Monday, 10 December 2007

The philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre in 'After Virtue'

On Friday, I did an assessed presentation on Alasdair MacIntyre's critique of modern morality. MacIntyre is a 20th century philosopher who is still alive, unlike most of the thinkers we've studied so far. Go here for a Wikipedia introduction.

So what has this got to do with anything? Well, MacIntyre's thoughts on modern morality gave me much food for thought in my spiritual life too. I won't go into detail, but his basic argument is this:

We are living in a time of fragmented morality in our modern western society. Ultimately, this is because humanity has lost our purpose. When something has a purpose, you know what it is supposed to do. He gives the example of a watch and a farmer to illustrate how we can make the connection between 'is' and 'ought':

This IS a watch. Therefore it OUGHT to keep time accurately.
This IS a farmer. Therefore he OUGHT to get a good crop yield, win prizes, etc.

This connection can be made because these objects have a definite purpose; they were made to do a certain job. MacIntyre argues that Aristotelian philosophy gave man a purpose, or telos, to fulfill. Aristotle argued:

1) This is man as he is
2) This is man as he could be (his potential)
3) The ethical life

Man was supposed to live 3) so as to get to 2). So with Aristotle, we could find a unified moral code in society to help us fulfill our purpose.

However, when Aristotelian science got thrown out in the late Medieval/early Modern period in Europe, his moral philosophy did too (understandably), as did the general belief in God. Therefore we were left with a certain moral code, such as 'Do not lie, do not kill' but with no reason for why it was right. Since then, philosophers have spent all their time trying to find a reason for why we believe this moral code to be right, but without succeeding (MacIntyre cites Hume, Kant and Kierkegaard amongst others). We are human beings but we don't believe we have a purpose or that we were made for a specific reason.

What does this mean to us as Christians? To me, it gave a very helpful insight into how we should view the Christian life. To many people, Christianity is a set of arbitrary rules, dos and don'ts that satisfy the self-seeking will of a jealous, unreasonable and egotistic God. In many Christians' lives as well, legalism manifests itself in confusion over why we have a certain moral code. To some, the moral code becomes an end in itself.

I think it is helpful to take the ethos of what MacIntyre is saying and apply it to how we view God's moral code. We are called to live according to his command of what is good and right, because that way we are fulfilling our purpose as human beings. Our purpose is to glorify God through being holy as he is holy; we are his children, we should reflect the family likeness.

1 Peter 1:14-15: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct."

We were made in his image so our purpose is to reflect that image the most that we can:

Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

So when we begin to think, ungratefully and selfishly, that God's rules are arbitrary; that he has simply decided to impose a set of unfounded laws upon us to get a kick out of it, we must repent and realise that actually, God is calling us to live this way to fulfill our purpose for being, our entire reason for existing: to glorify God by living out his image. This is how we justify the morals we hold - they are not random, but the framework that allows us to fulfil our ultimate potential as human beings. And funnily enough, as even those who don't believe in God can see, this framework does actually work. When we live how God has commanded us to live, we are healthier, happier and wiser. God knows how we tick: at work, at home, in our marriages, with our children, with money. Aristotle may have been on the right track but ultimately he was tragically wrong. Man cannot invent his own purpose. That was and is the job of our inventor.

To buy MacIntyre's book 'After Virtue' in which he constructs his critique of modernity and emotivism, go here.

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