Book in Focus
Alasdair MacIntyre's Views and Biological Ethics"/>

15th March 2023

Book in Focus
Alasdair MacIntyre's Views and Biological Ethics

Exploring the Consistency

By Sherel Jeevan Joseph Mendonsa

When I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals during the course of my philosophy studies, it was an eye-opening experience. The book struck me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, here was a book which honestly discussed aspects of the human reality rarely considered in philosophical circles: namely, dependence and disability. MacIntyre not only discusses these aspects in depth but also questions the usually-made distinction between the disabled and the abled. He rather highlights how all human beings face disability and dependence at some point in their lives. Secondly, in the book, MacIntyre argues for the connection between human animality and human rationality, thereby proposing that there are prelinguistic conditions for the development of practical rationality. Thus, human biology also plays a crucial role in human morality. These points provoked in me an interest to know more about MacIntyre’s views and to explore the extent of compatibility between the perspectives of MacIntyre and that of evolutionary ethics. As I studied and reflected more on both these perspectives, I realised that indeed one can find points of connection between the two and which led to the writing of the book. Thus, the principal question I have addressed in the book is this: what are the points of connection between MacIntyre’s views and ethics based on Darwin’s theory of evolution (DTE)? In other words, to what extent are MacIntyre’s views consistent with ethics based on DTE?

With a view to respond to the above question, I have divided the book into three parts. The first part focuses on MacIntyre’s views on ethics, essentially MacIntyre’s theory of practical rationality. The second part studies evolutionary ethics. In the third and the concluding part, I synthesise the major findings of the first two parts and thereby respond to the principal question mentioned above. I would like to discuss here the significant points of each of the three parts.

Regarding the first part, practical reasoning or practical rationality could be considered one of the core concepts in MacIntyre’s ethics. MacIntyre considers practical rationality a tradition-dependent enquiry: namely, that rationality is rooted in a tradition. He claims that rational enquiry is “inseparable from the intellectual and social tradition in which it is embodied”. Moreover, the historical dimension is fundamental for understanding the concept of rational enquiry. MacIntyre is convinced that “doctrines, theses, arguments all have to be understood in terms of historical context”. Therefore, MacIntyre strongly criticizes discussions that lead to an abstract, unhistorical understanding of moral philosophy. Now though MacIntyre emphasises tradition, the concept of tradition is partially different from what is conventionally understood by the term. Tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument,” and the tradition to which MacIntyre adheres and reflects further upon is the Aristotelian Thomistic tradition.

MacIntyre’s emphasis on the historical context of practical rationality leads him to reflect further on the development of practical rationality. Consequently, MacIntyre proposes that the starting point of the development of practical rationality is our initial animal condition and not tradition as he advocated earlier. He maintains that our rationality as thinking beings is founded upon (but not completely determined by) our animality; in other words, rationality and animality are related to each other. Nevertheless, the inclusion of animality or the biological aspect in practical rationality is not a negation of the social, historical context. On the contrary, this aspect reinforces the social character of human life, pointing to our dependence on other human beings in order to become practical reasoners. The two aspects complement each other and together constitute MacIntyre’s theory of practical rationality.

As for the second part of the book which focuses on evolutionary ethics, among the many versions of evolutionary ethics, I have argued for a version of evolutionary ethics that is non-reductionist, non-deterministic, and does not debunk objective morality. Accordingly, I have addressed the following two questions. Firstly, does evolutionary ethics debunk objective morality? Secondly, is morality purely an adaptational phenomenon determined by biological natural selection? Another way of expressing the same question is this: do our genes totally determine the way we perceive morality today? I study the major arguments through which various authors claim that morality is adaptational and genetically determined and that evolutionary ethics debunks objective morality. The significant authors among these are Edward Wilson, Michael Ruse and Richard Joyce.

I have responded to these arguments by subscribing to the views of authors such as Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin, and Leon Kamin. These authors argue against the claim that human morality is merely adaptational or genetically determined. They point to the complexity of human nature and the multiple factors which contribute to human morality. Since the environment and genes are only two among many other factors, it is inappropriate to claim that human morality is merely adaptational or genetically determined. I then discuss the views of authors such as William FitzPatrick and R.J. Richards who argue that evolutionary ethics does not debunk objective morality. I agree with these authors who make two significant claims. Firstly, there are sufficient grounds for the normative justification of our moral beliefs, which have been shaped by the forces of natural selection. These moral beliefs have been further developed by our cognitive capacities just as these capacities have developed our knowledge in other human spheres. Due to our cognitive capacities, the scope of our moral norms and beliefs has proceeded far beyond the primary purposes of survival and reproductive success. Secondly, there is sufficient justification to demonstrate that our moral beliefs, shaped by the forces of natural selection, are objective. Thus, there is no incompatibility between the evolutionary origins of morality and the objectivity of morality. In the second part, I also explain why I chose “biological ethics” in the title of my book instead of “evolutionary ethics”, the most prominent reason being to highlight the distinctiveness of the approach followed in the book. Thus, unlike other ethical approaches based on DTE, this approach is non-reductionist, non-deterministic, and anti-relativist as mentioned earlier.

In the third and the concluding part of the book, I primarily discuss three points of connection between the perspectives of MacIntyre and that of biological ethics. Firstly, the development of both perspectives occurs in and through time. Thus, for both perspectives, the historical dimension of time is significant. This dimension does not merely serve as the background within which the two ethical perspectives develop. Rather, the historical dimension plays a proactive and a crucial role in the development of both perspectives. The second point of connection between MacIntyre’s views and biological ethics is that of the continuity between nonhuman animals and humans. In biological ethics, the point of continuity is more obvious, with the evolutionary process itself implying continuity. As for MacIntyre, a significant point with regard to continuity is his insistence that the relationship between human beings and other intelligent animals should be looked upon as a scale or a spectrum instead of as a division between us and them. MacIntyre insists that, though there are significant differences between nonhuman animals and human beings, these differences should not be allowed to dilute the similarities that are equally significant but too often ignored.

The third point of connection between the two perspectives regards the virtues. Virtues have an indispensable role in exercising practical rationality in the MacIntyrean framework. If virtues such as caring and empathy have evolutionary roots, this points to a strong connection between our biological nature as human beings and our capacity to make moral judgements and follow moral norms. In other words, MacIntyre’s proposal, namely that “the specific rationality of human beings is to be understood as animal rationality”, has an evolutionary aspect too.

Based on the above points of connection, I arrive at the conclusion that there are adequate reasons for considering MacIntyre’s views to be consistent with biological ethics. In the concluding pages of the book, I also propose that, based on its findings, an integrated or a synthetic approach towards morality would be better than an exclusive approach. In other words, an approach that seriously takes into account both the rational and the biological (including the emotional) dimensions of humans, would be helpful in order to understand human morality better. Both of the ethical perspectives studied in the book, MacIntyre’s views and biological ethics, demonstrate the efficacy of this integrated approach over an exclusive one.

In proposing this integrated approach, I also clarify that the question regarding human morality is perennial, and my book discusses it only in part. The complexity and richness of human beings makes the philosophical enquiry into our moral nature an ongoing process, though a process worth pursuing because it will help us to arrive at a continually improving understanding of human morality. I hope that, through its findings, my book has contributed its mite to this ongoing process of moral enquiry.

Sherel Jeevan Joseph Mendonsa is a Jesuit priest and Lecturer at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, having received his PhD in Philosophy from the same institution. He holds a BA in Economics and an MBA in Management. In addition to ethics, his areas of interest in philosophy include philosophy of religion, neurophilosophy and philosophy of biology.

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