The influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has long stood outside the mainstream. Has the financial crisis finally vindicated his critique of global capitalism?
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 Blond, David Cameron’s “Red Tory” guru. In the US, policy wonk Lew Daly pays tribute to MacIntyre and papal social teaching as he advises Barack Obama on how to create a national health service without state domination. MacIntyre differs from all these influences and alliances, from Leo XIII onwards, in his residual respect for Marx’s critique of capitalism.
MacIntyre begins his Cambridge talk by asserting that the 2008 economic crisis was not due to a failure of business ethics. The opener is not a red herring. Ever since he published his key text After Virtue in 1981, he has argued that moral behaviour begins with the good practice of a profession, trade, or art: playing the violin, cutting hair, brick-laying, teaching philosophy. Through these everyday social practices, he maintains, people develop the appropriate virtues. In other words, the virtues necessary for human flourishing are not a result of the top-down application of abstract ethical principles, but the development of good character in everyday life. After Virtue, which is in essence an attack on the failings of the Enlightenment, has in its sights a catalogue of modern assumptions of beneficence: liberalism, humanism, individualism, capitalism. MacIntyre yearns for a single, shared view of the good life as opposed to modern pluralism’s assumption that there can be many competing views of how to live well.
In philosophy he attacks consequentialism, the view that what matters about an action is its consequences, which is usually coupled with utilitarianism’s “greatest happiness” principle. He also rejects Kantianism—the identification of universal ethical maxims based on reason and applied to circumstances top down. MacIntyre’s critique routinely cites the contradictory moral principles adopted by the allies in the second world war. Britain invoked a Kantian reason for declaring war on Germany: that Hitler could not be allowed to invade his neighbours. But the bombing of Dresden (which for a Kantian involved the treatment of people as a means to an end, something that should never be countenanced) was justified under consequentialist or utilitarian arguments: to bring the war to a swift end.
While utilitarianism flourished in Anglophone moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, there were doubts about its integrity—and the critique was led by the late Bernard Williams and MacIntyre. Williams attempted to expose utilitarianism’s limitations with a famous anecdote. A brilliant chemist is unemployed with five children to feed and an unpaid mortgage. There’s a job going at Porton Down, the British centre for chemical warfare. The chemist hates these weapons—but if he doesn’t take the job, another person will, who would pursue the research more ardently. Williams argues in his book Utilitarianism: For and Against (co-written with JJ Smart) that a utilitarian would say the man should definitely take the job. But, Williams argues, that does not take into account the man’s “whole life project”: in more popular terms, his ability to look at himself in the mirror.
For MacIntyre, Williams’s “whole life project” is a thin and uncertain principle. MacIntyre seeks to oppose utilitarianism on the grounds that people are called on by their very nature to be good, not merely to perform acts that can be interpreted as good. The most damaging consequence of the Enlightenment, for MacIntyre, is the decline of the idea of a tradition within which an individual’s desires are disciplined by virtue. And that means being guided by internal rather than external “goods.” So the point of being a good footballer is the internal good of playing beautifully and scoring lots of goals, not the external good of earning a lot of money. The trend away from an Aristotelian perspective has been inexorable: from the empiricism of David Hume, to Darwin’s account of nature driven forward without a purpose, to the sterile analytical philosophy of AJ Ayer and the “demolition of metaphysics” in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic.
When it comes to the money-men, MacIntyre applies his metaphysical approach with unrelenting rigour. There are skills, he argues, like being a good burglar, that are inimical to the virtues. Those engaged in finance—particularly money trading—are, in MacIntyre’s view, like good burglars. Teaching ethics to traders is as pointless as reading Aristotle to your dog. The better the trader, the more morally despicable.
At this point, MacIntyre appeals to the classical golden mean: “The courageous human being,” he cites Aristotle as saying, “strikes a mean between rashness and cowardice… and if things go wrong she or he will be among those who lose out.” But skilful money-men, MacIntyre argues, want to transfer as much risk as possible to others without informing them of its nature. This leads to a failure to “distinguish adequately between rashness, cowardice and courage.” Successful money-men do not—and cannot—take into account the human victims of the collateral damage resulting from market crises. Hence the financial sector is in essence an environment of “bad character” despite the fact that it appears to many a benevolent engine of growth.
