Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the greatest living Catholic thinkers, was featured last month in Prospect Magazine. The piece, entitled “MacIntyre on Money,” is well worth the read. Here’s a snippet:
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 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.
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 After Virtue was a pivotal text for me, as I suspect it is for most. Its trenchant critiques of conservative and liberal liberalism, as well as of libertarianism, are as forceful now as they were 30 years ago. If you haven’t read any MacIntyre, get off the blogs, put away the computer, and do yourself the service of remedying that deficiency.