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Chapter 1 The Master Argument of Maclntyre's After Virtue Brad }. Kallenberg What's All This Noise? In September of 1995 the Associated Press released a wirephoto showing Rus­ sian lawmakers of both genders in a punching brawl during a session of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.1 Is this behavior an ethnic id­ iosyncrasy? Do only government officials duke it out over matters of great importance? Or have fisticuffs suddenly become politically correct? No, on all counts. Pick a topic, any topic - abortion, euthanasia, welfare reform, military in­ tervention in the Balkans - and initiate discussion with a group of reasonable, well-educated people and observe the outcome. Chaos ensues. Of course the volume of the debate may vary according to how "close to home" the issue hits the participants. But any moral discussion, given a group of sufficient diversity, has the potential of escalating into a shouting match . . . or worse. An even more striking feature of moral debates is their tendency never to reach resolution. Lines are drawn early, and participants rush to take sides. But in taking sides they appear to render themselves incapable of hearing the other. Everyone feels the heat, but no one sees the light. Many thinkers are inclined to see shrillness and interminability as part and parcel of the nature of moral debate. But Alasdair Macintyre begs to differ. In A fter Virtue he offers the "disquieting suggestion" that the tenor of modern moral debate is the direct outcome of a catastrophe in our past, a catastrophe so great that moral inquiry was very nearly obliterated from our culture and its vocabulary exorcised from our language. What we possess today, he argues, are nothing more than fragments of an older tradition. As a result, our moral dis­ course, which uses terms like good, and justice, and duty, has been robbed of the context that makes it intelligible. To complicate matters, although university courses in ethics have been around for a long time, no ethics curriculum predates 1. Sergei Shargorodsky, "Russian Lawmakers Do Battle," The Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.), 12 September 1995, AS. 7 8 Brad /. Kallenberg this catastrophe. Therefore, for anyone who has taken ethics courses, and espe­ cially for those who have studied ethics diligently, the disarray of modern moral discourse is not only invisible, it is considered normal. This conclusion has been lent apparent credibility by a theory called emotivism. Emotivism, explains Macintyre, "is the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing hut expressions of prefer­ ence, expressions of attitude or feeling. . . . "2 On this account, the person who remarks "Kindness is good" is not making a truth claim but simply expressing a positive feeling, "Hurrah for kindness!" Similarly, the person who exclaims "Murder is wrong" can be understood to be actually saying "I disapprove of murder" or "Murder, yuck!" If emotivism is a true picture of the way moral discourse works, then we easily see that moral disputes can never be rationally settled because, as the emo­ tivist contends, all value judgments are nonrational. Reason can never compel a solution; we simply have to hunker down and decide. Moral discussion is at best rhetorical persuasion. There are sound reasons for questioning the emotivist picture. In the first place, emotivism is self-defeating insofar as it makes a truth claim about the non-truth-claim status of all purported truth claims! To put it differently, if all truth claims in the sphere of ethics are simply expressions of preference, as emo­ tivism maintains, then the theory of emotivism itself lacks truth value, and thus we are not constrained to believe it if we prefer not to. In addition, emotivism muddies some ordinarily clear waters. Any proficient language speaker will attest to the fact that the sense of "I prefer . . . " is vastly different from the sense of "You ought . . . " The distinct uses to which we put these phrases is enabled pre­ cisely because the sense of "You ought" cannot be reduced without remainder to "I prefer." But Macintyre is not content to offer first-order arguments against emo­ tivism. Stopping there would have made his book simply another ethical theory - just the sort of thing that emotivism so convincingly dismisses. In­ stead, what Macintyre is up to has been called meta-ethics - an exploration into the conditions (or conditioners) of human ethical thought. As a human enter­ prise, ethics must be shaped in the same way that language, culture, and history shape the rest...


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