A Good Man

To be outside of tradition is to have no shared vision of the 'good' - no shared moral vision. The meaning and purpose of 'man' is now in dispute, subject to competing claims in the marketplace of ideas. 'Man' ceases to be a 'functional concept' and becomes instead an evaluative concept, no longer tied to specific roles nor an underlying nature. 

Facts and values drift apart - 'is' loses its mooring to 'ought' - and we get 'value-free' facts that float in a neutral, objective space. Free from the operating system of tradition, individuals are now free to agree or disagree on the 'good for man'.

Instead of a shared vision of the 'good for man', we have a set of explicit rules. The virtues lose their proper context, float free.

[...] the concepts of a watch and of a farmer [...] are functional concepts; that is to say, we define both 'watch' and 'farmer' in terms of the purpose or function which a watch or a farmer are characteristically expected to serve.

It follows that the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch nor the concept of a farmer independently of that of a good farmer; and that the criterion of something's being a watch and the criterion of something's being a good watch - and so also for 'farmer' and for all other functional concepts - are not independent of each other.

Now clearly both sets of criteria [...] are factual. Hence any argument which moves from premises which assert that the appropriate criteria are satisfied to a conclusion which asserts that ‘That is a good such-and-such', where 'such-and-such' picks out an item specified by a functional concept, will be a valid argument which moves from factual premises to an evaluative conclusion.

Thus we may safely assert that, if some amended version of the 'No “ought" conclusion from "is" premises' principle is to hold good, it must exclude arguments involving functional concepts from its scope. But this suggests strongly that those who have insisted that all moral arguments fall within the scope of such a principle may have been doing so, because they took it for granted that no moral arguments involve functional concepts.

Yet moral arguments within the classical, Aristotelian tradition - whether in its Greek or its medieval versions - involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function; and it is when and only when the classical tradition in its integrity has been substantially rejected that moral arguments change their character so that they fall within the scope of some version of the 'No "ought" conclusion from "is" premises' principle.

That is to say, 'man' stands to 'good man' as 'watch' stands to 'good watch' or 'farmer' to 'good farmer' within the classical tradition. Aristotle takes it as a standing-point for ethical enquiry that the relationship of 'man' to 'living well' is analogous to that of 'harpist' to 'playing the harp well' (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a 16).

But the use of 'man' as a functional concept is [...] rooted in the forms of social life to which the theorists of the classical tradition give expression. For according to that tradition to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family , citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God.

It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that 'man' ceases to be a functional concept.

To call a watch good is to say that it is the kind of watch which someone would choose who wanted a watch to keep time accurately (rather than, say, to throw at the cat). The presupposition of this use of 'good' is that every type of item which it is appropriate to call good or bad - including persons and actions - has, as a matter of fact, some given specific purpose or function. To call something good therefore is also to make a factual statement.

To call a particular action just or right is to say that it is what a good man would do in such a situation; hence this type of statement too is factual. Within this tradition moral and evaluative statements can be called true or false in precisely the way in which all other factual statements can be so called.

But once the notion of essential human purposes or functions disappears from morality, it begins to appear implausible to treat moral judgments as factual statements.

It is thus not a timeless truth that moral or otherwise evaluative conclusions cannot be entailed by factual premises; but it is true that the meaning assigned to moral and indeed to other key evaluative expressions so changed during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries that what are by then commonly allowed to be factual premises cannot entail what are by then commonly taken to be evaluative or moral conclusions.

The notion of 'fact' with respect to human beings is thus transformed in the transition from the Aristotelian to the mechanist view.

On the former view human action, because it is to be explained teleologically, not only can, but must be, characterized with reference to the hierarchy of goods which provide the ends of human action. On the latter view human action not only can, but must be, characterized without any reference to such goods.

On the former view the facts about human action include the facts about what is valuable to human beings (and not just the facts about what they think to be valuable); on the latter view there are no facts about what is valuable.

'Fact' becomes value-free, 'is' becomes a stranger to 'ought' and explanation, as well as evaluation, changes its character as a result of this divorce between 'is' and 'ought'.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.69-70, 92, 98-9

[...] reason for [Kant], as much as for Hume, discerns no essential natures and no teleological features in the objective universe available for study by physics [...] and what is true of them is true also of Diderot, of Smith and of Kierkegaard.

