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.


  • Jane says:

    Very interesting, Jules. I agree with your conclusion – it's all well and good having these ideas, but there's no realistic way of implementing them. I feel similarly about capitalism – certain it's a shit system that makes us miserable, but with no idea about a credible alternative. All a bit depressing, actually. I'm going back to bed.

  • Anonymous says:

    m8, You are a good writer with interesting posts, but how can you support or condone any kind of censorship of society. It's just not right.

  • Jules says:


    Hey! Get up lazybones! Exercise = good. We're all working to change society. Blogging about mental health helps other people who are suffering – so you are helping other people. Keep it up. Plus check out some forums for people with depression – I used one for social anxiety, was helpful.


    Thanks! I don't condone censorship, do I? Not in this post anyway.

    But I agree with censorship to some extent – I mean, I don't think we should show people being graphically killed on TV, and I don't think we should show porn to children. That's censorship.

    All best


  • relax says:

    Health Warning: this could offend

    it seemed to me that Dr MacIntyre is a bit of a panda. A panda to the status quo. But, i have to say, i do find that catholic people tend to accept the status quo as it is, and not imagine that there could be something better. for this reason, i found dr mac's analysis rather narrow. i feel that if he took an more holistic approach to society – recognising more its connections and influences, he may arrive at a more helpful game plan. but then, hey, perhaps this criticism could be aimed at philosophy in general …

    before i go on, i must state that i know nothing of dr mac's work or, indeed, of philosophy. my interests are of a more sociological bent, sort of.

    it would appear that post modernism has passed dr mac by?? he's a structuralist, right? (again i dont really know what im talking about here – this is just a comment …)

    i know a m condones the aristotlean society. straight off, and bearing in mind his holocaust reference, i wonder what he thought of the slave system in place then, not to mention the subjugation of women ?… could be that he is censoring these facts …

    there have been many evil acts committed against peoples in history. Agreed, the holocaust was horribly systematic, but then wars aren't good generally. i suppose he would counter that the holocaust was hatefully specific, but wars are usually against one group of people. however, i do note that he rejects the invasion of baghdad also …

    he says that holocaust denial violates canons of historical research. this you can't deny – but neither can am deny that historical research may have only 99% validity – and that that 1% margin for error can't be denied also – that's science.

    and in the light about what a m says about creationism (ie that creationists have little respect for science and yet creationism is taught in a lot of us schools) this is ironic …

  • relax says:

    you are always going to get people who denied what they did – most notably politicians. therefore, you could say that denial is a product of democracy. but it would seem that am isn't a great fan of democracy anyway …

    i don't think, necessarily, that, say, creationists should be debarred from teaching children, but i do think that creationism perhaps shouldn't be taught, as it doesn't have any respect for scientific knowledge. isn't am guilty of 'selective rational intolerance' by suggesting that creationists should be debarred?

    the Danish example concerning the cartoons i found a little perplexing. am says that we should be able to practice our religions freely and that the cartoons hindered this. i disagree. frankly, i find that my views are insulted on a daily basis – i don't see that just because you are a member of an organised religion you should get special treatment … and what about the catholic church recently? does am think they should be exempt from criticism too? surely cartoons are exempt from having to account for themselves? isn't that the nature of cartoons?

    also, shouldn't there be social vehicles for expressing less worthy emotions in society – to let off steam? often, we express our bad thoughts and then we come to different conclusions. am's proposed policy of repression/suppression would appear to disallow these.

  • relax says:

    what really annoyed me about am's talk was his ommissions – the glaring one: gender issues (and yes, the internet …) he went on and on and on about race (ignoring, i felt, culture) but ommitted to talk about the other biggy: gender. this surely makes this analysis invalid? again, i blame his easy acceptance of the status quo that i mentioned for this. nevertheless, during question time, he did talk a little about abortion and, to be honest, this rankled, cos, as a man, i don't feel he is qualified to talk about such things in an empathetic and understanding way. he said that he thought abortion should be a right, but that he believed that abortion is wrong (i think). that's just not good enough. you can't allow women to have abortions legally and yet make public your opinion that to have an abortion is wrong. that's cruel and alienating.

    i didn't really understand his reading list idea for children/young people. i wanted to ask him whether he thought this list should be influenced according to intellectual or emotional mores. but i didn't want to ask him badly enough to put my hand up. however, it's fairly obvious that you wouldn't give porn to children as reading material etc. in fact, i think am's analysis would be more relevant and useful if he had concentrated more on the ubiquitous and obvious corruptions prevalent in society (including the big one: the internet), rather than talking about john stewart mill having read too many good books too soon. i mean, get real, am.

    But, i did like am's identification of the ability of some academics to deny certain texts with impunity – what am called self-censorship, i think.

    also i liked what he said about journalistic information versus misinformation (but i think this was in answer to a question)

    overall, i found am dangerously old-fashioned and out of touch, not to mention intense and rather extreme. i certainly didn't leave with any feelgood factor or optimism about the future. as the birkbeck questioner said, the fact is that we live in a secular society. but i think, again, am's narrow focus on the intellectual and disregard for the emotional most of the time, could have resulted in my feeling like this.

    however, having written this, i might change my mind …

    if am should happen to read this i hope that he takes it as a compliment that i have taken the time to write this … but he should also remember that his academic status results in his having a certain influence …

  • relax says:

    before everyone rushes to point out that i have misunderstood 'selective rational intolerance' – i do realise that i have done so. selective rational intolerance means that we should not tolerate certain things on a rational basis, right? Happy extra hour day!

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