Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.
— Immanuel Kant
Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our children, advance it in our politics and justify it with our religions. A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities. To carry this weight, the concept of morality would have to be bigger than any of us and outside all of us.
So dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is the branch of philosophy which addresses questions of morality. The word “ethics” is “commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality,’ and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual.
It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it.
Whether morality is an objective property of the universe, or instead the subjective opinion of humans, is one of the longest running issues in philosophy.
Let’s first consider two possible conclusions about moral values:
- Moral values are objective truths, similar to mathematical objects, that exist “out there”, independent of human thought, culture, or biology. With proper reasoning, introspection, or revelation, we can discover these objective truths.
- Moral values are arbitrary human inventions. As creations of human minds, they are culturally relative. Our deepest intuitions about what is right or wrong are simply indoctrination that we receive in our earliest years of development.
I actually don’t accept either one of these views.
Morality as a Human Phenomenon
While there may be some inherent sense of fairness and reciprocity among higher animals, it appears that there is no rich, full sense of moral concern among animals. Morality is a human byproduct, a concern of complex, conscious beings.
Without humans, there seems to be no morality. Justice isn’t some Platonic ideal existing the heavens. Justice is a quality of human relationships, an ideal or virtue that makes sense only if humans exist and only for humans.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and morality certainly makes no sense except as the product of our evolutionary heritage. Our moral sense is one of a number of systems developed by evolution.
Many attempts at establishing an objective morality try to argue from considerations of human well-being, flourishing, happiness, or some sense of fulfillment. Aristotle and the ancients employed the term eudaimonia to describe the state of human wholeness and flourishing.
Therefore, given the human character of morality, and given that most moral systems of analysis have related moral concerns to human flourishing and well-being, we need turn our attention to what many have called human nature, a discussion of what is constitutive of humanness.
We are not born blank slates, but with powerful instincts, urges, desires, and motivations. These desires aren’t something we decide to have, either consciously or even subconsciously. We simply have them. We don’t decide to have them any more than we decide to be hungry or to feel pain.
Morality arises from this basic programming. The vast majority of human beings have very similar programming, including prosocial programming since we’re a very social species. This prosocial programming heavily influences our moral inclinations. These inclinations aren’t voluntary. How we respond to them may be, but feeling them isn’t.
Human nature is a bundle of characteristics, including ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, which humans are said to have naturally. The term is often regarded as capturing what it is to be human, or the essence of humanity.
Nature, in the broadest sense, is the natural, physical, or material world or universe. “Nature” can refer to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general. The study of nature is a large, if not the only, part of science. Although humans are part of nature, human activity is often understood as a separate category from other natural phenomena.
The word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, or “essential qualities, innate disposition”, and in ancient times, literally meant “birth”. Natura is a Latin translation of the Greek word physis which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord.
Arguing in favor of the existence of human nature is controversial and rejected by many today due to various strains of naturalist and materialist thinking. Defenders of the concept argue that when defined in certain ways, human nature is both scientifically respectable and meaningful. Therefore, the value and usefulness of the concept depends essentially on how one construes it.
Critics, citing evolutionary insights, argue that there is no fixed human nature because there is nothing fixed about human being – we are constantly evolving. Periodically a biological species might be characterized by one or more characters which are both universally distributed among and limited to the organisms belonging to that species, but such states of affairs are temporary, contingent and relatively rare.
- An essentialist notion of human nature – “Human nature is the set of properties that are separately necessary and jointly sufficient for being a human”. These properties are also usually considered as distinctive of human beings. They are also intrinsic to humans and inherent to their essence.
- A nomological notion of human nature – “Human nature is the set of properties that humans tend to possess as a result of the evolution of their species”
the essentialist notion of human nature is incompatible with modern evolutionary biology: we cannot explain membership in the human species by means of a definition or a set of properties. However, he maintains that this does not mean humans have no nature, because we can accept the nomological notion which is not a definitional notion. Therefore, we should think of human nature as the many properties humans have in common as a result of evolution.
A fuller account of human nature is expected to fulfill the five following roles:
- an organizing function that demarks a territory of scientific inquiry
- a descriptive function that is traditionally understood as specifying properties that are universal across and unique to human being
- a causal explanatory function that offers causal explanation for occurring human behaviours and features
- a taxonomic function that specifies possessing human nature as a necessary and sufficient criterion for belonging to the human species
- Invariances that assume the understanding that human nature is to some degree fixed, invariable or at least hard to change and stable across time.
According to one influential philosophical tradition, to understand human nature is to grasp the essence of what it is to be human. As typically understood, an “essence” is the fundamental being or reality that a particular thing embodies. An essence explains the traits that a thing has. It is not reducible to those traits, however; it is unchanging in some durable sense.
However, essentialism is not the only way of understanding the concept of “human nature.” An alternative view, now salient in all postmodern thought and very significant in the biological sciences, is non-teleological evolution. On an evolutionary view, then, “human nature” does not refer to an unchanging essence. Instead, it describes functions; it tells us what the members of the kind happen to be like. If we take evolutionary biology seriously, then we certainly should reject any essentialist conception of it, such as Aristotle’s. There is no immutable, clearly defined ‘essence’ that characterises human beings
Yet the concept can be defended, even in light of evolutionary and naturalist thought.
the picture emerging from evolutionary and developmental biology is – contrary to the widespread opinion among contemporary philosophers – one that very much supports the notion of human nature, just not an essentialist one.
Only the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature. They may argue that the exact properties of human nature are difficult to substantiate — this is certainly correct. However, it is impossible to coherently argue that an intrinsic, universal human nature does not exist. This amounts to the belief that the next human zygote conceived might just as well develop into a worm or a crab as a human being.
That defense begins with the intelligibility of humans as such – the fact that we recognize something of what it means to be human.
