For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Volume 2

by MacIntyre, Alasdair (2006)


Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most creative and important philosophers working today. This volume presents a selection of his classic essays on ethics and politics collected together for the first time, focussing particularly on the themes of moral disagreement, moral dilemmas, and truthfulness and its importance. The essays range widely in scope, from Aristotle and Aquinas and what we need to learn from them, to our contemporary economic and social structures and the threat which they pose to the realization of the forms of ethical life. They will appeal to a wide range of readers across philosophy and especially in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and theology.

Key Passage

Within what kinds of institutional structure have the moral and political concepts and theories of the Enlightenment been at home? Within what types of discourse in what types of social context have they been able to find effective expression? A salient fact is that for some considerable time now in postEnlightenment culture moral and political concepts and theories have led a double life, functioning in two distinct and very different ways. They are afforded one kind of expression and exposed to one kind of attention in the contexts of academic life, in university and college teaching and enquiry, and in the professional journals of philosophers and theorists, but receive very different expression in the contexts of modern corporate life, whether governmental or private, contexts constituted by a web of political, legal, economic, and social relationships. Each of these two contexts is constituted by a public or set of publics very different from those to which the concepts and theories of the Enlightenment were first announced and among which they were initially elaborated, as well as from each other. Reading has had a different part to play in each; discussion and debate, too, play very different parts; and the relationship of power and money to argument is not at all in each case the same. Yet both in contemporary academic milieus and in contemporary political, legal, and economic life, Enlightenment and postEnlightenment concepts of utility, of right, of moral rules, of presupposed contractual agreements and shared understandings, are very much at home. And in each they are put to use in formulating and answering such questions as: how is the maximization of my utility to be related to the maximization of the utility of particular sets of others and to the general utility? When the maximization of either my or the general utility requires the infringement of somebody’s rights, how are rights to be weighed against utility? Is each right to be weighed in the same way? How more generally is utility to be conceived and how are rights to be understood? When may I legitimately mislead, deceive, or lie to others? When may or should I keep silent when I know that others are lying? By what tacit agreements am I bound? What generally and in such and such types of particular case is required of me, when I have encouraged and relied upon reciprocal relationships with others? When such questions are posed in academic contexts at the level of philosophy and theory, they receive not only incompatible and rival answers, but incompatible and rival answers each of which has by now been developed in systematic detail. I noted earlier how the great Enlightenment theorists had themselves disagreed both morally and philosophically. Their heirs have, through brilliant and sophisticated feats of argumentation, made it evident that if these disagreements are not interminable, they are such at least that after two hundred years no prospect of termination is in sight. Succeeding generations of Kantians, utilitarians, [182] natural rights’ theorists, and contractarians show no signs of genuine convergence.It is not of course that the partisans of each view do not arrive at conclusions which they themselves are prepared to treat as decisive. It is rather that they have provided us with too many sets of conclusions. And each has been subjected to the most stringent tests that can be administered by a reading public in which face-to-face discussion provides a basis for and reinforces the effects of publication in books and journals. The modern academic philosophical community constitutes a reading public and a conversational public of a high order, in which each participant tests what is proposed to him by others and in turn subjects her or his own proposals to criticism by those others. So what we get is not at all what the early protagonists of the Enlightenment expected; what we get is a combination of exactly the right kind of intellectual public with a large absence of decisive outcomes and conclusions.The contrast in this respect with the areas of political, legal, economic, and social life is striking. For within the corporate institutions that dominate government and the economy the needs of practice are such that decisive outcomes and conclusions cannot be avoided, and philosophical or other disagreement cannot be allowed to stand in the way of effective decision-making. All those questions about utility, rights, and contract that remain matters for debate in the academic sphere receive decisive answers every day from the ways in which those who engage in the transactions of political, legal, economic and social life act or fail to act. But in those areas the fact that there is no rationally established and agreed argumentative procedure for evaluating the claims of utility against rights or vice versa – or, if you like, that there are too many such procedures, but each rationally established and agreed only among its own protagonists – has a quite different significance. For what is unsettlable by argument is settlable by power and money; and, in the social order at large, how rights are assigned and implemented, what weight is accorded to this or that class of rights and what to the maximization of the utility of this individual or this group or people in generaI, what the consequences of following or failing to follow certain rules are, are questions answered by those who have the power and money to make their answers effective.  One peculiar set of features of distinctively modern social structures will bring out one aspect of this use of power. It is that compartmentalization of social life as a result of which each sphere has its own set of established norms and values as a counterpart to the specialization of its tasks and the professionalization of its occupations. So the activities and experiences of domestic life are understood in terms of one set of norms and values, those of various types of private corporate workplace in terms of somewhat different sets, the arenas of politics and of governmental bureaucracies in terms of yet others, and so on. It is not of course that there is not some degree of overlap. But the differences between these compartmentalized areas are striking, and in each of them there are procedures for arriving at decisions, procedures generally insulated from criticism from any external standpoint. (p.181)


Macintyre, Aristotle, Aquinas, Telos, Marxism, Moral Disagreement, Moral Philosophy, Ethics, Free Markets, Enlightenment


Ethics and Politics, 2 Vols

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