Truth, trust, and rules
a trail run through MacIntyre and conservatism in our time of manifold crisis
“I was born for this, and for this I have come into the cosmos: that I might testify to the truth; everyone who belongs to the truth hearkens to my voice.”
Pilate says to him, “What is truth?”
— John 18:37–38
Alasdair MacIntyre said that for communities to flourish, and for the individuals who constitute a community to flourish, there has to exist within any given community such trust as is “possible only where there is a shared exercise of the virtue of truthfulness, one that in turn requires a shared acknowledgement of the authority of moral rules.” In several books, he explained how the liberal-capitalist organization of society tends to erode the exercise of truthfulness and this shared acknowledgement of authority.
I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about the social disintegration we’re witnessing in all fields and at all scales, because writing about things forces me to clarify my own thinking and submit those thoughts to the inspection of other, more reliable, critics. At the outset, I confess everything I say here will be descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m more convinced each day there is no prescription. At any rate, this post is a sketch map, not a route plan.
As to Alasdair MacIntyre, this piece can do little more than entice the reader (if the reader isn’t already familiar with MacIntyre). MacIntyre’s philosophy is more than merely challenging, its intricacies too numerous to count; and as one of his interlocutors said, to fully grasp MacIntyre, one has to grasp every one of his legion of references . . . the same person said MacIntyre appeared to be someone who never forgot anything he ever read. Nonetheless, I do want to entice you, so I’m going to wave the aroma in your direction. He’ll make you work for the knowledge, but he doesn’t like the idea of philosophy as a compartmented academic discipline; he challenges us, but he writes for you and me.
While I was reading MacIntyre’s reply to several of his own critics, written in 2013, it again struck me how helpful MacIntyre’s diagnoses have been in understanding the contradictions and conundrums we experience nowadays as we witness and try to make sense of our current social disintegrations. We not only don’t have “a shared understanding of common goods”; we don’t even have a shared belief that there are such things. Likewise, we have no shared understanding of common evils; and by that I don’t mean just personal moral evils like pride, concupiscence, and personal violence, but higher order evils like arbitrary power, obscene wealth accumulation, war, and biospheric destruction.
Just as we have no shared belief about common goods, we likewise have no common agreement that there even are such things as moral evils. MacIntyre attributed this lack of general agreement to something called emotivism; and more recently, expressivism. More on that further down.
In this ethical chaos — cultivated by the liberal capitalist regime of recent centuries, with its one-two punch of acquisitive individualism and a war-fueled plague called technical “progress” — the only thing that could possibly flourish was, and is, the evermore unbridled and irresponsible power of an evermore après moi, le déluge variety.
What do conservatives want to conserve?
When MacIntyre raised these issues in his first influential book, After Virtue, he was accused of conservatism by liberals, attacked by conservatives as a closeted Marxist, and sometimes embraced by other conservatives as one of their own. He emphatically denied all this, calling conservatism the mirror image of liberalism, and rejecting both. He’s explained all this in detail, but I want to address the idea that he’s a conservative here, among other things, just because I’ve entered into tentative conversations with some conservatives, and I recommend other nonconservatives do the same.
Many of these conservatives recognize certain truths in MacIntyre’s analyses, particularly the liberal erosion of most forms of durable social cohesion. This erosion seems to be happening right before our eyes. Even as conservatives recognize this lack, or disappearance, they answer what I believe to be a legitimate recognition with the delusion that it can be somehow restored by fiat, by planning it, or even by seizing power and legislating some version of Morality (another concept MacIntyre rejected as a liberal “set of impersonal rules”).
And let’s be fair . . . left and right both share this policy-fix daydream, which is major factor in today’s politico-cultural wars. They’re fighting about whose daydream of transformation-by-fiat is the correct one. I’m specifically but not exclusively addressing conservatives here, because I believe we have enough of a shared vocabulary in MacIntyre, and a number of other thinkers who don’t wedge themselves into a slot on the left-right continuum, to speak with one another frankly and in good faith.
MacIntyre said that three philosophers were indispensable to his own thought — Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx. Conservatives can tend to ignore the latter, partly out of an inflexible (and ill-advised) wholesale rejection of Marx as a kind of devil. (Oddly enough, MacIntyre — channeling Wittgenstein — leveled the same criticism at both conservatives and Marxists — that they show little concern for the meaning of language.)
The aspect of Marx’s thought to which MacIntyre clings is the inescapable relation between collective thought, practices, lived experience, and “material conditions” in the unfolding of history. The inescapability of this relation is why (Catholic, not Marxist) MacIntyre does not recommend some return to the past as, for example, conservative Catholic integralists do. The past no longer exists, except in the Faulknerian sense, and the specific matrices and evolutionary dynamics of “material conditions” upon which past social regimes were dependent have disappeared, never to return. New wine, old wineskins.
Atomization and counter-fantasies
Principle among those material conditions, at least in “developed” societies, is the increasing social isolation which corresponds to capital’s progressive destruction of the commons. I don’t mean merely alienation or some other psychological artifact of this destruction, but physical isolation combined with compulsory hypermobility, and the ways our lives are chopped up and put into mobile compartments — tendencies exacerbated by the digitalization of society, which has our eyes locked onto a screen of some kind for hours each day oblivious to physical world around us.
I could use my own family of origin as an example of compulsory hypermobility. My father’s family was in Michigan, my mother’s in Arkansas. By the time they’d married, the big “jobs” migration was to Southern California for the post-WWII boom in war materiel (the “defense” industry). Aunts, uncles, and cousins marched out of Arkansas with them to this new promised land. When my dad was laid off in San Diego, we moved to Missouri (where both parents ended up working in the “defense” industry again), and then back to Arkansas for a lowered cost of living. My sister lived in four states before returning to Arkansas. I joined the Army, lived in Colorado, Washington state, Texas, Georgia, New York state, Panama, and ended up retiring in North Carolina. My brother ended up in Galveston, Texas. Our kids now live in Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Germany, and Hawaii, and we live in Michigan. Niche-hopping.
We were not, and are not, exceptional. The old multi-generational bonds tied to place and practice, upon which older forms of solidarity could be established, are less and less possible in a world where people have to “stick and move,” adapting themselves to capital migrations, upward and downward mobility, false starts, shifting “opportunities,” and occasional catastrophes.
Not only is it difficult to establish and maintain those familial bonds beyond the financial and affective, it’s difficult — impossible for many — to establish bonds of genuine practical and cooperative solidarity with one’s physical neighbors, that is, through shared practices. We’ve been enclosed, literally, in ever more digitalized “smart houses” — comfortable cages with electronic hallucinations to distract us , serving as private outposts in a privatized world. To leave the house, you’ll need cash or cards. The capital-enclosed world is a meshwork of toll stations.
Some conservatives are now adopting a kind of Red Tory approach to all this, and have become critical of unbridled capitalism. Here we might have substantial common ground.
I have to say this, though. Conservative fantasies about the restoration of archaic bonds, or the politico-cultural structures erected upon them, frequently include the unfortunate underlying desire by some to restore arbitrary male authority over women. It’s not going to happen, guys . . . nor should it. We won’t restore monarchies. We won’t “build” some idealized neo-Medieval paradise. We won’t restore past patriarchal authority (real or imagined). Get over it.
We do have an area of agreement with regard to the preposterous pop-poststructuralist gender ideology that took hold in the nineties, but it doesn’t extend into patriarchal restoration, and it doesn’t include past legal sanctions targeting sexual minorities.
While we’re on Late Medieval nostalgia, MacIntyre’s attachment to the late Middle Ages was to the baby, not the bathwater, that is, to Aquinas’s theses on Aristotelian virtue. He’s quite clear that this period is irrecoverably past, and that this period led directly to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment.
Even the more benign fantasies of “building” off-grid cooperative communities based on distributist principles are off the table, because the overwhelming majority of us are trapped where we are right now.
And intentional communities?
