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Alasdair MacIntyre At Notre Dame’s CEC Conference

My live blogging of Alasdair MacIntyre’s speech, and Q&A, at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture’s 2018 fall conference is below. Livestream here:


UPDATE: Aquinas thought “religion” was a virtue, but only a virtue when directed toward the true God. But Aquinas had no idea about our understanding of religion. It was not within his conceptual vocabulary — the idea that we can talk about theological beliefs and practices from a neutral standpoint.

Nor did Aquinas have any concept of “the state” like we think of when we consider political communities. The modern state is unlike all pre-modern forms of government. For Aquinas, government functions well only insofar as it allows the populations over which it rules to achieve the common good. But modern populations aren’t in a position to debate the common good, much less to achieve it. Politicians who talk about “the common good” are using meaningless rhetoric.

Third, Aquinas lacked any idea of individual natural rights. Certainly Aquinas believed in justice, but the idea of “rights” as we understand them did not exist. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a 20th century document, speaks of the “right” to life of the unborn. Aquinas would have said that it is an offense against justice to take the life of the unborn.

Today, we can’t talk about the common good, not only because it’s impossible to discern the common good in such a disparate society as ours, but also because the structures of thought and discourse make it impossible to consider the common good. Instead, our discourse is about rights, and conflicting rights.

So, what does this have to do with the Irish referendum legalizing abortion? MacIntyre says that there has been a sea change in the way the Irish people think — and this is related to generational change among the Irish people. (More…)

UPDATE.2: The economic changes in contemporary Ireland have made the experiences of the young Irish very different from that of its elders. The young Irish grew up in a society that did not pass on its ways of understanding the common good, of thinking about it, and talking about it.

The fact that the Catholic bishops were the strongest opponents of legalizing abortion is highly significant. MacIntyre discusses the abuse scandal in Ireland, and its particular cruelties. This is certainly one cause for Ireland’s secularization, and for the legalization of abortion. The moral failures of Ireland’s bishops were not only individual failures, but “failures of a culture of false deference” to the Church.

What matters about the events in Ireland is “what was left unsettled” because we don’t talk about these things. Asks MacIntyre: About what were the Irish silent — and about what are we too silent?

I wasn’t able to follow him closely in this passage — I think he said that we don’t talk about the meaning of the common good.

Between the years 1000 and 1300, Europe saw a great deal of economic growth. Questions about property rights and pricing arose. At the time Aquinas made his contribution to the discussion, people had been talking about it for at least 100 years. What he said was that property rights were only to be respected insofar as they served the common good.

What should be striking to us is a shared recognition that economic achievement should be recognized as a common phenomenon — as contributing to the achievement of final ends. MacIntyre said that the Middle Ages, for all its problems, had a superior idea about the meaning of public acts.

Here is what we’re silent about: the common good. Aquinas believed that we could reason our way to these things without the aid of revelation; religious revelation has to do with the grace that provides us with the means to achieve those rational ends, despite our sinfulness. We don’t conceive the world in this way anymore, and because of that, we have lost the ability to reason about the common good.

Finally (says MacIntyre), is it the case that Ireland had to develop as it has? He recalls a case of an Irish priest some decades ago who, within the context of his parish, revived economic and social life in his dying village. He helped the people there recall the meaning of the common good.

UPDATE.3: Now we move to Q&A.

A student asks MacIntyre how we can think about the common good. In modern societies, the identification of the common good begins with the identification of bad things. For example, people in a particular community might discover that their schools are failing them. Maybe their schools are failing because the students’ home life does not prepare them for school. And why doesn’t it? Maybe there are economic difficulties causing the home to be unstable. You can’t solve one problem without addressing them all at some point. AM says that people will find that from engaging with each other at the local level to address shared problems in a concrete way, they can rediscover the common good.

He adds that the mobility of modern society works against the idea of the common good, or discovering it.

Another question: Does the rebirth of local community require building it on an island — meaning in isolation — or should it happen in cities?

AM: It’s going to have to be in cities. (But he doesn’t really explain why.)

A third question: What are the crucial ways in which the nation-state fails to be a true polis?

AM: A true polis has to be local.

UPDATE: I thought MacIntyre’s talk was fairly boilerplate MacIntyre. I talked to some actual Irish people who heard it, and they were put off by it, saying that MacIntyre’s take on Ireland’s current situation was very far off the mark.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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