On MacIntyre’s Virtue and the Outsider

In a previous post on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue I claimed that,

it seems to me that MacIntyre’s approach seems to promote communal rigidity and sameness. This isn’t because his ethics builds intentional animosity toward otherness, but rather because it is so firmly rooted in distinctly communal history, wisdom, and tradition which can only therefore be fully coherent internally. Insofar as this might be true, such an approach is structurally inhospitable to difference.

To be fair, this comment isn’t entirely in reference to After Virtue but also its follow-up, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? In the combination of these works MacIntyre presents the idea that different historico-ethical communities develop different forms of rationality, upon which their conceptions of justice are based. Reading that insight back into After Virtue (which seems entirely fair), what a community determines to be the appropriate human telos and how one moves toward it is also dependent upon that community’s history, needs, and structure.

An ethical approach so firmly tied to a particular historical community is one that leans into the community’s distinctiveness, if for no other reason than coherence. It means reifying the community’s particularity, its boundaries and borders. Such a move doesn’t carry animosity toward outsiders by design, but it does firm up the distinctions between ‘in’ and ‘out’, which are severely complicated by disparate rationalities, ethics, and conceptions of justice.

So while such an approach is not outwardly hostile to difference (particularly in the form of external community membership), it is inhospitable to it. Not only must such an approach adamantly assert the conviction of its own rationality (to avoid relativism), by speaking two different languages (rationalities, histories, conceptions of justice, etc.) it has little more to offer other than the invitation to emigrate communities (I see this especially in the MacIntyre-Barthianism of Stanley Hauerwas). Such an approach is strained to be truly open to the outsider or meet her on equal terms or in shared space. After all, the heart of a community’s insights is only available to those firmly within it. It seems to me that such an approach impoverishes our public discourse by being unable to foster or even participate in (to an extent) intra-community dialogue. It relegates people to merely representing certain communities and their respective rationalities/ethics.

I certainly don’t mean to say that the only way to be hospitable to the outsider is to willingly forfeit a community’s distinctive history and traditions, to give up on what makes it what it is. Rather I wonder if there’s a way to hold onto communal identity while opening the possibility for true dialogue and mutual insight with the other. It seems to me that such an approach must carry with it considerable epistemological humility on the merits and truth of one’s own community and traditions, something I find hard to hold with MacIntyre’s view. MacIntyre’s virtue ethics struggles at the point I find most pressing: the interaction with the outsider, the meeting place of different communities, the interaction between others. At the interaction with difference MacIntyre’s ethics erects walls (emphasizing communal distinctiveness and untranslatability) rather than stepping out into mutual space (space for mutual recognition). A cosmopolitan ethics which anticipates and is oriented toward the intersection of difference, rather than away from it, would be a more appealing approach to me.


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