Thursday, September 12, 2019

On MacIntyre’s Criticism of Reason-Based Morality

Alasdair MacIntyre shows in his book After Virtue that the project for reason-based ethics that was conceived in the Age of Enlightenment could never have succeeded. The questions of ethics cannot be decided on purely rational grounds because doing so leads to insoluble dilemmas which disprove the idea that the ethical principles are universally applicable.

He offers several examples of the insoluble moral dilemmas that result from reason-based ethics. Concerning wars, he points out that we are led to the conclusion that “no modern war can be a just war and we all now ought to be pacifists.” On the debate on abortion, depending on the point from which you begin your argument—from the mother’s right to decide for herself, or the embryo’s right to life—you are led to inherently consistent and rationally incompatible conclusions. He also offers a critique of several thinkers, including Nietzsche whom he labels as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition.

MacIntyre shows that if the ethical obligations are an outcome of a deliberate choice, as the Enlightenment theory of reason-based ethics asserts, then it cannot be founded on a universal rationality. But this means that everyone will have to create his own morality. The foundation of modern liberal and bureaucratically governed society is founded on this very conclusion. Eventually the reason-based ethics boil down to the position called emotivism—which means that moral principles are an expression of personal preferences.

He traces the problems in modern ethics to the Enlightenment's abandonment of Aristotelianism, and in particular Aristotelian teleology. The attempt to isolate the rational individual from the historical context for keeping him autonomous was bound to fail because the basic moral education is imparted through the transmission of a morally relevant tradition. The ethical principles can only be understood in the historical context and the tradition in which one finds oneself. The problem with modernity is that it has overlooked the importance of social context.

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