Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Freedom from Choice

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Moral autonomy has been a central feature of Western thought since the Enlightenment. In the history of philosophy, the concept is usually considered to have been developed by Kant and further refined by Mill. Given the deep pluralism of belief begun with the Reformation and the Enlightenment emphasis on rational inquiry, I believe the development of a morally autonomous individual was a logical outcome.

Where personal autonomy is the ability to choose one’s own actions, whether moral or not, moral autonomy is the ability to conduct one’s own inquiry into moral behavior and determine for oneself the morally correct course of action. Individualism would not be possible without moral autonomy. Separate from these is political autonomy, which, since it concerns politics, applies to groups: a group having political autonomy can set its own political course.

Moral autonomy requires some discussion of the selfhood of the person involved. A key question is: Does an authentic self really exist apart from the society in which the person lives? A person who answers in the negative will likely emphasize belonging and relationships above individuality and autonomy. At the extreme end of this view, moral autonomy would not even make any sense.

Moral autonomy is also impracticable, if not unthinkable, in a clan-based society like Afghanistan. The individual who attempted to assert his autonomy would put himself outside the protection of his clan. He would be a target for other clans and anyone who wanted someone to pick on. His life would necessarily be solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short.

Although Western thought has been very far-reaching, it is not universal. It has critics both inside and outside of Western nations. Furthermore, we now have a large number of people in the West who are unaware of the advantages that Western thought has conferred upon them and are not prepared to defend it.

Beyond this, there are seasonal tides that cause moral autonomy to be viewed differently through the decades. The 1930s, for example, were very collectivist years in history, and autonomy was under attack almost everywhere. Since 1960, moral autonomy has made an uneven comeback in the West, galloping forward in some areas while advancing fitfully and tentatively in others. Being aware of the history, one cannot simply extrapolate the continued advancement of moral autonomy without reversal into the future.

MacIntyre’s Objections

Irving Babbitt quoted a joke from the 1920s asserting that everyone would ultimately have to become either a Marxist or a Roman Catholic. Alasdair MacIntyre has done both, starting as a Marxist but later converting to Roman Catholicism and ultimately taking up a Thomist approach. MacIntyre is considered a very important communitarian thinker.

His first important major work was After Virtue (1981), wherein he asserted that the liberal Enlightenment project had failed and had done so necessarily, not accidentally. While After Virtue was primarily a criticism of where the Enlightenment had gone wrong, he provides hints of what he would substitute for it. Later writings, particularly Dependent Rational Animals (1999), advanced MacIntyre’s positive communitarian program.

Justice and Moral Anarchy

.. modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modem politics is civil war carried on by other means …
After Virtue, p. 253.

MacIntyre sees modern liberal individualism having descended into emotivism, where there is no ground to reach agreement among partisans having competing moral claims. Although we engage in rational argument to persuade others of the correctness of our viewpoint, there is no shared moral basis to which we can appeal in order to serve as a foundation, offering mutually agreed-upon premises for persuasive argument.

Although the moral claims are advanced by persons, the partisans claim that their arguments are impersonal and even universal.

Yet if we possess no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons. If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons. Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.
After Virtue, p. 8.

In a community of people attempting to reach political decisions in this way, they cannot do so on a moral basis, because they cannot achieve agreement upon premises. Therefore, resolution of disputes must in the end be a matter of which side has the stronger will and is prepared to use the least restraint in order that their will should prevail upon others not so minded.

An honest assessment of the events of the past year, at the very least, leads me to believe that the above is an accurate rendering of what we have come to.

The Telos

MacIntyre has a very direct writing style. Chapter 5 of After Virtue is titled, “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail.” At root, he claims it had to fail because it disputed the idea of an ordained human purpose, a telos. A telos exists outside of human choice. It imposes ethical obligations on all persons, “just because you live here.” You don’t get to choose whether or not to morally accept it. You can always refuse to honor its demands, but you will be morally less of a person because of your refusal, and good people will shun you.

The assertion of a human telos is a direct attack on moral autonomy. Or, if you prefer, it is equally true the other way around: the assertion of moral autonomy is a direct attack on a human telos. The latter is the more historically correct, because that is one of the consequences of the Enlightenment. It logically follows from the Reformation: once there was no longer one monolithic authority — namely, the Roman Catholic Church — to interpret the telos, who was going to be in charge of the interpretation?

Dissent in Communitarian Societies

How does a communitarian society, which rejects individual autonomy, turn back when it starts to go wrong? The events of the twentieth century have demonstrated that organizations at all levels and scales, from clans to religious movements to commercial enterprises to political entities, are fully capable of going astray. To avoid this issue is to engage in philosophical negligence; it is simply bad risk management. There must be a framework for individuals to dissent from the decisions of the community on moral grounds and seek to have these decisions reconsidered.

The show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were considered remarkable because the defendants willingly acknowledged their own guilt. Why did they do that? Why did they not defend themselves? Solzhenitsyn wrote that they had gone to a moral place from which they could not defend themselves.

And what did Bukharin fear most in those months before his arrest? It is reliably known that above all he feared expulsion from the Party! Being deprived of the Party! Being left alive but outside the Party! And Dear Koba [Stalin] had played magnificently on this trait of his (as he had with them all) from the very moment he had himself become the Party. Bukharin (like all the rest of them) did not have his own individual point of view. They didn’t have their own genuine ideology of opposition, on the strength of which they could step aside and on which they could take their stand. Before they became an opposition, Stalin declared them to be one, and by this move he rendered them powerless. And all their efforts were directed toward staying in the Party. And toward not harming the Party at the same time!
These added up to too many different obligations for them to be independent.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, p. 414; italics in original.

Without moral autonomy, it was not possible for any of the accused Communists to have an individual point of view, at least not in ethical terms. Without moral autonomy, who were they to oppose the community, even when the community demanded that they sacrifice themselves to it?

This behavior was not confined to communists. I have previously cited the example of Hindenburg. Once the German citizens really accepted “the conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing,” they did not have a moral leg to stand on when that community chose racist and exploitive collectivists to lead them.

Virtues and Autonomy

The assertion of virtues with a prior moral claim upon all persons can only be squared with moral autonomy if all persons would somehow converge on the acceptance of these virtues. This was part of the great Enlightenment project. Kant hoped to resolve this with the categorical imperative, which American progressive education simplified to, “What if everybody thought that way?” He hoped that all moral and thinking persons, no matter their starting point, would be able to use this to reason their way to a common moral understanding. Kant both underestimated the potential scope of deep moral pluralism and failed to reckon with the ability of people to rationalize.

The discovery of a telos, a higher human purpose, which all persons could assent without compromising moral autonomy would be a worthwhile project, and I wish success to anyone who undertakes it. However, after all these years of life, study and experience, I doubt that it can be achieved. Where does this leave us?

I hear and acknowledge MacIntyre’s criticisms of Enlightenment inquiry and moral autonomy, but I am deeply skeptical of his program to address them. Individual moral autonomy is a supreme achievement of Western civilization. It is our front-line defense against mass movements that would lead us lemming-like to our destruction.

Supplementary Links

This discussion only scratches the surface of issues involving moral responsibility and political consequences thereof. For the reader having a deeper interest in the subjects discussed, here are some leads. One should bear in mind that any of these will be written by a person with a point of view.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Written by srojak

January 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm

One Response

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  1. Thank you. Great quote: “Modem politics is civil war carried on by other means.” Alasdair MacIntyre

    Chris Lindsay

    January 5, 2017 at 7:39 pm

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