Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

This is more my personal reflections on the book than it is a review. These were very casual notes I made as an email to someone while I was reading.
  • Concerning telos: Perhaps he conflates two different versions of telos. The one as it applies to the summum bonum. The other as it applies to history. I don't see where the Enlightenment took down the first. The authors he mentions that attempt to do it aren't really Enlightenment. Kieerkegard, Nietsche, etc. are so prescient they really qualify more as 20th century existentialist/nihilists than they do Enlightenment. But even then, I think the telos of mankind isn't lost and that Bentham was probably onto something as far as telos goes (he may have gone a little too far in the calculus and policy implications). The telos of history, on the other hand, has been successfully taken down, I think, by postmodernism. But a rejection of teleology in history does not necessarily entail a rejection of the telos of humanity.
  • Chapter 8 about his views on social science was great (to me). But I wonder if the reasons he gives for the social sciences being unable to stand up to scrutiny doesn't also apply to the hard sciences. Also, he points to the inability of the soft sciences to predict and therefore they aren't sciences. I'm not sure that is a necessary requirement. The soft sciences do an excellent job explaining. From there, a good social scientist can draw probability predictions. Perhaps not in the way physics can predict orbits, etc., but even orbits aren't predicted perfectly. To me, it's like a sports coach. There are obviously better coaches than others. Those coaches' skills don't depend on prediction, but probability. And it certainly has an artistic element to it. Yet no one would doubt that Coach A is better than Coach B given certain data. 
  • The third to last chapter comparing Nozick to Rawls is just what I need. He says they are incompatible without an appeal to virtue. I have a different idea. Still a ways away before I get to actually writing anything though!
And at this point I forgot my book at my wife's doctor's office. The last 30 pages will have to wait until after her next appointment when she can bring it home.
And on the "battle of the schools of ethics," I have this to offer.
  • After watching the first couple lectures of Sandel's Justice on YouTube, I figured out how to reconcile deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics (I would also add casuistry as a fourth option although the case could be made to apply it to all three of the above): each one answers a different type of question. In the dilemma's Sandel uses to introduce the course, there are obvious choices for which is best in certain situations. I usually lean towards utilitarian (at least the modified version of the present), yet there are some questions (cheating in the USAF on the test for officers in charge of nuclear weapons for instance) that certainly point to a virtue perspective. And Walzer, in my view, is often the champion of a deep casuistry over any easy appeal to duty, utility, or virtue.