty well understand and sympathize with, and have offered coherent and charitable accounts of, the impulses and reasons motivating transhumanism.Actually, it is closer to the truth to say that transhumanists and their critics fundamentally value different, and basically opposed, sets of goods. But transhumanists seem to reject their rival goods out of incomprehension — whereas the critics of transhumanism reject transhumanism because they understand all too well what it wants.—ADDENDUM: Before publishing this post, I sent it to Mr. Sportiello to give him an opportunity to correct or clarify my account of his talk. The below is excerpted from our e-mail exchange.Daniel Sportiello: I have now given my paper several times — and been misinterpreted several times: my audience at Providence, of which you were a member, took me to be a reactionary, for example, while my audience at Notre Dame took me to be a nihilist. No doubt these misinterpretations are my fault: I find, in the words of the poet, that it is impossible to say just what I mean. Nonetheless, let me try to articulate my thesis as clearly as brevity allows.First, to repeat, I advocate teaching courses on After Virtue instead of courses on applied ethics — though any course on After Virtue must begin with a course on applied ethics in miniature. But we should teach them these common arguments only in order to immediately reveal their shallowness — the extent, that is, to which they depend upon premises that are without justification — and the culture of manipulation that results from that shallowness.We should next teach them what men like Kant and Hume actually wrote — the grounding of autonomy in the normativity of theoretical and practical reason and the complementary role of sympathy and self-love in any explanation of the rise of civil society, respectively — before teaching them what really matters in all of this: an understanding of embodied rationality, deeply informed both by the practices of everyday life and by history, that would serve as the core of a tradition of rational inquiry that could be shown to be rationally superior to its rivals — who should be included, not excluded, from this conversation.Ari N. Schulman: It’s important to point out the philosophical errors of common ethical debates. But the issues people discuss in medical ethics courses are there because they are of such pressing significance. So it seems you have to advance some positive argument about bioethical issues, even absent a revolution in philosophy or culture. People are going to have to contend with these issues — if not in an ethics course, then elsewhere.So once you’ve taught students After Virtue, just how are you going to present them with those purportedly shallow arguments in favor of, say, abortion or euthanasia? Because the big problem with your talk as presented is that it sounds like you’re saying that you wouldn’t present them with those arguments at all — yet the arguments need a full and clear airing, whether to defend or refute them. The other problem is that if you’re truly following After Virtue, then you have to believe that you shouldn’t be teaching the common arguments against those practices, either — or rather, as you say in your talk, you have to present all of the common arguments about these practices as equally unjustified and manipulative. So you seem both to be saying that you shouldn’t teach any of the common arguments on these issues, and yet also that you should present only the right one. These two positions are of course hugely problematic on their own, but are also quite opposed to each other. So how then do you go about presenting and responding to these contemporary arguments about bioethical issues?Daniel Sportiello: The version of my paper that you heard ended in a way that was intended to be punchy but succeeded only in being obscure. This obscurity is, it seems to me, reflected in your interpretation of my position, expressed in the paradoxical conclusion that “you shouldn’t teach any of the common arguments on these issues, and yet also that you should present only the right [arguments].” I admit this is contradictory — or would be, if “arguments” were taken in the same sense in both conjuncts. However, I do not mean for it to be so taken.When “arguments” is taken in one sense, I affirm the first conjunct: one should not teach any of the common arguments, for or against, in applied ethics. This is because I, with MacIntyre, take these arguments to rest on incommensurable premises, each of which is shared only by a minority of those in our society; therefore, to teach any of the common arguments, for or against, would be to induct students into a practice of manipulation and to introduce unanswerable doubt into their hearts regarding matters of life and death. You are quite right, in other words, to think that my paper forbids teaching, for example, either the common argument for socialized medicine (citing utility) or the common argument against it (citing autonomy). And this applies to all of the arguments in applied ethics that are taken seriously within our emotivist culture: they should be presented only in order to show that they, and the whole practice of argumentation in which they find their home, are unsound.When “arguments” is taken in the other sense, I affirm the second conjunct: one should teach the right arguments in applied ethics. But by “one should teach the right arguments,” I mean that one should build a whole new culture — one based not in manipulation and shallow arguments but rather upon the very deepest understanding of human practices, human nature, and human history. When you say, then, that I “have to advance some positive argument about bioethical issues, even absent a revolution in philosophy or culture,” I agree entirely: a revolution in philosophy and culture is exactly what I seek.I know those who would put the point in this vocabulary: one should work to overthrow the Culture of Death and institute in its place the Culture of Life. Whatever one calls such a culture — one defined by its rejection of manipulation — one thing is quite clear: no one will be in doubt about the morality of issues like abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. Sound arguments against them would be fairly trivial deductions from a comprehensive view of our relation to the world and to ourselves — a comprehensive view, that is, of the point of human life. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that questions regarding abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment — if questioning implies honest perplexity about something — would not even arise. This could even be a litmus test for such a culture: it would not only answer such questions but, indeed, stop asking them altogether.I hope that my tone comes across as one of goodwill rather than hostility: for what it is worth, I have come almost to regret ever giving this paper — one born less of any desire to make a bold claim than of my frustrations with teaching intelligent, eager students the sophistries of medical ethics. I never meant for it to sow the confusion that it did. For I take it that my position is not otherwise than that of a fairly orthodox MacIntyrean: the danger was not, in the words of the poet, that I would be refuted, but that I would not be understood.

Irfan Khawaja on Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character

Back in August, I wrote a post entitled “Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?,” responding to a talk by Prof. Irfan Khawaja of Felician College. Now Prof. Khawaja has written a thoughtful response to my post, which is available here.I probably won’t have time to response again to Prof. Khawaja at length, but suffice it to say that, while he makes some valid criticisms of my post in the first section of his piece, I agree with him that the core of our dispute traces back to the question of the nature of perception. Specifically, I maintain that perceptions and theories intermingle, and he strongly disagrees. I probably (even for such a long post) wrote too hastily on this point, skipping past some crucial steps to go right into talking about perception “depending” on “theories.” It’s much better to approach this subject by asking whether our perceptions are affected by our interpretations of them, or, put another way, by what we think they are.I find the evidence for a positive answer to this question to be overwhelming, though I realize that this affronts the sensibilities and intuitions of the Western mindset since the Enlightenment. In lieu of defending this idea myself, for the time being I will refer interested readers to what I consider the definitive case for this idea: Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances (especially the first third — though I should say there are key parts of that and the rest of the book with which I disagree). It’s a short and bracing read.Also, coming back to Alasdair MacIntyre — the philosopher whose work sparked the original discussion between myself and Prof. Khawaja — a similarly provocative account on the theory-perception question can be found in the chapter “‘Fact’, Explanation and Expertise” from After Virtue. MacIntyre also alludes to Kant’s crucial work on this question in The Critique of Pure Reason (see Wikipedia for a decent, very short overview). Finally, if you’re interested in a take on this subject from a less philosophical and more intuitive or experiential standpoint — which is, after all, closer to the subject under dispute here — I highly recommend Alain De Botton’s delightful book The Architecture of Happiness, which is about how our senses of what we find beautiful and ugly arise from associations and ideas that usually reside below our conscious awareness.

Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?

Michelangelo’s David

Next up in my coverage of the Alasdair MacIntyre conference is a talk by Irfan Khawaja of Felician College, addressing the question of whether we should judge moral character based on appearance. More specifically, as he puts it, “Does focal visual perception ever disclose evidence relevant to judgments about moral character, where the relevant aspect of moral character is under the agent’s control?” This question is in response to MacIntyre’s argument in Dependent Rational Animals (1999) that appearance is likely to mislead, especially when it comes to the disabled and disfigured.Khawaja outlines the major arguments for and against. On the side that a person’s appearance is not (or should not be) relevant to judging his or her character:- The projectivist argument: Believing that a person’s appearance is relevant to his character assumes that there is such a thing as good and bad appearance. But standards of beauty, and appearance more generally, are highly culturally bound, making it impossible to come up with universal norms. (I’m guessing this is called the “projectivist” argument because it claims that we wrongly project our own culture’s ideas of beauty onto others.)- The mismatch argument: Physical appearance is almost entirely a matter of natural endowment, or of circumstances beyond one’s control. People can work a little bit with what they are given, but cannot change the facts about their endowments. So moral character and natural endowments are ontologically different.- The danger argument: The notion that appearance is connected to moral character has been at the root of destructive social trends, from racism, to our modern cult of beauty, to sexual objectification, and so on.On the “pro” side:

Chief Bone Necklace
of the Oglala Lakota, 1899.

The appropriateness argument: There are virtues of social appropriateness, which include matters of dress, cosmetics, and other standards of appearance. Judging whether we comport with these standards, or fail or neglect or choose not to comport with them, is relevant to judging character. (This is the Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. Dear Prudence argument: “We care because we’re group-living social animals, and there are certain accepted codes of behavior in various settings.”)- The concomitants argument: Good character leads to happiness, which has an appearance, which can be judged visually. Likewise for bad character.- Common-belief argument: It is often thought that portraiture uniquely reveals the character of the person depicted. Consider the adage that painters show us how the face at any age may be revealed as the face the subject of the portrait deserves.Khawaja’s purposes for the talk were just to outline the terms by which we might approach the question, but he indicates briefly at the end that he doesn’t think the “pro” arguments hold up, at least not very strongly, and so we should not judge a person’s character based on his or her appearance. Or, he says, if there is some connection between the two, it is so weak that we should make sure such judgments stay in the private sphere (or spheres, as it were).

This is a dense and complicated subject, on which Khawaja has written a lengthy paper, and I haven’t given full justice to his account here — probably I’ve misunderstood parts of the argument too. That said, I think Khawaja is a bit too quick to dash the intuitive connection between appearance and character, despite having well presented the case for it. Part of what he seems to be after with this talk is something very important: the “danger” argument he described only begins to hint at just how dangerous is the idea of pre-judging, or passing final judgment, on a person’s character based on his or her appearance.Particularly relevant today is the “cult of beauty” he mentions: we assign inordinate status to people who, through no effort of their own, are born beautiful, while the plain or unattractive are disadvantaged. Something he didn’t mention in the talk that I find particularly bothersome, and that is as old as time but probably worse than usual today, is our tendency to react with distaste towards the elderly, and disgust towards the disabled. These are all reactions we would do well to shake ourselves of — but I think the answer is not to ignore our evaluations of appearance, but to teach ourselves to treat them with initial hesitance, and to learn how to better cultivate them.

First, the “concomitants” argument deserves more emphasis. It’s not just that happiness might indicate a life well lived, which can be a sign of good character. People are very good at reading facial expressions — especially within their own cultures, but many expressions have been found by anthropologists to be universally recognizable. And there are greater depths to facial expressions that strongly indicate personality, and so character. For example, there is a subtle but apparent difference between how happiness looks on the face of a person when it comes from kindness, charity, and good humor as opposed to when it comes from smugness, greed, and pridefulness. One of the functions of portraiture is to highlight the differences between these.There are many other aspects to appearance, of course, that are relevant to judging character. When you consider a word like “comportment,” it becomes clear how difficult it is to strictly separate appearance from behavior, and behavior is clearly relevant to judging moral character. At one point, Khawaja noted that he teaches criminal justice majors, and has found that law enforcement organizations and the public alike think cleanliness and neatness in appearance are related to trustworthiness in enforcing the law. But he doesn’t think this connection necessarily holds: certainly there is no reason that a person who looks scruffy or unshaved cannot be trustworthy.I asked him whether police officers should wear uniforms, and he said yes, but only so they are easily identifiable as police officers. In effect, he argues that while we do have standards of social appropriateness when it comes to appearance, we should not, at least not as a matter of policy or practice. Should doctors wear uniforms, then, I ask? He says no, but the Q&A ends before I get a chance to follow up.