All reject any teleological view of human nature, any view of man as having an essence which defines his true end. But to understand this is to understand why their project of finding a basis for morality had to fail.

The moral scheme which forms the historical background to their thought had, as we have seen, a structure which required three elements: untutored human nature, man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos and the moral precepts which enable him to pass from one state to the other.

But the joint effect of the secular rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos.

Since the whole point of ethics - both as a theoretical and a practical discipline - is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end, the elimination of any notion of essential human nature and with it the abandonment of any notion of a telos leaves behind a moral scheme composed of two remaining elements whose relationship becomes quite unclear.

Hence the eighteenth-century moral philosophers engaged in what was an inevitably unsuccessful project; for they did indeed attempt to find a rational basis for their moral beliefs in a particular understanding of human nature, while inheriting a set of moral injunctions on the one hand and a conception of human nature on the other which had been expressly designed to be discrepant with each other.

This discrepancy was not removed by their revised beliefs about human nature. They inherited incoherent fragments of a once coherent scheme of thought and action and, since they did not recognize their own peculiar historical and cultural situation, they could not recognize the impossible and quixotic character of their self-appointed task.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.65-6

The project of providing a rational vindication of morality had decisively failed; and from henceforward the morality of our predecessor culture - and subsequently of our own - lacked any public, shared rationale or justification.

In a world of secular rationality religion could no longer provide such a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action; and the failure of philosophy to provide what religion could no longer furnish was an important cause of philosophy losing its central cultural role and becoming a marginal, narrowly academic subject.

[...] moral judgments are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices [...] Moral judgments lose any clear status and the sentences which express them in a parallel way lose any undebatable meaning. Such sentences become available as forms of expression for an emotivist self which lacking the guidance of the context in which they were originally at home has lost its linguistic as well as its practical way in the world.

[...] the moral vocabulary had become detached from any precise central context of understanding and made available to different competing moral groups for their special and differing purposes.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.58, 71, 271

Ronald Dworkin has recently argued that the central doctrine of modern liberalism is the thesis that questions about the good life for man or the ends of human life are to be regarded from the public standpoint as systematically unsettlable. On these individuals are free to agree or to disagree.

The rules of morality and law hence are not to be derived from or justified in terms of some more fundamental conception of the good for man.

In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community's good as specified by the good for man, there can no longer either be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good.

Hence notions of desert and of honor become detached from the context in which they were originally at home. Honor becomes nothing more than a badge of aristocratic status, and status itself, tied as it is now so securely to property, has very little to do with desert.

Distributive justice cannot any longer be defined in terms of desert either, and so the alternatives become those of defining justice in terms of some sort of equality (a project which Hume himself rejects) or in terms of legal entitlements.

Rules become the primary concept of the moral life. Qualities of character then generally come to be prized only because they will lead us to follow the right set of rules [...] a stance characteristic not just of liberalism, but of modernity.

Hence on the modern view the justification of the virtues depends upon some prior justification of rules and principles; and if the latter become radically problematic, as they have, so also must the former.

The virtues are now not to be practiced for the sake of some good other, or more, than the practice of the virtues itself. Virtue is, indeed has to be, its own end, its own reward and its own motive.

[...] when teleology [...] is abandoned, there is always a tendency to substitute for it some version of Stoicism [...] It is central to this Stoic tendency to believe that there is a single standard of virtue and that moral achievement lies simply in total compliance with it.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.138, 269-71

From the Enlightenment on, modern political philosophy has been characterized by the abandonment of a set of questions that an earlier age had deemed central: What is a well-lived life? What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of the city and humanity? How does culture and religion fit into all of this?

For the modern world, the death of God was followed by the disappearance of the question of human nature.

[…] the Enlightenment undertook a major strategic retreat. If the only way to stop people from killing one another about the right way to open an egg involved a world where nobody thought about it too much, then the intellectual cost of ceasing such thought seemed a small price to pay. The question of human nature was abandoned because it is too perilous a question to debate.

This disappearance had many repercussions. If humans can be approximated as rational economic actors (and, ultimately, even Adam Smith and Karl Marx agree on this point), then those who seek glory in the name of God or country appear odd; but if such odd people are commonplace and capable of asserting themselves with explosive force, then the account of politics that pretends they do not exist needs to be reexamined.

[Peter Thiel]
‘The Straussian Moment’

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