The man in a modest dark suit and grey shirt could be mistaken, save for the presence of his wife of 33 years, for an off-duty Benedictine abbot. We’re dining in the elegant ambience of the Cambridge Catholic university chaplaincy; the conversation is animated, but the man, an 81-year-old philosopher, contents himself with a glass of water, leaving the dishes and vintage claret untouched. Self-effacing, a trifle austere, he nevertheless exudes a benign humanity from the top of his monkish haircut to his scuffed toe-caps. Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the world’s most influential living moral philosophers. He has written 30 books on ethics and held a variety of professorial chairs over the past four decades in North America. Blending ideas from ancient Greece and medieval Christendom (with an admixture of Marxism), MacIntyre writes and lectures on the failings and discontents of “advanced modernity.” This summer he accepted an invitation from Prospect and Jesus College, Cambridge to talk to a group of academics on the economic disaster that capitalism has inflicted on itself and the world.
MacIntyre’s key moral and political idea is that to be human is to be an Aristotelian goal-driven, social animal. Being good, according to Aristotle, consists in a creature (whether plant, animal, or human) acting according to its nature—its telos, or purpose. The telos for human beings is to generate a communal life with others; and the good society is composed of many independent, self-reliant groups.
via Prospect Magazine.
On the financial markets:
When it comes to the money-men, MacIntyre applies his metaphysical approach with unrelenting rigour. There are skills, he argues, like being a good burglar, that are inimical to the virtues. Those engaged in finance—particularly money trading—are, in MacIntyre’s view, like good burglars. Teaching ethics to traders is as pointless as reading Aristotle to your dog. The better the trader, the more morally despicable.
At this point, MacIntyre appeals to the classical golden mean: “The courageous human being,” he cites Aristotle as saying, “strikes a mean between rashness and cowardice… and if things go wrong she or he will be among those who lose out.” But skilful money-men, MacIntyre argues, want to transfer as much risk as possible to others without informing them of its nature. This leads to a failure to “distinguish adequately between rashness, cowardice and courage.” Successful money-men do not—and cannot—take into account the human victims of the collateral damage resulting from market crises. Hence the financial sector is in essence an environment of “bad character” despite the fact that it appears to many a benevolent engine of growth.
This rift between economics and ethics, says MacIntyre, stems from the failure of our culture “to think coherently about money.” Instead, we should think like Aristotle and Aquinas, who saw the value of money “to be no more, no less than the value of the goods which can be exchanged, so there’s no reason for anyone to want money other than for the goods they buy.” Money affords more choices and choice is good. But when they are imposed by others whose interest is in getting us to spend, then money becomes the sole measure of human flourishing. “Goods are to be made and supplied, insofar as they can be turned into money… ultimately, money becomes the measure of all things, including itself.” Money can now be made “from the exchange of money for money… and trading in derivatives and in derivatives of derivatives.” And so those who work in the financial sector have become dislocated from the uses of money in everyday life. One symptom of this, MacIntyre contends, is gross inequality. In 2009, for instance, the chief executives of Britain’s 100 largest companies earned on average 81 times more than the average pay of a full-time worker.