MacIntyre Chapter Two: Moral Disagreement Today

Chapter Two: Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism

Summary in the First Part

“The hypothesis which I wish to advance,” begins Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal work After Virtue, “is that in the actual world which we inhabit, the language of morality is in . . . a state of grave disorder” (2) Moral grammar still exists, he says, but in Disney-esque imitation. “The language and the appearances of morality persist even though the integral substance [has been] fragmented and . . . destroyed” (5). It is a profound claim, coming as it does after several hundred years of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral thinking. And yet “we are in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it” (Ibid). If he is correct, then no one alive today has lived within a moral system that isn’t an imitation. If he is correct, then the guideposts of our personal and political lives could easily be misaligned or wrong--or evil. MacIntyre has made a big claim, and the believing of it is going to require big proof. But where to begin? MacIntyre chooses to trace the source from its effects.

Modern political discourse--dialogue in the give-and-take of our public square--is difficult for any democracy. It should be difficult. But what we discover in the last half-century are habitual problems that never resolve. They fester like sores on the state. Many call them incurable, but MacIntyre disagrees. And he dissects them as carefully as a scientist.

What he discovers is that these habitual and seemingly interminable debates have three characteristics. First, the arguments are reasonable and legitimate, but their products are of different kinds. Everybody’s logic works, but one talks rights while another talks universality; one talks equality, another, liberty. Second, arguments claim to be impersonal and reasonable and are presented that way. He outlines a relationship here between two kinds of moral appeals: one that depends on the personal context of the appeal and one that is impersonal and a-contextual, and so applies to everyone. The former would be, for example, a request “Do this.” And the context of the request is that I’m your parent or your boss. There is a context that gives force to the request. These habitual arguments sever any connection between the address and the context of the one addressed. Their criteria of acceptance is impersonal. Third, every qualifying debate has a pedigree. Arguments come out of traditions woven from a complex history of dialogue. You can’t simply jettison history for the sake of a solution.“All those various concepts which inform our moral discourse were originally at home in larger totalities of theory and practice in which they enjoyed a role and function supplied by contexts of which they have now been deprived.” (10)
Now these three characteristics do not quite mix. The first characteristic is already problematic. The conclusions to competing-yet-valid arguments differ in kind, so how do we judge a victor? Our society has no way of doing so. We are left in a no-man’s-land of unreason. There is only the “clash of antagonistic wills” in a forever screaming match that shouts in public and in the uncertainty of our hearts. The second characteristic of these arguments, when combined with the first, further complicates. The second always appeals to the impersonal and the reasonable. But we’ve just seen that the first has no impersonal and reasonable way of sorting it all out. Therefore, the impersonal thing is just a show, a masquerade of reasonability. MacIntyre wonders why.

“What is it about rational argument which is so important that it is the nearly universal appearance assumed by those who engage in moral conflict? Does not this suggest that the practice of moral argument in our culture expresses at least an aspiration to be or to become rational in this area of our lives?” (9,10)  

Finally, with the third characteristic, we confront pluralism. Pluralism is praised. But what do we mean by pluralism? Is it “an ordered dialogue of intersecting viewpoints” or “an unharmonious melange of ill-assorted fragments”? He suspects the latter.

And so, having parsed out the elements of the debates that shape our public and private lives, MacIntyre asks how this data squares up with his initial hypothesis and finds that it squares up well. The language of morality has changed. We should be able to map this change and examine some earlier and different moral milieu. It is not going to be easy. The academic curriculum has long divided philosophy from history and treated philosophers like a-historic specimens on a petri dish. We should beware lest we make the same mistake going forward. But can there be a forward?

“You can go no further,” comes a voice. “It is impossible. For moral arguments--all moral arguments--are and always must be irresolvable.” (Here, as best as I can understand, MacIntyre has summoned a foil, much as a speaker will address “some might say” arguments in a speech after an important point has been made.) For now and for all times, for here and for everywhere, moral disagreements have no resolution. There is no going forward. And the voice is right, there is no going forward--not until this objection is defeated. And MacIntyre knows the name of its champion: emotivism.
MacIntrye, After Virtue: Preface and Chapter One
MacIntye, After Virtue: Outline of Chapter Two