It’s hard not to notice that in interactions both online and off, people seem increasingly polarized when it comes to political, social justice, and moral and ethical issues of all kinds. Rather than engaging in a civil discussion, debates turn into emotionally-charged flame wars, marked by blame, shame, and the exchange of insults. Such interactions are acrimonious, seemingly interminable, and markedly shrill.
What accounts for the tenor of these melees on morality?
Some astute observers have posited that our political and social positions have become more fervent as society has become more secular. People seem to have an ingrained penchant for the “religious” — a proclivity to draw lines between us and them, the pure and the polluted, doctrine and heresy, the unconverted and the woke — and in the absence of traditional faith-based outlets for these energies, have channeled these “religious” impulses towards partisan politics.
There’s surely something to this theory. But the shrillness of our modern debates on morality has an even deeper underlying cause.
The 3 Elements of a Rational, Functional Moral Culture
In After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that Aristotelian virtue ethics offers the best model of a healthy and well-functioning moral system; its strength, he asserts, is the presence of three elements — all of which must be in place for any moral system to thrive:
This is a human being in his raw, morally untutored state. This is man left to his own devices and allowed to follow his default impulses. Man on the path of least resistance.
2. A view of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos.
Telos is the Greek word for man’s ultimate aim. It represents his ultimate purpose and function — an essential nature that can only be realized by throwing off the inertia of default desires and actively striving after it.
For the ancient Greeks, a man’s telos was reaching a state of eudaimonia; a word that is hard to translate but means something akin to happiness, excellence — full human flourishing. For Aristotle specifically, eudaimonia meant not only possessing good character, but achieving excellence in action. Virtue was both the goal and the practice — the end man should strive for, and the active means of attaining that end.
For Aristotle, a “good man” was as functional and objective a concept as a “good watch” or a “good musician.” A good watch accurately tells time; a good musician plays his instrument well; and a good man fulfills his purpose as a man. Each statement, the philosopher would say, is equally objective and factual.
3. An ethical code that allows a man to move from state #1 to state #2.
Man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-if-he-realized-his-telos are antagonistic states — one slides into the lowest and easiest, while the other aims for the noblest and highest.
To transition from the former to the latter — to access one’s full potential — you need to adopt certain behaviors and habits of action. What behaviors and actions to take are prescribed by a set of ethics that are specifically designed to move you from state #1 to state #2. The code lays out which virtues will take you towards your telos, and conversely, which vices will stymie your progress in reaching it. As MacIntyre explains:
“The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. To defy them will be to be frustrated and incomplete, to fail to achieve that good of rational happiness which it is peculiarly ours as a species to pursue.”
Although we can describe this set of moral precepts as an ethical code, it should not be thought of, at least in the context of Aristotelianism, as primarily a set of rules. As MacIntyre observes, “the most obvious and astonishing absence from Aristotle’s thought for any modern reader” is that “there is relatively little mention of rules anywhere in the Ethics.” In the absence of strict, rote, universal rules, Aristotle instead argued for the cultivation of a kind of master virtue which would aid a man in acquiring all the rest: phronesis, or practical wisdom. As a virtue in one context can be a vice in another (e.g., being frugal vs. being cheap), a man needed phronesis to guide him in doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.
Each of the three elements above “requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible.” The combination of the three produces a moral culture that is not only functional, but rational.
Such a moral code is rational in the sense that there is a logical relationship between is and ought. That is, if your telos is X, we can objectively say that you ought to do Y, and you ought not to do Z, in order to reach it. To achieve this end, you must adopt these means.
