Review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition by Alasdair MacIntyre (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991)

This is a great book. The crucial thing to keep in mind while reading the book is that this is a book about method. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry concerns how to go about finding out who is in the right. MacIntyre offers three approaches.

When I was a kid we had a long row of big books on the floor in the corner of the living room. If we had an argument about something, somebody would always go to the encyclopedia to find out who was right. MacIntyre says, in effect, that the perspective of the writers who submitted articles to the encyclopedia, along with the subsequent editorial smoothing, produced a sort of god-like voice that dispensed disembodied pseudo-objective knowledge talk. This is the Enlightenment voice of reason, a “view from nowhere” (TNagel), invented when the best minds became convinced there finally was hope for agreement in all disciplines regarding
1. a universal standard for rationality,
2. a conceptual scheme for a single cosmos governed by uniform physical laws, and
3. inevitable progress.

During the 20th century a number of catastrophic events (wars, genocide and failed economies) eroded the confidence of the experts, and a movement inspired by Nietzsche set out to uncover the deceptions (and use of power) hidden in the history leading to the modern era. MacIntyre thinks the methods used by people like Foucault to “unmask” power rely on a non-stable conception of the self, while they use language in their arguments that “presuppose ascriptions of both identity and continuity to persons.” Presumably, for all their subversive posturing, they still copyright their books and accept tenured positions. The genealogist owes (but doesn’t give) the same suspicion of himself that he heaps on others.

MacIntyre presents Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae as a systematic method of inquiry that has never been equaled. The biggest mistake one could make reading Three Rival Versions is to assume that the answers given in the Summa are in some way like the information one gets from the Encyclopedia Britannica. People have used Aquinas this way, but Thomas’ intention was always to demonstrate a method of learning (and debate) that moves through at least four stages:
1. By apprenticeship: “What is my good?” This stage assumes the presence of a teacher who will guide the learner from an understanding of “basic moral apprehensions,” and then on to the cultivation of the more advanced skills (virtues) that are required to become a teachable student.
2. As members of a community of learners: “What are our goods?” How members of a community who at least agree on first principles (logic, do good, avoid evil), conduct debate centered on resolving the “precise formulations” of rational inquiry.
3. Engaging opponents one-on-one: In the third level of debate about who is in the right, the student learns to confront serious problems of incommensurability with opponents, with the goal of identifying the “limitations, defects, and errors” of the opposing view, while affirming and appropriating what is “cogent, insightful and true.”
4. Critique: Finally, a general account (or explanation) of ideological blindness, which represents a will to power and has its roots in the corruption of the will. Throughout the Summa Thomas demonstrates a painstaking approach that he uses to expose error. He provides provisional answers to a whole host of questions, while maintaining an astonishing level of generosity and humility in entertaining as many objections to his points of view as he can find.

Again, the main thing this book offers is a comparison of methods of moral inquiry. I find MacIntyre’s (and Thomas’) conclusions persuasive.


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