Yesterday was part 1 of ‘Why Things Seem So Bad’. Today in part 2 of 4, I would like to focus on how the fabric of our society is under stress and is pulling apart. Let me state this succinctly up front and then expand on it more.

We live in a time that seems very fractured and fragmented. The non-stop news cycle and social media only seem to inflame things. There are 4 ingredients to pay attention to in this analysis:

  • Cultural chaos
  • Communities in close proximity
  • Conflicting narratives
  • Remnants of previous era (past ideas without their historic setting)

In 1981 Alasdair MacIntyre published a book After Virtue that was so monumental that it is referenced (positively or negatively) by nearly everyone working on such issues. The book illustrates the futility of such debates but outlining the problem on three levels:

  1. First is that we have no “rational way of weighing the claims of one (argument) against another”.[1]
  2. Second, the arguments “purport to be impersonal rational arguments” that complicate “moral excellence and argument”.
  3. Third, each disagreement has its own historical situation and “cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present, or future, can be resolved.”

This triangle limits the possibility that we have any arena in which to address moral discrepancies in our culture. As MacIntyre has pointed out earlier:

“What we posses … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts that now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality; we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”[2]

A community’s character is formed by their “enacted narratives”[3] that allow the self to be formed and ones identity to emerge within the continuity (or discontinuity) of the self that is provided by a greater environment. This happens within an embedded or situated environment in which a narrative may be lived out. Our environment is so fragmented and fractured that it is producing a different and disjointed result than previous eras.

In chapter 9 of After Virtue, MacIntyre goes after the relatively unintelligible vocabulary in our modern situation that is nothing more than a series of remnants and fractured remainders from past systems and moral frameworks.

“A key part of my thesis has been that modern moral utterance and practice can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past and that the insoluble problems which they have generated for modern moral theorists will remain insoluble until this is well understood.”[4]

Traditions are inherited and do not come to us in a vacuum but contain an element of their given nature. Antiquated notions cannot simply be reclaimed and integrated without a serious examination of the structures from which they arise and the cultures that gave birth to them if we do not desire to reinstall, reinforce, and re-instantiate the forms that gave rise to them. While the desire to return to some familiar pursuit of character formation may be comforting in a fragmented present chaotic era, serious critique is needed to question both the telos of desired outcomes and the source of projects adopted or reclaimed.[5]

In his prologue to the 3rd edition of After Virtue, written on the 25th anniversary of publication, MacIntyre (sounding like Dewey) says that it is within “acts of imagination and questioning”[6] that members or a group would be able to navigate the difficulties of a situation or decision where there is disagreement with another group.

Since there are no “neutral standards” available by which to judge the adequacies of any claim to truth, a rational agent may be able to determine a course of action and bring about a resolution where there is no clear standard by which to evaluate the superiority of one tradition over another.

Navigating in this arena is a dangerous enterprise. An awareness of our cultural chaos is vital. Hauerwas points out that we live in a ‘precarious’ moment:

“Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral arguments in itself cans resolve our moral conflicts.”[7]

He goes on to say that it is little wonder we “hunger for absolutes in such a world” [8] that robs us of sense of self or security that we have. The individual as a rational agent, the unencumbered self, and free actor are all illusions outside of a radically situated history and story of formation and participation.

He goes on to say  “our problem is that we live amid fragments of past moralities each, with good reason. Competing for our loyalty.” [9] We are, however, not simply post-modern islanders participating in and existing within an isolated inheritance. We are more like floating communities tied together by threads from our respective pasts and under constant exposure to new investigations by foreign expeditions.

Our era of inter-national, multi-cultural global connectivity has resulted in a multiplicity where no tradition or community exists in the kind of isolation that allows for stability and continuity. It is within this context that our formation of virtuous agents must conceive of frameworks and incubate embodied practices.  That is no easy task.

Tomorrow we will address one implication of today’s post: that there is no ‘neutral’ position that can be assumed anymore.

[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 8.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 202.

[4] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 105.

[5] I would argue that the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the sole determining factor for our present or future expression.

[6] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xiii.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (SCM Press, 2003), 5.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 4.