This rift between economics and ethics, says MacIntyre, stems from the failure of our culture “to think coherently about money.” Instead, we should think like Aristotle and Aquinas, who saw the value of money “to be no more, no less than the value of the goods which can be exchanged, so there’s no reason for anyone to want money other than for the goods they buy.” Money affords more choices and choice is good. But when they are imposed by others whose interest is in getting us to spend, then money becomes the sole measure of human flourishing. “Goods are to be made and supplied, insofar as they can be turned into money… ultimately, money becomes the measure of all things, including itself.” Money can now be made “from the exchange of money for money… and trading in derivatives and in derivatives of derivatives.” And so those who work in the financial sector have become dislocated from the uses of money in everyday life. One symptom of this, MacIntyre contends, is gross inequality. In 2009, for instance, the chief executives of Britain’s 100 largest companies earned on average 81 times more than the average pay of a full-time worker.
MacIntyre’s diagnosis of, and remedy for, the woes of “advanced modernity” invokes the history of his philosophical journey through six decades. Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre was born in 1929 in Glasgow, the only child of two doctors. “They left Scotland three weeks after I was born and went to work in the east end of London.” But his father died when he was still a boy, and his mother went to live in south Belfast, where he would spend his holidays from Epsom College, an independent secondary school mostly for sons of physicians. At 16 he enrolled at Queen Mary College in east London to specialise in classics. (Perhaps out of nostalgia for the east end he is now a senior research fellow at London Metropolitan University up the road.) He went on to Manchester University as a graduate student at the age of 21, and after three years was appointed to a lectureship in philosophy, followed by teaching stints at Leeds and Oxford. He was drawn early to Karl Marx and his first book was a defence of Marxism, although like many other intellectuals he changed his opinion of the Soviet Union after its suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.
Through his twenties he probed mainstream philosophy in search of a life view: to find “something that he wanted to say.” He rejected utilitarianism and its greatest happiness calculation because it appeared to provide no place for genuinely unconditional commitments, and Kantianism because, while recognising that some actions are morally required or prohibited, it offers no motivation based on our desires. “The hard work of morality,” MacIntyre insists, “consists in the transformation of desires, so that we aim at the good and respect the precepts of the natural law.”
Although baptised a Presbyterian, from his early twenties MacIntyre abandoned religion for a quarter of a century. He appears to have shared for a time AJ Ayer’s assertion that the only significant propositions are those that can be empirically or scientifically verified. MacIntyre’s conversion to Catholicism in his fifties, he tells me, occurred as a result of being convinced of Thomism while attempting to disabuse his students of its authenticity. Aquinas combined Aristotle’s account of a universe knowable through observation with Christian philosophy, arguing that such a world still required God’s existence as its sustaining creator. An Aristotelian-Thomistic view of society and the world, as set out in After Virtue, offered the best philosophical underpinning for human flourishing, and the only alternative to the fragmentation of modern moral philosophy.
MacIntyre argues that those committed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of the common good must begin again. This involves “capturing the double aspect of the globalising economy and its financial sector, so that we understand it both as an engine of growth and as such a source of benefits, but equally as a perpetrator of great harms and continuing injustices.” Apologists for globalisation, he argues, treat it as a source of benefits, and only accidentally and incidentally a source of harms. Hence, the view that “to be for or against globalisation is in some ways like being for or against the weather.”
MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt. The owners and managers of capital always want to keep wages and other costs as low as possible. “But, insofar as they succeed, they create a recurrent problem for themselves. For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high.” Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.
This expansion of credit, he goes on, has been accompanied by a distribution of risk that exposed to ruin millions of people who were unaware of their exposure. So when capitalism once again overextended itself, massive credit was transformed into even more massive debt, “into loss of jobs and loss of wages, into bankruptcies of firms and foreclosures of homes, into one sort of ruin for Ireland, another for Iceland, and a third for California and Illinois.” Not only does capitalism impose the costs of growth or lack of it on those least able to bear them, but much of that debt is unjust. And the “engineers of this debt,” who had already benefited disproportionately, “have been allowed to exempt themselves from the consequences of their delinquent actions.” The imposition of unjust debt is a symptom of the “moral condition of the economic system of advanced modernity, and is in its most basic forms an expression of the vices of intemperateness, and injustice, and imprudence.”
So what is his answer? His principles involve “issues of deserving,” “responsible risk-taking,” and “setting limits to the burdens of debt.” Deserving is an issue, he argues, when the consequences of debt are inflicted on those who played no part in incurring it, such as children. Those who expose others to risk in the financial markets must spell out in public and in advance the risks that they are distributing in intelligible terms. And when risk-taking goes wrong, the consequences for those who made the decisions must be made as bad as they are for their worst-off victims. Finally, he argues that limits should be set to the burdens imposed by debt on individual and family lives, so that they are not disproportionate—this may involve caps on interest rates, as in Germany, or even forgiving debt. Despite such principles, MacIntyre does not advocate bank nationalisation, preferring it seems a return to the paternalistic style of bank manager represented by Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.
