Recently I’ve been reading McIntyre (and if you haven’t, read After Virtue as it should be on a very short list of must reads) and discussing it at Geek Squad each week. (As an aside, Geek Squad is exactly what it sounds like–a group of self-admitted geeks sitting around talking about things we realize make most others roll their eyes and/or yawn. It’s our space to debate the small print as loudly and for as long as we want.) It’s been a while since I’ve kicked philosophy around in my head, so I’m processing slowly and trying to remove the cobwebs off of all those names and books I used to remember. What I do remember is that I felt After Virtue was a great conversation partner in the work of ecclesiology, though McIntyre certainly didn’t intend to write a book about the purpose of the church. As it turns out, the content and conversation is just as applicable and timely now as it was years ago. A friend of mine referenced this New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks about relativism and extreme individualism, and Brooks may as well have been recording part of our discussion last Thursday at the pub.
Basically, we were discussing our growing inability to think ethically or morally about issues. I’m not even asking for us to agree on the issues, although that would be a welcome relief from time to time. I’m just asking for the ability to discuss the concept of morality as a thing itself. The notion of the virtuous life, however defined, is simply not something people talk about much anymore–at least not well. I should clarify: People talk plenty about “values” but in such a way that values are nothing more than commodities, like cans you pick off the shelf, with everyone’s basket looking a little different. Values are not items. They are not individually chosen. They are not self-selected a la carte menu items you put together on a whim. To stretch the metaphor, to attempt a virtuous life with such an approach is like trying to eat food without a plate. Something has to hold those values, and they have to be held in concert with other values so as to create an actual meal that will sustain you and help you grow. I find myself nodding my head vigorously (again) with McIntyre’s assessment that virtue is impossible to create when a society is based solely or even primarily upon the feeling of the individual.
On a slightly tangential note, I feel the need to argue, for the record, that the kind of flippant “Who am I to judge?” attitude evidenced by the young people in Brooks’ article is the laziest and sloppiest form of postmodern philosophy one could ever attempt to create. I’m sure people will read that article and say, “See, that’s what we’ve been saying all along, that postmodernism will lead us to this kind of wishy-washy culture where no one knows right from wrong.” Whether it does that or not is moot; Enlightenment rationality shattered the dinner plate of virtue way before Derrida came along. So please don’t equate sloppy thinking with the postmodern critique. ”Who am I to judge?” has as much to do with stress and overload in a rapidly diversifying culture without sufficient tools to help us cope with this new world as it does an adherence to moral relativism.
McIntyre’s argument is that societies based on extreme individualism and emotivism are severely broken. They are incapable of virtue, because they hold no framework. Without a recognized and shared end-goal, virtue becomes canned values, stale and without nutrients. And nobody cares whether they stick around or go, because they do absolutely nothing for the palate, or for the meal itself.
This is how a discussion of virtue ended up in my reaffirmation of the importance of eschatology. When moral inquiry lacks an end-goal, there is no food but limp green beans…splattered on the floor, plate-less, no less. What kind of eschatology is another matter for another day, but without a recognition of who-I-am-now contrasted with who-I-ought-to-be, without a shared and cohesive sense of where we all should be headed and where we all are trying to go, virtue is sure to wind up on the endangered species list.
I can only imagine this teleological discussion will come up often this year, as it seems the tensions between those who want to make theology and those who want to keep dismantling it continues to rise.
So here are the questions I’m pondering these days: what do we do to enliven an American framework of virtue? (CAN we? The task itself is quite problematic…which virtue??? But the alternative–not having a framework of virtue, even civil virtue–will likely be our end.) In what ways is the C/church called to embody a virtuous framework of shared life? CAN we?