Fran O’ROURKE, ed. What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? Philosophical Essays in honor of Alasdair MacIntyre. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. Pp. 499. $70.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-268-03737-6. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD 21727.
This collection of 18 essays (including one by MacIntyre), most of which were presented at a conference in Dublin in 2009, on the title’s theme (suggested by MacIntyre), contains a great variety of essays. They are collected under three headings: “Reading MacIntyre,” “Complementary and Competing Traditions,” and “thematic Analyses.” They represent a very wide variety of voices and trajectories in moral philosophy, a compliment to the widespread influence and many conversation partners of MacIntyre’s work.
Not all essays are substantively engaged with MacIntyre’s work. For those primarily interested in MacIntyre, the primary essays of interest will be MacIntyre’s own initial talk and a few other notables. MacIntyre’s lecture (available as a YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbmPXXO8jpA ) quite concisely traces his intellectual trajectory, and in particular the winding road by which he came to take Thomistic Aristotelianism as his own. Readers only familiar with After Virtue will be enlightened by his early encounters with both analytic and continental philosophy (especially Sartre), as well as his renewed emphasis on the debt he owes to Marxism. Indeed, the epilogue, which outlines his future projects, is centrally concerned with the question: “What then is the relevance of Marxist claims to Thomist claims?” (475) Each tradition provides something lacking in the other: Marxism provides the fundamental “sociological starting point” (480) on agency, while identifying and responding to the “first-person” questions of moral agency and truth is what Thomism provides. It has always been part of MacIntyre’s project to explain that claims in moral philosophy cannot simply be vindicated by theoretical debate, but only by theoretically-informed study of practice. The future project he promises is one of telling the history of three diverse figures as a “biographical history…in which the focus in on the success or failure as practical reasoners of particular agents who have to find their way through politically and morally difficult situations,” a history of “individuals in their social relationships,” and one in which a key element is “when agents become able to learn from their failures and misunderstandings” (483).
Of particular note in several essays that directly engage MacIntyre’s work are several calls for the development of the project in ways that might be able to take forms of political liberalism more seriously. The commentators here all agree with MacIntyre’s fundamental critiques of liberalism, but even so MacIntyrean a commentator as Kelvin Knight wonders “how political reasoning about shared goods should be conducted within a polity that is structurally incapable” of providing an account of shared goods. He says, “perhaps Thomistic Aristotelians need to learn, as a second first language, the rival practical rationality that informs that neoteleological structure,” at least so as to “operate within that polity” to defend practices and local communities (116). From a different perspective, Joseph Dunne challenges MacIntyre’s depiction of the virtue of “just generosity” at the center of Dependent Rational Animals. He agrees with its emphasis on interdependence and vulnerability (over against Aristotle’s magnanimous man), but worries that it sets an impossibly high standard for community relations, and does so further without a more or less Augustianian horizon of transcendent goods, which might otherwise support the asymmetries and sacrifices that just generosity would in any real situation require. And from a third perspective, Arthur Madigan, again strongly supportive of MacIntyre’s overall project, discusses the projects of liberal Aristotelians like Martha Nussbaum, and says, “those of us who follow Alasdair MacIntyre’s brand of Aristotelianism may need to study liberalism once again, in the hope of understanding why so many of our fellow Aristotelians find it attractive or even compelling” (127).
Madigan’s essay is also one of several that would be of special interest to Catholic moral theologians and ethicists. Madigan nicely lays out how MacIntyre’s work has mostly been ignored both by the standard current of postconciliar moral theology, but also by “his fellow Thomists” whom Madigan chides for the “bedeviling problem” of “the presumption that many, perhaps most, philosophical problems can be settled at the level of Thomistic exegesis – the presupposition that nine times out of ten the answer is already on the page, waiting to be found in Thomas’s text, provided that that text is rightly understood.” Unfortunately, says Madigan, many Thomists might not have “noticed that their tradition was suffering from that problem” and “might even deny that there was such a problem to begin with” (128-29). Madigan argues well – and in a way complementary to James McEvoy’s later essay on the work of Servais Pinckaers – that MacIntyre’s Thomism is no rigid fundamentalism, but rather a living tradition that is always open to conflict and development. This way of reading Thomas indicates why a better appreciation of MacIntyre’s project would greatly benefit the fragmented landscape of Catholic moral theology.
MacIntyre’s brief epilogue obviously cannot respond to all these essays, which take up his engagements with emotivism, the Danish philosopher Knut Logstrup, the relations with other philosophers like Bernard Williams, to name only a few. However, it is telling that the three essays getting the most attention are ones from a Marxist unconvinced of Aristotelianism, a Thomist Catholic who explains a “perfect storm” of factors that combined to obscure Thomist work in the 20th century, and a relativist making a very strong argument for the endlessly recurring and irremediable disagreement in the history of moral philosophy. MacIntyre’s future – and by extension, his hope for the moral philosophy of the next century – is pinned on a Thomistic Aristotelianism which rescues Marx and Marxists from the deficiencies of their tradition, and then marches forward to answer the challenges of moral disagreement by displaying the success of Thomistic Aristotelianism at explaining the nature of moral agency as well as explaining the confusions of its rivals.