After Virtue: What Rich Aesthetes, Managers, and Therapists Tell Us About Ourselves

During the last few weeks, I have been able to get back to reading in earnest, and there are a few books that I have been drinking up: one which I have gulped down thirstily, another which I have picked up rather sporadically, and a third which I sip very slowly and deliberately.

The first is The Story of the Trapp Family Singers—the memoir of Maria Augusta Trapp written in the late 1940’s which inspired the musical “The Sound of Music.” Her writing reveals a woman of true depth and faith, whose enthusiasm for life is indefatigable. She is a very good, and quite humorous, storyteller as she relates the history of her marriage to Georg, the development of their family’s musical culture and then career, and their journey to and life in America after they fled Nazi-occupied Austria. (The only other book which I have relished so much lately has been E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, which our children have listened to on audio book at least 30 times in the past two months. We have the recording by E.B. White himself, and it is one of the most charming and playful stories that a child or an adult could read or listen to.)

Evidence of how E.B. White infiltrates our imaginations: Joe in a shark costume, but he insists he is a trumpeter swan

The second book, The Great Good Place (1999) by Ray Oldenburg, was recommended to me by the owners of our favorite bookstore in Annapolis after they learned that I was getting involved in turning an old mansion in our Illinois town into a children’s museum. Oldenburg laments the suburban isolation that is so typical in America, in which, due to strict zoning laws, a resident can find no “third place” outside of work and home for rest, recreation, and community. The author describes the features of these “third places”—like good cafes in France, pubs in Ireland, biergartens in Germany, even bustling and friendly sidewalks of downtowns—that make them so beneficial to individuals and communities. He hopes that, in understanding their nature and their virtues, we might be inspired and enabled to preserve and create them.

The text which I have had to sip slowly is After Virtue (1981) by Alisdair MacIntyre. It reminds me of drinking a cup of Yerba Mate tea: it is bitter, thick, nuanced, and satisfyingly mind-clearing in its effect. MacIntyre is a living moral philosopher at the University of Notre Dame and After Virtue, his most famous work. In it, he investigates the reasons for our current state of seemingly insoluble moral debates and the predominating emotivism that holds sway over our actions and moral self-understanding. It has been recommended to me over and over again throughout the years, as a book that would be foundational to my understanding of the history of Western philosophy and ethics. So far, it has been fulfilling those expectations.

Throughout my time in the St. John’s Masters program, I had planned on reading After Virtue once I had graduated. Indeed, I could not have read it before and understood much, since he heavily discusses the thought of Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others. Even now, there is still much that he references which I haven’t read, yet I understand the gist. Because it is such a complex and interesting work, I would find it helpful to reflect on it here in stages as I work my way through the book.

MacIntyre begins with a fundamental observation and claim: although we might use moral language (of something being good or bad) today, generally our language is empty or fragmented, for we do not have a shared and internally consistent system of morality any more. Any such consistent morality was shattered by the propagation and subsequent taking root of theories of emotivism in the early twentieth century. He defines emotivism as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (this and all quotations to follow are from the first three chapters of After Virtue).

He distinguishes here between evaluative judgments, e.g. of whether a thing is good or bad (or beautiful or ugly, etc), and factual judgments, whether it is true or false. Although factual judgments can be reached by “rational criteria,” according to emotivism evaluative judgments cannot, rendering all moral disagreement as “rationally interminable.” Thus we find ourselves in a culture in which the sides in moral debates, like that about abortion, seem to be irreconcilable even down to their first principles, and moral judgments are often dismissed as “preferences” or the results of blind, emotional impulses like hatred.

MacIntyre points to the defects of the emotivist claims and rejects the notion that they can account for morality across time as a truth of the human condition. Yet, he wonders if, at the time emotivism became popular, it did in some way reflect the moral development in the culture and so seemingly accounted for what people were observing. Moreover, as it insinuated itself into the mainstream consciousness, it became self-fulfilling, such that in a certain way emotivism is true of moral arguments today.

Now, here comes a point which I found really fascinating. Once MacIntyre establishes what emotivism is and its place in the twentieth century, he identifies the “characters” in our culture that reveal its emotivist assumptions. First, what does he mean by character? In every phase of a culture, so he says, the moral philosophy of that time and place is manifest in the society through particular characters, which inhabit a specific kind of social role: “they are, so to speak, the moral representatives of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world. Characters are the masks worn by moral philosophies.”

Characters: Masks worn by moral philosophies…

These characters are not necessarily those who are admired or revered by the rest of society, but they are sources of self-definition for the rest of us, even by contrast or disagreement. They are objects “of regard by the members of the culture generally” such that the character “morally legitimates a mode of social existence.”