U.S. Army ceremonial uniforms

I think the matter becomes more clear when you consider comportment in the military. Militaries place a strict emphasis on discipline in all aspects of appearance — neat uniforms, clean haircuts, rigid, formal salutes, and so forth. Are these merely a means of signaling conformity to the standards of a group? If so, are they superfluous to understanding and acting in accordance with those standards? Or might participating in a set of rituals exclusive to one group actually be an important means of inducing a person to actually reason and act as if he were a member of the group and its traditions? (And isn’t becoming a member of some tradition or practice crucial, on MacIntyre’s account, to exercising virtue?)Similar points can be made — though they have to be done carefully, as we will see — about the way people shape their appearances more generally, including the way they choose to dress and use cosmetics, especially as an exercise of style. These can also rightly be seen as aspects of the way individuals embrace the beauty of the human form, and display their possession of it, in all its varieties — which is something we should be attuned to and celebrate.But the more important point for this discussion is hinted at in a position MacIntyre outlines in After Virtue: appearance is never purely a matter of aesthetics. Visual perception always depends on theories — and might this not include theories about other people? Put simply: doesn’t the way a person appears change as you get to know him? At a basic level, when you come to admire or love someone, they become more pleasing in appearance, and when you come to dislike or hate someone, they become displeasing. (Deeper contours of character, one might think, could also be revealed in appearance as you get to know someone.)I would contend that these are good and just responses. In fact, they provide the basis for believing that attractiveness (and attraction) is not solely a matter of appearance. Holding this idea does justice to the notion that a person, not just in appearance but in character, can be “beautiful” or “ugly.” It takes us away from what Khawaja rightly notes is a false idea that we all do or should evaluate the beauty of others in the same way. (If this were true, it would imply, among other things, that everyone who tells his or her spouse that he or she is the most beautiful person in the world is lying, except for one.)This idea could also have the specific effect of teaching us to treat our initial evaluations of appearance to be suspect but capable of refinement, in the same way we do evaluations of character itself. Our reaction to people who are disfigured should not be to feel disgust and then decide whether to legitimize or ignore our disgust; rather, it should be to humanize our response to the person himself such that we can experience his appearance as beautiful rather than disgusting.

Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1979.

This seems to be central to the value of portraiture — as Khawaja mentioned, and as Charles Rubin has insightfully discussed on this blog. It is not coincidental that some of the best portrait and figure painters choose as their subjects not the most conventionally beautiful human subjects, but ones that might be considered plain or unattractive. The Helga paintings of Andrew Wyeth are a particularly famous example.There is a deeper point about appearance here, both for and against the idea of linking it to moral character: probably a lot of what is at stake in a person coming to “deserve” the face he has is that people are treated as if their character were linked to their appearance, whether they deserve it or not. Naturally beautiful people probably tend to be treated better in life than others, and so are more prone in the first place to have a pleasant disposition, whereas someone who is disfigured may become bitter as a result of his likely treatment.But, of course, crucial for character is how we fare with things that are beyond our control, including our own natures. So in someone who is aesthetically beautiful, unkindness to others may indicate an exceptionally weak character, while in someone who is disfigured, affability and cheer may indicate an exceptionally strong character. (And both character traits would, and should, cause us to treat and view the person contrary to how we might otherwise be prone based on their raw appearance.)

I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is the lesson about transhumanism: Khawaja seems to be continuing what I consider a basically noble progressive project teaching that, to paraphrase the famous line, a person should not be judged based on the color of his skin (or his immediate attractiveness) but on the content of his character. But once we say that a person’s physical form, particularly his appearance, not only can but should be a matter of his total control, we perversely then should judge a person based on superficial aspects of appearance. We can now legitimately find distaste at an ugly person for not having the good sense or the courage to slice and dice her face to conform to others’ standards of beauty. The same point applies not only to attractiveness, but to things like skin color and other aspects of race, not to mention novelties of self-modification.Social pressures that already induce people to focus excessively on the most immediate aspects of their appearance now become imperatives to exact more permanent changes on the body, whether through plastic surgery or implants or genetic modification. It’s a difficult distinction to make, but one could argue that this is the point at which a person’s concern with his or her own appearance crosses from a potentially good exercise in exploring and displaying the beauty of the human form to an implicit rejection of that form.This is not just hypothetical, but already becoming a reality. As we’ve noted here before, transhumanists like Kyle Munkittrick have celebrated Asians carving their faces up to look more like white people (a continuation of the early-twentieth-century trend in which blacks were encouraged to chemically straighten their hair so they would appear more white), while many transhumanists celebrated a young woman who self-mutilated through implants as a supposed sort of self-expression.It’s worth asking how we ought to regard the character of someone who looks aesthetically beautiful due only to non-reconstructive cosmetic surgery and other elective enhancements. If there seems to be something of a cultural distaste arising for people who look too “fake” and “plastic,” perhaps it is because we sense that there is something inauthentic — not only in their appearance but in their characters. This notion indeed seems to throw some cold water on the idea that transhumanist ambitions are truly a means of liberating the self, when it is perhaps closer to the truth to say that they shackle it.[NOTE: Prof. Khawaja has promised to send in a response to this post. I’ll put that up as a new post and add a link here when it comes through.]

