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Ends and Meanings (2): Alasdair MacIntyre on the modern self

MacIntyre believes that contemporary modern statements are ultimately ’emotivist’: in the absence of a clear telos (purpose / function / end), the statement “You ought to do X,” has come to mean “I prefer that you do X,” rather than “You should do X because it is the right thing to do.” That is to say, moral claims have become subjective, impossible to compare, and effectively meaningless.

He compares the modern self with the pre-modern self, who had clear ends that arose from their role(s) in a specific local community, and from belief in a metaphysical telos.

Here he goes:

[There is a] degree of contrast, indeed a degree of loss, that comes into view if we compare the [modern] emotivist self with its historical predecessors.

For one way of re-envisaging the emotivist self is as having suffered a deprivation, a stripping away of qualities that were once believed to belong to the self. The self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available; the self is now thought of as criterionless, because the kind of telos in terms of which it once judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible.

What kind of identity and what kind of telos were they?

In many pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe. These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover ‘the real me’. They are part of my substance, defining partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties. Individuals inherit a particular space within an interlocking set of social relationships; lacking that space, they are nobody, or at best a stranger or an outcast.

To know oneself as such a social person is however not to occupy a static and fixed position. It is to find oneself placed at a certain point on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress—or to fail to make progress—toward a given end.

Thus a completed and fulfilled life is an achievement and death is the point at which someone can be judged happy or unhappy. Hence the ancient Greek proverb: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead.’

This conception of a whole human life as the primary subject of objective and impersonal evaluation, of a type of evaluation which provides the content for judgment upon the particular actions or projects of a given individual, is something that ceases to be generally available at some point in the progress—if we can call it such—towards and into modernity.

It passes to some degree unnoticed, for it is celebrated historically for the most part not as loss, but as self-congratulatory gain, as the emergence of the individual freed on the one hand from the social bonds of those constraining hierarchies which the modern world rejected at its birth and on the other hand from what modernity has taken to be the superstitions of teleology… the peculiarly modern self, the emotivist self, in acquiring sovereignty in its own realm lost its traditional boundaries provided by a social identity and a view of human life as ordered to a given end.

Alasdair MacIntyre – After Virtue [amazon]

See also:

Ends and Meanings: Alasdair MacIntyre on the three-legged stool of Aristotelian ethics
Victor Hugo on right, reality and the morality of the past
Dark Counterpart
Freedom to the Nose
One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor: Paul Fussell on Experience and Perspective
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (1)
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (2) – notable exceptions
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (3) – the hard part
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (4) – leaning out (or “Whose fool are you?”)
At the Mountains of Madness: Edwardian* Science; Lovecraftian Cosmology
Emperor of Ruins (Lovecraftian anthropology; Kremlin psychodrama)

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