They consistently fail. They fail because they begin with individualistic and opinionated people who already have the means to play at small-scale social engineering — and most have an absurd prejudice against hierarchy, which is essential to social stability. Just add egos and sex, and all these “communities” split and go off the rails in fairly short order. There are precious few exceptions (and none of them utopian). They also fail because they remain embedded in the larger world, a world enclosed by capital and its ruthless market logic. Some intentional communities fall under the spell of a dominant personality and take on cult-like characteristics until people just can’t deal with in anymore.
Practice, manipulation, and impersonality
Aristotelian truth, which Aristotle himself undermined in his exclusion of most of humanity from the species zoon politikon, or rather this complex of truth-trust-rules, is predicated on shared practices. The only shared practices across most of American society (and others where I have less standing to speak) are (1) using digital technology, and (2) operating automobiles, and (3) corporately controlled consumption.
The common good is difficult to achieve in the absence of common practices and common spaces.
Late liberalism makes plenty of room for a constantly shifting sea of “overlapping interests,” but none for the common good. And let’s be clear, society is not synonymous with community, and public goods is not synonymous with the common good. (Left and right can both err in conflating these, because they haven’t grasped that the former is impersonal and the latter relational.)
[P]ublic goods [roads, schools, etc.] can be understood as goods to be achieved by individuals qua individuals, and to be enjoyed by individuals qua individuals, while common goods are only to be enjoyed and achieved . . . by individuals qua members of various groups or qua participants in various activities. (MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, pp. 168–9)
Families, as the easiest example, achieve and enjoy common goods (and yes, dysfunctional families can fail at it). Note that MacIntyre says a school, for example, can be a school as a public good, but in its relational operations can aim at common goods. Common goods are arrived at between persons in deliberation, who ostensibly share a common interest in achieving the common good.
The Aristotelian “citizen” acts as a citizen through friendship in the pursuit of that common good; but in present-day metropolitan society this is physically challenging and epistemologically nearly impossible given how we are pre-sorted as self-exploiting resources, consumers, and interest groups decoupled from common places and common practices. The affective bonds of family are separated in space, while spatially adjacent neighbors’ lives are compartmented away from one another by variant activities away from their digitally-enhanced barracks. The shared-trust-in-shared-place necessary for any meaningful form of community (which presupposes shared place) lacks the “shared exercise of the virtue of truthfulness, one that in turn requires a shared acknowledgement of the authority of moral rules.” That trust has less and less ground into which it can root, and therein is the dilemma.
One of my key takeaways from MacIntyre’s After Virtue was that liberal emotivism (later called expressivism)— “the view that moral judgments do not function as statements of fact but rather as expressions of the speaker’s or writer’s feelings” — underwrites a society of competing interests with bureaucracy as referee, which “entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.” (emphasis mine)
Think here about sales culture, political culture, sexual-objectification culture, or the self-exploitation of consumer culture. Truthfulness is seen as secondary to the creation of manipulative performances and images. The catechism for many jobs is training in some form of manipulation. Preparation for interviews for jobs or schools or memberships is practicing manipulation. There are actual courses on how to “sell yourself” or do “personality makeovers.” The mark of the disembodied liberal individual, says MacIntyre is that “[w]e come to refer to ourselves with the same impersonality with which we refer to others.”
Skill at manipulation — which objectifies the other (and the self!) — is seen as a virtue . . . or even an asset! Trust, in this milieu, is a liability. We don’t have trust, we don’t have truth, and the only rules we have are bureaucratic. Instead, what we have is generalizing disability and dependence. This isn’t solely a function of wrong-thinking, it is literally built into the environment — a material condition.
This is what back-to-the-lander ideologues tend to ignore. I don’t mean some of the heroic and incredibly hard-working people who are working the land, more power to them . . . I mean people who espouse the fantasy of generalized re-ruralization, or who promote kingly head-trips about moving populations around like pieces on a game board.
Same for fantasy preppers, who think they can go “off grid” with their $20,000 gas-fueled ATVs and guns (with a presumably unending supply of manufactured ammunition) and live off of an unlimited supply of venison and dandelions for the rest of their lives.
The land is diminishing, the spaces carved up into privatized plots, the soil ruined, the water drawn off and-or poisoned. Even those of us who understand the role of commons are forced to admit that the commons, of every kind, have been systematically enclosed, built upon, or abandoned as toxic ruins. Ninety-four percent of the US lives in urban areas . . . where will the Pol Pot visionaries move them to achieve their Utopias, their Year Zeros?
Dependency, disability, and Dreher
MacIntyre, writing in Dependent Rational Animals, places great emphasis on dependency and disability as either transient or chronic human conditions that bring ethico-political concerns into sharp focus.
What I am trying to envisage then is a form of political society in which it is taken for granted that disability and dependence on others are something all of us experience at certain times in our lives and this to unpredictable degrees, and that consequently our interest in how the needs of the disabled are adequately voiced and met is not a special interest of one particular group rather than of others, but rather the interest of the whole political society, an interest that is integral to the common good. (p. 130)
I want to talk about different kinds of dependency and disability which are more general and more artificial, more an outcome of socio-political structures than accident, misfortune, and age. These forms of dependency and disability are the major stumbling blocks for would-be social engineers in the present, and for many people being left behind by the liberal order as well as for those of us not yet left behind but headed in that direction as liberalism continues to fail.
Our socio-political dependency is nearly absolute. Not a single one of us can survive without money, without our means of access to money, or without the technologies that correspond to those means. Not a single one of us can go for very long without a steady supply of electricity, or a steady inflow of fossil hydrocarbons (often the same thing). All of us are utterly dependent on automobiles, planes, and ships. I live in Michigan, where just maintaining enough heat to survive for seven months out of the year depends on a constant supply of natural gas.
That dependency is compounded by disability. Specialization and automation have deprived most of us of the very practical skills that might be most useful in times of emergency, of the kinds of skills and the kind of practical improvisational thinking that might allow us to adapt in the future or to ameliorate out dependency in the present. We might be better off sending our kids to learn carpentry, gardening, and canning, instead of coding and business administration. Dumpster diving and repurposing hacks. Except, like us, they don’t have time. In addition to dependency and disability, the rat race to keep up (to survive and pay off debt) leaves insufficient time. That’s what capital and its enclosures really steal: time. The lack of time to do things, apart from getting by — this is a real thing, a material condition.
MacIntyre made a widely misinterpreted point at the end of After Virtue, that our response to the increasing moral and intellectual disorder of late modernity has us waiting “not for Godot, but for another, doubtless very different, St. Benedict.” The most popular misinterpretation of this final sentence in MacIntyre’s first edition was The Benedict Option, a book by the conservative Rod Dreher outlining a somewhat grandiose fantasy of intentional Catholic communities which “embrace exile from the mainstream culture and construct a resilient counterculture.”
MacIntyre himself quipped that Dreher had “apparently read nothing but that one sentence” in After Virtue. MacIntyre explained that his reference to St. Benedict — the actual St. Benedict, who did not isolate himself or his followers from the surrounding culture — was not suggesting “a withdrawal from society into isolation of a certain sort; this is actually the creation of a new set of social institutions that then proceed to evolve . . . So, when I said we need a new St. Benedict, I was suggesting we need a new kind of engagement with the social order, not any kind of withdrawal from it.” (emphasis added)
I understand Dreher’s concern, which has transitioned him over the past decade from a reactive, sexually-panicked, Islam-bashing “conservative” to a somewhat more thoughtful “conservative post-liberal.” I also understand personal transitions, being someone who has changed my own views rather dramatically in the light of changed circumstances and the acquisition of new conceptual frameworks. I share with these conservatives, for example, the conviction that the so-called “sexual revolution” created more problems than solutions . . . even post-Marxist feminists recognize that; but our motivations differ. Conservative panic seems to be more about a “crisis of masculinity” and the loss of patriarchal prerogative than about the well-being of women.
Apart from conservative sexual panics and (it must be said) a rather modern conservative eurocentrism, the breakdown of “trust, truth, and rules” really is a major feature of our more general social crisis. There is a baby in the bathwater. Dreher himself has modified his original thesis over time to more closely resemble MacIntyre’s, now describing the Benedict Option as “intentional communities of counter-cultural witness in a post-Christian culture.” Perhaps virtual communities, but then this begins to look suspiciously like a kind of sectarian political party. (There already is a kind of Catholic one of those, another non-starter called the American Solidarity Party.)
