Thursday, July 12, 2012

Putting the belief cart before the virtue horse

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library,
Leslie Jones Collection, via Flickr.
After having just read Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and Brad Kallenberg's Ethics as Grammar, it seems that everywhere I turn now in my nerdly reading, virtue and "the good" is on the tip of many tongues. This seems especially true to many reflections on matters of contemporary American life, including the role of "religion" in said life.

While I'm not categorically opposed to efforts at reclaiming some sense of virtue in this American life, I don't hold out particularly high hopes for such a project. The vice of greed in its many manifestations, I fear, has permeated too deeply into the halls of power in this country (Ex. A) for such a reformation to take hold substantively, not to mention the necessity of having to provide a substantive account of "the good" at a societal level, which is impossible in our pluralistic society. As one sociologist suggests, we must hold to a set of ideals as "the good." But the problem with ideals is they don't exist (to turn a phrase from Stanley Fish), and to hold out abstractions as that which a liberal-democratic society should strive for doesn't get us past the pickle of plurality. Who adjudicates the inevitable conflicts when substantive accounts and implementations of the purported societal good? (Resisting the temptation to drop the MacIntyrian line, "Whose...? Which...?" I've played it too much recently.)

Then there's the problem of individualistic, rationalistic accounts of human beings and how those get enshrined in various academic disciplines, which then sets the agenda for reflections such as this: Which Beliefs Contribute to Virtuous Behavior? This is putting the cart before the horse and where I draw my title to this post. If MacIntyre and those following his work are right, then virtues are a habitus that one is trained into by practice in a community of character, under the tutelage of exemplars (which, granted, the author above does mention). Beliefs, in this understanding, are rather a second-order practice that is at first retrospective.

From a Wittgensteinian philosophy of ordinary language perspective, there is a sense in which even our rational capacities (which is how we believe) are linguistic in character. We think in language, so our beliefs are linguistic constructs. And how does one learn language? By immersion and practice. Language in a Wittgenstinian perspective is not a correspondence model of object (chair) to word ("chair"). We know a chair is a chair because we are trained to use chairs as chairs. Babies sit in a high-chair well before they say "chair." By the time we're able to think and say "chair" we are calling up a wealth of experience and training that forms the content of what we mean by uttering such a word. And after all, someone at some point in history built a chair for the first time, so even the chair has a story that is inextricably linked to human enterprises.

With this in view, even the rational-linguistic practice of believing is, in some very important ways, developed by embodied life in communities of practice and discourse. If this view of language and thought is right, then believing in order to be compelled to virtuous action is increasingly problematic. To turn a phrase from Gandhi: It is better to be the good that you believe to be so...or be the good which you do not yet know is good but to which your community is calling.

In a Christian sense: This is to answer the call to costly discipleship to Jesus, and the life-long process in a particular body (Christ's) which such a life entails.

[Humility check: I've just begun my journey into Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, so I don't want to give the impression that I'm an expert by any means. So if there are those more capable than me on his work, please please please point out any problems I've created.]

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