Whose Justice? Which Rationality? by Alasdair MacIntyre
(Notre Dame University Press, 1988, 410 pages)
This is a classic of modern philosophical ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre follows up the argument that he previously made regarding the collapse of a coherent modern ethical theory in After Virtue. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre makes the case that rival cultural and intellectual traditions fail to come to agreement about such important issues as the nature of justice because these competing traditions have incommensurable accounts of practical rationality. In a liberal democracy, where the rights of individuals are valued above all and no particular tradition is granted supremacy, those who work to resolve serious moral disagreements are often left with consensus rather than true agreement.
MacIntyre makes his case through a narrative history of Western ethical theory, starting with Homer and progressing through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Hume. Through this history, MacIntyre shows how all rationality is conditioned by the assumptions and considerations of particular traditions. There is no such thing as reasoning from a place that is divested of historical and cultural concerns. MacIntyre gives an account of how seemingly incompatible traditions (like Aristotelian ethics and Augustinian theology) have been generously and brilliantly engaged and evaluated so as to mutually correct and inform one another (as Aquinas was able to with Aristotle and Augustine in the 13th century). He critiques modern liberalism for its assumption that individuals have recourse to universal and tradition free practical reasoning. Liberalism, in its elevation of the rights and preferences of the individual over the particular vision of the good life of a whole society, has become a default tradition – but one which has no workable way or resolving major ethical conflicts.
MacIntyre’s writing is dense, and his arguments require real concentration. That being said, his prose is very readable and it is unencumbered by footnotes and extended analysis of other texts. His grasp on the breadth of Western intellectual history and his ability to draw out a coherent and compelling narrative are staggering. For anyone who wants to seriously engage with the questions about justice and ethics in contemporary society, MacIntyre is an indispensable resource.