Human nature is best conceived of as a cluster of homeostatic properties, ie of traits that are dynamically changing and yet sufficiently stable over evolutionary time to be statistically clearly recognisable. These properties include characteristics that are either unique to the human species, or so quantitatively distinct from anything similar found in other animals that our version is unquestionably and solely human.
human nature “is the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors.” Thus, humans are distinguished by an overall set of traits, rather than by any one trait; Fukuyama does not attempt a complete list. In fact, the set would have to be somewhat indeterminate, if only because any attempt to specify “fundamental facts” tends to be indeterminate. Further, the set will consist of ranges of traits rather than precisely specified traits. Because traits are a function of environmental as well as genetic factors, the set of traits “arising from genetic factors” will be unstable; “normal human height,” for example, can change over the generations due to changes in diet. Nonetheless, out of this overall general understanding of the range of traits possible given the human genome emerges what is distinctively human.
Though one may hold that human nature is recognizable and in some limited sense, definable, one should still admit that we cannot easily articulate human nature:
If what gives us dignity and a moral status higher than that of other living creatures is related to the fact that we are complex wholes rather than the sum of simple parts, then it is clear that there is no simple answer to the question, What is Factor X? That is, Factor X cannot be reduced to the possession of moral choice, or reason, or language, or sociability, or sentience, or emotions, or consciousness, or any other quality that has been put forth as a ground for human dignity. It is all of these qualities coming together in a human whole that make up Factor X.
Maintaining some sense of a universally shared “nature” or pattern of traits is vital for maintaining the logic of any human ethics. If there is no shared human nature, no core reality to being human, then any attempt at a universal or logical human ethics is doomed to fail.
Any stance we take is based on some conception of what is good for people. This conception will tacitly presuppose a certain belief as to the constitution of human nature — human needs and human potential. You might as well bring them out as clearly as possible so that they can be discussed.
it is critical to human morality that there is a stable human nature and that humans all recognize that there is a stable human morality. Lauritzen is not concerned with determining what is inside and what is outside the human category. His point is only that we must have some ability to describe important human characteristics that people of different races, ethnicities, sexes, and nationalities share in roughly the same measure.
We are able to live together in communities and engage each other as equals because we all share some sort of “prior ethical self-understanding”—an understanding of who we are that makes it possible for us to see ourselves as “ethically free and morally equal beings.” The critical element in this self-understanding is an awareness that we are embodied and that our bodies are our own, in the sense that we do not acquire them from other people; they are products of fate or nature rather than of other members of the community. In short, the contingent nature of a person’s traits is a condition of being one’s own person—of having autonomy, having unique worth, and being a member of equal standing in the moral community. We must be able to assume that “we act and judge in propria persona—that it is our own voice speaking and no other.
We do all that because we are a particular kind of intelligent social animal, just as the Stoics thought. And we do it within the broad constraints imposed by our (biological as well as contingent) facticity, as the existentialists maintained. There is no single path to a flourishing human life, but there are also many really bad ones. The choice is ours, within the limits imposed by human nature.
The Arbitrariness of Moral Ends
Returning to our earlier discussion that morality relates to human flourishing, we begin to encounter a challenge. Who’s vision of flourishing? Who’s standard of thriving and well-being?
People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.
How do we engage forms of what has become known as social darwinism in which in order for the human species to thrive, some humans might need be neglected, used, or sacrificed in some sense? How do we respond to a Randian (Ayn Rand) vision of human fulfillment as “selfishness?” Or related visions of human excellence that see compassion or kindness as weakness.
An arbitrariness of ends is not the only concern. Alasdair MacIntyre has written extensively on the matter of diversity in moral analysis. His book Whose Justice? Whose Rationality? argues that significant differences exist not only in methods of moral reasoning, but in the conclusions reached.
Recognizing that there is an element of arbitrariness in moral ends and methods is not to argue that there isn’t something of a moral consensus. Few people argue in favor of the moral legitimacy of the taking of innocent human life, stealing, lying, and so on. Some of our culture’s moral consensus is the result of the accumulated influences of Classical culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet as we enter the twenty-first century we see change in moral opinion and view on a variety of issues.
Western Moral Presuppositions
Classical Culture and Judeo-Christianity
The value of life
Universality of ethics
Naturalism and Ethics
Naturalist values are largely the same as those in Judeo-Christian tradition. Nothing unusual or worrisome is advocated. And, contrary to a misconception and false accusation, while a naturalist view recognizes “survival of the fittest” as a process in nature, it does not recommend this as a model for human behavior.
A Phenomenology of Human Persons
The nebulous and evolving concept of human dignity features in ethical, legal, and political discourse as a foundational commitment to human value or human status. The source of that value, or the nature of that status, are contested. The normative implications of the concept are also contested,
There are a number of competing conceptions of human dignity taking their meaning from the cosmological, anthropological, or political context in which human dignity is used. Human dignity can denote the special elevation of the human species, the special potentiality associated with rational humanity, or the basic entitlements of each individual. There are, by extension, dramatically different normative uses to which the concept can be put. It is connected, variously, to ideas of sanctity, autonomy, personhood, flourishing, and self-respect, and human dignity produces, at different times, strict prohibitions and empowerment of the individual. It can also, potentially, be used to express the core commitments of liberal political philosophy as well as precisely those duty-based obligations to self and others that communitarian philosophers consider to be systematically neglected by liberal political philosophy.
Human dignity is the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings. Claims of dignity as asserted as universal, unconditional, inalienable and overriding of other concerns.
Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.
– Immanuel Kant
Kant went on to correspondingly argue that we have a categorical duty to treat other human persons ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’. In other words, the distinctive value of dignity demands a special kind of respect, which we express through a self-imposed restriction on our deliberations about what to do or say.
Human dignity is an assertion of something recognized or intuited about human beings. As such, it cannot be proven in the strict sense of the term. Human dignity cannot be demonstrate through deductive argument. Even the most careful and accurate social science analysis won’t yield the concept’s validity either.
Human dignity is either recognized as a valid claim concerning all humans or it is not. And it is left to the machinations of illative reason and the corresponding forms of argument and persuasion to get others to see the merit of our own particular view of the matter.
Human beings emerge from nature as persons – free, emotive-rational, conscious subjects. As persons we possess a unique ontological dignity, an inherent value, and a sense of worth that is grounded in our very being and is not merited or earned.
What does it mean to assert that every human being is a person? The concept of person implies an independence of being and acting, echoing back to Roman law – persona est suri iuris et alteri incommunicabilis – a person is a being which belongs to itself and which does not share its being with another. Personhood implies subjectivity – we are not inert, passive objects in the world – we are centers of awareness (including self-awareness), action, and unrepeatable individuality.
