Magazine article The Christian Century

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues

Magazine article The Christian Century

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues

Article excerpt

ARE HUMANS really different from animals and, if so, how? And what difference does the answer make for our understanding of human morality? Through questions such as these, Alasdair MacIntyre brings his philosophy into dialogue with recent studies of dolphins, gorillas and other animals.

At first glance, these look like new interests for MacIntyre, who is widely known for his contributions to narrative ethics and his belief that moral reason is always nestled within the folds of tradition-based communal practices, virtues and stories. MacIntyre is credited with providing the philosophical foundations for the narrative ethics of Stanley Hauerwas and for the theory of the social sciences undergirding Robert Bellah and colleagues' Habits of the Heart.

A trenchant critic of modernity and liberalism, MacIntyre is known for his rejection of all modern ethics of principle, be it the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant or the concept of utility of John Stuart Mill and other modern utilitarians. He has criticized liberal Protestantism, Marxism, Hegelianism, naturalism and deconstructionism. He has, in short, been provocative.

MacIntyre's comparison of humans with animals is not surprising if one remembers that he has always situated ethics in the affective life. In his Short History of Ethics (1966), MacIntyre claimed that ethics is eudaemonistic--it is about the quest for the good life and the satisfaction of our basic needs. In After Virtue (1981) he referred to the human being as a "story telling animal." MacIntyre follows Aristotle in viewing humans as rational animals. But he adds something that Aristotle neglects, the view of humans as "dependent" rational animals.

Dependency and vulnerability become for MacIntyre the great keys unlocking the secrets of human morality. All humans are dependent, not only as infants but also as they become sick or grow old. In fact, a community's care for its dependent ill and disabled is for MacIntyre a fundamental measure of its moral stature. Humans learn to become moral creatures through their long years of dependency. On this point MacIntyre agrees with Freud, although the latter is nowhere mentioned in this book.

Other animals that experience extended childhood dependency, such as dolphins and gorillas, also exhibit the elementary moral characteristics of cooperation, mutual protection and care for the disabled. We humans become "independent practical reasoners" (Maclntyre's term for mature people) because we first of all are dependent and needy animals. In the end, independence and dependence are not mutually exclusive; in fact, dependence is the presupposition for the possibility of independence. Furthermore, independence is never without its dependencies. Finally, practical reason and the affections are not contradictory alternatives. Practical reason is an extension and reworking of prelinguistic and prerational affective needs and motivations--needs and

motivations that humans share with animals.

MacIntyre creates his own strongly psychological developmental theory of how we become independent practical reasoners. He uses object-relations theory, especially the writings of Donald Winnicott, in showing how "good enough parents" transform their impulsive and egocentric infants into mature adults. But he does not speak of maturity in terms of health, ego strength, generativity, self-actualization, identity or self-cohesion--the various modern and allegedly value-free psychological concepts that we use to talk about competent adulthood. …

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