The very idea of standing outside one’s own epoch (like late modernity), as a matter of will and choice, is an especially modern idea. It is true, however, that to more fully understand our own culture or epoch, we need to take on the points of view outside (in time and space) of our own culture and epoch. That’s what MacIntyre is doing with Aristotle (social), Aquinas (metaphysical), and Marx (historical) — not projecting escapist visions of the past onto the present.
The fantasy of intentional communities is an attractive one, perennially resuscitated . . . and perennially failing. In the case of this particular vision, which calls for “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church,” it’s articulated in a very “masculine” register. Men are far more prone to grandiosity, and far more likely to spin out “world-changing solutions,” and men have a greater affinity for solutions that emphasize the reassertion of “authority.” We men (most Benedict Option acolytes are men) go to the rules first, even if we haven’t sufficiently reflected on the corresponding problems concerning trust and truthfulness. (And these grandiose schemes include mostly people who imagine themselves as the chiefs, not the Indians.)
It’s a kind of funhouse-mirror image of the idealism that Marx critiqued in his master, Hegel, where Marx emphasized, against Hegel’s idealism, the recursive formative power of material conditions on our manner of thinking. Trust and truth don’t flow out of rules. On the contrary, for rules to be appropriate and effective, they must develop in a trialectical relation with trust and truthfulness.
Tradition, rules, and hierarchy
In MacIntyre’s Aristotelian frame, trust, truthfulness, and rules are not primarily ideological, but practical. The rules for chess are inseparable from the practice of chess. The conservatives who try to claim MacIntyre and the liberal critics who accuse him of conservatism are both projecting, one their dreams, the other their fears. This is, I think, based on their respective notions of tradition.
MacIntyre scrupulously reads “tradition” through practice, whereas these two erroneous interpretations of him are based on a latent Kantian pretension to universality. He explains this in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.
To begin with, there is a strong differentiation between authority and authoritarianism. Liberals and some “leftists” would do well to take this in, too.
For MacIntyre, authority pertains to experience and achieved excellence in a practice. In fact, he calls philosophy — his field of endeavor — a craft. Yes, there are practical hierarchies, but not in the arbitrary sense. A master cabinetmaker exercises authority (a hierarchy) over an apprentice or a journeyman. A professor of English literature who has published a dozen books in her field and taught for two decades exercises authority over her students. That, too, is a hierarchy. Practices cannot be sustained without both authority and hierarchies. A responsible parent transfers living skills and the wisdom of experience to his or her child, and this cannot happen without authority and hierarchy. This is not to say that authority and hierarchy cannot be granted unjustly or exercised abusively. It happens. The world is broken. But that doesn’t mean that some reified, free-standing phenomenon called authority or hierarchy is in itself bad. There is no in-itself; authority’s instantiations here are in the context of practices — and practices, by definition, have aims and standards (or norms). Try to run a ship or a shop without hierarchy.
The authoritarian error is to privilege the rule and ossify authority as a good in-itself, as a primary good instead of the means to a higher priority end. Conservatives tend to fear all “loss of authority,” and this authoritarian impulse distorts their (quite sensible) attraction to tradition (in MacIntyre’s sense)
The corresponding liberal error is a wholesale identification of tradition with backwardness. The underwriting belief is the(Hegelian?) myth of progress which privileges constant change and innovation for its own sake in the pursuit of a bloodless utilitarianism that identifies “happiness” with the constantly expanding satisfaction of personal desires. For liberals, who have no coherent theory of desire, tradition is an obstacle. Their creed, in practice, leads not to “happiness,” but to a permanent state of dissatisfaction.
As MacIntyre suggests, the “progressive” and the “reactionary” share a belief in the scale upon which progressive and reactionary are charted. Tradition is not static; it develops, and truth with it.
One of the great originating insights of tradition-constituted enquiries is that false beliefs and false judgements represent a failure of the mind, not of its objects. It is mind which stands in need of correction. Those realities which mind encounters reveal themselves as the are,the presented, the manifest, the unhidden. So the most primitive conception of truth is of the manifestedness of the objects which present themselves to mind; and it is when mind fails to re-present that manifestedness that falsity, the inadequacy of mind to its objects, appears.
This falsity is recognized retrospectively as a past inadequacy when the discrepancy between the beliefs of an earlier stage of a tradition of enquiry are contrasted with the world of things and persons as it has come to be understood at a some later stage. So correspondence or the lack of it becomes a feature of a developing complex conception of truth. The relationship of correspondence or lack of correspondence which holds between the mind and its objects is given expression in judgements, but it is not judgements themselves which correspond to objects or indeed to anything else. We may indeed say of a false judgement that things are not as the judgement declares them to be, or of a true judgement that he or she who utters it says that what is is and what is not is not. But there are not two distinguishable items, a judgement on the one hand and that portrayed in the judgement on the other, between which a relationship of correspondence can hold or fail to hold.
The commonest candidate, in modern versions of what is all too often taken to be the correspondence theory of truth, for that which corresponds to a judgement in this way is a fact. But facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention. In the sixteenth century and earlier ‘fact’ in English was usually a rendering of the Latin ‘factum’, a deed, an action, and sometimes in Scholastic Latin an event or an occasion. It was only in the seventeenth century that ‘fact’ was first used in the way in which later philosophers such as Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ramsey were to use it. It is of course and always was harmless, philosophically and otherwise, to use the word ‘fact’ of what a judgement states. What is and was not harmless, but highly misleading, was to conceive of a realm of facts independent of judgement or any other form of linguistic expression, so that judgements or statements or sentences could be paired off with facts, truth or falsity being the alleged relationship between such paired items. This kind of correspondence theory of truth arrived on the philosophical scene only comparatively recently and has been as conclusively refuted as any theory can be. It is a large error to read it into older formulations concerning truth . . . let alone into that correspondence which I am ascribing to the conception of truth deployed in the early history of traditions.
Those who have reached a certain stage in that development are then able to look back and to identify their own previous intellectual inadequacy or the intellectual inadequacy of their predecessors by comparing what they now judge the world, or at least part of it, to be with what it was then judged to be. To claim truth for one’s present mindset and the judgements which are its expression is to claim that this kind of inadequacy, this kind of discrepancy, will never appear in any possible future situation, no matter how searching the enquiry, no matter h ow much evidence is provided, no matter what developments in rational enquiry may occur. The test for truth in the present. therefore, is always to summon up as many questions and as many objections of the greatest strength possible; what can be justifiably claimed as true is what has sufficiently withstood such dialectical questioning and framing of objections. (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? pp. 357–8)
As to tradition, some conservatives actually hit closer to the mark than most liberals, in my view, because those who do (knowingly or unknowingly) embrace an Aristotelian framework at least understand authority as a necessary means to the end of “the common good.” Where we might differ (and MacIntyre does) is in determining what constitutes the common good. When the common good is fantasized apart from practice, attachments to particular fantasies can interfere with the proper discernment of reality. I’m thinking now about the fantasy-protective denial of the unfolding catastrophe of climate/biospheric disruption and the current extinction event which will eventually put most of these delusions to death. There really are no rational arguments left that deny the unfolding biospheric catastrophe. Not a single one. The reality, however, runs afoul of conservative fifties nostalgia as well as Promethean leftist silliness about wind-powered, worker-owned Walmarts.
Going beneath the conservative desire for the restoration of former (sometimes imaginary) authority, we find the more fundamental and understandable desire for stability. Understandable in the face of one relentlessly transforming decade after another as liberal-capitalism goes full steam ahead toward its endgame — an endgame that comes into view as a global train wreck. But speaking as a Christian — not the fun kind — this is a peculiar idea of following Christ, who promised anything but stability. He promised division between the generations: “For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law — And a man’s enemies: the members of his own family.” (Matthew 10:35–36)
The peace of Rome (and the Judean accommodation to it, “Crucify him!”), like the Pax Americana — now mere memories — were always accomplished by the sword. (“Return your sword to its place; for all who take up a sword will be destroyed by a sword.” — Matthew 26:52)
Practices have traditions, but living traditions are not hardened. Inherent in any actual practice is learning from mistakes. The same thing applies to traditions. Neither practices nor (living) traditions are ever “finished.” Reformulations of practices and traditions are driven by new knowledge and changing contexts. Referring back to the Benedict Option, “[T]he authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church” are valuable, but that cannot be the basis of either “strategy” (a practice of war) or political practices that fail to incorporate both new knowledge, including knowledge of material/ideological conditions) and new, actually-existing, ecosemiotic contexts.