To assert the inherent dignity of the human person is not speciesism or a denigration of other life forms. Every living being is unique and of value. Each being has dignity. Yet human self-awareness, reason, language, the engendering of culture, freedom, capacity for virtue (and vice) calls attention to the unique place of the human person within the ecosystem.
This sacred vision of humanity – expressed in many religious traditions as Imago Dei, B’tzelem Elohim, and that of God within each person – has its origins in the insight that humans possess certain abilities that reflect what are often deemed divine powers – creativity, the ability to love, freedom, reason, and so on.
Not only do the scriptures affirm human dignity, they also affirm the partnership of humanity and the divine – an ongoing relationship of meaning and redemption. We see this partnership clearly with Abraham arguing with God, Moses trusting and challenging God, in the call of the prophets to heal the world and establish justice, and in the Gospels with Jesus asking us to take our rightful place within the Kingdom.
Much of the Western Cultural tradition is grounded in the affirmation of human dignity, from democracy, social justice, human rights, aid to the needy, compassion, and freedom, to themes in art, religion, literature, style, cuisine, and architecture.
To reflect on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
The Human Soul
It seems a mistaken notion that we are immaterial souls trapped in bodies, or some sort of dualist hybrid of spirit and flesh. Yes, such language at times does help us make sense of certain human realities. But it is truer to say that we are unified self-aware flesh, that our existence melds material and immaterial realities, and that the exact relationship of the mind-soul to the body is a mystery.
Rather than speak of the human soul as some sort of ghost in the machine, it seems more accurate to speak of the soul in terms of individuation, identity, place, meaning, and purpose – the core reality of the human person – and fundamental themes in most religions.
The soul must find its meaning and purpose outside itself – in the world, in others, in objective values. Religious wisdom includes soulcraft, conveying the skills and insights needed in shaping the soul to find fulfillment with the world.
The ancient Jewish authors of Genesis were expressing layered meanings and insights of how they understood the world. The creation stories were intended to stand in contrast to similar creation accounts of the tribes and cultures in the region. The manner of creation speaks volumes about their understanding of God and the nature of the world.
Part of those original myths is the account of our first parents in Eden. The story is intended as mythic narrative – evolution and genetics indicates a different account of human origins. Yet our scientific knowledge doesn’t eradicate the intended meanings of the ancient story.
The authors understood that humans are limited, imperfect creatures living in a semi-chaotic, free-flowing world. The Genesis accounts are, in part, mythic attempts to explain human limitation and the presence of evil in the world.
Jewish exegesis and hermeneutics does not read the accounts as acts of rebellion resulting in the complete rupture of the relationship between the divine and the human. Instead, most Jewish interpretation speaks of human maturation, the emergence of moral awareness, as well as the profound cultural changes that resulted from the transition from hunter-gatherers to crop growing, agricultural people. A careful reading of the texts clearly show these themes as present.
It would be Paul who pulls from the tradition the notion of original sin understood as a fault of our first parents. Paul’s theology repeatedly connects Jesus to Adam – Jesus is the first man in the new creation as Adam was the first man of the original creation. And Paul contrasts Jesus and Adam, noting Jesus’ perfections in comparison to Adam’s flaws. When this is added to Paul’s understanding of Jewish notions of sacrifice, Jesus’ death and resurrection take on a corrective nature – an initial event toward the perfecting of the world.
Unfortunately, later thinkers, building and interpreting Paul and the other sacred writings, will argue for a different narrative – one of initial disobedience that results in corruption that can only be overcome and healed by direct divine intervention. Augustine, and then many of the early Reformers, propose just this.
Survey the present theological landscape, and an even narrower version of the Reformers motif of disobedience, separation-corruption-sacrifice-restoration lies at the heart of much of Christian theology and spirituality. Often, this theology is summarized-popularized in what many Evangelicals call, The Four Spiritual Laws.
Therefore, what we’ve witnessed is the evolution of a layered, mythic account of human maturation, complexity, and imperfection evolve into today’s common (mis)understanding of original sin, replete with disobedient original parents who destroy the innocence and harmony of the world and separate themselves from God in the process, bringing death and decay into the world as a result.
This mythic foundation then becomes the starting point for interpreting Jesus as the perfect blood sacrifice necessary appease cosmic justice and restore the relationship between God and humanity. However, reality and the scriptures do not support such notions or assertions.
Returning to the text of Genesis, describing the consequences of eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the birth of moral awareness, also referenced in the couple’s recognition of their nakedness), human beings will now understand suffering and be required to accept responsibility for their actions. Further, the transition from hunter-gatherer culture (the garden) to agriculture will now require the humans to work (till) the land with much toil and sweat in order to survive. At the end of the account, God himself makes clothing from animal skins for the couple – hardly the action expected by an angry God who is now eternally separated from humanity by a chasm of sin. Move ahead only a handful of chapters, and God is entering into a covenant with Noah, and then an eternal covenant with Abraham – again, hardly the behavior of a God whose condemned his disobedient creation and certainly not indicative of a severed relationship.
Does this train of thought end with a denial of original sin? Well, that depends on how one defines the concept. If by the concept you mean disobedience on the part of our original parents ultimately resulting in Jesus’ crucifiction to “pay” for the offense, then yes, the above reading denies this interpretation. However, if by original sin, you mean a mythic account seeking to explain the multifaceted nature of imperfect and limited human beings, then no.
Salvation is a metaphor for the reality of human actualization – individual and collective – the fullness of human thriving and wholeness. In this sense, salvation is a process, not a static status – it’s an ongoing dynamic of self-improvement, learning, and love – of becoming more fully human – of obtaining some sense of wholeness.
The Genesis narratives present accounts seeming to argue for the imperfection of humanity as well as a denial that humans can obtain perfection. Perfection, understood as absolute moral, ritual, and juridic purity before God – an unblemished status – is impossible. However, if instead of perfection, we seek a sense of wholeness proper to our nature, then the scriptures take on fuller meaning.