MacIntyre identifies three such characters that embody the emotivist tendencies of our modern culture. These are the rich aesthete, the manager, and the therapist. I have spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks thinking over these three characters and whether MacIntyre correctly chooses them, whether they are still true of today’s culture as compared to the 1980’s, etc. I will briefly summarize his reasons for choosing these three and intersperse my own reflections on them.

Here are his reasons. First, in different ways, all three represent an important consequence of emotivism: if all evaluative judgments are merely reflections of personal feelings or attitudes, then every kind of social influence is rendered manipulative—treating another as a means rather than an end. We cannot influence any one to act for their own sakes, according to objective standards of what is good, because any attempt to persuade another person is, at rock bottom, an imposition of our wants and desires on that person, such that they will do what we want. In contrast, non-manipulative treatment assumes that the other person is a rational agent, and one presents them with objective reasons to act (or not act) in a particular way based on something we perceive as good for them. Then, we leave them to decide their own good. The distinction between manipulative (treating as means) and non-manipulative (treating as ends) is only possible if there are impersonal standards of good and bad (i.e. morality), and according to emotivism such impersonal standards are merely an illusion.

The rich aesthete, a wealthy person for whom pleasure is the primary end of life, views everything, including other people, as means to their end. Understanding the social world as “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences,” the rich aesthetes “[contrive] behavior in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.” (Do we need a better description of the Harvey Weinstein type than this??)

The managerial character finds its roots in the German sociologist Max Weber’s ideas of bureaucratic authority and effectiveness. An organization has ends toward which it is striving and competing, and it has authority over people as means to those ends, and the criterion for its authority is its effectiveness. The manager, as leaders within organizations, must handle human resources with techniques of persuasion and motivation and control (the kind of influence that MacIntyre identifies earlier as manipulative). The question of values such as good or bad are absent, except insofar as they are synonymous with effective or ineffective.

The extent to which this paradigm of economic persuasion and effectiveness now permeates our social interactions is subtle but not to be taken for granted. The language and techniques of branding we apply so readily to ourselves, both professionally and socially. I was recently flipping through a book entitled To Sell Is Human (2013), in which the author Daniel Pink argues that all of us sell things…we all have to “move” people toward accepting something that we have to offer.  That may indeed be true to some extent, but why must the paradigm for such influence be “selling?” What are the hidden assumptions and implications behind that?

Like the manager, the therapist as a character is supposedly morally neutral. MacIntyre asserts,“The therapist also treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming neurotic symptoms into directed energy, maladjusted individuals into well-adjusted ones.” The therapist assumes that emotions and attitudes are the primary determiner of well-being, and so his techniques focus on shaping and changing those, rather than changing behavior and thoughts by teaching moral truths.

Thus, it seems to be no coincidence that therapists come along with the rich aesthetes and the managers as a modern phenomenon, and that they have great influence in our culture. In a world without objective, external values of goodness, where every kind of social relation is blurred manipulation, and where people aspire to the social power of the aesthete and the manager, the therapist is both another representative of and salve for society’s moral confusion.  We look to mental health specialists who make pronouncements on what is “good” for us, but they can only do so on the grounds of data—what do the studies say? In our popular culture, we are fixated on such reports as a guide for behavior and choices. But this isn’t the same as morality.

Now, all that isn’t to say that these three kinds of characters are inherently bad, but the extent to which they represent our assumptions about ourselves and the social fabric within which we exist is–MacIntyre urges–a cause for concern. On the one hand, I find MacIntyre fairly convincing on this point; on the other, I find myself resisting belief that we are as emotivist as he claims and that our social self-definition can be reduced down to those three characters, but perhaps that is just wishful thinking!

I think that’s enough for you and me to ponder over for now! If you have any comments or questions, especially if you have also read MacIntyre, please contribute them.

In other news, this past weekend we finally went apple picking and brought home a good-sized harvest. Harkening back to Tom’s childhood traditions, we decided to make them into apple sauce. We cut the apples into quarters, leaving the skins on, and boiled them. Then we ground the softened apples through food mills, in order to take the skins and seeds and stems out.

apple picking

The resulting apple sauce is a beautiful rose color and has a wonderfully tart and sweet flavor—all we added was a bit of lemon juice and cinnamon. We will freeze several jars, alongside our summer peaches, so that we can enjoy the tastes of summer and fall when we are in the winter doldrums. They can be part of the festive arrival of the baby in February.

apple sauce!

I have returned to certain creative projects lately, which have been very fulfilling. I definitely experience a kind of “flow” when I am working on art or crafts that is very peace-inducing. Recently, I have been trying to put to creative use some beautiful birds’ nests and robins’ eggs that I have found around the yard and town. At least one has ended up in a hanging terrarium, and the supplies for that project led to some fairy-garden making with my older nieces and nephew (who made an army fort instead). I was very impressed with their creative little planted worlds.

Mary’s fairy-garden

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *