language and morality

Time ran out before I could chatter on about the last couple chapters of MacIntyre’s book last night, but I thought I’d put my random thoughts ‘out there’ anyway. ­čÖé
I wasn’t going to talk about the different moral philosophers at all, because according to MacIntryre after Hegel everyone is just rehashing old positions in supposedly new formulations. I was thinking of the language, social structure, individual categories that Robin said are essential to any definition of morality.


The historical trajectory MacIntyre describes is one in which “the acids of individualism” (266) have unmoored specific linguistic meanings of moral terms from the social structures they once made sensible. MacIntrye discussed the inadequacy of translations of Greek concepts in the very first chapter, and as individualism spreads this occurs with concepts in contemporary language too: happiness, pleasure, duty. (There is no evident linguistic confusion regarding the notion of pain.)
MacIntrye actually uses a bit of discourse analysis in his methodology, even if he doesn’t describe it as such. Particularly in the chapter on modern utilitarians he states that what they mean when they talk of “the greatest happiness” can only be determined by attending to their practices of argumentation – which is usually catered to a very specific situation instead of a general principle (237).
Bentham is described as a precursor to Frege and Wittgenstein in his understanding “that only in the context of a sentence…does a naming, describing, or referring expression have meaning” (233). Dewey makes a (surprise!) appearance as the lone American (?) among the Brits…[aside, why does the trajectory shift so radically among nationalities? The Germans dominate (in this discourse) the 19th century and the English the 20th? MacIntrye notes the “anti-German” sentiments of the German philosophers as a seismographic warning of the traumas to come (226). What might the English and Scots (!) foretell?]
Language enters even more prominently with Hare, described as a pioneer in the study of imperatives, initially distinguishing moral language into categories of prescription and description. Prescriptivism is one end of the binaristic pair with which MacIntyre concludes this book – posed against emotivism (see Stephenson).
Both of these approaches grapple with the present problems of impoverished meanings and empty vocabulary. Moral philosophy is adrift in a sea of amorphous social structures that no longer provide social meanings, relegating moral action to the realm of individual choice (sounds to me like anomie).
That’s the end of the language, individual, social structure section. Next are some summary thoughts on MacIntyre’s own stance.
MacIntyre’s preface to the 2nd Edition explains his error (back in 1966) of reducing the contemporary philosophical dilemma on the horns of these two standpoints. He says it was misleading to represent the alternatives in terms of a choice between an individualistic social order (emotivist, prescriptivist, existentialist theories are all lumped in here) and a metaphysical view (he specifies Catholicism and Marxist dialectics) because reason clearly denounces them all – at least in the versions in which they have appeared. He rests his solution (in 1996) on a reprise of Aristotle, shorn of all the objectionable elements (racism, sexism, elitist classism, etc). Itneresting that, according to Robin, he later converts to Catholocism, in effect blending Aristotle’s reason and metaphysics (a.k.a., the supernatural) in a combination of individualistic self-determination and membership in a collective (with its socially-structured claims and legitimizations of criteria for moral evalution).
MacIntyre’s bottom line has to do with “individuals” making choices about the moral codes they will live by from among a range of options. This choice will of course implicate a selection of persons with whom one can form community. Or vice-versa. Who I wish to belong to invokes a certain set of moral codes. These “choices” (for the elite who have them) necessarily curtail the possibilities of association with others who ascribe to different moral codes. The dilemma, then, is finding overarching social/institutional structures that allow for, embrace, encourage, promote, and support such pluralism.
Personally, I’d like these mechanisms to not include war.

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