MacIntyre says practice is the inevitable starting point, but he doesn’t stop there. Practices incorporate the practitioner into the tradition, but traditions aren’t hidebound in his reckoning; they are narrative in form, and the story is always unfolding.
Again for those in the back . . . traditions have a narrative form. Here again, some conservatives are closer to the mark than many liberals. For a life to be intelligible, it requires a narrative (and so teleological) form; but this means fitting within the narratives of some larger community. One’s life is not self-directed; it is always directed toward ends that we ourselves did not make. (Simple-minded libertarians, though they make anti-tax political alliances with some conservatives, are anything but conservatives.) As Stanley Hauerwas (an A-Mac fan) summarized, “The intelligibility of my life . . . depends on the stock of descriptions at a particular time, place, and culture. I am, at best, no more than a co-author of my life.” And just as the individual is never merely an individual, the practitioner is never merely a practitioner.
[N]o one who is engages in a craft is only a craftsperson; we come to the practice of a craft with a history qua family, qua member of this or that local community, an so on. So the actions of someone who engages in a craft are at the point of intersection of two or more histories, two or more dramatic narratives. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, p. 128)
This multi-modality of a life, and of social life, inevitably leads to the kind of philosophical enquiry that studies higher-order goods, including “moral” questions — the oughts of lived experience — because it is readily apparent to all but the most obtusely disingenuous that the good of the person is inevitably entangled with common goods. This implies a rejection of liberal moral agnosticism based on bare-life utilitarianism, as well as a rejection of a Nietzschean will to power that supplants reason, virtue, and the common good altogether. The dissident conservatives (and post-leftists!) with whom I want to engage at least recognize this, as the right-wing, embodied by degenerates like Donald Trump, becomes ever more Nietzschean (though it must be said again, conservatives sometimes exhibit a Nietzscehan angst about “emasculation,” which I believe had a great deal to do with support for Trump).
Rules, says MacIntyre, in order to correspond to the common good instead of mere authoritarianism (or disembodied Kantian “imperatives”), can only be developed and applied in conjunction with the development of the virtues. Like truthfulness, for one, but also the whole fabric of virtue, including prudence, justice, courage, temperance, magnanimity, modesty, patience, and so forth. The formation of virtue is the development of habits that order goods, temper passions, and domesticate temptation. Together, these become known to others as integrity, which engenders trust. On their own, rules are instruments, like a hammer. They serve the good — personal and common — only to the degree that they are themselves just, and that they are applied justly and appropriately. I can use a framing hammer to build a wall, or I can use it to commit a murder. But the hammer was made for the purpose of driving nails.
“To understand the application of rules as part of the exercise of the virtues is to understand the point of rule-following . . .” (Ibid., 139, emphasis added)
Habituation, integrity, and counter-culture
More importantly, perhaps, MacIntyre, echoing Aristotle, insists that for persons to become virtuous (in the eyes of others, trustworthy and reliable), habituation is important in the development of character. If I don’t get drunk on Sunday because the liquor stores have closed, that’s not actually temperance, even though for now I’m acting in a temperate way. Character means the virtuous person doesn’t merely commit virtuous actions, or actions committed have good outcomes, but that this virtuous person does so in a way that — phenomenologically, I suppose — feels like a harmonious application of deliberation and action that’s inevitable because to do otherwise is unthinkable. It’s not in one’s character — the reliable exercise of this or that virtue. One’s actions — through habituation that becomes characteristic of that person— “come naturally” now. Behaving virtuously becomes un-self-conscious and non-instrumental.
Habituation doesn’t mean mechanical repetition. When B. B. King played a blues riff, his musical knowledge had diffused all the way into his fingers — as an un-self-conscious “muscular” memory.
Exercise of the virtues, once habituated, gives the performance of virtuous actions an intrinsic value — a joy, if you will. If the practice is playing the violin, the mastery of a particular piece is experienced as a harmonious flow , a breakdown of the boundary between self and surround — as eudaimonia — a state that is far deeper and firmer than the popular consumer notion of “happiness” as the constant and uncritical satisfaction of transient desires.
We don’t have a social crisis because we lack the proper rules. Rules are context dependent, and their utility and justness are situated. We have a social crisis because our entire culture and its material, economic, ideological, and political substrates constitute an increasingly sterile soil for the cultivation of virtuous persons. We have inherited a society that erases the distinction between manipulative (instrumental) and non-manipulative (seeing persons as intrinsically valuable and deserving of honesty and fair play) relations; a society where a lot of people’s survival now depends on becoming successful hucksters. A society where survival depends, for many, on trusting no one (a rule, even if a perverse one) and becoming, ourselves, untrustworthy.
To become virtuous today is almost a quest, and often enough a guarantee of failure in the blood sport of acquisitive individualism. Rules can be just or unjust, and there are times when the just person will ignore or defy unjust rules. That doesn’t fly most places. To be virtuous now can mean to be a chump, prey for the realists who sacrifice others to the Ba’al of Success.
When MacIntyre says trust is “possible only where there is a shared exercise of the virtue of truthfulness, one that in turn requires a shared acknowledgement of the authority of moral rules,” he’s not describing trust, truthfulness, and rules as three distinct things; he’s describing one thing — a community, and here is where the difficulty lies for anyone who aspires to be a virtuous person. That community doesn’t correspond to any polity now. We have only shrinking islands in the rising sea of the state-capital-culture nexus.
Apart from little pockets of subculture, it’s impossible to read America — using my own nation of origin — as an Aristotelian polis. Aristotle lived in a city-state. The dilemma we all face — speaking here especially as an American in a bureaucratically administered state that covers 3.8 million square miles and almost 335 million people — is that a polity (not a polis) of this size is necessarily Weberian — a critique MacIntyre also leveled at Marxism in practice. In addition to the scale dilemma, which demands bureaucratic controls, the nation-state — with all its flaws — is the custodian, using just two examples of dangerous technologies, for nuclear weapons and reactors. I seldom see the fantasists of The Future explain what to do with this stuff, or how to do it. These genies aren’t going back into the bottle. Both our polity and commercialized popular culture redound against virtue, and we’re trapped within it whether we like it or not.
It’s not Kevin Kelly’s “technium” we’re caught in. That’s a symptom and a metaphor for how we feel. It’s actually strangely more comfortable to think we are caught in a machine or a conspiracy than it is to admit we’re on the runaway train of eco-social entropy. The material substrate for this generalizing disorder is not machines, but what we’ll be left with when the machines go silent. Jason C. Moore called it the end of cheap nature. The destruction of natural complexity and runaway social disorder are the same phenomenon — the monstrous offspring of capital accumulation and liberal philosophy. The so-called technium will die; the damage path will remain. That’s where our offspring will one day live.
No one has control at the current scale of national, international, and supranational polities. We live in the interstices of this great unraveling, and that is where we have any measure of agency, not as grand social planners, but as bricloeurs; and we won’t witness a grand collapse, but a tedious march into a future that looks like Haiti write large. We’re headed that way . . . whether we like it or not.
Where then does virtue find islands (or lifeboats) in the rising sea of disorder? Where and how do we find some semblance of eudaimonia and meaningful community? The renegade conservatives and the post-leftists of post-liberalism, who recognize the failure (and perhaps can’t yet admit there may be no Solution) are aware, at least, that truth, trust, and rules, to be coherent, do indeed have to be counter-cultural.
Church — wandering in the wilderness
Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who shares MacIntyre’s neo-Arostotelianism (and who put me onto MacInthyre in the first place), has repeatedly called the church to be that polis. At least there is a shared narrative tradition available for church, even if actual churches have too often subordinated their narrative traditions to the secular liberal cosmos. And even if the church itself has had pieces of it sheared off and converted into cults that bear little resemblance to “the way of the cross” or the “suffering servant,” the narrative tradition survives in the interstices and occasionally breaks back onto the surface like a rhizomatic organism.
