Alasdair MacIntyre develops a theory of human nature and human flourishing that seeks to ground our moral position in a network of mutual interdependence. On the one hand, human nature is characterized by reason and therefore achieved when we become ‘independent practical reasoners’. On the other hand, we are embodied beings, and this makes us dependent on others: we need nurture, care, and education from others. So, we are only able to pursue our good because we have received from others, and this requires us to give to others. We are, therefore, from the beginning of our lives, implicated in a community of giving and receiving. This giving and receiving is asymmetrical in different ways. As a consequence, MacIntyre argues that it needs to be uncalculating.
I want to develop a reading of MacIntyre which takes his account a step further. He sees the goods that are achieved through virtuous contribution to relationships of dependence as external to these relationships. He therefore has a conception of the relation between virtue and flourishing that I will call ‘Naturalist Aristotelianism’. Naturalist Aristotelianism has a two-step grounding of morality. First, it establishes an account of human nature that defines conditions of human flourishing, and second, it gives an account of morality that shows how virtuous action brings about these conditions.Against this, I will draw on the work of David McPherson to develop an account of relationships of dependence as constitutive goods, thereby reconstructing MacIntyre in terms of a ‘Hermeneutic Aristotelianism’. This means that the conditions of a good life are not simply given as ends we cannot dispense of, and the virtues are not simply given as means to those ends. Instead, conditions of goodness are strong constitutive goods which we should adopt. When we do so, they constitute the virtues as worth pursuing.
In order to show that embeddedness in relationships of dependence can become an aspect of the good life, I will argue that these relationships give rise to transformative experiences. Usually we assess our reasons for and against a certain decision against the background of our conception of the good life, what we deem worthwhile and what makes sense for us to do in this situation. However, with transformative choices, the problem is that they result in a certain experience which will alter this very background in important ways.
I will discuss an example of the gradual development of a relationship from initial acquaintance and co-operation into a deep and and strong friendship. We can understand each of the episodes in this development as steps in the gradual development from a relationship that serves to achieve shared goods external to it into a relationship that constitutes intrinsic goods.
This change occurs because each of the persons involved is uncalculatingly giving to the other which gives them reasons to uncalculatingly return. Each of these exercises of uncalculating giving change the background of facts and valuings against which it makes sense to perform the next action. In this sense, the history of this relationship is a transformative experience.
Paul thinks of the situations in which a transformative choice is to be made as timeless instants and of the choices as purely future-directed: the protagonists of her examples appear as though theyare standing at a crossroad, having to decide which path to take, while the setup of the examples and her subsequent discussion does not make any reference to what brought them to this specific crossroad in the first place.
But in my example, the transformativeness of the experience lies in a gradual development, and the agents involved are pushing this development with reference not only to its future but also to its past. This requires an account of how we situate our decisions in a context of our life which includes both, the future and the past, because both are part of this context. I show that Heidegger proposes such an account in his discussion of timeliness (Zeitlichkeit): he analyzes how our awareness of time shapes our life and criticizes an overly simplistic view which says that we are just moving through time, from one moment to another with the past being behind us and the future before us. In short, he says that we are constantly reaching backwards and forwards and relate our past, present, and future selves to one another.
So it is through the dynamic history of a relationship of dependence that the goods pursued in contributing to this relationship change from being external to being internal to this relationship because the transformativeness of the relationship lies in precisely this dynamic history. When the relationship is transformed so that we depend on the other for the pursuit of internal goods, the question whether or not the other lives up to their moral demands becomes a lot more pressing. It is not longer that we only incidentally depend on them because they are in a position to help, it is the fact that it is this specific person and not another which constitutes their moral position, because it is this specific relationship, with its unique history, on which the good in our life hangs. It is in this sense, that the relationship is no longer purely instrumentally valuable but meaningful. And it is in this sense, that it pursues an even more important good than the external goods that are achieved through fulfilling instrumental duties of mutual dependence.
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McPherson, David: Virtue and Meaning. A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2020.Paul, L. A.: Transformative Experience, Oxford University Press, 2014.