Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Why is it that American society has not been able to reach a consensus over issues such as legalized abortion, preferential treatment programs to correct past wrongs, and the justice of gross inequalities of income? There are two common answers. The relativist says that all these questions concern fundamental moral values, and since they have no right or wrong answers, they cannot be rationally resolved by careful investigation of the arguments and evidence. The other common answer, that of the neutralist, is that consensus can be reached only when all parties to the dispute assume an impartial and neutral point of view.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, argues against both of these answers. He traces the quest for complete objectivity to the Enlightenment’s rejection of all arguments based on tradition, religious or otherwise. The assumption was that arguments coming from a particular tradition are necessarily defective, because traditions are ultimately based on nothing more than historical accidents or a particular individual’s or group’s forcefully imposed will. Since the clash of traditions had led to centuries of interminable warfare, there was a sense of urgency in the Enlightenment’s demand that all ethical systems be based on propositions to which any unbiased and neutral observer would assent.

The Enlightenment project, however, has failed; no one has discovered a proposition, or set of propositions, on which all, or even the vast majority, of impartial observers would agree to found their philosophies. The failure to discover such propositions does not, in any strict sense, prove that there are none. Thus, it is possible for large segments of modernity to continue calling for impartiality and objectivity. To a growing number of thinkers in the West, however, such calls ring hollow. For them, a search which has gone on for almost three centuries with no positive results can mean only one thing: Impartiality and Objectivity are a chimera, and the search should be called off.

MacIntyre’s book is an attempt to spell out a third alternative to relativism or analytic neutralism. He agrees with those who say that complete impartiality and objectivity are idle fancies and that even as ideals they ought to be abandoned, but he rejects the analytic movement’s reduction of philosophy to the clarification of arguments and the careful articulation of various points of view as well as the radical relativist’s claim that all sufficiently developed metaphysical systems are equally true. Either way, the search which began with the Greeks for the one true and complete philosophy has ended in defeat.

The proper way around the dilemma, argues MacIntyre, is for philosophers to acknowledge openly that the metaphysical systems which undergird conflicting ethical judgments are ultimately based on historical contingent traditions, each of which has its own social and institutional supports and, more important, its own criteria of truthfulness. Yet, while many defenders of traditions follow Edmund Burke in contrasting tradition with reason, even going so far as to glory in a tradition’s “wisdom without reflection,” MacIntyre will have nothing of such a contrast. Far from being opposed to reasoned reflection, in his view, traditions are the only possible foundation for reasoned reflection.

But how can this be? If traditions are all tied to historically conditioned institutions, social practices, and authoritative texts, they must be based on the arbitrary outcome of historical causes. And is not it obvious that the rational and the arbitrary constitute two sides of an irreconcilable disjunction? MacIntyre’s response is that all traditions are subject to change, either internally (for example, in response to the rise of alternative and incompatible interpretations of authoritative texts) or externally (new historical situations may prompt new questions and practices, or migration and conquest may bring one tradition face-to-face with another alien tradition). In either case, the tradition is faced with what MacIntyre calls an “epistemological crisis”—that is, a situation where inadequacies of various types have been identified, but not yet remedied. At this stage, a tradition will either die or reformulate its positions, reinterpret its texts, and reevaluate its practices to overcome previous limitations.

Two crucial points must be made. First, while a tradition is sometimes forced to reformulate its position as a result of contact with another tradition, it is essential to note that a tradition can never step outside of itself to evaluate the other tradition neutrally. Rather, it is by its own criteria of truthfulness that members of a tradition come to realize that another tradition has resources to handle some new situation better.

Second, it is as traditions reformulate their previous positions that the notions of true and false become significant. To say that a particular way of viewing the world is “false” means that an older set of beliefs is perceived as being radically discrepant with a new set of beliefs, and that even with the criteria of truthfulness assumed by the older set the newer set of beliefs is seen to be superior. To say that a particular way of viewing the world is “true” means that no matter what new situations develop, or how many other traditions one comes in contact with, no new set of beliefs will be discovered that are both radically discrepant with existing beliefs and superior to them, given the existing criteria of truthfulness.The test for truth in the present, therefore, is always to summon up as many questions and as many objections of the greatest strength possible; what can be justifiably claimed as true is what has sufficiently withstood such dialectical questioning and framing of objections.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, however, is more than an exposition and defense of the rationality of traditions: It is also an attempt, if only in outline, to defend the superior rationality of the Aristotelian/Thomistic tradition of moral philosophy. Such a specific defense cannot...

(The entire section is 2521 words.)