While this threefold scheme can form the basis of a personal moral code, Aristotle specifically imagined his system of virtue ethics in the context of community (in his case, the Greek city-state). Individuals aim to fulfill their telos as men, while pointing that effort towards what MacIntyre calls a “shared project of achieving a common good” (for Aristotle, for example, reaching one’s telos was closely tied to being a good citizen and contributing to Athenian democracy). Within a community with a common telos, rules are erected that prohibit negative behaviors that would be destructive to the efforts and relationships necessary to achieving its shared project, while virtues — positive traits of character that move the community closer to that common good — are celebrated and encouraged. The rules cannot be understood apart from the virtues at which they aim; the former are not arbitrary, but designed to facilitate the greater flourishing of the latter.
The same 3-part moral framework also exists within the Abrahamic religions, only, as MacIntyre explains, shaded a bit differently:
“The precepts of ethics now have to be understood not only as teleological injunctions, but also as expressions of a divinely ordained law. The table of virtues and vices has to be amended and added to and a concept of sin is added to the Aristotelian concept of error. The law of God requires a new kind of respect and awe. The true end of man can no longer be completely achieved in this world, but only in another. Yet the threefold structure of untutored human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be, human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos and the precepts of rational ethics as the means for the transition from one to the other remains central.”
For the religious adherent, one’s telos wasn’t eudaimonia (at least as Aristotle understood it), but salvation — being transformed into a creature divinely made perfect.
The Fate of a Moral Culture Without a Shared Telos
Over several centuries, and for complex reasons, a teleologically-based moral system eroded in the West.
As MacIntyre succinctly summarizes, “the joint effect of the secular rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos.”
The idea of having an ultimate aim survives on a personal level (though scarcely few people seem to think of themselves as having a telos, or know what theirs is). But on a broad, cultural level, Western societies no longer share a telos in common. The kind of moral system outlined above can really only function in a fairly homogeneous community of limited size; as a society grows increasingly large and diverse, people no longer share the same telos (or have a concept of telos at all), nor a project of common good that the telos supports. Thus in our own culture, many competing teloi exist, or are absent altogether.
Yet, we still retain the other two pieces of classical morality: man-as-he-happens-to-be and a set of ethics. Witness the effect this creates:
The moral code which was specifically created to move man-as-he-happens-to-be towards his telos, now hangs in space, detached from a larger purpose.
There is only man in his raw state, and a code of behavior he is to follow. But, in the absence of a telos, this code consists not in virtues, alongside attendant rules that help a man achieve them, but in the rules alone. As McIntyre observes, when a moral culture lacks a teleological element, “Rules become the primary concept of the moral life.”
In a moral system which lacks a telos, there exist only negative proscriptions for appropriate behavior — rules which are not designed to move man to fulfill his essential purpose, but simply to allow the basic functions of society to continue.
No. No. No. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
And so today we have an abundance of voices pointing out what a good man isn’t, but very few describing what a good man is. We lack a positive ideal. In this we’ve become a nation of something worse than school marms — for at least the disciplinarian teacher reprimanded her students with some end in mind.
At the same time that rules become more central to such a moral culture, they become less motivating. Still today we know that man in his untutored state is prone to bad behavior, and so establish rules in an attempt to educate that behavior. But in the absence of an accompanying telos, such rules lack a compelling why — a rationale for why a man should choose to undergo this education, and offer his compliance, rather than following the less challenging path of least resistance.
This is quite problematic, for as pointed out above, man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-if-he-realized-his-telos are antagonistic states. The latter is not how we act if left to our druthers. Achieving one’s telos involves mastering lower impulses to reach for the higher variety. It requires self-mastery, self-control, delayed gratification. It’s not a “natural” state, and as such, its pursuit requires strong motivation — motivation that can only be furnished by pointing to an overarching aim.
Given the lack of motivation inherent to a telos-free moral code, vice inevitably waxes and virtue wanes. This ethical lassitude is still a cause of consternation to a culture, that, even if it’s lost hope in producing citizens of sterling character, still needs them to act with a minimum of propriety and trust in interpersonal relationships in order to keep day-to-day life safe and copacetic. It is rightly felt that people can no longer be left to rely on their phronesis to make moral judgements (for without a telos, what would this judgement be based on?), and so more and more granular and restrictive rules are created as to what constitutes appropriate behavior — external, universal, one-size-fits-all guidelines that of course work much less well in some circumstances than others.
