Alasdair MacIntyre on Money

176_feature_cornwellJohn Cornwell in Prospect:

MacIntyre begins his Cambridge talk by asserting that the 2008 economic crisis was not due to a failure of business ethics. The opener is not a red herring. Ever since he published his key text After Virtue in 1981, he has argued that moral behaviour begins with the good practice of a profession, trade, or art: playing the violin, cutting hair, brick-laying, teaching philosophy. Through these everyday social practices, he maintains, people develop the appropriate virtues. In other words, the virtues necessary for human flourishing are not a result of the top-down application of abstract ethical principles, but the development of good character in everyday life. After Virtue, which is in essence an attack on the failings of the Enlightenment, has in its sights a catalogue of modern assumptions of beneficence: liberalism, humanism, individualism, capitalism. MacIntyre yearns for a single, shared view of the good life as opposed to modern pluralism’s assumption that there can be many competing views of how to live well.

In philosophy he attacks consequentialism, the view that what matters about an action is its consequences, which is usually coupled with utilitarianism’s “greatest happiness” principle. He also rejects Kantianism—the identification of universal ethical maxims based on reason and applied to circumstances top down. MacIntyre’s critique routinely cites the contradictory moral principles adopted by the allies in the second world war. Britain invoked a Kantian reason for declaring war on Germany: that Hitler could not be allowed to invade his neighbours. But the bombing of Dresden (which for a Kantian involved the treatment of people as a means to an end, something that should never be countenanced) was justified under consequentialist or utilitarian arguments: to bring the war to a swift end.

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