Partially Examined Life is halfway through two episodes devoted to Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and I am thoroughly enjoying the discussion and readings. It brings me back to my days as a Political Philosophy major at Wheaton College, where my most influential professor was a communitarian in the mold of MacIntyre. I was actually surprised to find out that I didn’t own a copy of AV, but the Augustana College Library came through for me. A week of vacation isolated in the Black Hills of South Dakota provided plenty of opportunity to read.
The first episode, which I listened to on my drive out, included readings of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica and C.L. Stevenson’s “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”, who embody a mode of ethical inquiry that was dominant during the first half of the twentieth century.
They were dominant, that is, until MacIntyre came along and dismissed them with this book’s sweeping and devastating critique of their emotivism. On page 15 of AV, MacIntyre writes: ‘Moore’s arguments at times are, it must seem now, obviously defective – he tries to show that ‘good’ is indefinable, for example, but relying on a bad dictionary definition of ‘definition’ – and a good deal is asserted rather than argued.”
Indeed, MacIntyre came in for some criticism from PEL for being so dismissive of Moore, with the philosophy podcasters saying that Moore is not that easy to cast aside. But I think they were actually making his case and I will explain how.
First, MacIntyre agrees with PEL about Moore, writing on page 18 that “the general claims of emotivism reinterpreted as a theory of use cannot be so easily put on one side…For what emotivism asserts is in central part that there are and can be no valid rational justification for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist and hence that there are no such standards.”
MacIntyre spends little time on the underlying theory of Moore because he believes that its three main tenants – good is indefinable, right actions are those that produce the most good, the greatest goods are personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments – have been proven false or are highly contentious. Instead, MacIntyre focuses on Moore’s language, which lives on in the general culture as people make ethical arguments without rational, objective means to adjudicate them. Thus, on page 21, MacIntyre writes: “For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical stand-point may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture.”
It seems to me that PEL is a highly illustrative example of MacIntyre’s thesis. I have only listened to a few dozen episodes, but I get the distinct impression that they would, as MacIntyre states, assert “no valid rational justification for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist.” What wins the day on PEL is what is argued the most effectively, not by recourse to any objective standard, but with the most convincing rhetoric.
The next episode of PEL will include a reading of Aristotle’s Politics (which I do own a copy of) and will move from MacIntyre’s critique of emotivism to his positive project. I haven’t yet finished AV and I’m looking forward to the discussion to see how everything cashes out. I may yet discover that my thoughts in this post are off base.