“We have forgotten the origin of morality in fact and circumstance.”
—Wendell Berry

Alasdair MacIntyre is our most relentless tracker of the crisis of the liberal regime. In After Virtue, he recounted the history of the triumph of “emotivism” in ethics. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? he has begun the process of pointing the way out of the seemingly pathless forest of ethical subjectivism. He is not afraid to assert that the cure for our present crisis lies in reading the great texts of philosophy.

That liberalism is in crisis has been clear for some time. It has been compelled to deny almost all of its fundamental ethical and political positions. Having asserted the morality of One Man, One Vote, it found it possible to remain in power only by gerrymandering the House of Representatives, so that that body can no longer be affected by the changing will of the majority. It championed the rights of the helpless, but now supports a system that condemns millions of guiltless children to death without the right of due process. It proclaimed the Century of the Common Man, but maintains its rule through an autocracy of judges and bureaucrats who despise the average American and his way of life.

There is, however, a more deepseated crisis, one that threatens the minds and hearts of the true believers. Since the Enlightenment, liberalism has maintained a consistent antipathy to attitudes rooted in tradition and supported by prejudice, especially religious tradition and prejudice. The result has been stated by James Fishkin.

The viability of liberalism as a political theory is closely tied to the possibility of a secular moral culture founded on something other than the controversial religious and metaphysical assumptions of any particular group. If, in order to maintain neutrality among religious and metaphysical assumptions, a liberal state must be constrained from any rational basis for values at all, then its foundational assumptions are self-delegitimating, that is, they undermine their own moral legitimacy by entailing the arbitrariness, the sheer subjectivity, of all moral claims, including any claims that can be made on behalf of the liberal state itself.

In Beyond Subjective Morality Fishkin examined the plight of the average educated person trying to establish a rational system of practical ethics based on individualism and a rejection of tradition. Those who did not repudiate liberalism ended up on one level or another of subjectivism (what MacIntyre would call emotivism). Ethics became a matter of personal taste. For Sam, one of Fishkin’s subjects, his taste for honesty “has no more basis than his taste for T-bone steaks”: “I grew up and developed a taste for honesty—that’s as far as I can take it,” Sam mused. “Even if I believed in, say, communism, as a political system, the way I am now, I wouldn’t believe that that would give me a right to dictate to some capitalist that communism was the right system for him.” Fishkin attempts to show that it is logically possible to escape the lowest depths of subjectivism. He never shows that the various stages of subjectivism are not logical conclusions of liberalism’s premises:

Independent of particular religious and metaphysical assumptions . . . can there be a nonarbitrary basis for making moral judgments? Without a positive answer to this question, liberalism must self-destruct as a coherent moral ideology.

Liberalism’s attempts to give a positive answer have never provided an adequate motive for individual moral decision-making, and they have failed to satisfy philosophers as a coherent basis for social action. Omitting Kant, the most famous answer in the English-speaking world was utilitarianism, born in the early 19th century and connected with the names of Bentley and Mill. Utilitarianism still survives in economics, where its premises seem to satisfy (much like a ship can be steered by the stars, using the Ptolemaic, geocentric vision of the universe). Philosophers view utilitarianism as incoherent and long since refuted.

In recent decades, Bruce Ackerman and John Rawls (among others) have tried to resuscitate Enlightenment social contract theory. This theory contradicts everything we know of the origin of the state, which evolved out of the family and conquest, not out of a meeting of rational individuals. It has become a favorite philosophical parlor game to discover situations in which the theory’s basic premises lead to results that are repugnant to most people’s moral feelings. Liberalism as a theory for practical moral reasoning does not work, and the hypocrisy and immorality of the liberal regime is the result of its philosophical failure.

