Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues Paperback – 1 Apr 2013
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'Alasdair MacIntyre ... is the ultimate iconoclast of contemporary Western culture' Brenda Almond, Times Higher Education Supplement. 'MacIntyre offers us here a profound and timely reflection on the complex interaction between independence and dependence in human life. The book will be read with profit not only by professional philosophers, but by anyone who is concerned about the marginalization of the needy and vulnerable in today's society' Jean Porter, The Tablet.
About the Author
Alasdair MacIntyre is Research Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame University, USA.
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_Dependent Rational Animals_ presents a positive account of practical rationality against the background of an understanding of human nature on which we are first of all animals -- and thus always vulnerable -- and often (some of us always) disabled. This leads MacIntyre to distinguish what he calls the "virtues of acknowledged dependence" from the more widely recognized "virtues of independent practical reasoners".
This book, an expanded series of lectures, is quite easy to read, especially when it focuses on such lively questions as whether dolphins and chimpanzees have beliefs and intentions, or why we have obligations to those thoroughly dependent human beings who will never develop into autonomous agents.
I've long thought _After Virtue_ was the best introduction to MacIntyre, but I now suspect _Dependent Rational Animals_ may be the way to go. That way, one can begin with his positive account, and locate the critique in relation to it.
The way he argues that we need the virtues is quite startling in originality. Generally, ethicists take as their standard the autonomous, self-sufficient reasoner--where "reason" means something like "able to give a logically defensible verbal justification," usually in terms of some sort of universal rule. MacIntyre sees this as a mistake. The question, he thinks, is how any of us ever come to be independent practical reasoners and what it means to be such. We must, he thinks, understand that "reasons to act" have little to do with our linguistic ability or capacity to display verbally a syllogism that concludes with the action in question. Rather, "reasons to act" are more concrete, pragmatic, and instrumental.
Thus, we can say that intelligent animals act with reasons, despite having no language, if their actions are clearly aimed at ends, especially if it is clear that they choose their instrumental acts on the basis of perceptions of the current environment.
*Human practical resoning* begins in this aspect of our animal nature--our ability to learn in practice what we need to do in order to accomplish the things we need to accomplish if we are to flourish. Note that the issue here is learning in practice, and identifying correctly through our practice what we find to be needful for our flourishing. Reason, then, is grounded in the practice of flourishing.
And rather than look at "autonomous" adults, MacIntyre points out the obvious fact, usually overlooked by ethical theorists, that we are actually always dependent on each other in myriad ways. Our mutual dependency dictates that we need communities of giving and receiving various things--including education, formal and otherwise--not only to flourish but to be able to know, and reason, about flourishing. Without the virtues, the conditions for practical reasoning *at all* cannot exist.
The argument, then, is that our animality and dependency dictate what constitutes both flourishing and practical reason about flourishing, and that we can demonstrate that the virtues are necessary for being independent practical reasoners who flourish.
Rather, that's the strategy of the argument. The argument itself is, of course, much more involved. In its entirety, does it work? I'm not sure. I don''t know that everyone would agree with his axiomatic/unargued starting point, that to flourish requires us to be independent rational thinkers, even in the sense of "rational" he's spelled out here. We of democratic mien see thing that way, of course--but so far as I know, MacIntyre doesn't provide an argument for the overriding necessity of independence.
A couple of things are troubling--his apparent reliance on D.W. Winnicott's psychoanalytic account of child development, for instance. I'm not sure whether it really matters--so long as one accepts the notion that persons cannot develop into independent rational thinkers without the support of others, MacIntyre's affinity for Winnicott can be seen as a personal quirk, I think.
But that does lead to one perplexity: a lot of what MacIntyre says about the necessities of human life--matters of our dependence--is empirical, in a fairly straightforward sense, more than philosophical. Does this matter? It seems so to me. At least some of his argument turns on empirical claims about conditions for human flourishing for which he provides no argument or evidence.
Finally, MacIntyre sees current society as more or less beyond the pale ethically--according to him, neither our families nor our nation states promote virtue or independent practical rationality of the sort he has spelled out. One could conclude, of course, that we live in vicious ands heathen times, so to speak--and perhaps we do. Or one could wonder whether MacIntyre's empirical claims, and the philosophical argument he bases upon them, may not have more to do with his tastes than with the conditions of human flourishing. Is it really so obvious that in our culture we fail to flourish? Taken from the perspective of human history, our developed nation states have a few things going for them that resemble flourishing: the highest levels of material welfare, more equitably spread (in spite of the great distance we have to go in achieving equality); the most widespread education and highest rates of literacy; the lowest rates of infant mortality; the longest life spans; the greatest emphasis on human rights, including for women and minoeriites; the easiest access by non-elites to the arts; the cheapest books (relative to per capita income); the most efficient (if not yet ideal) institutions for international consultation and cooperation, and . . .
