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Monthly Archives: October 2010

MacIntyre the Grand Inquisitor

So I saw Alasdair MacIntyre speak last night at the London Metropolitan University in the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets (they recently elected a radical Muslim as mayor there). He spoke, appropriately enough, of the need for greater censorship in our amoral liberal society.

MacIntyre is, briefly, perhaps the strongest critic of liberalism today, which he criticizes from a communitarian point-of-view – he suggests liberal individualism has failed to come up with a common moral system or a common sense of the end of life, which means we live in atomised fake societies in which we no longer possess even the possibility of moral discussion. He’s a cheery old sod.
He seems, in his extremely readable magnum opus, After Virtue, to wish for a return to Medieval times, when Christendom was united under Christian Aristotelianism, and the Church played an important role in guiding souls to eternal bliss. But he’s also a bit of a Marxist. So all kinds of people are into him – from Terry Eagleton to Phillip Blond. If you talk about the need to return to ideas of ‘the good life’, chances are you’ve read MacIntyre – or you should have.
Last night, he suggested that proper political deliberation is impossible in western societies, because so many opinions are tolerated, even ones that are obviously wrong and toxic, such as denying the Holocaust or supporting creationism. We should practice selective rational intolerance – some points of view should simply not be tolerated, and if people hold them, they should be excluded from holding public office, including teaching positions.
He broadened this to a more general attack on freedom of information in liberal societies, including our access to any book we want.
He said we need to re-attain a recognition that reading is dangerous, that some books are dangerous. He says: “When I was at university in the 1940s, the Papal Index of Prohibited Books was still in place. So anytime a Catholic student wanted to read a book that was on the Index, they would have to ask permission of the Church, by leaving a note in the chaplaincy. That included books by Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal and others. Now permission was always given. But a point was made: reading these books is hazardous for your soul. By reading them, you are putting your soul in danger. And that’s right. These books are dangerous for your mortal soul. The people writing them knew this very well.”
MacIntyre says we need to re-attain what Aristotle saw as the proper order of education: some books should be read later than others. You can’t really appreciate or absorb in the right way certain books until you have read other books first and attained a certain maturity. Otherwise they will be dangerous for you – like doing LSD when you are 14.
He even suggested that full political participation should be denied, in an ideal society, until you have completed a full course of reading that would include, say, Shakespeare and Aristotle.
But this sort of political education is impossible in our society, because everything is available to everyone in any order. Books carry no public health warning. They don’t even have age guidelines. My God…does anyone even read books anymore?
I asked him if that meant that the internet would be banned in his ideal society – banned was probably the wrong word. Perhaps ‘far more centrally controlled and censored’ is the right phrase. He said: ‘We should look to the example of that very wise organization, the Communist Party of China, who, in their censorship of the internet, have come up with a bad answer to a very good question.’
Well…he’s certainly not your usual liberal academic!
At one point, a woman complained that his ideas would be an infringement on ‘free young minds’. He replied: ‘I don’t believe in free minds, and certainly not in free young minds’.
If MacIntyre is the future, then I think the future is going to look like a cross between Brave New World and Planet of the Apes, with MacIntyre as Dr Zaius.
The problem is…who decides what is ‘dangerous for the soul’ and what isn’t? How do we prevent those who decide from using their powers of censorship to protect their own hold on power?
Liberalism may be an amoral system, but more authoritarian and opaque systems, such as the Catholic Church or the Communist governments of Russia and China, have surely been worse…
The challenge is whether we can combine an idea of the good life, or at least, a common pursuit of the good life, with some or most of the freedoms of a liberal society – because as MacIntyre knows, we need the freedom to be able to deliberate and come to our own decisions.

MacIntyre at the Movies

I’m going to see Alasdair MacIntyre give a lecture this evening. He’s my favourite living philosopher – better than my other faves: Martha Nussbaum, Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. MacIntyre is more radical, and the influence of his ideas keeps on growing.

He wrote a ridiculously ambitious book, called After Virtue, back in 1981. His thesis was that the Enlightenment actually marked a new Dark Ages. When everyone thought the light of reason had been turned on, actually it had been turned off.

That was because, with the collapse of the authority of the Church, we had lost a common idea of the meaning of life, which had previously been provided by Aristotle’s philosophy. We had lost a common telos or end for society, and a common language for talking about the good life.

Various Enlightenment thinkers tried to construct new secular moral frameworks: Adam Smith constructed his theory of moral sentiments, based on our desire for approval and sympathy; Bentham constructed his theory of utilitarianism, based on the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; Kant constructed his theory of the categorical imperative.