The church — and other situated institutions with shared values — have the potential to become counter-cultural; but even faith-tradition institutions are captive to both the logics of capital (“growth”, e.g.) and the preceding and predominant ideological, class, and racial fragmentation within which they are embedded in the larger society. (Paul lamented an analog of this in the first century.) US churches, for example, are constituted as 501(c)(3) corporations!
This roadblock, for many — especially conservatives who recognize the problem but cling to the temptations of power and attendant fantasy solutions — provokes the Constantinian reaction that underwrites, for example, Catholic integralists . . . the dream that the church can be again wedded to political power in some replay of a golden age that never happened. It’s not possible, for one thing, and for another, it’s really terrible theology/ecclesiology/christology.
But love your enemies and do good and lend without despairing of it; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Become compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. And do not judge, and you surely shall not be judged, and do not condemn, and you surely shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven. (Luke 6:35–37)
Integralism, it must be said, retains its hypermasculine register because its history is explicitly warlike. Conquest masculinity reproduces war, and war reproduces dominator masculinity. Ergo, the attachment to “ecclesial integralism and political royalism” (some even calling for the anachronistic return of monarchy as a political form). Balthasar wrote,
[I]ntegralism prevails wherever revelation is presented primarily as a system of true propositions to be believed from above and where, as a result, form is placed above content, power above the cross. The integralist strives by all means, visible and hidden, public and secret, first to gain political and social power for the church, and then to proclaim the Sermon on the Mount and Golgotha from this secured citadel and pulpit.
Integralists and Chardiniste “progressives,” who see one another as enemies, actually share Constantinanism, inasmuch as both tendencies believe that the salvation of the Kingdom of God can be worked out by purely human effort, one embracing a kind of militant intrigue (which puts their good faith in question) and the other riding the ultimately transhuman-delusional wave of the myth of progress.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, two brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, have a conversation. Alyosha is a monk, and Ivan is an atheist raising questions about God and church to challenge his brother. Ivan tells Alyosha a story about Jesus returning to earth in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. In the story, Jesus performs miracles, arousing the love of the people, and just as happened in the Gospels, Jesus is arrested — this time by the church, by the inquisitors — and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor interviews Jesus the night before the scheduled execution. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he has disrupted the activity of the church, explaining to Jesus that he had made a mistake when he was being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11). The three temptations of the evil one are to turn stones to bread, to survive being thrown off the temple wall, and to have all the kingdoms of earth bow before him. The Inquisitor says they are all the same temptation — the temptation to political domination. Feed the people and they will be still. Dazzle them with magic and they will be awestruck. Control them through force, and they can be redeemed whether they like it or not. The people are weak and stupid, explains the Grand Inquisitor to Jesus; he never really understood human nature. Ivan tells Alyosha that the Grand Inquisitor is actually an atheist, like Ivan, but that he has chosen for the good of humanity to raise up the church’s power over this chaotic species. The devil was right, says the Inquisitor. The spirit of death and destruction — that is, domination and conquest — is necessary to control humankind. “We are not with Thee, but with [the devil], and that is our secret! For centuries have we abandoned Thee to follow him.” At the end of Ivan’s story, Christ kisses the Inquisitor on the mouth, and the Inquisitor releases Him. When Ivan finishes his story, he asks if Alyosha is now done with him; will he renounce Ivan as his brother? Alyosha kisses his brother on the mouth. Ivan says, “That’s plagiarism.”
The reason it’s important, in my own view, and in spite of the bad faith of some integralists, to remain in conversation with conservatives (who are not all integralists) is that they are exceptional in their recognition of the dilemma of the breakdown of liberalism. We at least have a common vocabulary for the conversation to begin and a shared understanding of the difference between “overlapping interests” and the common good.
In a sense, I’m doing what the US never did in its rivalries with other nuclear-armed powers: I’m renouncing first-strike and disabling my arsenal in the foolish hope that my former antagonists might follow suit — seeking a new formula for engagement and eschewing mutually assured destruction between those who recognize the failure of the liberal order and look beyond that failure into the questions it raises for generations who follow. MacIntyre argues for that, that “only by either the circumvention or the subversion of liberal modes of debate can the rationality specific to traditions of enquiry reestablish itself sufficiently to challenge the cultural and political hegemony of liberalism effectively.” (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p. 401)
Churches can play a political role (Hauerwas conceives of the church as an embassy of the Kingdom of God) but it can’t be political beyond tactical interventions, which themselves cannot be aimed as taking power through what MacIntyre called “the persecutory activities of centralizing powers.” It would require the church (and other situated, popular institutions) to emphasize local practices (like mutual aid, cooperative projects, etc.) grounded in genuine friendships, not ideological tribalism. This requires a practical, improvisational, locally-contextualized approach to problems, not adopting the categorically universalizing pretensions and ambitions of liberalism — which liberalism adapted from a juridically-perverted Constantinian Christianity. Taking power is antithetical to the cross. Caesars were war leaders, aquilifers, eagle-bearers. The spirit descended onto the Anointed not as a war eagle, but as a dove.
“See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves.”
— Mathew 10:16
Polities will not become polises. Tactical interventions in political practice, then, should be realistic in assessment and aimed at promoting, to the extent possible, the achievement of social goods or the amelioration of social evils — not taking power. We need a realist’s acceptance (and toleration) of the pluralistic moral relativism inhering in the large-scale, multi-cultural polities. Politics is not a battlefield (though it can seem so) so much as part of our residential terrain — an environmental reality that can be helpful or hostile, depending on the situation, but politics is not, thank God, the whole landscape.
The aim of taking power is generally associated with an attempt to forcefully stamp out subcultures. One of Napoleon’s first priorities was to suppress local dialects and force all citizens to speak French (and he was Corsican!).
Christians should seek not to tear down these boundaries in some project of warlike or imperial unification, but to make boundaries permeable to friendship. This is the Parable of the Samaritan. A good rule for when the scale of organization has outstripped its capacity to behave like a genuine community is when it no longer has a sense of humor — something friends can share, but which power finds intolerable.
I made a rather grim reference above to even the “developed” world heading toward something like Haiti write large, so it’s time I go to Haiti to say something hopeful — as a Christian. I spent a good deal of time in Haiti, a place and a people who, it often seems, can’t catch a break. People who don’t know Haiti see it as a place of horrifying disorder, or bizarre religious practice, or a perennial object of performative pity. I know a different Haiti, where people, even hungry people, laugh a good deal. Nothing else works, so family and friendship are, most times, all there is. People can’t afford razors or deodorant, and use lime juice to wash dishes. They die a lot more often than most of us Northerners do, from injury and disease, but the kids will still make a ball out of old rags and set up four rocks for goals to play barefoot soccer in the street. Haitians get drunk and dance with the dead at Fèt Gede. In short, they manifest the reality that even in conditions of extremity, people can improvise forms of life that allow friendship, truth, trust, and rules to survive. They discover and re-discover that even in terrible conditions, the exercise of virtues and the bonds of friendship, practical reason, and moral agency are never foreclosed. Life sucks, a lot sometimes, but we can face it with friendship, even humor.
Everyday Haitians — excluding here the Haitian ruling class — have far more vernacular cultural and epistemological homogeneity than we do, and without it they could not survive as well as they do in their historically-constructed state of extremity. The average American could not survive for a month in these conditions.
Code-switching on Shit Creek
The main thing regular people need in this mess of a world is not some would-be social engineer telling them about an imaginary future, but enough knowledge and self-knowledge to adjudicate rival claims about reality and their own rival inclinations. This doesn’t entail a grand plan, but a unifying cultural and cognitive vocabulary.
