MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Some Concluding Thoughts

The previous post summarized the outlines of the course of the arguments made by Alasdair MacIntyre in the first, the second, and the third parts of his Secularization and Moral Change. As with the posts summarizing the individual sections, here I must reiterate that Peter Webster has what is probably the best summary of the book out there. I have offered a set of excerpts from A. V. Demant’s review. I also have asked whether the pre-modern world was the unified moral community that MacIntyre suggests it is.

Outlines and summary completed, a somewhat haphazard collection of my reflections/thoughts on Secularization and Moral Change follows below.

My first thought is that MacIntyre could use an editor (something I need even more badly). It occurred to me while endeavoring to summarize the outline of the argument of the first lecture that simply giving MacIntyre’s basic theses is much easier than delivering a coherent outline of the progression of his argument. Perhaps I failed to outline the argument coherently, but the same thought occurred to a friend of mine while reading the summary of the first lecture. MacIntyre is a joy to read. He is not always a joy to summarize. This is probably why he has been forced to offer summaries of the basic theses of his major work, After Virtue, and why one scholar even wrote a guide to After Virtue that contained, as part of its contents, a summary of the argument. The experience of reading Secularization and Moral Change is like the experience of reading After Virtue in the sense that one is always smiling at the revelations in each digression, without necessarily walking away with a clear outline of how they all connect.

Another thought is that Stanley Hauerwas (of Resident Aliens) would probably love Secularization and Moral Change because it would buttress some of his arguments for the Church as an alternative community of sorts. I’m reasonably sure that MacIntyre would not accept this sectarian option, for he seems to think that the Church should be public, should leaven all of life. The early Church was a spiritual and moral revolution in many ways, though it simply extended some of the pre-existing philosophical (Stoic, Platonic) practices and moral norms in other ways. Some Greco-Roman norms were accepted by the Church, and some were not. In Hauerwas’ favor, however, the religious claims of the early Church were reflected in the social and economic arrangements that prevailed (or were aimed at) in the communities of the first four centuries — and not merely reflected in the religious rites and the corresponding experiences that were to be had there. I don’t mean to suggest that MacIntyre should endorse The Benedict Option (DeVille would shake his head again and again at anyone suggesting this), or that he leads to it, but that we have more freedom over our environment than we think. MacIntyre agrees.

Our freedom will only do this for a sub-community of people engaged in a shared practice, though, because while the trends of secularization driving the problems outlined by MacIntyre can be responded to, they still hold sway over the range of possible responses, and adumbrate all responses. It’s not just that people respond badly because they have bad ideas. To go on a riff inspired by Charles Taylor (having just finished this for the second time), there are ideas built into the trends of secularization that none of us can escape, just as our convictions can generate new practices that have other beliefs built into them, but secularizing trends don’t just come from ideas, whether purportedly good or bad. The basic points of Secularization and Moral Change will be very difficult to swallow for those people who subscribe to the “ideas have consequences” crowd, who find it ugly and unsatisfying to think that sociological changes at the material base could possibly be the primary factor driving the alienation of people from moral and religious ideals and practices; most of us like to think that our minds are more sovereign, more immune from material and historical and social changes. They are not. We are not automata, but our freedom is entwined with stubborn material reality.

In a partial defense of this crowd, however (–and without siding with them), I will point out that MacIntyre does say that intellectual arguments (whether for skepticism or for Christianity) will always persuade only a few. He also says that arguments are only needed when the reality of the society is hostile to whatever is being advocated for or against by the few, or else when what is being advocated for or against is rendered difficult even to understand because of the structure of society. He admits that this is needed for Christianity in this age, to spell out what Christian belief and practice would even be.

There is a kind of fatalism that sometimes seems to persist through the analyses of Secularization and Moral Change, as though the aims of a class were driven by changes in the material base of social configurations and needs, and that these are entirely out of our control. This seems to be incompatible with his optimism about creating a community of shared goals and needs [57] elsewhere in the book, and may rest uncomfortably with some other theses he advances. Of course changes in the material base can drive changes in what people think and feel and believe; not all changes, however, are fatalities that arrive like a behemoth no one can understand or control (though this doubtless happens more often than we’re comfortable with). There is something here that could, taken the wrong way, set one up to be unable to say “no” to tyrants or the spirit of the hour, or to protect fragile possibilities.

It is interesting to think that MacIntyre’s thinking was inspired by his engagement with John Robinson’s Honest to God. I have here summarized two papers; in one of the two covered, Jan Bremmer locates the role of Honest to God in the rise of the words “secularism” and “secularization” to prominence.

I want to go back through After Virtue now that I’ve spent all this time with this work. I’m working my way through several works by Max Scheler (particularly his essay “Ordo Amoris” found in his Philosophical Essays alongside Scheler’s key work in ethics typically abbreviated to “Formalism, which I’m working through alongside the somewhat-hagiographical summary of his thought in the late Manfred Frings’ study on Scheler, as well as Scheler’s founding essays on Sociology, as well as his The Human Place in the Cosmos). I’m reading Scheler together with the magisterial Hans Jonas at the moment, and while Jonas can be joined to MacIntyre’s emphasis on aims very tidily, it may be that Scheler offers a way out of the Kantian-Utilitarian-Teleological camps that have dominated modern ethics. Whatever therapeutic value Scheler’s ethics offers to individuals and cultures, it may be that MacIntyre offers a sobering counter to the ethical framework that necessarily holds sway, as it follows from the socio-economic base of high modernity that we’re in at the moment.

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