But MacIntyre tears through these theories one-by-one. Smith’s moral theory, for example, turns morality into a performance designed to win the applause of the audience. Being good becomes merely looking good – this is where we are today, in the world of corporate governance and PR.

MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche, that all these Enlightenment moral theories are so many placards to wave or agendas to impose, and that ultimately, all we have in liberal society is emotivism: I am right because I feel I am right. I am right because more people agree with me. I am right because I am more powerful than you.

The only way beyond the morass of ethical relativism in which we find ourselves, MacIntyre argues, is to return to Aristotle, and his idea of the virtues. The virtues are ‘true’ because they fit with our human nature, and guide it to fulfillment and happiness (what the Greeks called eudaimonia).

Philosophy is the bridge between human nature in its raw form, and human nature in its finest form. Enlightenment moral theories failed because they were either based on human nature in its raw form (eg Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, which merely looks at conventional human behaviour and says ‘that is good’); or they were based on human nature in its perfect form (like Kant’s theory) but gave us no practical ladder to get to that perfect form.

Greek philosophy, by contrast, has a biological model of human nature as it is, and a model of how it can be at its most perfect, and a ladder for getting from one to the other.

All well and good. What does this have to do with the movies?

I think some of the most interesting films of the last 30 years are usefully understood through the lens of MacIntyre’s argument. I don’t think the writers and directors necessarily read MacIntyre – in one case they certainly didn’t, because their film pre-dates MacIntyre’s book. But they’re thinking along the same lines, about the collapse of tradition and authority, and the emptiness of liberal pluralism.

The first film is Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorcese. It remains a disturbing movie, because of its dark vision of the liberal, pluralist megapolis, filled with ‘whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies’ (in Bickle’s words), where there’s no common moral framework anymore, where the liberal political elite has become completely divorced from the amoral jungle at street level.

Travis Bickle, the film’s disturbed hero, believes in virtue. He is ‘God’s lonely man’, disgusted with the amorality all around him, and yet also compulsively drawn to it. He embarks on a regime of ‘total organization’: “I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pull-ups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”

And eventually he declares war on the liberal, pluralist society. He writes in his diary: “Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” He buys a variety of guns, and sets himself the mission of saving a child prostitute from her life of amorality. He tries to become a superhero: a man of virtue in an unvirtuous society.

Taxi Driver was clearly a big influence on Se7en, David Fincher’s equally dark movie, released in 1995. The villain of Se7en is a serial killer, John Doe, who, like Bickle, and like the hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, is disgusted by the petty amorality and absurdity of modern life, which he obsessively documents in his journal.

Like Bickle, John Doe decides he will not take it anymore, and commits six murders, each one designed to illustrate one of the seven deadly sins (he is himself the embodiment of Envy).

He is, in a way, a lone Aristotelian in a liberal, pluralist world, showing how far the liberal megapolis has come adrift, and demanding we return to the classical virtues. He says: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example.”

And the darkness of the film is that, while they may not agree with John Doe’s methods, even the ‘good guys’ agree with his thinking: the liberal megapolis has become a place of moral chaos. The film’s hero, William Somerset, says: ” I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.” By the end of the film he has become an absurd figure – a policeman defending a polis he no longer believes in.

The last film, and perhaps the most MacIntyrean, is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The film’s central struggle, between Batman and the Joker, is basically the struggle between Aristotle and Nietzsche which is dramatized in MacIntyre’s book.

On the one hand, Batman is, like Bickle or John Doe, a lone fighter for the virtues in the amoral wasteland of the liberal megapolis. On the other hand, the Joker is Nietszche, trying to expose the amorality, trying to show that just inches below the surface of civilization, we are unreformed animals. He misquotes Nietzsche in his first line in the movie: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you…stranger.’

The irony is that, by the end of the film, Batman has beaten the Joker, but become an outcast, a monster. He has become an Aristotelian without a polis, which means, in effect, that he doesn’t exist – because for Aristotle, man can’t truly be a man if he doesn’t have a city that shares his values. So, in effect, Batman doesn’t exist. In fact, according to Aristotle, none of us really exist, because none of us truly live in communities, only in the atomised fake community of the liberal marketplace. We are all outcasts.

That, by the way, is where Alasdair MacIntyre is: like Travis Bickle, John Doe and Batman, he rejects liberal society, but he is powerless to change it. He thinks the nation-state can never be redeemed, and we merely have to wait for something else to appear out of its ashes. He is a communitarian without a community. He doesn’t exist.