Bradey J. Thames on Virtuous Authenticity: I Just Want to be Bad

The first talk I’m covering for the ISME conference is by Bradley J. Thames, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, on “Virtuous Authenticity.” Thames is seeking to address an area I’ve always found to be a huge gap in MacIntyre’s work: the question of what role the individual plays in living virtuously. There are many aspects to this, but the one Thames specifically seeks to address is: even if we can come to some sort of agreement on what are the good virtues, then where do individuals fit in in following those? Isn’t the virtuous individual reduced to being a product of his society’s dominant modes and norms, however good? (Though Thames does not quite say it, the other option here seems to be choosing to live badly.) This is where Thames finds value in the work of Charles Taylor, who, like MacIntyre, describes the fractured state of modern philosophy and moral discourse, but unlike MacIntyre finds much in Enlightenment philosophy worth defending and preserving. (Taylor has done this work most notably in his books Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity, both of which I highly recommend; the former I’ve used before here to point out some severe myopia on the part of James Hughes about the history of the Enlightenment.) — For Taylor, authenticity is a modern ideal that has to do with being true to oneself. It is a dedication to recognizing and uncovering one’s potential for originality. The identity of the authentic person must be in some ways self-generated, in contrast to an identity that is determined solely by society or by natural functions. There are some tensions with this notion of authenticity: for one, it is already a standard that is not the individual’s own. Moreover, whatever our identity is, if we are to be intelligible to others, what must be drawn from the social and natural world from which we are given. Fundamentally, we are so drawn: we are inevitably finite in belonging to, and arising from, a particular social and historical context. So we can in part reject what we are given, but we can’t simply create ourselves out of nothing. When we speak of “authenticity,” Thames says, we can also mean something that is not a fake or simulacrum. Consider the usage of the word in talking about works of art, or in security verification. It means that something is the thing it purports to be. To be an authentic human, we can then say, is to fulfill the conditions of what it means to be human. This does not mean that if you are inauthentic you are not a human; rather, authenticity is the fulfillment of the potential inherent in an individual as already a certain kind of being. If you fail to be authentic, it means you fail to live up to the potential of what it means to be you. Thames’s solution to how we should regard authenticity draws on the work of Heidegger, who gives an account of human agency that denies the dichotomies of subject-object. He argues instead that our embodied nature situates us as already a part of our world, prior to any reflection on it. This is the account of the structural features of human life that is required for individuals to be intelligible, either to themselves or to others. It is thus that I cannot consider the significance of my life without understanding how I am constituted out of what I am given: my social context, and my natural being. Understanding this relationship between an individual and a social context leads naturally to an articulation of individual authenticity within the MacIntyrean picture of the progress of societies and traditions. On MacIntyre’s account, individuals must hold together inherited horizons of intelligibility, with the need to continually challenge and reconceive them, working out their problems and maintaining their ability to answer the questions of how we should live. Although I’m not entirely clear on the last step in Thames’s argument, he seems to be saying that the virtues are (among other things) what allow the individual to participate in the flourishing of the society of which he is a part. Authenticity is what allows the individual to find his own unique ability to contribute to his society’s flourishing. The potential originality of the individual can become the source of innovation and renewal that every society needs to flourish. — There is quite a lot going on in this talk, but Thames’s work seems to me a crucial step towards reconciling the rather unitary nature of human goods that is MacIntyre’s concern* with the fantastic strangeness and variation of the individual that motivates much of Enlightenment philosophy. How can we give a consistent account of the notion of the human good or goods while recognizing that each individual will necessarily have goods and ends that are uniquely his or hers? *I’m simplifying MacIntyre’s position here almost to the point of misrepresenting it. He actually holds that the nature of moral decision-making is that of the tragic dilemma, as in ancient Greek drama: a recognition of multiple goods — not necessarily rival, but conflicting in that each makes a claim upon us, but the finite nature of life and of choice means we cannot attain them all. (See After Virtue, 2nd ed., p. 224.) It was of course not addressed in Thames’s talk, and didn’t need to be, but I wonder what satisfactory understanding of authenticity, and of the life well lived, can be had when both the naturally and socially given are wholly rejected. Doesn’t self-realization imply realization of something already given? The alternative seems to be the will to power, in which the choices of the self are unlimited, but also wholly arbitrary — lacking any end, and so any meaning. (By the way, Thames’s account of authenticity is strikingly similar to the brilliant naturalistic account of free will given by Raymond Tallis in the New Atlantis essay “How Can I Possibly Be Free?” He argues that free will progressively emerges and secures more of itself, both for the individual and society, especially through the progress of technology.)[UPDATE: See the comment section for Thames’s clarifying comments on my account of his talk.]