The mechanics of salvation must be carefully thought through. Certain interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross assert that salvation was made possible due to Jesus serving as a sacrifice that appeases an exacting God of justice. Yes, the cross is a symbol of the saving power of kenotic love – a witness to Jesus’ integrity and love – but not divine blood payment for cosmic accounting purposes.
No one needs to die for another to be whole. Human wholeness does not require bloodshed. Much of the theology of original sin and substitutionary blood atonement is deeply flawed and contrary to basic notions of justice and necessity.
The scriptures and experience show that human wholeness – salvation – is the result of ongoing efforts of learning, self mastery, and giving oneself over to goodness. The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel best illustrates these truths. Our wholeness comes from what we give ourselves to – this is, perhaps, the central salvific message of Jesus.
Humans experience the capacity of being “called” by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own nature calling us toward fulfillment.
Morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority. Rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The scriptures contain moral insights in that they speak of the human condition, exploring questions of what it means to be a human being. However, love your neighbor as yourself and encouragement for generosity, kindness, and mercy reside in the same texts that also call for genocide, violence, misogyny, and reflect ancient, and outdated, views on human nature, goodness, sexuality, and social structure. In this sense, scripture’s moral content must be selectively and critically engaged, relying on reason and the most recent moral insights of human progress to inform our reading and application of such.
Human Dignity, Morality, & Flourishing
Much of the Western cultural tradition is grounded in the affirmation of human dignity, from democracy, concerns of social justice, the assertion of human rights, offering aid to the needy, exercising compassion, and advocating freedom, to themes in art, religion, literature, style, and architecture.
Reflecting on human dignity is a gateway to moral understanding and the assertion of human rights and responsibilities that form much of our social order. Our dignity makes certain demands on us in terms of how we live, eat, dress, work, have sex, entertain ourselves – and how we relate to others, both humans and nonhumans, in the world around us.
Our dignity and ontological status provides something of a given orientation. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.
The Natural Law Tradition of Moral Reasoning
The above manner of moral reasoning derives from a tradition of Western ethics called natural law reasoning. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature to derive norms for behavior in relation to human flourishing, in Greek, Eudaimonia.
Natural law ethics engages in praxiological analysis of human action in relation to goods/values and their role in human flourishing. Yet, in the fullest sense, natural law reasoning also implies a given philosophical anthropology, or view of the human person, as well as an implied metaphysics of value and the good.
The word natural corresponds to human nature, a sense that there are essential characteristics common to all human persons that constitute them as such. Nature, in this sense, is a category beyond personality, bodily traits, or individual circumstances – nature is the essential, constitutive, aspects that make one human.
The word law corresponds to a developing body of wisdom concerning those goods and behaviors that aid in human flourishing. Therefore, natural law moral reasoning understands human morality as laws (principles, norms) of human nature – a moral law or moral order, that is engrained in and derived from a reasoned analysis of human nature itself, and the goals and end states we deem worth obtaining.
In the natural law tradition, all efforts are made to define flourishing as holistically as possible, not limiting the notion to fleeting emotional states of happiness or brief periods of sensual delight or satisfaction. The notion of flourishing implies a lasting and essential improvement of the human person as person and thus relates to constitutive aspects of human nature.
A Framework for Reasoned Moral Claims
It must be noted that natural law ethics provides a framework for conducting moral reasoning – it is a method of thinking about right and wrong. Natural law ethics does not provide a list of goods or actions that lead to human flourishing. Questions such as, “what does the natural law say? or “does such behavior violate the natural law?” are somewhat misplaced.
One does not consult the natural law as one would a text. Rather, it’s a method of analyzing human nature and gaining insights into human flourishing. The word insight is significant. Moral truth, strictly speaking, isn’t demonstrated or understood through deductive means. Moral reasoning relies more on inductive method, but also the mental function of insight, the human capacity to intuit or comprehend the nature of things, their essence, their core meaning.
Insights require elucidation if they are to be communicated to others. In reasoned conversation, one needs to show or convey the content of their insights to others, getting others to see what we see. This manner of reasoning requires skill and conversations based on such can require time. Insights are not shared by all people and not always immediately grasped.
Therefore, intelligent people can engage in proper natural law reasoning and reach different conclusions. In such cases, appeals can be made using philosophical reasoning, empirical evidence, psychological evaluation, and sociological and cultural studies conducted over time, to help evaluate claims of flourishing and betterment.
Morality is an integral part of our natural circumstances and identity, and is thus proper to the methodology of both philosophy and the human sciences.
the case for a foundationalist ethics centrally based on an empirical understanding of human nature. For Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, “an ethics formulated on the foundations of anything other than human nature, hence on anything other than an identification of pan-cultural human realities, lacks solid empirical moorings. It easily loses itself in isolated hypotheticals, reductionist scenarios, or theoretical abstractions—in the prisoner’s dilemma, selfish genes, dedicated brain modules, evolutionary altruism, or psychological egoism, for example—or it easily becomes itself an ethical system over and above the ethics it formulates,” such as the deontological ethics of Kantian categorical imperatives, the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, or the ethics of care.
Taking her cue from Hume, especially his Treatise on Human Nature, where he grounds “the moral sense” in human nature seen as always in tension between the natural tendencies of selfish acquisitiveness and sympathy for others, Sheets-Johnstone pursues her phenomenological investigation of the natural basis of human morality by directing her attention, first in Part I, to what is traditionally considered the dark side of human nature, and then, in Part II, to the positive side. The tension between the two calls for an interdisciplinary therapeutic resolution, which she offers in the Epilogue by arguing for the value of a moral education that enlightens humans about their own human nature, highlighting both the socialization of fear and the importance of play and creativity.
While not all forms of immorality yield clear empirically demonstrable effects, in general, it is expected that long term immoral conduct will have some noticeable results on the human person – be they affects of character, health, or mental health.
Certain religious groups will claim forms of spiritual harm for behavior deemed immoral. Spiritual well-being is admittedly a vague concept that eludes empirical verification. In general, the tendency of more philosophically based theological traditions is to speak of the spiritual as coexistent with the mental, psychological, and affective dimensions of the person.