During the most severe lockdown phase of the pandemic, I became fascinated by a YouTube phenomenon called reaction videos. People were doing little broadcasts of themselves listening to music or watching s movie they’d not heard or viewed before. If there was a piece of music or a film you knew, you could watch someone else having their first reaction (sometimes this was obviously faked) to the song or movie or a commentary or a bit of comedy, and pretend that you had company, like when you watch one of your grandkids respond to a film or song you know. I could do a whole hot-take on this phenomenon, but with regard to our theses on MacIntyre, I noted that the same people could respond positively to a cut by Rage Against the Machine and some screed from Thomas Sowell . . . even though the socio-political orientations of these two samples were diametric opposites. The “reactors” were utterly unaware (unless they were pandering to audience recommendations, which may be the case . . . people send money with recommendations) of how inconsistent were the points of view between Sowell and RATM.
They had neither sufficient knowledge of the underwriting assumptions of RATM or Sowell nor sufficient knowledge of themselves to realize the defect, or inadequacy, of their own contradictory responses. The point is, these people (mostly but not exclusively young) were not in any way exceptional or exceptionally clueless — many were quite obviously bright and culturally-competent. Like most of us who have been formed in late modernity by the market, the market-supportive state, and market-driven popular culture, these kids are competent consumers (and even competent self-exploitative “content providers”), but they (and we, for the most part) lack the shared vocabulary necessary to identify contradictions between the various compartments of our lives, and therefore lack the necessary tools for the kinds of deliberation with one another that would give us meaningful agency apart from, or even against, the market, the state, and popular culture. We are disabled in this sense.
The idea of code-switching became popular in recent years in the analysis of African Americans’ experiences — a concept Fanon explored in a French/Algerian colonial context decades ago in Black Skin, White Masks. A person can adjust her language and manner to differing cultural contexts, but not only as a subaltern. Many of us do that. I adjust my language and manner when I shift cultural contexts, and so do you.
Prisoners work at call centers, where they employ a very professional, bureaucratic style of speech (where they work for fourteen cents an hour), then revert to prison vernacular for the rest of the day. Lawyers employ legal language in some situations and more vernacular language in others. I speak to young people one way and older people another. Nothing new. St. Paul code-switched about fifty times in the Epistle to the Romans to reach his Jewish and Gentile audiences in the imperial core. MacIntyre calls this “languages-in-use,” different vocabularies for different circumstances.
But something more pernicious is going on with people now — the kids who couldn’t recognize the contradictions between Sowell and RATM being just one example. The ability, and even the desire for the ability, to live as integrated, whole persons, wherein our lives “fit together” with the environment and the lives of others, has been taken away. Practical rationality has taken on the aspect of the market or, as MacIntyre points out, a kind of game theory where life becomes one unending cost/benefit analysis. What’s lost is the ability to understand oneself as more than some superficial “rational maximizer,” and the capacity to genuinely evaluate arguments and counter-arguments. It’s quite common today, and has been since I was a kid, for people to attach themselves to a position or point of view based on the first thing they’ve heard or read that stated that position or point of view in terms that were merely appealing for one reason or another. It is also the case that we each carry with us (contradictory) fragments of earlier traditions.
Most of our contemporaries do not . . . for the most part . . . recognize in themselves in their encounters with traditions that they have already implicitly to some significant degree given their allegiance to some one particular tradition. Instead they tend to live betwixt and between, accepting usually unquestioningly the assumptions of the dominant liberal individualist forms of public life, but drawing in different areas of their lives upon a variety of tradition-generated resources of thought and action, transmitted from a variety of familial, religious, educational, and other social and cultural sources. This type of self which has too many half-convictions and too few settled coherent convictions, too many partly formulated alternatives and too few opportunities to evaluate them systematically, brings to its encounters with the claims of rival traditions a fundamental incoherence which is too disturbing to be admitted to self-conscious awareness except on the rarest of occasions.
This fragmentation appears in divided moral attitudes expressed in inconsistent moral and political principles, in a tolerance of different rationalities in different milieus, in protective compartmentalization of the self, and in uses of language which move from one language-in-use through the idioms of internationalized modernity to fragments of another. (The simplest test of the truth of this is as follows: take almost any debatable principle which the majority of members of any given group profess to accept; then it will characteristically be the case that some incompatible principle, in some form of wording, often employing an idiom very different from that used in formulating the first principle, will also receive the assent of a substantial fraction of the same group.) How can such persons be addressed by and become engaged in argumentative dialogue with any one tradition of enquiry, let along with more than one? (MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, pp. 397–8)
I don’t have any idea what to do about this, and therein is the reason for my “pessimism of the intellect” and lack of direction for the will. Some would say, “Change the system,” but I’m not sure I believe in systems. Illich said that systems-thinking became part of popular culture in the eighties as computers first became a household appliance. It’s grimly comforting to believe in systems in the same way it’s comforting to believe in conspiracy theories. If there’s a grand apparatus under the control of its operators, there still remains the possibility of gaining control over that apparatus, of changing the operators. If no such apparatus actually exists, we are way far up Shit Creek.
Power does not a system make. The powerful do what it takes to retain and expand their power, then we arrange our general observations of that power (and everything else) within a preconception called “systems,” which is assumed. But power adapts, like each and all of us, to circumstances over which it never has total control, and the resulting totality, which is greater than even the most powerful, is impersonally self-organized, not systemic or machinic. Self-organization is dynamic, and it moves from states of relative stability and equilibrium to and through periods of radical disorganization. This is a social claim, a physical claim, and a metaphysical claim (mine, not MacIntyre’s).
Michel De Certeau wrote an alternative anthropology about humans as bricoleurs. We make it up as we go along. There’s some hope in the microcosmos with Certeau, but a temptation to despair in the macrocosmos. Even the most powerful are making it up as they go along. There are no systems, if by system we mean some consciously organized apparatus. What can appear through the lens of our own dreams of control as a stable whatchamacallit is really just a transient state of self-organization and inertia — stable for a moment, until it’s not anymore.
Look around. Does this seem stable to you? This is liberalism’s manifest anti-teleology. Mass shootings, nuclear standoff, mass extinction, and even the current inflation crisis. Neoliberalism’s main promise was to tame inflation. For decades, we’ve experienced serial asset bubbles, and now we’re headed toward stagflation — the very phenomenon that sparked the neoliberal turn — culminating in the endgame we are witnessing right now. Household debt in the US is approaching $16 trillion, with the average household owing almost $150,000, with $93,000 per adult. Social epiphenomena include everything from cultic political tribalism to almost weekly mass killings. One out of five Americans is now prescribed some psychiatric drug. It’s estimated that 21 million of us are in some form of active drug addiction. The suicide rate in the US in 2000 was 16.4 (per 100,000). In 2021, it was 22.4.
MacIntyre, in his critique of Marxism, pointed out that Marxism and Christianity at least shared in common the virtue of hope, whereas liberalism had abandoned the virtue of hope because it denied virtue altogether. It now looks like liberalism’s abandonment of hope has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as we enter more deeply into the era of crises, disintegration, ecological catastrophe, and political nihilism. That is, we are entering the post-liberal age. Liberalism is now the victim of its own success.
Without some basis for truth, trust, and rules, our default state becomes disagreement. MacIntyre’s project might be read, in some sense, as an attempt to find ways in which we can agree again (one reason I’ve decided to be more open to conversations with conservatives, for example). More importantly, at a personal and interpersonal level, the default state of disagreement leaves no form of non-antagonistic relation that is anything but transactional. It’s no accident that liberal philosophy, capitalism’s philosophy, was created by businessmen. It’s no mystery, then, that liberalism — in its blindness to sympathy, affection, selflessness, and the need to belong — has led us down a politico-economic path to permanent war and cultural nihilism, or to cults, gun culture, celebrity-worship, compulsive consumption, spiritual fads, and mass addiction.
These trends are ameliorated only by the vestiges, often incoherent, of traditions and of the fundamental human need for love and belonging. One insight from the Marxist tradition comes to mine here; and that is that market relations — the only relations visible to most liberal philosophy and law — can only exist on the bedrock of what is invisible to liberalism . . . non-market relations. On the one hand, naked plunder, on the other hand, the bonds of love. Capital depends upon both, and lives between them.
Capital is increasingly in crisis as plunder, or primitive accumulation, or what Jason C. Moore calls “cheap nature,” dwindles, and as capitalized (calculating transactional) relations displace the kinds of (sacred) kinship obligations that held past generations to the 30-year mortgage. In the wake of the pandemic, we saw labor shortages.
