MacIntyre’s Concept of Inter-Tradition Conflict

During my recent reading of the prologue to the third edition of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I realized that I had never, either for others’ education or my own, written down my own understanding of MacIntyre’s process of arbitration between rival traditions of rational inquiry. Since that process is central to MacIntyre’s project and I consider myself to be at a least proponent, if not a scholar, of his work, I decided that it was time that I attempted to do so. So, if you are reading this, please take this writing as more of an exercise, rather than a essay or final argument, as I am not necessarily ready to stand behind the depictions or conclusions I put here.

Before I try to describe that process of arbitration, I must define the terms included. By “rational enquiry,” I mean the various traditions of practical rationality which vie for our allegiance. These could be as many as there are authors and interpreters on the subject: Aristotelians, Thomists, Utilitarians, Natural Right Theorists, Buddhists, etc. Even those philosophers which do not concern themselves expressly with ethics nevertheless contain implied moral systems (coherent or not) within their works, especially those of a political bent: Leo Strauss, John Rawls, and others. So there could be as many systems of practical rationality as there are writers on the subject, and thus a ridiculous amount of different “systems” to take into account when one is trying to determine which tradition any interlocutor is a part of, even before we begin to consider which new conception of his own tradition he holds as a result of his own experience and thought on the subject. Consequently, I think it is fair to say that MacIntyre, expressly or no, does mean to limit his process to the most prominent variations of each tradition, which I think can be assumed to be the works of the most prominent minds in each tradition: Aristotle and his commentators for Aristotelianism, Thomas and his commentators for Thomism, Mill and his commentators, so on and so forth. These traditions are “rival” to each other in the sense that they all request distinct unions of thought and action from their adherents: to be practically rational under Aristotle’s virtue ethic is not necessarily to be practically rational under Thomas’ virtue ethic, nor either to be practically rational as Mill would see it. Thus it seems that we must make a choice between these rival systems of rational inquiry if we are to behave morally in any coherent sense. This last conclusion bears repeating due to its implication: if we claim that we must choose a moral system in order to be coherent, then we are assuming coherency to be a good which we characteristically, as human beings, are suited for and must work towards. This already excludes us from a great many systems of rational enquiry which abandon coherency as a good, though perhaps our calling them “rational” would be giving them more credibility than is warranted. Yet, as far as MacIntyre is concerned, the idea of a system of rational inquiry does not extend only to those systems which agree in their definition of “rational.” What is it is to be rational is one of the things which must be decided in the choice between the different systems. But what does MacIntyre consider sufficient grounds for the decision between one rationality and another? 

Simply put, MacIntyre considers sufficient grounds to be the ability of a tradition to a) allow its adherents to imaginatively think and reason as a member of a rival tradition and b) to solve more of the internal problems of a rival tradition in the light of its own principles than the adherents of the rival tradition can solve the first tradition’s internal problems in light of the rival tradition’s own principles. In short: if tradition A can 1) allow its adherents to imaginatively think and reason as adherents of tradition B, and 2) Articulate and solve more of the internal problems of tradition B than tradition B can articulate and solve of tradition A, then tradition A is the superior tradition. This is what MacIntyre calls his “rationality of traditions.”

Here lies a popular contention with MacIntyre, for it is precisely because this idea of sufficient grounds is a rationality outside of the rationalities being judged that opens MacIntyre up to the criticism that he himself, by introducing this arbitrating rationality, is simply giving birth to yet another rival tradition of inquiry which simply compounds, rather than solves, the problem he was originality seeking to resolve. In more plebeian terms, it is as if you asked your friend to help you decide which woman to date, and, rather than helping you through the decision, he introduced you to a third. Is MacIntyre acting in such a manner? Well, as always, it is a Thomistic yes-and-no. It is true, from the perspective of those outside of MacIntyre’s chosen tradition (that is, Thomism), that MacIntyre has compounded the issue and that they will now have another tradition of rational inquiry to quarrel with. For, in saying that there is a way of objectively dealing with the matter at hand, MacIntyre must plant his feet in some philosophy which coherently unites the ideas of “objective,” “true,” “rational,” and so on. One cannot make a statement that “such and such is the case” without implicitly rejecting all other ideas of what is the case, after all. But to adherents of Thomism, MacIntyre is at last making a great deal of sense, for as much as MacIntyre talks of  “objectivity,” he talks even more of the “situated-ness” of all inquiry in concrete traditions of thought and action. This, of course, begs the question of which concrete tradition of thought and action from which MacIntyre inquires. With his conversion to both Thomism and Catholicism after the publication of After Virtue, it became clear that Thomists could at last be comfortable with his works as continuations of, rather than writings against, the core tenants of their philosophy, religion, and general way of life. Speaking as a Thomist, this has always been my reason for accepting MacIntyre’s work: not because he introduces a new philosophy, but because he simply expands and nuances what I have found to be the most persuasive and complete explanation of the nature of things thus far. This “rationality of traditions” fits within that, as it has been my experience that Thomism has the resources to explain the stagnation and sterility of other moral traditions while those other traditions offer precious few rational explanations for their own issues or for Thomism’s falsity. Moreover, when pushed to explain, I often find adherents of these other traditions falling to one or another sort of nihilism, the falsity (not to mention gravity and appeal) of which is more than adequately expressed by the writings of current Thomists. Yet this is all an aside: is MacIntyre justified on his own account, regardless of whether or not Thomists like myself care?

My tentative conclusion is that MacIntyre’s account is sound, yet the rationality of traditions yielded is, in the end, of little help or relevance to anyone. For, at least from what is said in his prologue to the third edition of After Virtue, MacIntyre makes it clear that his rationality of traditions relies upon the content of what I have termed tradition A: it is on its own grounds that other traditions are to be found adequate or inadequate. Moreover, if tradition A is to use this “rationality of rationalities,” it will naturally have to use its own resources to decide which internal problems are of vital or non-vital importance. In other words, it will have to rank-order its own, and others, problems according to its own value scale. This of course allows for these issues to “be decided,” but only in a way which renders the decision as a part and as a continuation of the victor’s tradition. So, if Thomism was to triumph in this way over, for instance, Utilitarianism, that triumph would not be recognized by any hypothetical third party or even by most of the adherents of either Thomism or Utilitarianism. In fact, MacIntyre goes out of his way to say exactly how members of either tradition will be blind to any decision. So, if only certain members of tradition A recognize the triumph, and very few, if any, members of tradition B recognize their own defeat, and there is in fact no neutral third party to which to appeal for judgement… what has been proved? To, again, put it in more plebeian terms, if a lumberjack cuts down a tree in the woods, and no one but the lumberjack is there to see it fall, did the lumberjack in fact fell the tree? The brute answer is yes, but he will have to prove it to others, and we are all well aware of how stubbornly unconvinced many people can be. So, while MacIntyre has indicated the way in which members of traditions can resolve their inter-traditional conflicts, he has not given us any way of inexorably moving others to accept those resolutions. For, if he were, he would have somehow overcome one of the fundamental realities of the Thomist vision: man’s fallen nature. All he has managed to do is further elaborate the need for human beings to attempt to extract ourselves from our particular biases in order to come to a better understanding of the nature of things… which is nothing more (or less) than what Socrates attempted in Athens. MacIntyre is, in the end, just another philosopher.

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