Western Culture & the Judeo-Christian Tradition
As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the center of our Western notions of metaphysics, nature, religion, science, democracy, and so on – is a vision of the human person as possessing an intrinsic dignity and value, and as having inherent natural rights that must be respected by others, including government.
This vision of human dignity owes it origins in part to the pre-Christian, classical thinking, but is largely the explication of the radical Jewish claim that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God – that humans occupy a lofty role within the natural order and have natural capacities of creativity, love, freedom, and reason that rise to the level of near divinity.
Has Western culture proven this claim of human dignity? Can such insights be demonstrated in a logically consistent manner? Returning to our earlier discussion on insights and moral reasoning, the answer is no, one cannot deductively prove human dignity. Rather, assertions of human dignity are based on collective insight – the shared view of a culture and tradition.
While such claims of human dignity may be defended by pointing to certain human powers, abilities, and inclinations, that we deem good, our patterns of behavior also show an almost equal tendency for powers, abilities, and inclinations that we deem evil. Still, the fact that humans have such potential for good and bad is also something of a statement of our metaphysical value, for a being capable of such good and such evil must have some sense of ontological gravitas.
This sacred vision of reality and humanity is found in the opening chapters of Genesis – the opening book of the central Western mythos – or at least so, until recently. Being is understood as being extracted out of chaos and is essentially ordered and deemed good by Divine creative process. Humanity, further extracted out of the loam of the earth, is shaped in the image of the Divine – expressed in terms such as Imago Dei, B’tzelem Elohim, and that of God within all persons.
The scriptures contain moral insights in that they speak of the human condition, exploring questions of what it means to be a human being. However, love your neighbor as yourself and encouragement for generosity, kindness, and mercy reside in the same texts that also call for genocide, violence, misogyny, and reflect ancient, and outdated, views on human nature, goodness, sexuality, and social structure.
In this sense, scripture’s moral content must be selectively and critically engaged, relying on reason and the most recent moral insights of human progress to inform our reading and application of such. Strictly speaking, the scriptures are not a moral textbook, and using them in such a fashion will inevitably result in contradictions and confusion. The texts shed insights on human nature and human morality, but not in any inerrant or straightforward manner. Understanding moral truth is a function of reason, although our reasoning may be aided by the inspired writings and our religious traditions.
Life Beyond Death?
Human beings emerge from nature, our life supported and enmeshed in the ecosystem, and at the end of our life, we (or, perhaps, at least, our physical aspects) return to nature.
As for a life, awareness, or some manner of personal existence that continues after this life is over – one can’t deny such possibilities philosophically, but no one can offer any evidence for such either.
We miss the meaning of life if we live it only in reference to the future. We can experience only the now. The past is gone, and the future isn’t yet a reality. To live only for some distant, other worldly future is to miss the point of living. We should live our lives as if each day matters as much as the day to come. This doesn’t mean not to plan and sacrifice for the future – that’s prudence. It means not neglecting the joys and challenges of today for an uncertain, distant future.
Our earthly-bodily journey will end and no one knows what happens when we die. Yet we do know that wisdom lies in embracing the core spiritual truth that kenotic love opens us toward wholeness now – we need not wait for some sense of cosmic wholeness or salvation that occurs at our death.
The Resurrection illustrates that something of us transcends death, our love, our generosity, some of the lingering effects of our efforts – what else may endure remains a mystery.
Within Aquinas’ frame, ethical philosophy is about deciding the best way to live one’s life. This is continuous with wider ancient and Medieval approaches. Modern theorists tend to assume that people have a vast field of options which morality pares down. In contrast, Aquinas believes people need to identify meaningful goals before they can act. As such, moral theory is a way to facilitate action, rather than to limit it.
Although Aquinas believes in religious faith and the revealed truths of the Christian tradition, his philosophy is not on, the whole, grounded in either. In other words, most of Aquinas’ arguments do not require that the reader take the Bible as true in order to accept its premises and conclusions. Rather, Aquinas seemed to think that some truths could be demonstrated in secular ways, which Christianity simply repeated or made clearer. He also thought that reasoning could be used to figure out specific things that Christian doctrine did not make clear. For instance, unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity never had its own tradition of law. This opens space for philosophers to provide what religious doctrine did not. Aquinas’ approach, valuing empirical knowledge, entails a partial rejection of the Christian denigration of the body. For Aquinas, the body is not the prison of the soul, but a means for its expression.
Aquinas’s ethical theory involves both principles – rules about how to act – and virtues – personality traits which are taken to be good or moral to have. The relative importance of the two aspects is debated. Modern thinkers tend to work more with principles, whereas ancient thinkers work with virtues, so this question decides which way the reader positions Aquinas. People trying to make Aquinas relevant to analytical philosophy emphasise his principles, and their basis in reasoning. People trying to use Aquinas to develop a virtue ethics, which challenges the legalistic thinking of analytical philosophy, play up the virtues instead.
Both sets of attributes have an underlying goal. The purpose of principles and virtues is to direct people towards the goal of human fulfilment, or living a worthwhile life. This is both an individual and a collective goal. Modern moral theories are mostly outwardly directed – actions are deemed right or wrong based on their effects on others. Aquinas, in contrast, believes that moral thought is mainly about bringing moral order to one’s own action and will. It is only secondarily about bringing order to the world. The most significant effects of a moral action are on the actor.
This is very different from modern approaches. It seems strange from a modern perspective to think, for instance, that the main thing that is wrong with murder is that it disrupts the flourishing of the murderer. But it only seems strange because a modern reader is assuming that people have narrow self-interest. If people’s true flourishing is defined in a way which includes compassion for others, and people are nodes or hubs in a networked cosmic order, then, of course, a murderer is first of all rupturing this proper relationship, and harming another person only as an effect of this rupture. In many ways, this inner focus of older traditions of theory has a humanising, qualitative-focused influence on moral thought. This focus can also be somewhat circular, in that the pursuit of social goods reflects back as the achievement of inner goods, and vice-versa.