Naturally, there is much disagreement on just how far all these rules should extend beyond the enforcement of the bare minimum of propriety. Just how granular the rules should get is a matter of one’s perspective of what is “just” and “right” and these positions are based on conflicting telos, or on no defined telos at all.
Indeed, the disappearance of a shared telos from a culture’s moral code ultimately has a deteriorating effect on that culture’s moral discourse. When a culture loses its shared telos, is and ought are divorced. Without this connection, moral precepts lose any objectivity — a rational basis for why we should choose one position over another. Though we still voice our positions as if they had this kind of rational authority, our moral arguments in fact become “mere instrument of individual desire and will.” We assert our opinions as if they are objectively true, when they are in fact the arbitrary product of emotion and personal preference. One notices that there is very little philosophical discussion surrounding our moral debates at all; very little appeal to reason is issued beyond “This is the way it should be! . . . Because!” Moral debate becomes a series of reciprocal shouts. Flaming, blaming, shaming.
Or as MacIntyre puts it, “without a teleological framework the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible.”
As he observes, each person has become an autonomous moral agent, who “now [speaks] unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology or hierarchical authority; but why should anyone else now listen to him?”
Living a Eudaimonic Life In an Irrational, Dysfunctional Moral Culture
MacIntyre truly offers an incisive explanation for why our moral debates are so shrill. Moral precepts — encouragements of virtue and prohibitions of vice — are rationally based when they lead to a clear telos. If your telos is this, you ought to do that. When a culture lacks a shared telos, and everyone is following their own ultimate aim (or lack such an aim at all), people with competing teloi simply talk past each other, while those without any teloi make moral arguments that sound objective but are really the irrational products of personal preference and emotion.
While MacIntyre’s insights are descriptive, and it’s enormously helpful to understand why things are the way they are, they’re less prescriptive; what should we do with this information? Three takeaways suggest themselves:
The importance of having a personal telos. Even though modern society no longer shares a common telos, you still should be clear on your own. What’s your ultimate aim? What’s your essential purpose and function? Throwing off your default desires is never easy. Knowing the end you’re aiming for will make you far more motivated in embracing the means — the habits of action attendant to living a strenuous life of virtue and excellence — that are necessary to get there.
The pointlessness of debate (with those who don’t share your telos). The West still celebrates the debate of political, social, and moral issues, and we do so because of the tradition we inherited from the ancient Greeks. But the framework that allowed their rigorous exchanges to function — the context of a defined city-state with a shared telos — no longer exists in our large, heterogeneous modern countries. We’re still trying to engage in an old model of rhetoric, despite inhabiting a very different cultural landscape. The result is our empty, interminable, emotion-driven shouting matches.
Now I’m not saying we should never debate important ideas. Such debates can be healthy and robust when in engaged in between people who share the same telos. And those who do not share the same telos can debate issues in a strictly pragmatic way — arguing for which solutions will be most effective or expedient. But when debates concern issues of “right” and “wrong,” if the parties do not share a common telos, the result will only be pointless, irrational pontificating.
The importance of belonging to a community. While it is impossible to share a telos with millions of other people, it is still quite possible, and desirable, to do so with a smaller community of like-minded folks. For Aristotle, achieving a life of eudaimonia could never be a solo affair; it required working on a shared project of common good with others. Comrades in a common purpose sharpen each other, and can create and achieve things they couldn’t by themselves.
Just as importantly, communities of virtue act as repositories of moral excellence, emitting an influence and fragrance that strengthen and leaven the larger culture, and preserving virtues that might otherwise disappear. As MacIntyre ended After Virtue over three decades ago:
“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
For more insight into this topic, listen to our podcast with Michael Ward: