By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Book Reviews

After Liberalism

What does Alasdair MacIntyre want?

Jennifer A. Frey

THR illustration; Alasdair MacIntyre by Sean O’Connor, Shutterstock background.

There are different ways to conceive of the task of writing the biography of a prominent philosopher. The most familiar is to approach its subject with the goal of showing how these works sprang forth from this person. One example of this method is Ray Monk’s justly famous 1990 biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius. Such a project situates the philosophical works against the backdrop not just of time and place but of the private affairs and the inner life—the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or political world—of its subject.

Émile Perreau-Saussine’s “intellectual biography” of Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929) is something different. He has little concern for MacIntyre’s private life (although we do learn in a short footnote that he had three wives and four children), and not much for his public life, either, beyond some explorations of the various institutions and projects he involved himself in back in his activist years. Perreau-Saussine, a scholar of political philosophy and ideas at Cambridge University who died tragically young in 2010, does not present what Pierre Manent in his foreword calls “the story of a soul.” I would argue that it is not truly a biography but an account of how MacIntyre has struggled, over the course of his long (and ongoing) career, to articulate an antiliberal philosophy that avoids the pitfalls of either communism or fascism, while taking the former’s concern with justice and the latter’s concern with nobility into his account of a virtue ethics that he sees as indispensable to collective human flourishing. According to MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelian interpretation, most fully formulated in After Virtue, there can be no true justice or true nobility apart from virtue and character formation, and there can be no character formation outside the community—its practices, traditions, customs, and laws.

Perreau-Saussine’s interest in his subject is clearly political: MacIntyre is worth studying because the progression of his thought helps us better understand our own relationship to liberalism in terms of both its trajectory in the latter half of the twentieth century and its prospects in the twenty-first. Perreau-Saussine sees MacIntyre as “a privileged figure” within the long history of antiliberalism, one of its “eminent cases,” the close study of which reveals its necessity and its absurdities.

MacIntyre is philosophically an antiliberal, yet he provides no real alternative to liberal democracy. Indeed, he is very much a liberal in practice. As a young adult he rejected the Presbyterian faith of his Scottish parents, moving away from the traditions into which he had been born and raised, first to embrace atheism, materialism, and Marxism, and then, a few decades later, Roman Catholicism. He immigrated to America in 1970 and has prospered professionally and intellectually in the country most explicitly dedicated to liberalism, making his home in the very institutions of higher education that he considers fraudulent and destructive of good character. He is an academic who writes difficult and erudite books and essays yet claims the mantle of the “plain person” and speaks, without irony, about manual laborers and craftsmen as the ideal consumers of his works. A study of MacIntyre—a “sincere philosopher”—is simultaneously a study of the “embarrassments and contradictions of our time,” Perreau-Saussine writes.

Perreau-Saussine examines his “eminent case” by exploring MacIntyre’s politics, ethics, and theology in three separate chapters, each of which can be profitably read on its own since there is little chronological order to them. The thread running through all is Perreau-Saussine’s concern that politics ought to offer much more than liberalism can provide. Liberalism is supposed to be good at helping us avoid evil and be free from coercion. But we need a politics that also helps us pursue what is truly good and an account of freedom from the obstacles thwarting the realization of that good. That is, we need a politics that does not neglect the necessity of virtue in human life—both in the soul and in the city, as the ancient and medieval philosophers recognized.

In the discussion of his politics, we learn how MacIntyre became involved with the Communist Party and other radical institutions but began to lose his faith when the full horrors of Stalinism were revealed. Still a Trotskyite when he was a dean at the University of Essex during the student protests of 1968, MacIntyre was ridiculed when he took to the floor of the faculty senate to laud the noble mission of the university and appeal for moderation. He soon abandoned Marxism once and for all, but instead of embracing liberalism or the Labour Party, he entered a period of political exile that continues to the present day.

Perreau-Saussine also considers MacIntyre’s relationship to communitarians such as Charles Taylor, arguing that his subject cannot be understood as communitarian even though MacIntyre emphasizes the role of community in practical reasoning. While Taylor accepts the terms of modernity and locates himself within them, MacIntyre rejects modern moral philosophy altogether. Perreau-Saussine shares that dim view of communitarianism, seeing it as little more than wishful thinking—an intellectual refuge for disappointed communists and socialists who would like to preserve their animosity toward liberal individualism without exposing themselves to the critiques of communism and socialism.

According to Perreau-Saussine, what the communitarian fails to see is the need for social conservatism, which tends to moderate a “liberal logic” that otherwise turns against itself. “Liberal society,” he writes, “depends on non-liberal forms of life, which it erodes and casts doubt on.” It is hard to take issue with the view that liberalism is a kind of anticulture, as sociologist Philip Rieff first described it (and as postliberal theorist Patrick Deneen continues to call it). Nearly every liberal institution today is rife with internal struggle and turmoil precisely because the long-standing Judeo-Christian consensus about the human person has all but collapsed. When a people disagree about, say, what (and therefore who) a man or a woman is, what distinguishes sexual perversion from a healthy expression of sexuality, what count as acceptable forms of speech and address, what defines a family, or what racism or sexism is, institutions find that they cannot remain neutral but must take sides. The new conceptual-legal order dealing with such fundamental issues must be illiberally imposed if liberal institutions are to function at all. In order to mask this new order’s own illiberalism, these conceptual overhauls are very often carried out under the guise of expertise, which overrules the customs, traditions, and forms of life of the “plain person” whom MacIntyre centers in his own account.

