After Virtue and the Elephant in the Room

I am reading Alisdair McIntyre’s After Virtue for my PhD. I have no idea what its connection is with Congregational Studies but as quite a few papers cite it, I am reading it to find out. I am not at all sure that I will agree with the conclusion and if I do I will argue that it has come about in a very different way. This is because he is using a tradition I was brought up in as his starting off point and I disagree with his reading. In fact in my view his reading is far too kind what happened.

Lets start at a point where I can agree, that is with the Nicomachean Ethics and the idea that ethics is made up of a threefold scheme of “man as he happens to be” is discordant with his true nature with discordant ethics and needs to be instructed to realises what man could be. Thus there is natural state, ethical training and ends ([i]telos[/i]).

He goes on to posit that during the enlightenment what happened is with the idea of science that it could only deal with means not ends and turning ethics into a science (legitimate form of knowledge) then the telos was got rid of. That is there was no end to which ethics were directed.

To discredit this I only have to state the end and the very argument that he makes turns around. The ideal of instruction was to become the “purely rational man”. In other words there is a telos, but it appears to be a telos that at first glance fits our own world. In actual fact it is one of the most potent myths to inhabit the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries. I can trace it back that far.

Firstly when I did my early theological trainng or that first beyond the home to be exact, I did it in St Andrews, where David Hume is still a celebrated former member of the academy. However it was theology not philosophy I am talking about which is still Presbyterian. We were introduced to Kierkegaard but also to Schleiermacher. There you start to get the idea of the aethete, who has mastered rationally various arts, who becomes the new man.

Turn wider to a Sociologist Emile Durkhiem and read how he builds a picture of religion as starting off in superstition, through monotheist Judaism, Christianity and laterly Protestant Christianity man is slow able to gain a purer and purer religion until it becomes so pure there is no need for God, and the enlightened man is an atheist.

Darwinian evolution has been interpreted in this way then you get eugenics. No that is not accidental, I said my criticism of what happened was harder. The idea of a super-race that is purely rational and so on also haunts this form of ethics.

So to me the threefold scheme is not broken, but the telos is changed and in changing it becomes a monster that eventually leads to the holocaust. It is humanity faced with an ethics based on the “superman” myth driven to its natural conclusion that is repelled by what it has created.

To me, indeed to my theology teachers at University the ethics triad is not broken by the Enlightenment (perhaps that is one of the reasons my father does not believe in the Enlightenment) but rather it is broken by the carnage of the early twentieth century when it is obvious that even if man has developed rationally he has not developed ethically and no amount of rational training secures better moral outcomes.

Nor are we clear of it. The militant atheist are often so busy promulgating this myth at least indirectly. The idea all religion is about control and that a rational person must dispense with it and that the purely rational must triumph is yet this in another guise.

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