I’m excited about going to see Alasdair MacIntyre talk today. I think he’s the most influential living philosopher, and it’s a rare chance to see him speak in London (he moved to the US 40 years ago). The influence of his 1981 book. After Virtue, is still growing. More and more thinkers are following him in embracing Aristotle and a Neo-Aristotelian virtue politics as a way beyond the ethical relativism of liberal, pluralist capitalism.
That includes communitarians on the right, like Phillip Blond, the architect of the Tory party’s Big Society concept, who called for a ‘new communitarian settlement’, and communitarians on the left, like the MP John Cruddas, who writes in the New Statesman today that Labour should embrace a “politics of virtue, rooted in Aristotle, which resists commodification and nurtures community”.
It also includes the literary critic Terry Eagleton, who I see has left behind post-modernism and the relativism of literary theorists like Derrida and Baudrillard to embrace a Neo-Aristotelian / MacIntyrean virtue politics.
MacIntyre, and Aristotle, are obviously back in vogue. But I wonder what he thinks of the contemporary fusion of Aristotle with empiricism and utilitarian happiness measurements? Does he think we can discover a ‘science of flourishing’? Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to ask him this evening.
One way to understand the modern politics of wellbeing – by which I mean the introduction of policies by governments aimed at cultivating the ‘wellbeing’, ‘happiness’ or ‘resilience’ of their citizens – is as an attempt to move beyond the confines of liberalism, and to answer the question, ‘where next?’
The liberal state aims to safeguard the rights of the individual in their own private ‘pursuit of happiness’, but it does not go so far as to tell the individual where or how they should pursue it. Each individual in a liberal society has liberty of conscience, and liberty to pursue their happiness as they see fit, as long as they are not harming anyone else.
Modern liberal governments are, more or less, disestablished from religion – they do not try to promote one particular religion or spirituality, and maintain a careful neutrality in matters of private moral and spiritual beliefs.
Modern liberalism did once have a telos, or goal: the goal was the removal of all obstacles, prejudices and superstitions, so that each individual could freely pursue their own private happiness.
We have more or less reached that goal in western societies today, particularly with advances in minority rights since the 1960s, and in homosexual rights over the last decade. So the overarching telos of liberalism has been reached, and we are left with liberal society as an assortment of private teloi.
But this leads to an inevitable restlessness among philosophers and policy makers. Where now? Now the priests and monarchs have been defeated, and the old superstitions over-turned, now we are free to pursue our private inclinations…where next to steer the ship? (more…)