Whose Justice? - Which Rationality? Paperback – 1 Apr 2013
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About the Author
Alasdair MacIntyre is Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His publications include After Virtue (1981), Dependent Rational Animals (1999) and numerous journal articles.
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MacIntyre writes in its introduction that, following `After Virtue', "I promised a book in which I should attempt to say both what makes it rational to act in one way rather than another and what makes it rational to advance and defend one conception of practical rationality than another. Here it is." He argues that the book can be read independently of its predecessor, and he again addresses the academic philosopher and the lay reader: "The attempted professionalization of serious and systematic thinking has had a disastrous effect upon our culture."
MacIntyre states that the meditations of his new book will focus on Aristotle, Augustine, Hume, and modern liberalism. Whilst aware of the importance of Judaism, Islam, and Kant, he admits too that his book has no room for Chinese or Indian traditions. He describes himself as an Augustinian Christian (although now this has progressed to a Thomist Aristotelian). What follows is an attempt to inform the potential purchaser of the arguments on offer in the book's twenty chapters.
First he reprises `After Virtue', setting the scene of present-day confusion in ethics. The Enlightenment tried to induce reason into mores but failed. MacIntyre argues that by turning its back on tradition and narratives, the baby was chucked out with the bathwater.Read more ›
MacIntyre takes us on a historical tour of the different concepts of Justice from the tradition of Homer, through the discussions of philosophers such as Aristotle through Augustine, Aquinas and Hume, to modern Liberalism. All these philosophers argued for their concept of Justice on the basis of theoretical and practical reasoning; i.e. they each believe their concept of Justice is rational. MacIntyre shows how each of them was influenced by the social, cultural and philosophical traditions in which they lived. He claims that different communities and institutions today (even within one society) adopt one of these traditions of Justice but cannot adopt them all. That is to say, no one, universal, rational concept of Justice exists: hence the title of the book.
A significant point that came across for me, although MacIntyre does not emphasise it, is that Plato and Aristotle thought that reason is in itself motivating. Augustine denied this, arguing that human will determines action (and this will had to allow itself to be directed by God to perform just actions). Hume agrees that no reasoning can ever move us to act (he substitutes passion for will). That seems to me to be the central problem for any society: how, having agreed on a system of Justice, do we persuade all our citizens to act in conformity to that system?
I learned a lot from this book but, unfortunately, I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to provide a scholarly review of MacIntyre's exposition and analysis.
But the real value of this book, unless you are an academic philosopher, does not lie there. Rather, it lies in the clear demonstration that liberalism, the tradition most of us were brought up in, has itself become a tradition, and even though he does not use the word, an ideology. As in "After Virtue" McIntyre demonstrates clearly that post-enlightenment attempts to construct rational ethical frameworks acceptable to all are doomed to failure; proponents of rival theories often cannot even understand each other, let alone debate coherently. Whether, like MacIntyre, you then want to turn to the traditions of the distant past for solace is another issue.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is a very challenging book to read, but also one that will deepen your thinking about the world, whether you agree with it or not.
We largely take it for granted that (1) people disagree significantly about a wide range of issues related to ethics, and that (2) people do not agree about enough standards of rationality to resolve these ethical disagreements. MacIntyre puts this by saying that "logical incompatibility and incommensurability" both obtain (p. 351). What conclusion should we draw from these facts? One common response is relativism, which is roughly the view that the truth or falsity of a claim depends on the perspective from which it is evaluated. However, MacIntyre argues against relativism based on a brilliant reinterpretation of several major Western philosophical traditions.
The Western Englightenment (of which Descartes is paradigmatic), rejected appeals to tradition, canonical texts and authority, and attempted to put in their place the "appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person," and hence independent of culture, history, etc. "Yet both the thinkers of the Enlightenment and their successors proved unable to agree as to what precisely those principles were which could be found undeniable by all rational persons" (p. 6). Since the Enlightenment, most Western thinkers have either (1) continued to search for principles that are universally acceptable to all minimally rational humans (and continued to fail in this quest), or (2) given up on the quest for universal principles of reason, but -- paradoxically -- continued to assume the Enlightenment prejudice that any rational justification would have to be universal, ahistorical, and acultural.
MacIntyre suggests that neither approach has learned the lesson of the failure of the Enlightenment project, which is that any rational justification has to be parochial, historical and in a particular cultural context.
Since rational justification must be historical, the bearers of justification are not "theories" in the abstract, but embodied traditions. MacIntyre examines four sample traditions in this book (although he admits there are many more): the Aristotelian-Thomistic, the Augustinean, and those of the "Scottish Enlightenment" and modern liberalism.