Aristotle thinks that each type of thing or being must have a distinct function or role which it is specially suited to or designed for. Humans are directed towards eudaemonia (happiness or living well), achieved through reason. Aquinas does not seem to agree with this view, although he thinks that particular faculties (speech, sex and so on) have a “natural” function (the function which most advances fulfilment). If people have a distinct function or optimal good (equivalent to Aristotle’s eudaemonia), it is what Aquinas calls beatitudo or felicitas – roughly, communion with God – and it can only be achieved in the afterlife. This function does not play a foundational role in his moral thought. However, Aquinas shares Aristotle’s view that everything is created with an essence or nature. He also suggests that particular virtues are ultimately paths to beatitude.
There’s some debate over whether Aquinas – like Aristotle – deduces “ought” from “is”. The debate is basically about whether Aquinas believes that certain things are observably natural, in a biological or cosmic sense, and therefore right, or whether he attaches the label “natural” to those things that he believes aid human flourishing (as deduced using reason). There are certainly instances of the latter; because Aquinas defines some things he recognises as socially learnt – such as moral virtue and political life – as natural.
Either way, Aquinas makes a false, essentialist claim. He maintains that everyone who possesses the capacity to reason and understanding of the terms will agree with him that certain things are right and wrong. These include very contentious claims – for example, that sex outside marriage (including sex outside heteronormativity) is always wrong. It is not difficult to show that these claims are socially constructed, and not self-evident effects of reason.
Aquinas also establishes an ordering of spheres of life. Moral thought is about fulfilment in human life as a whole, as distinct from the specific goals of particular practices or arts. He treats it as transcendent, so that other passions and reasons should be seen as subordinate and suppressed if they clash with it.
The field of ethical theory is also limited. Moral choice applies only to freely-willed actions, which are not subject to outer or inner compulsion. Without free choice, there cannot be responsibility. Aquinas is thus refreshingly dismissive of the extended forms of responsibility often found in contemporary thought. He is far more reasonable than most modern people about how many of a person’s acts can be morally judged.
From Aquinas’ point of view, the motive of an action is also crucial, and two apparently identical acts may be right and wrong because of their motives. For example, deliberately killing someone in self-defence because of hatred towards them is wrong, whereas killing someone as a side-effect of fighting off their attack is justified. It follows from this that morality is fundamentally an inner question, operating mainly in the field of the qualitative, and not primarily a question of social norms or legal prohibitions. This emphasis on the meaning of an act to the actor resonates with approaches in qualitative sociology such as labelling theory. It is an important counterbalance to the authoritarian emphasis on “behaviour” as classified by an observer.
Context and relations are crucial to ethical thought. In contrast with consequentialist thought, Aquinas maintains that good and bad are different in kind. A good act is good in its motive, appropriateness to context, and object; it is bad if any of these is wrong.
Aquinas’s ethical principles
The first principle of Aquinas’s moral thought is that good should be done or pursued, and evil (or badness) avoided. Without this principle, other moral rules would have no force. The maxim “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is also quite fundamental, and sometimes interpreted as a rephrasing of the first principle. Others have interpreted it as an orientation to the fulfilment of everyone, now and in the future.
Personally, I find “do unto others” unsatisfactory as an ethical principle. I feel it ignores difference, and it can lead to absurdities when acting towards others who are different in some way. If someone happens to like eating roast pork, and they “do unto others”, they should serve pork to their vegetarian and Muslim friends. If someone likes toy trains, then they should buy all their friends toy trains as gifts, whether they like them or not, because they would like others to buy them toy trains. If someone enjoys being tortured for sexual pleasure, they should torture other people, and so on.
These conclusions are absurd, and show the underlying assumption of sameness on which the principle is based. On the other hand, the basic idea of valuing the flourishing of others makes sense as a way of humanising social life. I do not feel that the flourishing of the self is necessarily a good guide to the flourishing of the other, but I’m attracted to the view that one should value everyone’s flourishing in the same way as one’s own, since we are all emanations of the same flow of becoming and difference-production. Of course, this also requires that one has some kind of experience of flourishing from which to begin.
Aquinas’ basic principle is unpacked into a range of specific imperatives based partly on knowledge of human life. Moral thought should aim towards six basic human goods: life, knowledge, fellowship or friendship, marriage and child-raising, religion, and practical reason (These are surprisingly concrete compared to modern lists of primary goods, such as Rawls’s: income and wealth, state-recognised rights, and social bases of self-respect). The use of a list of basic goods sidesteps utilitarian maximising dynamics, instead focusing on concrete beings with diverse needs. It is easy to see how the latter move towards abstract views of human goods as aggregate utility or welfare are effects of the commodity fetish, with its conflation of diverse needs, products and types of labour into a single economic calculus.
Aquinas’ approach is politically positive in aiming for the full development or flourishing of qualitative people, rather than quantitative criteria such as maximising Gross Domestic Product or economic efficiency. However, the way he defines human people is sometimes essentialist and repressive. Flourishing (or free becoming) can turn into moulding (or the repression of free becoming) when false assumptions are made about what human flourishing entails.
Hence, Aquinas’ arguments for the state and marriage deploy a functionalist kind of argument in which the supposed social benefit of an institution justifies whatever is necessary to sustain the institution. Specific moral norms are ways of specifying the meaning of the primary maxim in such a way as to satisfy all these six primary goods. Some norms are derived simply from the basic goods. For instance, murder clearly removes the good of life. Other norms, such as those against theft and usury, require more complex derivations.
The case of killing is complex, because Aquinas allows both incidental killing in self-defence (provided the intent is not to kill), and exceptions for statist practices such as war and the death penalty. Later interpreters have generally found the latter exceptions arbitrary, and argued that military and police killings are only justifiable on similar terms to self-defence. In other words, it’s OK to kill as a side-effect of some other goal (such as winning a battle), but not as a deliberate goal. I’d argue, however, that there’s an inherent danger in trying to allow some social forces to use violence while prohibiting it to others. This type of discourse contributes to concentrations of power, which necessarily lead to domination and injustice.
In another of Aquinas’s arguments, lying is wrong, either because it violates the basic purpose of the tongue or speech, or because it creates a dissonance between the real self and the socially-presented self. Critics suggest that situations involving an unjust adversary might override this prohibition. However, it would also seem to apply to other kinds of false social performance, including self-branding, image management, public relations, and possibly the entire field of the external persona. In other words, the basic dynamic of semiocapitalism is here condemned.