Alasdair MacIntyre has accepted the conclusions of philosophical scholarship and made the natural deduction: practical ethical reasoning must take place within a definite, historically conditioned tradition, a tradition that brings with it certain religious and metaphysical assumptions or, if you prefer, prejudices. If “it would be out of bounds for the liberal state to base moral arguments— and, in particular, to base its own claims to legitimacy—on the ultimate convictions of any particular group,” as Fishkin believes, then the liberal state is a logical monstrosity and the problems it is now undergoing are a necessary and inevitable prelude to its own implosion.

MacIntyre does not give us another logical refutation of Rawls or Ackerman. The bibliography here is overwhelming, and even clever graduate students—say, the junior faculty in Rawls’s own department at Harvard—can give us more than enough material. Instead, MacIntyre tells the story of the creation of the Western tradition of thinking about justice and the problems of practical ethical reasoning from Homer to Hume. He tells the story not by listing the beliefs of a long train of thinkers, but by reading carefully a few of the important ones: Homer, Pericles, Thucydides (MacIntyre thinks he can distinguish between the last two), Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas. Aristotle is the subject of an especially careful discussion. Then MacIntyre takes his time to paint a picture of the social and philosophical background, in the writings of Dalrymple of Stair, Hutcheson, and Hume, of the Scotland of the Enlightenment and the age which preceeded it. It is the epic adventure story of a philosophical tradition, the equivalent of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy in the life of the mind. No summary can do justice to it, but let me point out a few of the highlights.

The foundation of our ways of thinking about how we act is Homer. Before there is an individual, there is the hero. Is the hero great, however, because he exemplifies excellence, or because he wins? In Homer, such a question cannot really be asked. The dichotomy does not exist. Greek society develops on the Homeric model and in the 5th century the distinction becomes dangerously real. Pericles is the political radical who builds on the Homeric foundations: the people of Athens is a Homeric hero and the Athenian Empire is the new Tale of Troy. The Age of Pericles is also the Age of the Sophists, and the Sophists show that political success can thrive apart from ethical commitment. Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue and Sophocles in Philoctetes see the problem. It is Plato, especially in his Republic, who expresses the dilemma most clearly and offers the greatest defense of excellence against mere practical success. “Plato made of the sophists partners in posing these problems in a way that provided . . . a permanent part of the framework of all subsequent discussion. . . . This is why the reading and the continuous rereading of the Republic remains indispensable to moral and cultural education.”

That Plato’s work has been built so essentially into the framework of our thinking was the achievement of Aristotle. For centuries philosophers were born into the world as Platonists and Aristotelians like the “little Conservatives and little Liberals” of Gilbert and Sullivan. This vision was undercut by Werner Jaeger’s idea that Aristotle began intellectual life as a Platonist, and later scholars (including Gwyll Owen) have shown how similar Aristotle is to late Plato. For MacIntyre, Aristotle is “engaged in trying to complete Plato’s work, and to correct it precisely insofar as that was necessary in order to complete it.”

MacIntyre’s picture of Aristotle puts almost every page into a new light, clarifying scores of problems and paradoxes present in older visions. It is the picture of a man working within a tradition. Tradition is not memorizing and handing down the concepts and theories of the past, with occasional footnotes and retranslations into contemporary forms of thought or expression. Tradition is the living interaction of human minds engaged in the same task. It is the foundation of all creativity and of all progress. Wendell Berry’s words come to mind:

Any man’s death could end the story:

his mourners, having accompanied him

to the grave through all he knew,

turn back, leaving him complete.

But this is not the story of a life.

It is the story of lives, knit together,

overlapping in succession, rising

again from grave after grave.

For those who depart from it, bearing it

in their minds, the grave is a beginning. . . .

Ended, a story is history;

it is in time, with time


lost. But if a man’s life

continue in another man,

then the flesh will rhyme

its part in immortal song.

By absence, he comes again.