Traditions like these can undergo "epistemological crises": situations in which a tradition, by its own standards, increasingly discloses "new inadequacies, hitherto unrecognized incoherences, and new problems for the solution of which there seem to be insufficient or no resources within the established fabric of belief" (p. 362). A tradition may find a way to survive such a crisis (as Thomas Aquinas helped Christianity to do by synthesizing Augustineanism and Aristotelianism), but it may also fail. And because the possibility of failure is there, relativism is false: a tradition can come to see that its claims are false even by its own standards.
Even if my tradition is not in an obvious crisis, I can realize that I have a rational justification for rejecting or modifying it. Suppose I am confronted with an alien intellectual tradition which is both incompatible and incommensurable with my own. Because the two are incompatible, I cannot simply agree with both traditions. But because of incommensurability, I cannot directly convince the adherents of the rival tradition that they are wrong (nor can they directly convince me). I can, however, learn to be "bilingual" in the two traditions. The Aristotelian can learn, for example, to "speak Confucian," as it were. Having done so, he occupies a special perspective, from which he may conclude that the Confucian worldview offers a superior interpretation of the strengths and weaknesses of his own tradition. Or he may conclude the opposite. Or he may conclude that some sort of synthesis is possible, which is superior to either one individually. For this reason also, relativism is not true, despite the fact that traditions are, when speaking one to the other, incommensurable: someone occupying one tradition *can* see that his views are fundamentally mistaken.
MacIntyre argues that, of the four traditions he considers in this book, three have entered inescapable epistemological crises, while one (the tradition of Thomas Aquinas) has answered all challenges so far. The bulk of the book is a history of the four traditions. If you want to get the outline of MacIntyre's view, I recommend chapters 1 (the intro), 7-8 (on Aristotle), 9 (on Augustine), 10-11 (on Aquinas's synthesis), 16 (on Hume), 17 (on liberalism), and 18-20 (MacIntyre's grand theory).
This is, of course, an easier book to read if you have read some previous philosophy (Thomas Kuhn's _The Structure of Scientific Revolutions_ is in the background of much of what MacIntyre says, even though he doesn't cite Kuhn very often), but a bright, motivated non-philosopher can read and greatly enjoy this book too.
So how, in his mind, does his account of rationality and justice 'win?' It seems automatic to seek some purely objective standard by which to weigh the arguments of each of these specific systems, but as MacIntyre points out, the mere idea of a purely objective standard is deeply embedded in the Enlightenment tradition: a tradition which MacIntyre showed in "After Virtue" to be seriously flawed. Instead, the system first must be internally coherent but second, and more importantly, must overcome epistimological crises that it faces. A certain system gets into trouble if a rival system can better resolve the epistimological crises facing it. MacIntyre thinks that the Aristotelian tradition, especially as embedded in Thomism, 'wins' by this account. While the sense of victory is not as obvious as in After Virtue, I think that MacIntyre has a coherent and reasonably compelling argument in his favor.
This book can be read in isolation, but is best read after reading After Virtue, giving you a clearer idea of the problem that MacIntyre is addressing.
The overarching thesis of the book is sound nonetheless. To give a very basic outline, MacIntyre traces several traditions, broadly being the predominant Hellenist and Christian ones, before moving on to establish liberalism as its own tradition. Not every philosopher is give exhaustive or detailed treatment. Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and Hume are the real stars here. The Scottish Enlightenment is dwelt upon in much detail to explain Hume, so other important philosophical movements such as British Empiricism, German Idealism, etc. are marginalized. Despite these omissions [the book is long enough as it is], the central thesis coheres nicely and arrives at its conclusion in a most decisive manner.
Though MacIntyre's thesis that liberalism itself constitutes a tradition may seem tame, taken into proper perspective, it is actually quite revolutionary. Considering that modernity [à la Descartes] rejected all appeal to tradition and sought to construct a purely rational account of the human and his society and to, thereby, construct a utopian future applicable to all times and places, to claim that it is itself a traditional is a smack on the face that effectively historicizes the Enlightenment tradition. Therefore, justice and rationality-in other words what is proper action and what are the proper reasons for acting-must be understood through the historicized lens of the context of a specific tradition that any ethical discourse plugs into for its legitimacy.
The book concludes with a cogent discussion of the nature of traditions, their birth, evolution, death, and how we can understand the nature of our own beliefs as being a part of tradition. The key, determinant events in these narratives are `epistemological crises'. MacIntyre tries to makes the case that Thomism has hitherto best weathered the tests of time.