As with many Christian thinkers, Aquinas’s views on marriage and the family are typically reactionary. Marriage has two goals or ends: giving birth to and raising children (to pursue their own fulfilment), and fides (meaning faithfulness, love, life-partnership, and interpersonal unification). Sex is allowed as a means to these ends, but not otherwise. Not only is sex with someone other than a husband or wife prohibited, but so is sex with a husband or wife which lacks fides. For Aquinas, these are wrong because they go against the “good” of marriage, which is one of the primary goods.
The entire derivation is rather arbitrary. It is only because Aquinas has included marriage as a primary good – and not, for instance, sexual enjoyment or the performance of one’s sexuality – that the argument works. The connection of fides (which can also exist in same-sex and polyamorous relationships) to biological procreation is also more-or-less arbitrary. Ultimately, Aquinas’s mistakes on this question show how the specification of a human essence (here, the six primary goods) interferes with the process of flourishing in virtue ethics. While virtue ethicists usually value flourishing, they define the kind of being which flourishes and the paths to its flourishing in predetermined ways, which fail to capture the complexity of human life, and oppress those who fall outside the definition of the human. Clearly the arrangement Aquinas favours does not aid the flourishing of people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, or those with fides for multiple partners, or people who enjoy sex but do not wish to procreate.
Aquinas’s moral psychology
Aquinas sees these ethical principles as effects of natural moral knowledge. Everyone has an innate knowledge of the natural law, known as synderesis. This is actualised in particular situations as conscience. Although innate, this natural law appears only in reason, and not inclinations. Inclinations obey the natural law only if they are ruled by reason. Any natural good can be pursued in inappropriate ways if it is not ruled by reason.
Conscience is a kind of operative practical intelligence which reminds people of their principles when they are relevant to real choices. Aquinas believes that we should always follow our conscience, even when it is wrong or causes great harm. Since we have no way of knowing whether our consciences are wrong, they are the best guide we have as to what is the moral thing to do. To go against one’s conscience is to go against the values of truth and reason. This position differs from modern theories, which usually prioritise social norms of laws over conscience. I feel Aquinas’s view makes more sense, because conscience is a better guide to the right thing to do than external social norms (which most often reflect dominant social power-relations).
There are four main virtues according to Aquinas:
- Prudentia – the act of bringing moral reasoning into all decisions, and putting it before irrational desires and ego-promotion. Reason, rather than passion, is at the heart of moral decisions.
- Justice – a disposition to give others what they are entitled to, or have a right to.
- Courage (fortitude) – a disposition to restrain fears so as to act rightly.
- Temperantia – the moderation of desires, especially sexual desire, in line with their “proper role”. This does not require a lack of passion, but something more like a golden mean.
Aquinas does not have a theory of human rights, but his idea of justice – in which everyone has a right to what they are justly given – comes very close to developing such an idea (Another Medieval Catholic scholar, Bartolomé de las Casas, arguably invented human rights in his dialogues on the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
After Virtue diagnoses contemporary society as a “culture of emotivism” in which moral language is used pragmatically to manipulate attitudes, choices, and decisions, so that contemporary moral culture is a theater of illusions in which objective moral rhetoric masks arbitrary choices.
MacIntyre learned to see liberalism as a destructive ideology that undermines communities in the name of individual liberty and consequently undermines the moral formation of human agents.
AV rejects the view of “modern liberal individualism” in which autonomous individuals use abstract moral principles to determine what they ought to do. Who decides what that OUGHT is? On what grounds? What criteria? What vision of the human person?
AV proposes a conception of practice and practical reasoning and the notion of excellence as a human agent as an alternative to modern moral philosophy
MacIntyre rejects this modern project as incoherent. MacIntyre identifies moral excellence with effective human agency, and seeks a political environment that will help to liberate human agents to recognize and seek their own goods, as components of the common goods of their communities, more effectively. For MacIntyre therefore, ethics and politics are bound together.
Today’s emotivism – Emotive terms are used to influence people. Thus the true meaning of any valuation, and particularly of any moral valuation—the significance of moral judgments—is either the speaker’s subjective approval and recommendation, or the speaker’s subjective rejection and proscription. In short, the emotivists held that moral judgments communicate neither facts nor beliefs; they communicate only the emotional interests of their authors.
This is not to deny the role the emotions, passions, and affections play in ethical decision making. This is not to deny the emotive character of the moral judgment: it is to suggest that when we have said of moral judgments that they are emotive we have left a great deal unsaid—and even the emotive may have a logic to be mapped
ethics is not an application of principles to facts, but a study of moral action. Moral action, free human action, involves decisions to do things in pursuit of goals, and it involves the understanding of the implications of one’s actions for the whole variety of goals that human agents seek. In this sense, “To act morally is to know how to act” “Morality is not a ‘knowing that’ but a ‘knowing how’” If human action is a ‘knowing how,’ then ethics must also consider how one learns ‘how.’ Like other forms of ‘knowing how,’ MacIntyre finds that one learns how to act morally within a community whose language and shared standards shape our judgment MacIntyre had concluded that ethics is not an abstract exercise in the assessment of facts; it is a study of free human action and of the conditions that enable rational human agency.
“an Aristotelian point of view” sees teleology inherent in the natures of things, interprets deliberate human activity as voluntary action—not as caused behavior, and finds the human person to be naturally social. From this “Aristotelian point of view,” “modern morality” begins to go awry when moral norms are separated from the pursuit of human goods and moral behavior is treated as an end in itself. This separation characterizes Christian divine command ethics since the fourteenth century and has remained essential to secularized modern morality since the eighteenth century. From MacIntyre’s “Aristotelian point of view,” the autonomy granted to the human agent by modern moral philosophy breaks down natural human communities and isolates the individual from the kinds of formative relationships that are necessary to shape the agent into an independent practical reasoner.
Arbitrariness of virtue in today’s emotivist culture. MacIntyre finds contending parties defending their decisions by appealing to abstract moral principles, but he finds their appeals eclectic, inconsistent, and incoherent. MacIntyre also finds that the contending parties have little interest in the rational justification of the principles they use. The language of moral philosophy has become a kind of moral rhetoric to be used to manipulate others in defense of the arbitrary choices of its users.
