Thursday, June 15, 2006

Alasdair MacIntyre responds to MLKJ's vicious and rhetorically charged attack on my Burkean anti-protest position

From After Virtue:
But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

This is probably difficult to wrap your mind around if you haven't closely read After Virtue--hell, it's still difficult after you've read it. But what he's saying is that protests appeal, usually, to rights. They're rights are being violated in some way, and so they demand redress. Society at large, which is violating these "rights," is doing so in the name of utility, that is, in the name of benefit for society as a whole.

However, rights and utility are "incommensurable"--they simply cannot be compared and measured against each other. Each is a different standard, and there is no "metastandard" which will allow us to judge which of these standards are right. Each is their own moral idiom, so to speak, so conversation where one side appeals to rights and the other to utility is doomed to end in a sheer assertion of will on each side.

To put it another way: The concept of rights is a premise (or set of premises) from which one formulates moral claims--in the case of immigration, from the concept of rights one would formulate a "right to live in the US" or some such. However, the concept of utility is an entirely different set of premises from which moral claims are formulated. Valid arguments can be deduced from each differing set of premises, but the differing premises themselves--rights and utility--cannot be argued, only asserted.

Is that clear? It's a substantial thesis on modern discourse, that's for sure. Nearly all moral claims we make are inarguable in that they are based on assertions of premises which cannot be justified. One could call it postmodern, but actually it's premodern--MacIntyre believes the answer (insofar as there is one) is a return to Aristotelian teleology. I don't know that I agree with everything MacIntyre says (I haven't finished After Virtue yet, either), but for anyone that has observed contemporary political discourse it sure makes a lot of sense.

After Virtue is somewhat of a dense book that assumes at least a brief familiarity with major philosophers. It also contains bits of entirely unforgiving prose--still, it's nearly impossible to put down. It may sound strange, but it reads like the greatest thriller ever written. We moderns, according to MacIntyre, are living after an enormous cataclysm--the apocalypse of morality. And yet, by and large, we don't even realize it. We still use moral terms as if they have definite content and mean something. But it is really just an unjustified--and unjustifiable--perversion of Aristotle that depends on a Nietzschean will-to-power. As noted above, we speak the incommensurable languages of rights and utility, without even giving a thought to their incommesurability. An amazon reviewer was spot on:
The setting is the Western world; the characters are philosophers; the plot is the murder of Aristotle. Who killed him? Was it Hume in the Enlightenment with the candlestick? Was it Machiavelli in the Renaissance? Was it Kierkegaard the Dane with a book: Enten-Eller? Was it the Bloomsbury group with their emotivist approach to ethics? Was it, after all has been said and done, Nietzsche?


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