Liberalism de-sacralizing tendency operates with as much force as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The enculturated experience of the sacred has been called, by some psychologists, affective resonance. Learning, according to Cristoph Wulf, is simultaneously the “appropriation of the world and the constitution of the subject.” There is no functional separation between self and surrounding world. The subject is constituted directly through that appropriation, and that appropriation is aimed at belonging. Belonging is a particular and crucial kind of recognition.
Linda Kintz said that each of our formative experiences is associated with the belongingness of the home and the affirmation and nurturing that took place there from infancy. In this, the formative behaviors and attitudes of any subject are accompanied by that deep emotional resonance. As people grow into legally recognized adults, the practices and attitudes they learned prior to their conceptual development remain, powerfully influencing and in many ways defending a subject’s identity. This affective resonance is primary, but also often confused with the sacred. If the resonance is felt, then that feeling is indicative of contact with the sacred. That powerful emotional response is then understood as sacred (and-or “natural”). This is true in part because we believe that the sense of transcendence is a euphoric experience. Heroin addicts will tell you that their first dose was akin to “seeing God.” The “feeling of rightness,” wrongly placed, can undermine the kinds of rational reflection that MacIntyre sees as integral to learning virtue.
I’m thinking again now of Hauerwas’s criticism of Christians embracing nationalism — a liberal phenomenon — and putting faith on the back burner as a mere personal preference. (Yes, I know many will say that faith undermines rational reflection, and so on, but I’ll have that argument elsewhere.) The point I’m getting to is how we, in MacIntyre’s words, rank order not just our desires, but our affections and obligations.
Kintz, who did a book length study of right-wing evangelicals (Between Jesus and the Market), showed the relations between affective resonance and the formation of identity to produce the rank-ordering of God (as literally represented in the Bible), nation (the sacred documents being the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), family (heteronormative and nuclear), and property. These are seen as a unified whole and experienced as a kind of “sacred intimacy” by Promise Keepers, toy militias, prosperity Gospel acolytes, and a substantial portion of the current Republican Party.
The crisis of liberalism we are passing through right now — which most of us experience in one way or another — is filtered by this group through the lens of these affective attachments, which accounts for the ferocity of reactions by some “conservatives” to this period of socio-political disorganization.
At least, I have to say, they understand the need for an integrated world view.
Conservatives (not the toy militiamen or prosperity Gospel devotees) and I share one belief, and one in common with MacIntyre. We believe that the very idea of separating one’s faith from one’s everyday practices — including the notion of separating politics and “religion” — is preposterous. This doesn’t mean either MacIntyre or I believe, like some integralists, in the re-establishment of the church. MacIntyre is, as a Thomist, necessarily also an Augustinian, for it was Aquinas who first reconciled Augustine to Aristotle. Yes, there is the City of Man and the City of God, but the City of God is built up from within the City of Man. This doesn’t mean what the integralists mean, that is, establishment of the church as a renewed empire (or an authoritarian church repurposed as an agency of political intrigue). It means what Hauerwas does, when he speaks of Christians as “resident aliens.”
The rank-order of God-nation-family-property is not wrong because it is conservative, but — speaking as a Christian — because it flies directly in the face of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. At the top of the rank-ordering in the Gospels is God-neighbor (a neighbor he describes as a foreigner btw); he promises disruption of the patriarchal family; he declares the kingdom of God against secular power; and he regards property as easily, and often preferably, alienable.
That said, if I hear a politician who says he or she will operate as a public official apart from his or her religious convictions, I want nothing to do with that person. Why would I want to elect an official whose supposedly highest convictions are so weak they’d promise in advance to ignore them? If you’d turn your back on your so-called faith, you’d surely turn your back on those you supposedly serve as a public official.
It’s rather an academic discussion at this point in the US (which still steers the world with the hegemonic dollar), because the power of money in an artificially disabled and dependent world has taken decisive control over the political landscape, backstopped in the US against popular interventions, even electoral interventions, by a court itself only accountable to the rich. We live in an oligarchy with no more than the tattered mask of some “democratic process.”
In the eleventh chapter of MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals, he notes the difficulties (which he vastly understates, in my view) of intervention in the affairs of the state and of the inadequacy of the family to achieve common goods through rational deliberation. He highlights “intermediate institutions,” that is, institutions greater than single families and yet smaller, and with more focus and accountability, than the state. This is where churches, alongside other deliberative bodies, could play an essential role.
My good faith challenge to conservatives, especially Christians, is that the God-nation-family-property hierarchy is wrong, not because it is a hierarchy and not because it attempts a kind of classical integrity, but because it is a liberal hierarchy — part of the problem and not the solution. I’ll leave theologians to flesh out far better than I can the doctrinal errors I’ve just outlined in this scheme. I’m with you on God and family, even if I might interpret faithfulness to both in somewhat different ways. God needs no defending, and particular forms of the family cannot be enforced on others. The greatest threat to the ever-more-isolated and truncated (nuclear) family is the progressive commodification of everything, including human relations. This last is what relentlessly tends against the development of virtue and character, what contributes most substantially to the dependency and disability which cripples the person’s capacity for rational deliberations and right actions, and reduces the family to a value-adding mechanism for the production of workers and consumers to generate profit.
What this sacred hierarchy identified by Kintz does do — which fills the gaps left by liberal abstraction of persons, society, and law — is order desires.
Desire and Norms
Desire, singular, is a word that doesn’t tell us much, like attraction. Desires, plural, at least acknowledges the variety and promiscuity of desire, singular. If I’m hungry and smell food cooking, my desire or attraction to that food is ignited. If I’m sleepy, my bed becomes quite attractive. These, however, are desires arising out of need — conditions that have to be supplied to maintain biological and-or psychological homeostasis . . . clothing, shelter, and human contact are also included in this. If I desire homegrown tomatoes, that desire is not immediately hunger, but a constellation of desires — good food, the satisfactions of growing one’s own, the learning process entailed in growing them, the exercise, perhaps even a touch of pride or sense of accomplishment. My tomatoes would also entail subsidiary desires for starter plants, soil mixes, amendments, trellising, mulch, etc. If I’m on a limited budget or have limited time, I may have to limit the number of tomatoes I grow, that is, I have to rank order one desire against other desires, whether needs or wants.
Included in desire is aversion, there are things which we desire to avoid — sudden death, pain, loneliness, humiliation, etc. And even these can be rank ordered. A soldier will endure pain and risk death to avoid humiliation, for example.
This isn’t rocket science; we learn to do this as part of our process of maturation (and we hopefully get better at it the longer we’re around). Children are overcome by competing desires, and teaching them how to desire, how to select which desires to fulfill, how to rank order desire, etc., is one of the primary responsibilities of care giving adults. We also know that desire isn’t merely personal appetite, but that it’s learned. We learn desire as children through a process of mimesis (modeling upon others) in more durable ways than we learn through didactic instruction. We observe others to see what we’re supposed to desire. An American kid is repelled by the idea of eating spiders; but a Kampuchean peasant child eats fried tarantulas with great enthusiasm. Desire, through mimesis and training, can translate into transgenerational attitudes (based on the universal human desire for acceptance).
Desires are fulfilled (or denied or set aside) by will, that is effort (mental or physical) combined with intent; and it is by force of will that we have the capacity — if we have been trained in that capacity — to “educate” our desires. One can, if one has acquired the self-discipline, change the ways in which one desires, develop new desires, or eliminate older ones. Ideally, the ordering and discipline of desire is accomplished rationally; but the rub is there are differing, and contradictory rationalities. Nonetheless, we can summarize the ordering of desire in practice as that shibboleth of liberal thought: choice.
Liberalism’s ideal solution to the problem of contradictory rationalities is to be agnostic about the forms of desire, and simply construct legal boundary fences around all desires sufficient to restrain direct bodily violence and keep enough order to allow businesses to operate. In practice, this is far more complicated, because this libertarianism is insufficient to address the actual complexities of social life . . . or business for that matter.