Covering the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry

I’ve been attending two conferences this week. First was the Tarrytown Meeting, organized by the Center for Genetics and Society and held in Tarrytown, NY. For the next few days, I’ll be at the conference of the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry (ISME), held at Providence College in Providence, RI. My original aim was to have my coverage of these conferences balance each other out: the Tarrytown Meeting was a conference of progressive bioethicists, while the ISME conference is heavily traditionalist — though an odd confluence or split between Marxists, Catholics, pro-lifers, feminists, and a variety of other groups (often all of them coinciding in the same individuals). It turned out that the Tarrytown Meeting was closed, so I did not live-blog it, but I may have some posts about it, and post my own talk from it, in a few days. But I’ll be blogging the ISME conference for the next few days. This will be something of a departure from my previous conference coverage. For one, this is primarily an academic rather than a popular conference, and is not particularly aimed at being easily comprehensible by people outside the field. More importantly, of course, this conference is not about transhumanism or even specifically bioethics, and the connection between the topics I’ll be covering at this conference and the subject of this blog may at times seem tenuous (though Ill aim to focus on the talks that are most relevant). So this coverage will also be something of an experiment. — The main reason we have for writing about transhumanism is not so much the movement itself (because probably most of what it prophesies will never come to pass) as what it represents — the set of attitudes, ideas, and aspirations that are already present in our society, that in transhumanism we see boiled away from all moderation and taken to their logical ends. And what we find at those ends is (among other things) the profound incoherence of the transhumanist movement, its thousand conflicted, ultimately irreconcilable aims. It is because transhumanism is just a continuation of aspirations already present in our society that the fragmentary nature of the one points to the fragmentary nature of the other. Among the things that looking at transhumanism makes plain is the total lack in our Enlightenment tradition of a coherent conception of human good (much less a conception of the good that is actually good for humans). There is no philosopher who has better articulated that conceptual incoherence, and its sources, than Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work is the subject of this conference. His seminal work is After Virtue (1981), of which Wikipedia has a decent summary. That book is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modernity. MacIntyrean theory, which is bound up with the movements known as neo-Aristotelianism and virtue ethics, offers a powerful means of coming back from the corrosions in our self-understanding that have led us to such a point that transhumanism does seem the logical next step. My hope is that covering this conference will offer at least a glimpse into why that is so. Stay tuned to find out whether I, and the minions of Prof. MacIntyre, can deliver. (Also, as a procedural caveat to any conference attendees, please note proper coverage of the subject matter here will require some special work, so there may be a delay of a day or two between presentations and posts on them. Update: Ive changed the title of this post to reflect that this will not quite be live-blogging.)