Yet there is evident creativity in finance through the role of maturity transformation—borrowing short, lending long. MacIntyre does not acknowledge this, nor is he prepared to accept accounts of the positive benefits of money creation, or the use of derivatives in offsetting risk. In the face of such points he tends to adopt the stance of the intransigent prophet. Moreover, he denies that regulation or breaking up the banks can resolve the problems of the finance sector, since regulations merely “have as their aim the prevention of further large-scale crises.” When asked, then, whether his perspective is a counsel of despair, he responds that there are evils in the world that one “simply has to live with for the time being.” It does not appear that he means by this an acceptance of original sin so much as a prelude to major change or revolution. But to what?
MacIntyre appears to have entered an endgame position involving a hybrid of Marx and Aquinas, with Marx as the prime influence. His version of Aquinas, meanwhile, stresses the medieval Christian opposition to usury. John Milbank, founder of the Cambridge school of radical orthodoxy, which has influenced Blond’s Red Toryism, complains: “We are given an Aquinas that no historical scholar any longer believes in, an Aquinas without the theology. Where is Aquinas’s emphasis on the supernatural light of charity? For Aquinas there is no full justice without it, just as there is no genuinely good state without the church.” Blond echoes the objections: “It looks as if Aristotle and Aquinas have been made to conform to a Marxist materialism and collectivism. The Aristotelian virtues are simply posited as a kind of natural law.”
Nevertheless, since the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Blond has been seeking and finding connections between MacIntyre, Aquinas, GK Chesterton’s “distributism” of the 1920s, and Jo Grimond’s plea for civic groups in the 1950s. Are these not the antecedents of David Cameron’s big society? The link between Aquinas and the 20th century is distributism, a philosophy which repudiated usury, communism and capitalism in equal measure for an economy based on guilds, specialist associations, self-sufficiency and barter. MacIntyre made wistful reference in his Prospect talk to one of distributism’s principal architects—Father Vincent McNabb. Distributism as a political party collapsed in the 1930s, and Father McNabb was last heard from his soap box at Hyde Park Corner complaining of apartment blocks (which lack sufficient land to graze a cow) and advocating the use of one’s natural skin oils as a substitute for boot polish. Distributist and subsidiarist ideas, encouraging guilds and associations, flourished for a time in 1920s Italy in the form of Mussolini’s early corporatism.
If MacIntyre’s ethics of finance raises more questions than it settles, he still beguiles with his illustrations from history. For example, he entertained his listeners with the story of the founding of a diesel engine factory in which an investor and engineer came together to create an ideal small-scale business for their mutual benefit and that of the local community. Later, demonstrating the ways in which globalised “bad character” can be resisted by “virtuous risk taking,” he cited four narratives: the 18th-century Guaraní Indians (depicted in the film The Mission) who chose a collectivised future under “proto-Leninist” Jesuits rather than slavery; the early founders of the kibbutzim at odds with competing visions of collectivisation; the Kerala leaders of the Marxist Communist party of India in 1957, who placated landowners and government while helping the poor; and the small farmers of Donegal in the 1960s who chose to establish a co-operative that sustained their Gaelic-speaking community rather than emigrate.
Such stories are fascinating, but contribute little to the larger woes he had set out in his lecture, the solutions to which demand, as he acknowledges, “social structures of an economy… very different from those of either a wholly free market economy or the state-and-market economies of present-day Europe.” Other than telling us that “it would be an economy in which… deference to wealth would be recognised as a vice,” he does not enlarge. His micro-models of a proto-Leninist theocracy—a kibbutz, a Marxist Indian state, and an Irish farming co-operative—do not lead one to believe that his ideal replacement for western-style democracy and the global economy would be realistic let alone desirable.
At the end of After Virtue, however, he argues that we have already entered a new age of “darkness and barbarism” similar to the decline of the Roman empire. “This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.” The survival of virtuous civilisation may depend, he implies, not on a world revolution but on the persistence of isolated communities similar to the monasteries that withstood the depredations of the dark ages. “We are waiting not for a Godot,” he concludes in After Virtue, “but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.” But who or what would that look like? He does not, as yet, say.