Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture
SOCIAL STRUCTURES AND THEIR THREATS TO MORAL AGENCY
Alasdair MacIntyre is a Scot whose higher education was in the universities of London, Manchester, and Oxford. He then taught in several English and in many American universities. His line of publications, the first in his early 20's, includes the books After Virtue, Against the Self-Images of the Age, Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry, Dependent Rational Animals, and Whose Justice, Which Rationality? The individuality of these books, their strength and their singular entry into the history of moral philosophy and morality, have given him true distinction in moral, social, and political philosophy. His line of commitments has had in it Marxism, an Aristotelian ethics of the virtues, communitarianism, objection to liberal and other capitalism, and Catholicism. He is now professor emeritus of philosophy at Notre Dame University and a research fellow at London Metropolitan University.
The lecture takes as one example a man of whom it is said that in a sense he might be anybody, but he is a scheduler of German passenger and freight trains. He resists a charge of moral failure having to do with whatever was carried by the trains, including Jews to extermination camps. His defence is that he did his duty, which was scheduling and the like, and he did not have anything to do with what trains carried. He fulfilled his role as instructed, did not fail in his responsibility, and so he bears no guilt. MacIntyre directs us to subjects that must arise in consideration of such a defence, gives due attention to many facets. He enriches moral philosophy by way of a kind of sociology, what might be called moral sociology, and also by way of thought on what might be called personhood in society.
His first consideration of moral agency, of being a moral agent, of being responsible, includes reflection on discriminating what is incidental in an action from what is not. This, inevitably, has to do with standards of a social and cultural order in which one exists. Being a moral agent, further, sometimes requires at least questioning accepted social structures, structures which may in fact threaten the possibility of being a moral agent.
There is much that needs to be added about understanding a moral agent. One thing is that to know that that one is such an agent is to know that one has a personal identity as well as a social role. One must also be a practically rational individual, an accountable one, and respect two demands, those of integrity and constancy. One has to ask in particular what a social and cultural order needs its inhabitants not to know. For someone to become and be such a moral agent, certain milieus of dialogue and inquiry are necessary. These, of which more is said in what follows, are of a prime importance. They may be missing.
Also given large importance is the fact of what is called compartmentalization. Consideration of it begins from some research having to do with the morality of decision-making in the electric power industry in America. There is the example of a man who is both a company executive and a parent, and consideration of norms within insulated spheres, of the ethics of deception including lying, and of the divided self. In the case of the railwayman, it is added that his existence is one that includes what in fact are not lacks or absences but rather active refusals and denials by that self, that co-author of its moral and social situation.
What is concluded by MacIntyre, taking all into account, is that the railwayman is morally guilty.
That cannot be to suppose that such persons as the scheduler are unique, let alone unique to such societies as the Nazi one. MacIntyre does not concern himself explicitly with differences and similarities between the culpable railwayman and the mentioned company executive. There is to my mind the implication that there are facts of individual moral guilt within our own societies, in our own social and cultural orders. Further, as with Germany past, there are also guilts of other kinds on the part of whole social and political orders. I myself take it that these may include, although they are not mentioned, our own governments, political classes, democracies, so-called democracies, so-called democracies that are also racist, and so on.
The lecture and the rest of MacIntyre's work raises hard questions, one being the way and extent to which a verdict as to guilt or innocence can be judged, let alone demonstrated. Another, very different, is whether it is reasonable to engage in reflective morality without some decent knowlede of its history, conceivably going back to Aristotle. The question can leave you not only envious of MacIntyre's work but uneasy about your thinking or unthinking life in a society.