I like MacIntyre''s version of how life ought to be. I recommend reading the book. But I suggest that one not fail to note that his empirical claims are less than obviously true, while some empirical facts about our flourishing seem to have escaped his notice--or at least been given less weight than many folks would give them.
One other thing: This book is badly written. Never mind the needlessly poor sentence structure in which he so often indulges (and he obviously knows better, since he often writes clearly). But the structure of the argument and its exposition is generally less than transparent. (The reviewer who thought first that MacIntyre had gone soft reflects this fact.) For instance, on page 107, he tells us there are two ways that a certain thing is important, then spends twelve pages discussing the first--without ever getting around to identifying the second, so far as I can discern. That sort of sloppiness is not unusual in the book. Do you think maybe one of the minor virtues, one of the small obligations owed by people who write books for which they ask our money, is that they not be lazy about how they express themselves?
There are several problems with MacIntyre's analysis. I doubt that his method really establishes a convincing human telos. No one would argue about the importance of human rational capacities and sociability, but does his analysis lead to his version of the telos? If there is anything really distinctive about humans as a species, its our remarkable social flexibility. Hunter-gather families and clans, oligarchic city-states, primitive monarchies with priest-kings, and many others. All these involve practical reasoning and social interdependence. Along the same lines, how does MacIntyre's effort at naturalistic analysis establish that the cooperative values that he prefers? Why can't human interdependence and needs be satisfied by exploitation and coercion? These are just as characteristic of human life as the values he prefers. This is true for social non-human primates, canids, and hyenas as well. MacIntyre's goal appears to a form of primitive egalitarianism but why not Aristotle's version of the telos which legitimized slavery and the subordination of women? Not only is MacIntyre vague about how to define the goods or ends of human existence, he is also imprecise about the virtues, which he regards as crucial. Is a virtue an instrument to an end, as most of his comments suggest, or is it an end in itself as some of his discussion of just generosity seems to imply? Failure to clearly define how he reaches his conclusions regarding the proper ends of human life and lack of clear definition of virtue gives much of the discussion a hand-waving quality. I suspect that MacIntyre has a covert agenda; his frequent citation of Aquinas and the appearance towards the end of the book of the term natural law leads me to think he really thinks there is a theistic backstop for his position.
I'm not sure as well about his statement that moral philosophy fails to acknowledge human dependency. My impression is that the individualistic orientation of much moral philosophy has more to do with the rejection of external authority as a source of morality than blindness towards human dependency. Indeed, much political philosophy, which is an aspect of moral philosophy, often begins with an explicit recognition of human weakness and interdependence. This occurs as far back as the account of the Prometheus creation myth in Plato's Protagoras. MacIntyre attempts to deal with some alternative traditions but these are mainly straw man arguments as he compares his position with a fairly weak account of preference utilitarianism and with Nietzsche's amoralism.
MacIntyre's effort to apply his views to a positive political philosophy are likewise not successful. His reasoning leads him to disparage the modern liberal state as being unable to provide the type of primitive egalitrarianism he wants (this is certainly true) and and too much based on exploitative power relationships and competing economic interests to be morally adequate. He finds the family both too weak and potentially too confining to be adequate. Hence, the need for smaller and more moral communities. But is the modern liberal state as bad as MacIntyre would like us to believe? Given his emphasis on the importance of human dependence and mutual care, the fact is that liberal societies have done more to alleviate the problems of human dependency than other societies in human history and the ability to mobilize the resources of entire states is crucial in this endeavour. There is even evidence (see Herrmann et al., Science 319, 2008) that liberal democratic states encourage the type of altruistic behaviors that MacIntyre sees as the basis for a moral society. As MacIntyre acknowledges briefly, the type of communal groupings he prefers are at risk for the same types of exploitative relations that he assigns to the state. Indeed, the types of close social communal networks he would like to see are most likely to arise in smaller groups with strong familial, ethnic, or ideological bonds. These are often the types of groupings most prone to destructive behaviors and tend to resist the idea of universal human values. Moreover, in order to get the types of communities that MacIntyre desires, the initial locus of reform will have to be the state. His reluctance to deal with structure of the state is self-defeating. On the basis of poor justification, MacIntyre would like to exchange our admittedly imperfect state, which has some real virtues, for a vague utopianism.