The handing down of the torch of human understanding is a risky business. Each generation may drop it or run off in a direction that ends in a cul-de-sac. There is more. Each generation leaves to its successors problems within the tradition that are unresolved. Other traditions will arise and a choice must be made between running away, conquering, or assimilating aspects of the alien. At any one time all three may be happening. Cicero made Greek thought live in great literature in Latin. The genius of Augustine and Aquinas assimilated Christian perspectives into the living reality of Plato and Aristotle. That tradition, by genius and humane assimilation, survives through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The dividing line is the Enlightenment. The task of assimilating so much novelty calls for a great mind, a new Aquinas. We get Hume and Kant. Instead of working to revise and revivify the great tradition, which was still alive, as MacIntyre shows, but in need of some first-rate rethinking, they undermine it, by positing the possibility of practical thinking that is valid for the individual, anywhere, anytime—not for a member of a social and intellectual community. (It seems to me that this account works better for the heavily Rousseau-ized Kant than for Hume, who was trying to do for Scotland what Cicero did for ancient Rome.)

So the Enlightenment vendetta against tradition and prejudice is established. Gadamer pointed out the Enlightenment prejudice against prejudice. MacIntyre surveys briefly the story of “the history of attempts to construct a morality for tradition-free individuals,” the story of “Liberalism Transformed into a Tradition.”

This attempt has failed both for the professional philosopher, who keeps it up because c’est son métier, and for the average citizen, who is driven to subjectivism and hypocrisy. MacIntyre offers no easy way out of the dilemma. “Any hope of discovering tradition-independent standards of judgment turns out to be illusory.” Does this not leave us more or less where liberalism left us, with no rational way to make practical ethical decisions where traditions conflict? Not necessarily. Thinking within a tradition is not only “tradition-constituted” but also “tradition-constitutive.” Thinking within a tradition is creative, indeed, it provides the only basis for creativity. To put it another way, what we call creativity in thought and literature is really the humane assimilation of old problems and new insights. There are traditions that have shown themselves able to respond creatively and positively to outside insights and visions—for example, the tradition that extends from Homer through Plato and Aristotle, and then is kept alive by Augustine and Aquinas. Societies have been built on these foundations. Great works of literature, from Plato’s Symposium to Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Commedia, have been written out of them. This tradition can be made to live again and we must try, as we watch the tradition of liberalism sink into the miasma of violence, racism, and pornography.

There are other lively traditions that need to be tested. MacIntyre specifically mentions Judaism, Islam, and Lutheranism. I think he is right and I believe that one of them is more likely than the others to provide a rational basis for the creation of a valid tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive philosophy for an Augustinian Christian, as MacIntyre styles himself Where he sees no hope is from the tradition of Whig conservatism that began with Burke and is now represented by the neoconservatives and other liberals who are commonly called “conservatives.” For them, tradition is passive, an environment and not an agon. Burke’s English cattle ignore the buzzing of the radical flies of summer. Unfortunately, those cattle have been stampeded by the flies’ stingers. These conservatives use the Great Books, translated into a misleading contemporary English, to lead us back to the liberalism and subjectivism that is suffocating our society. MacIntyre has nothing but scorn for “the confident teaching of texts from past and alien cultures in translation not only to students who do not know the original languages but by teachers who do not know them either.” The reader should not be surprised that MacIntyre devotes pages to the problem of translation, of understanding texts written in foreign languages. Classics in translation in education is the equivalent to strip mining in ecology. Reading Homer and trying to be fair to your neighbor both involve activities which are not satisfactorily explained by the world view of individualism.

For our society to survive, we must escape from a rapidly imploding liberalism into a tradition of ethical reasoning that can provide the basis for consensus and progress. As Lord Devlin told us in his Maccabean Lecture in 1959, “No society has yet solved the problem of how to teach morality without religion.” In addition, we must take the center of our educational establishment from the hands of the economist and the engineer and give it back to the teacher of languages and the teacher of philosophy. It is hard to decide which imperative sounds more Utopian. It is the irony of our age that it is the pragmatic alternative which is really Utopian and must end in disaster for our society and our children.


[Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, by Alasdair MacIntyre; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press]