Liberalism’s practice, the form of political economy which liberal philosophy seeks to justify, is capitalism. Liberalism is individualism; but capitalism is acquisitive individualism — its justification being that by allowing people to selfishly pursue an every expanding menu of desires, society will somehow self-organize in ways that achieve something akin to the common good.
The personal experience of this milieu, however, is conceptually and morally disorienting, because sustained capital accumulation requires the expansion of commodification into more and more areas of life, which in practice has led to the production of more and more new desires alongside a popular ideology that promotes unrestrained selfishness as a virtue. The psuedo-Nietzschean cult leader Ayn Rand wrote a successful book called The Virtue of Selfishness (and had the temerity to call herself an Aristotelian).
Let me repeat here something that MacIntyre says: desires can be misdirected, and lives afflicted, by failures of practical reason. Affliction can come in other forms, of course, structural disadvantages or misfortune, for example. But even overcoming structural disadvantage and misfortune is often dependent upon the prior cultivation of character, that is, practical reason, self-discipline, and virtue — the architecture within which truth, trust, and rules are effectively coordinated. It is equally erroneous, however, to emphasize character (as if is inborn) without an account or circumstance (structural disadvantage and misfortune) or to emphasize circumstance without an account of the formation of character. [The problem — speaking as one of those annoying Jesus-chasers — with citing character in many cases is the tendency to do so self-righteously (something Jesus condemned as self-centered hypocrisy).]
Circumstance and character formation go hand-in-hand, which is something left and right tend to ignore for the same reason — their antagonism to each other. The current state of social relations is antagonistic to the kinds of character development necessary for the kind of effective shared deliberation required to form and maintain flourishing communities.
Capitalism — let’s name it — is about the production and ceaseless multiplication of desires. MacIntyre points this out, but I’m not sure — given that he’s lived most of his life as an academic — even he appreciates what a horror story this can be. The indoctrinated consumer’s quest for “happiness” has actually produced its opposite, chronic unhappiness punctuated by little hits of ephemeral euphoria with each new acquisition. “Retail therapy” has all the earmarks of addiction. Ten days after Christmas in most middle class homes, 90 percent of the presents will never be used again. They’ll be stored for a time during a period of denial, then after a decent interlude binned or packed off to the nearest thrift store as donations to salve the middle class conscience.
In addition to the cycle of manufactured desire-consumption-disaffection-rinse/repeat, we have way to much information coming at us to process. We have way too many manufactured desires and way to many “choices” about how to satisfy them again and again like dope fiends.
It’s easy enough to contemplate rational rank-ordering of desire from within an ordered life, but we live in a time of increasing disorder. Many of our lives now are a series of minor and major emergencies with fewer and fewer backstops. Our most irrational and obsessive compulsions have become displacement activities, a kind of infantile self-soothing against the cacophony of information, authentic and false, and choices with their attendant frustrations, that bombard our consciousness and shoot at our heels.
On the subject of desire, I pointed out above that conservatives can be preoccupied with sexual desire, and not always for bad reasons. What they want to conserve, in this case, are sexual norms, or standards of behavior. This is not reducible to homophobia or male control over women’s bodies, though these are regrettably identifiable among some conservatives. Many conservatives, though, have concerns which I, as a non-conservative, certainly share about the “liberalization” of sex — and let me get out in front of the knee-jerk reactions I expect to this statement. My concerns are not translatable or reducible to law and policy, so don’t go there. I am not arguing for the reinstatement of laws and policies of the past that invaded people’s bedrooms. I am opposed, in principle, to the practice of abortion, but I also understand its complexities too well to argue for its criminalization. In like manner, I don’t think the threat of repressive laws is sufficient grounds to foreclose good faith discussions of sexual issues that go deeper than libertarian shibboleths about personal choice.
What I’d say to conservatives is, sex is no less subject to commodification in a capitalist framework than any other form of desire. In fact, sex is infinitely commodifiable as we can well see, and its quite effective as a sales device for all manner of other commodities. I disagree with many conservatives — inflected as I am by feminism — that men ought to exercise authority over women’s sexuality (or that sexuality can be regulated by law). Women are every bit as capable of regulating their own desires as men . . . which nowadays, honestly, isn’t saying much. Men and women are equal in their susceptibility to advertising and horizontal propaganda. I concur with the conservative idea that sex ought to entail some form of self-discipline and commitment (hypocritical as that is, given my own distant past), but not in the self-righteous, slut-shaming sense (against men or women). The problem with so-called “sexual liberation,” as defined by many progressives, is that it’s ideologically capitalistic; it reduces sexual relations to transactions, little contracts. Men and women haven’t been “liberated” by this; they’ve been swindled into marketing themselves as sexual commodities — which is big fucking business (pun intended). The answer to this is not the reintroduction of archaic legal sanctions (that horse left the barn a long time ago), but communities that nurture the capacity for self-discipline, restraint, good judgement, and mutual respect. (It’s curious to me that some of the most vocal sexual scolds in public life have been exposed — including teachers, preachers, and politicians — in sexual scandals, suggesting not some critical engagement with the subject of sex, but obsessive preoccupation based on their own unresolved issues.)
The coordination of norms with desires falls apart in technomanagerial society. It requires strong families and supportive communities — both of which are undermined by the novelty-obsessed pseudo-cultures of late capitalist modernity. The word hypocrite in Greek — the way, for example, that Jesus uses the word in the Gospels — means play actor. Hypocrisy, as it is meant today, is nothing new in the world; but where it was seen as a vice in past cultures, it becomes an unexamined norm in a rootless culture where a premium is put on performance and where life itself is understood not as practices embedded in a narratable life but as a fragmentary series of audience-oriented performances.
Out of the box
In the news as this is written are the Congressional hearings on the January 6, 2020 insurrection in Washington, DC. One reason so many of the insurrectionists were so easily apprehended and prosecuted was, instead of having some tactical plan upon entering the Capital (the whole thing, from Trump-down, was gawkishly feeble-minded), they began taking pictures of themselves for social media. That’s not saying they weren’t violent and dangerous; they were set on murder and mayhem, but they’d been technologically enculturated, almost to a Pavlovian degree, to stop and take selfies.
Someone should do a monograph on the phenomenon of the selfie. It’s all there in one revelatory bundle: performance, posing, the image, the turn to the self, the technological mediation of our lives . . . our uncritical and acceptive passivity, the ease with which we’ve ourselves picked up the practice.
One reason thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre . . . and Jacques Ellul, Edith Stein, Ivan Illich, Paul Virilio, Elizabeth Anscombe, Walter Ong, Barbara Duden . . . the list could continue . . . can deliver such revealing analyses of our own epoch is they’re rooted in tradition. Tradition gives them a coherent standpoint outside of the distractive jangle of late capitalist modernity and its once facile (and now failing) liberal discourse.
MacIntyre’s first point in After Virtue was that modernity has inherited fragments from past traditions which have been reassembled into a kind of philosophical Rube Goldberg apparatus. What was lost was not only coherence, but intellectual accountability — the kind “where there is a shared exercise of the virtue of truthfulness, one that in turn requires a shared acknowledgement of the authority of moral rules.” Instead we have either the artificial compartmentalization of the encyclopaedist or the substitution, a la Nietzsche, of aphorism for analysis and integration . . . or nowadays, memes.
Tradition and community, understood together, says MacIntyre, can provide four things that break us out of our impasse:
. . . a conception of truth beyond and ordering all particular truths; a conception of a range of senses in the light of which utterances to be judged true or false and so placed within that ordering are to be construed; a conception of a range of genres of utterance, dramatic, lyrical, historical, and the like, by reference to which utterances may be classified so that we may then proceed to identify their true sense; and a contrast between those uses of genres in which one way or another truth is at stake and those governed instead only by standards of rhetorical effectiveness. It is only within a community in which to some large degree shared beliefs embodying this fourfold scheme are presupposed in everyday practice — whether or not they are made explicit at the level of theory — the concept of systematic accountability for one’s utterances and one’s actions can also inform the shared life of a community. (Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, pp. 200–201)
The question, of course, which I contend can only be answered in the particulars, is how (and if!) we can get there from here.
I’ve gone on long enough, and I’ll leave you to it.