The Shrink’s Links: After Virtue

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If you’re interested in living a good life, you first need to know what the good life is. To figure this out, try studying philosophy. There’s no better person to do this with than Alasdair MacIntyre, who wrote After Virtue.

When you do philosophy, you can’t just believe what people, institutions, or scriptures say, you have to arrive at your conclusions on your own. You also can’t just go with your emotions. Philosophers don’t trust emotions. They want to know the reasons for things and have reason make the decisions.

When you’re engaged with natural sciences you can find truth in the experimental data, but in the social sciences, you just can’t run the same kind of experiments our colleagues down the hall in physics and biology can, nor can you be as confident in you results. Consequently, when we try to say what we think is virtuous, good, and true, we are doing little more than expressing our emotions.

MacIntyre says we can identify the virtuous, good, and true, without resorting to feelings, by using the Aristotelian concept of teleology. A teleos is a given thing’s objective. For example, an acorn is meant to grow into a fully formed, beautiful oak tree. Many acorns do not. Many get eaten by squirrels, others grow in bad ground, get crowded, get chopped down, or become diseased or eaten by insects. Many fail to achieve their teleos. Just the same, the acorn is programmed to become an oak tree. MacIntyre suggests that, if we want to know what is good, we should refer to the teleos. What is good for an acorn is growing into an big, beautiful oak tree, therefore the effect of squirrels, bad ground, crowed forests, axes, disease, and insects is bad. So is remaining an acorn forever and not growing at all.

When you read philosophy, you recognize a lot of the assumptions you make and where they come from. For instance, I’ve written again and again that life and relationships go better when people act like adults. I now see why I think this is better. When you act like an adult, you are fulfilling your teleos.

Of course, Aristotle and his concept of teleos don’t answer all the questions. For instance, even if we agree that fulfilling one’s teleos is good; what is one’s teleos? Is the teleos of a homicidal, anti-Semitic tyrant to murder six million Jews? If so, then Hitler was good. I think, because most of us don’t want to say Hitler was good, we’ll say that couldn’t possibly be his teleos. We say, instead, that Hitler had the same teleos as the rest of us, but he was like one of those stunted oak trees, knocked down by a windstorm, and grown into a bizarre, un-oak-like shape.

That’s all well and good, but aren’t we right back to being guided by emotions?

Click here to listen to a podcast discussion of McIntyre on The Partially Examined Life.

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