Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Good Farmer Yields a Strong Crop

I found this over at The Christian Cynic, and thought you might find it interesting.

Hypothetical scenario?

MacIntyre's first point is to suggest an imaginary situation: Suppose that a great tragedy occurs due to the workings of the scientific community, one that devastates modern society. Suppose then that a great uprising forms against science as a field; laboratories are burned, scientific works destroyed, scientists themselves threatened. This movement then grows into a state in which the general public fights to annihilate any trace of science, and largely succeeds in the task. Imagine that some time after an 'enlightened' group of individuals then attempts to rebuild science from the remnants of this destruction, putting together bits and pieces from the remaining treatises and studies leftover from the scientific age. This group ends up with ideas that are largely the same as ours: specific gravity, general relativity, and so forth. But the result of this patchwork science is the loss of the original context which science existed in prior to its fall; the concepts, however similar, are incomplete, and scientists theorize based on these incomplete elements.

MacIntyre then steps back from the scenario, only to propose that this has happened, not with science but rather with morality.

And he proceeds to make a very strong assertion about modern ethical thought, that we have forsaken the original context of morality, including - and this is quite significant - the language of morality. We now speak of morality in ways that are entirely foreign to a modern conception of ethics but that were perfectly at home, for example, in Aristotle's Greece. MacIntyre acknowledges the skeptic's initial response to this idea, but he incorporates such a skepticism into his argument, saying that, unlike what happened in the imaginary world described in the former analogy, there was no single event or turning point that caused morality to be changed in such a way and that as a result, the general public has been completely oblivious to such a change. It is quite a compelling argument, and this is what MacIntyre succeeds at asserting in only the first chapter.


Out of context, out of content

MacIntyre's judgment on morality, especially the ethical content of modernity, relies on a historical treatment of morality going back to fifth century (BC) Greece, the time of Homer and heroic culture. (He also treats pre-Christian Ireland and Iceland in the same regard, but Greece is his primary focus.) He relates quite a bit of information about the moral codes of the time, focusing on the idea that this pre-modern system of morality was teleological. The telos involved related to the idea of the hero and the virtues that enabled him to efficiently fulfill that telos. He points out rather poignantly that the definition of a "good" watch is that which enables a watch to fulfill its purpose: generally speaking, to tell time accurately. One would not say a watch was "good" if it did not tell time but served some other purpose unrelated to time-telling; the "goodness" of a watch depends on its ability to fulfill the purpose for which it was meant. In the same way, a "good" farmer is one who yields a strong crop, who tends the field well, etc., because such things fulfill the purpose of a farmer.


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