Is Philosophy Dead, part 2

In my last post, I complained about the state of American academic philosophy.  In particular, I picked on one essay by one philosophy professor to demonstrate the shockingly poor thinking that training in philosophy seems to produce today.  This is of great concern, I tried to suggest, because it is evidence that there is no practice left in which we might expect people today to be taught how to reason properly, and so how to arrive at correct judgments about reality.  I would add that this is part of the reason we are in the horrible state we are in right now, and why there is little hope of things getting better. When nobody is left who knows how to think, what hope do we have?  

In this post, I’m going to offer a counterpoint.  I’m going to give an example of an essay that makes no poor arguments at all, but with which I nevertheless disagree.  I have two purposes for doing this.  One is to demonstrate that there are some professional philosophers left who are able to think well, but that even thinking well may lead to certain kinds of disagreement.  The other is to say something about the kinds of reasoning we need to be able to perform to resolve just those kinds of disagreements, and to make any kind of intelligent decision about how we ought to live our lives given the world we find ourselves in—which is to say: to have any kind of agency.

The essay is by Alasdair MacIntyre, and originally appeared in the journal Philosophy over twenty years ago (1999, vol. 74, pp. 311-29): “Social structures and their threats to moral agency”.  I’m going to begin by attempting to summarize the essay briefly, before I explain why exactly I disagree with its conclusions without finding any of its arguments flawed.  

MacIntyre begins by asking whether the “I was just doing my duty” defense is ever adequate.  That is, can one plead absolution from the broader effects of one’s actions if those actions were part of a duty one was obligated to perform, and the performance of that duty might actually have forbidden awareness of those effects.  His primary examples are a minor functionary in the railroads transporting prisoners to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and executives at power companies in the U.S. during the 1970s. In both cases, he finds that they cannot justify the claim that they were “just doing their job” and didn’t know the effects being produced.  

The reason for this culpability, MacIntyre argues, depends on what it means to be a moral agent.  To be a moral agent, we simply must be willing and able to put our “established social and cultural order to the question.”  To do this we must be able to “step back” from our ordinary roles in society, and to “transcend in thought” our “own particular social and cultural order.”  We have a responsibility to do this, as human beings, and to ask the essential question: What does your own social and cultural order need you and others not to know? The implication is that when there is anything we are required not to know, there is going to be some kind of moral failing at work in our culture as a whole.

This prescinding from our ordinary social roles cannot be done alone, according to MacIntyre.  We need to participate in a social practice (MacIntyre uses the term “milieu”) which allows us, together with others, to think critically about all of our other social roles. Without such a social practice, he argues, our “powers of moral agency will be undermined.”  We cannot be fully moral agents in a social system that prevents such milieus from existing. And, he suggests, we are in just such a society today.  Our compartmentalization of our lives allows for a number of roles to which we must adapt.  The roles may require contradictory ethical beliefs, but we cannot asses them, or often even notice the contradiction, because of the absence of any milieu in which we can gain critical distance from the norms of our own culture.  

So far, I would agree with MacIntyre’s position.  My conclusion would be that therefore we cannot hold most people fully morally responsible, because our social system has so thoroughly done its work of denying them full agency.  

However, MacIntyre goes on to argue that in fact these people are culpable.  It is his position that they have participated in the creation of the system which works to exclude the virtues of integrity and constancy, replacing them with the “virtues” of adaptability and flexibility.  It is only with “one’s own active cooperation that the habits of mind can be developed which make such closure possible.”  Therefore, anyone who lacks full agency is responsible for this, because they must have participated in the prevention of such agency, and it is for this that they are to blame.

Therefore, the railroad logistics expert in Nazi Germany and the electric company CEO in 1970s Harrisburg, PA are both responsible for the effects of the outcomes of their dutifully fulfilling the obligation of their social role.  They didn’t know better, but they should have.  

My position would be that they could not have. That given the social system in which we live, it is only the very rare individual who has the (good?) luck to be able to “put their social and cultural order to the question.” How and why this becomes possible is a bigger question—one I try to address in my book Indispensable Goods.  But my contention would be that if you are one of these people, you have a moral obligation to attempt to produce the kinds of milieus MacIntyre advocates, and to continue trying to produce them despite the fact that, as MacIntyre acknowledges, there will be enormous social resistance to the existence of such practices from multiple sources.  

Where, then, is the source of my disagreement with MacIntyre?  

Unlike the Sartwell essay I discussed last week, MacIntyre doesn’t make logical errors.  His claims all follow from his fundamental assumptions, about which he is relatively explicit (or, as explicit as one could expect in a short essay).  My disagreement is with his assumption that there is some basic human ability which precedes and exceeds the construction of the subject in its various social roles—in what I would call its ideological practices.  His claim is that “a self…can never be dissolved nor dissolve itself entirely into the distinctive roles that it plays in each compartmentalized sphere of activity.”  I imagine what he has in mind here is something like the medieval idea of “synderesis,” a kind of natural in inborn sense of morality.  As a Catholic, and particularly a Thomist, this seems to be a fundamental premise to MacIntyre’s argument: there is some kind of soul which brings with it certain fundamental truths we all have the capacity to use, regardless of the social formation of our “habits of mind and action.”  Every individual has “qualities of mind and character that belong to him qua individual and not qua role-player.”  

My position, on the contrary, is that all of our “qualities of mind and character” are socially produced, and so we have none that are external to our social milieus, that are not produced by them.  The result is that it is an unusual occurrence, highly unlikely and perhaps fortunate, if one is able to “put to the question” the fundamental assumptions of one’s culture.  For me, this imposes on such individuals a moral obligation to attempt to produce and expand any milieus which allow for such critical thought.  But it also, perhaps unfortunately, makes it impossible to blame the majority of people for their failure to engage in such critical practices, and so to blame them for the horrible effects of their actions so long as they continue not to know what their society needs them not to know (and so what their society has done everything it can to prevent their knowing).

Now, it may be that there are those who do know exactly what it is that most people must remain ignorant of in order for our society to keep running, and the power company executives MacIntyre mentions may be among those people. That is, it is conceivable that there are some people, in positions of power and influence, who exactly work to prevent the production of critical practices that might threaten their power and wealth.  This might be what MacIntyre has in mind, and why he finds such people culpable.  

My own suggestion, though, would that there is no such group of manipulative folks in power.  Rather, I suspect that those in power are just as deluded and mistaken as those being oppressed, and that they really cannot, for the most part, successfully prescind from their assumptions and commitments.  At least, not enough to engage in critical thought about them.  

How might this disagreement be resolved?  Certainly not by logical argument, since either MacIntyre’s position or my own could be advanced in a perfectly logical way.  Instead, we would need to turn to empirical evidence about the world to demonstrate which is correct.  Do we have some inborn “individuality” that transcends our sociality?  Or are we thoroughly the product of sociality (at least, at the level of our reasoning mind)?  One of the reasons I believe the latter claim is exactly the argument MacIntyre advances in this essay: that we never seem to be able to think critically about our social order without “social relationships of a certain kind, forms of social association in and through which our deliberations and practicals judgments are subjected to extended and systematic critical questioning.”  This seems to me to be true, from my experience.  For this reason, my own experience has led me to believe that we cannot, on our own, absent social practices which facilitate it, make any real progress in critical evaluation of our roles, our norms, and the implications and effects they entail.  

That is to say, I could only be persuaded to change my position on this with evidence, with examples contrary to my belief.  But if someone were to offer such examples, I would be more than happy to shift my fundamental assumptions.  In part perhaps because if I were wrong on this point, it would be easier to cast blame on those who go on destroying the planet and oppressing others while believing they are just being good and moral citizens; but more because this is a much more hopeful reality than the one I inhabit.  If everyone has the ability to think critically about their roles, norms, and assumptions, if we don’t have to wait for the creation of a social practice in which to do this (which social practice is always going to be silenced by the existing non-critical practices), then it should be far more likely that many people will wake up to the horror of our world, and the possibility to change it, once we witness the devastating  economic and social consequences of the pandemic, of global capitalism, of institutionalized racism and sexism, etc.  I would like to believe this will happen—but my experience argues against it.

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that perhaps philosophy was not always as dead as it seems to be now.  MacIntyre is, after all, an academic from an earlier generation.  So maybe we can’t learn anything from philosophy, or any academic discipline, in today’s profit-driven universities.  But there still exist, in older texts or even recent writing by older thinkers, some clues as to how we might go about thinking our way out of despair.  But only collectively. 

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