The chapter on ethics focuses on MacIntyre’s view that practical reason is rooted in nature but filtered and interpreted through social customs and practices—most especially traditions of inquiry. In MacIntyre’s understanding, we cannot separate the right from the good for the simple reason that conceptions of right are formulated within a teleological account of the human person as ordered to the goods that constitute human flourishing. Contra the arguments of John Rawls, MacIntyre holds that conceptions of justice cannot be constructed on merely procedural grounds because traditions are the particular context in which practical reason is developed and enriched. A reasoning person is never merely an individual but a participant in social forms—we are, as MacIntyre memorably put it, “dependent rational animals.” We only come to be reasoning people within a community that can initiate us into a language—that is, into the set of its own practices or forms of life. Man is not first and foremost an individual, as is supposed in liberalism’s social contract theory. Man is a social, political animal who essentially depends on his community to help him become himself—to reason, think, speak, and move about in moral and political categories in the first place.

The moral life depends, therefore, on paideia: long periods of habituation into a praxis, comparable to the periods of apprenticeship required by medicine or music. Practices offer an objective framework for developing the right kind of subjectivity, which, in turn, is shaped by practices—in the ideal case, to want what is really and truly good both for individuals and communities.

It is here, principally, within his account of practices, that MacIntyre locates the demands of virtue. It is necessary for right practical reasoning and living well. We can have neither true justice nor true nobility without an account of the role of virtue, and we cannot have or define virtue without reference to a substantive conception of human flourishing grounded in human nature (natural law) that is interpreted through shared tradition and custom. We cannot separate the right from the good, or settle for a strictly Rawlsian procedural account of justice, and we need a conception of freedom that is positive: that is, freedom to pursue the common goods that are greater than one’s private good. If all this is true, as MacIntyre insists, then the moral life presupposes an authority and a hierarchical community in which authority can be exercised—e.g., the family, the school, the state, and the church.

The chapter on MacIntyre’s theological commitments explains how they inform his antiliberalism. Liberalism arose in the first place because of the theological-political problem: conflicts between church and state, on the one hand, and how these became bound up with the competing claims of authority within Christianity, on the other. Liberalism solved this problem by privatizing religion and making politics above all the quest for peace and security—the safeguarding of individual liberties, including, particularly, the freedom to believe and practice according to one’s conscience. But if MacIntyre’s account of practical reasoning is correct, if it can be understood as participation in collective forms of reasoning, then agreement about customs and traditions seems indispensable to a society’s pursuit of what is truly good—and therefore to its flourishing. Politically speaking, how can freedom of conscience be secured? It will not do much good to appeal to natural law, since there is disagreement about how to understand the basic goods that are its precepts. The political problem remains, but MacIntyre presents no solution to it.

Perreau-Saussine claims that liberalism presents itself today as a post-totalitarian political movement, which raises a number of important questions. Can we brush aside the concept of human rights, as MacIntyre suggests, after the horrors of the Nazi or communist camps? Can we be so comfortable relying solely on the authority of democratic masses when it is so easy for demagogues or ruthless true believers to exploit their prejudices and grievances for their own ends? The specter of a truly antiliberal order on either the left or the right makes us fearful, for good reason. Even if we dispute the picture of man and reason that lies at the heart of the liberal order, and even as we can recognize the ways that liberalism undermines itself, we shudder at the proposed alternatives.

What is the way forward in liberalism? We can continue to strive for confident pluralism, and double down on tolerance, authenticity, and sincerity as core values worth fighting for. Following Charles Taylor, we can support the separation of political secularization from social secularization: a state that remains neutral and committed to political secularity but abjures attempts to impose secularism on its citizens, in violation of true liberal neutrality.

But this way runs into the conundrums already discussed. The liberal state cannot remain neutral about who a man or a woman is, what a marriage is, or whether, indeed, there is a right to die by “medical” means—it must take sides on these questions, and it cannot and will not do so neutrally.

MacIntyre is absolutely correct in averring that a moral philosophy and a vision of the human person lie behind the choices of the liberal state; it is silly to insist otherwise. And while we can strengthen First Amendment protections for religious conscience, we cannot thereby exempt religious people who disagree with the new social order from the plain letter of the law. Political secularization and social secularization are bound to be mutually reinforcing in the long run precisely because the neutrality of the liberal order is a chimera.

Perreau-Saussine reserves his deepest criticism for MacIntyre’s tendency to avoid politics. Antiliberalism itself is not a political program. There is no way a philosopher can claim to return to Aristotelianism and ignore the political, Perreau-Saussine argues, since Aristotle’s man is not merely a social but a political animal. The Nicomachean Ethics is incomplete without the Politics. Yet anti-liberalism is necessary for liberalism, Perreau-Saussine argues, to keep it from collapsing in on itself, to make it ever aware of the tensions between freedom and truth, the universal and the particular. His study of MacIntyre helps bring these conflicts to the forefront, in the hope that liberals will heed them.

The real value of Perreau-Saussine’s biography lies less in its exposition of MacIntyre’s intellectual development than in its extended clarification of what is at stake in the questions MacIntyre explores. MacIntyre is the sort of philosopher liberals and antiliberals use for their own ends. Within Christianity, both committed Protestant liberals, such as John Inazu, and Roman Catholic postliberals, such as Patrick Deneen, cite him and appeal to him as a source of inspiration. This is not surprising. MacIntyre has left an expansive body of work containing internal tensions and no positive (or at least complete) political vision.

Given the fragility of the liberal order in our contemporary moment, we must ask ourselves whether we want a postliberal future. Perreau-Saussine offers an admonitory response: “The eulogy for a fake freedom must not create a reaction that takes away real freedoms.” In the name of tradition, let us not exalt blood and soil, or forget the full measure of the political-theological problem. In the name of valuing the particular, let us not forget the necessity of the universal. For Perreau-Saussine, political progress will come when we better navigate these tensions within the liberal order, not when we seek to resolve them entirely outside it. Whether his eminent case proves his point is worth our careful reflection.