If modern morality has been revealed to be the product of sophistry and ungrounded rhetoric,” then we must reject it, and this rejection can take two forms. Either we follow Nietzsche and defend the autonomy of the individual against the arbitrary demands of conventional moral reasoning, or we reject both moral autonomy and arbitrary conventional moral reasoning to follow Aristotle and investigate practical reason and the role of moral formation in preparing the human agent to succeed as an independent practical reasoner.
Modern moral philosophy separates moral reasoning about duties and obligations from practical reasoning about ends and practical deliberation about the means to one’s ends, and in doing so it separates morality from practice.
The constructive argument of the second half of the book begins with traditional accounts of the excellences or virtues of practical reasoning and practical rationality rather than virtues of moral reasoning or morality. These traditional accounts define virtue as arête, as excellence, and all of the definitions offered in the second half of AV describe the excellence of the human agent who judges well and acts effectively in pursuit of desired ends.
In the most often quoted sentence of AV, MacIntyre defines a practice as (1) a complex social activity that (2) enables participants to gain goods internal to the practice. (3) Participants achieve excellence in practices by gaining the internal goods. When participants achieve excellence, (4) the social understandings of excellence in the practice, of the goods of the practice, and of the possibility of achieving excellence in the practice “are systematically extended”
A virtue is an acquired human quality (superactualized) the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods”
The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations, and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good.
there is no moral identity for the abstract individual; “The self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities” And those communities have a past, a history, traditions, and internal cultures which are relevant. There is no isolated, pure, individual floating on a cultural-historical blank slate.
Therefore, we need add to our definition of virtue:
The virtues find their point and purpose not only in sustaining those relationships necessary if the variety of goods internal to practices are to be achieved and not only in sustaining the form of an individual life in which that individual may seek out his or her good as the good of his or her whole life, but also in sustaining those traditions which provide both practices and individual lives with their necessary historical context.
Since “goods, and with them the only grounds for the authority of laws and virtues, can only be discovered by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods” (AV, p. 258), any hope for the transformation and renewal of society depends on the development and maintenance of such communities. Revolution cannot be imposed (AV, p. 238), although it may be cultivated. To wait “for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” is to await a person who can unify communities that encourage moral formation in judgment and action.
For MacIntyre, the freedom of self-determination is the freedom to recognize and pursue one’s good, and moral philosophy liberates the agent, in part, by helping the human agent to desire what is good and best, and to choose what is good and best.
In the end, our chosen goals must be in accord with our own nature, rightly understood and require that we accepted that the teleology of human action flowed from a metaphysical foundation in the nature of the human person. Therefore, ethics is incomplete with a philosophical anthropology and some vision of human nature.
In essence, this vision of human nature must be communal, even traditional. It is therefore upheld by a shared rationality. “rationality” comprises all the intellectual resources, both formal and substantive, that we use to judge truth and falsity in propositions, and to determine choice-worthiness in courses of action. Rationality in this sense is not universal; it differs from community to community and from person to person, and may both develop and regress over the course of a person’s life or a community’s history.
Rationality is the collection of theories, beliefs, principles, and facts that the human subject uses to judge the world, and a person’s rationality is, to a large extent, the product of that person’s education and moral formation.
To the extent that a person accepts what is handed down from the moral and intellectual traditions of her or his community in learning to judge truth and falsity, good and evil, that person’s rationality is “tradition-constituted.” Tradition-constituted rationality provides the schemata by which we interpret, understand, and judge the world we live in. The apparent reasonableness of mythical explanations, religious doctrines, scientific theories, and the conflicting demands of the world’s moral codes all depend on the tradition-constituted rationalities of those who judge them.
There is the risk to treat the rational culture – the tradition – as somehow self justifying or the end in itself, thus opening to relativism instead of moral truth. We are immersed in culture and traditions – a given rationality – and must engage in an ongoing ethical hermeneutics to sort through our traditions claims and the claims of truth. Ye that truth is seen through our given rationality. Thus the need for ongoing hermeneutics.
The solution is correspondence realism – reality and our measured, reflective, tested experience of such can help us see beyond our own given rationalities. The resolution of the problem of relativism therefore appears to hang on the possibility of judging frameworks or rationalities, or judging between frameworks or rationalities from a position that does not presuppose the truth of the framework or rationality, but no such theoretical standpoint is humanly possible. Nonetheless, MacIntyre finds that the world itself provides the criterion for the testing of rationalities, and he finds that there is no criterion except the world itself that can stand as the measure of the truth of any philosophical theory. So MacIntyre balances the relativity of rationality against the objectivity of the world that we investigate. As Popper and Lakatos found in the philosophy of science, MacIntyre concludes that experience can falsify theory, releasing people from the apparent authority of traditional rationalities.
the rationality of individuals is not only tradition-constituted, it is also tradition constitutive, as individuals make their own contributions to their own rationality, and to the rationalities of their communities. Rationality is not fixed, within either the history of a community or the life of a person. The possibility that experience may falsify theory or a specific rationality means that relativism is not inescapable.
Our theories always remain open to improvement, and when our theories change, the appearances of our world—the apparent truths of claims judged within those theoretical frameworks—change with them. Although we delude ourselves if we think such improvement or change is common or easily gained.
Nor may any culture or tradition argue that they have fully solved the problems of the human condition, have fully seen the truth, and are therefore comprehensive and complete in their moral knowledge and worldview. neither reason nor justice is universal: “since there are a diversity of traditions of enquiry, with histories, there are, so it will turn out, rationalities rather than rationality, just as it will also turn out that there are justices rather than justice”
From MacIntyre’s perspective, there is no question of deciding whether or not to work within a tradition; everyone who struggles with practical, moral, and political questions simply does.
This is not say that we should ever defer from seeking better insight into the universal nature, true reason, and objective justice.
Modernity does not see tradition as the key that unlocks moral and political understanding, but as a superfluous accumulation of opinions that tend to prejudice moral and political reasoning.
It is only because human beings have an end toward which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.
A solution is sought its foundation in teleological activity rather than teleological metaphysics – teleomony rather than teleology. Praxis, not metaphysics.