The influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has long stood outside the mainstream. Has the financial crisis finally vindicated his critique of global capitalism?by John Cornwell / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Alasdair MacIntyre argues for a single, shared view of the good life
The man in a modest dark suit and grey shirt could be mistaken, save for the presence of his wife of 33 years, for an off-duty Benedictine abbot. We’re dining in the elegant ambience of the Cambridge Catholic university chaplaincy; the conversation is animated, but the man, an 81-year-old philosopher, contents himself with a glass of water, leaving the dishes and vintage claret untouched. Self-effacing, a trifle austere, he nevertheless exudes a benign humanity from the top of his monkish haircut to his scuffed toe-caps.
Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the world’s most influential living moral philosophers. He has written 30 books on ethics and held a variety of professorial chairs over the past four decades in North America. Blending ideas from ancient Greece and medieval Christendom (with an admixture of Marxism), MacIntyre writes and lectures on the failings and discontents of “advanced modernity.” This summer he accepted an invitation from Prospect and Jesus College, Cambridge to talk to a group of academics on the economic disaster that capitalism has inflicted on itself and the world.
MacIntyre has often given the impression of a robe-ripping Savonarola. He has lambasted the heirs to the principal western ethical schools: John Locke’s social contract, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Yet his is not a lone voice in the wilderness. He can claim connections with a trio of 20th-century intellectual heavyweights: the late Elizabeth Anscombe, her surviving husband, Peter Geach, and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, winner in 2007 of the Templeton prize. What all four have in common is their Catholic faith, enthusiasm for Aristotle’s telos (life goals), and promotion of Thomism, the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas who married Christianity and Aristotle. Leo XIII (pope from 1878 to 1903), who revived Thomism while condemning communism and unfettered capitalism, is also an influence.
MacIntyre’s key moral and political idea is that to be human is to be an Aristotelian goal-driven, social animal. Being good, according to Aristotle, consists in a creature (whether plant, animal, or human) acting according to its nature—its telos, or purpose. The telos for human beings is to generate a communal life with others; and the good society is composed of many independent, self-reliant groups.
There are strong, albeit derivative, echoes of these ideas in the policies of Phillip…