Alasdair MacIntyre is an illiberal old codger
There, I said it. I mean, no one else was ever going to say anything bad about him, were they? MacIntyre has to be the most in-vogue philosopher today, on both Left and Right. On the right, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks goes into raptures over MacIntyre's virtue politics, in his new book, The Social Animal. He is also beloved of the unfortunately named Republican former senator, Rick Santorum, and other virtue communitarians of the Right.
On the Left, he is the favourite living philosopher of Lord Maurice Glasman, and thus the inspiration behind Blue Labour, with its communitarian politics of virtue, faith and family, which Ed Milliband has just endorsed.
I read MacIntyre's magnum opus, After Virtue, last summer, and like most people who read it, I loved it. It was a brilliant critique of the moral confusion spawned by the Enlightenment, and made a wonderfully persuasive case for Aristotelian virtue ethics as the only way beyond the moral relativism bequeathed us by the collapse of Christianity.
But I imagine no one is more surprised by MacIntyre's sudden vogueishness than MacIntyre himself. His ethics and his politics are peculiarly unsuited to the modern, liberal, multicultural state, because he doesn't believe that politics is even possible in a modern, liberal, multicultural state.
For MacIntyre, as for Aristotle, the basis of a state is friendship - small networks of people joined together through friendship, common values and conversation. Genuine politics is only possible, MacIntyre suggests, in smaller societies where everyone shares the same values. That's obviously not possible in the large multicultural state, which is why, at the end of After Virtue, MacIntyre seems to look forward to the collapse of western civilization, and the emergence of 'another, very different St Benedict' from its ashes, to establish small monastic communities of shared value. MacIntyre doesn't believe in the modern state, only in small communes of shared value.
There are different ways you can interpret Aristotle, and the Stagirite seems to take different approaches to politics himself. Sometimes he sees politics as the mystical unification of people into the Common Good. Sometimes he sees it more as the pragmatic balancing off of various interests. MacIntyre is much more interested in the former vision of politics as a spiritual unification of people into a Volk, than he is in the more pragmatic vision of balancing interests, which he dismisses as "civil war by other means".
MacIntyre also, by the way, suggests that, for Aristotle, the individual cannot exist outside of a community. The individual outside of a community is, according to MacIntyre, a non-person, a shadow. I don't think this is an accurate interpretation of Greek philosophy. Think of Stoicism, which is all about the individual existing and having value regardless of the state - regardless of whether the state even exists. You may have been exiled from the state, as Aristotle and so many other philosophers were. But you still exist, and you can still pursue the good.
But such thinking is rank individualism to MacIntyre the old Marxist, MacIntyre the committed collectivist, MacIntyre the open admirer of the People's Republic of China.
I say this as someone with deep admiration for MacIntyre's ideas, and a great deal of sympathy for them. But someone has to point out the obvious illiberalism of his philosophy, and its enmity to aspects of our society which are commonly held dear, such as multiculturalism, freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief. He is an apocalyptic visionary, someone who looks forward to the end of our liberal civilization, which makes it all the more surprising that so many contemporary thinkers and even politicians should be signing up to his ideas.
Anyway, you can make up your own minds about him: he's making a rare appearance in his native UK on Friday June 3rd, to make the opening address at a conference on Aristotle and virtue politics at the London Met. Worth a listen.