After reading here and there this morning (prompted by Rowan Williams latest foray into philosophizing ("Religious Faith and Human Rights" lecture, aptly summarized in different ways by Mad Priest in "Grand Tufti argues that gay people are not recognizably human" and by Fr. Tobias in "Embodied Fel(in)icty"), I have discovered that Jonathan's earlier inquiry "Why bother?" (from "Is there Moral Atheism?") regarding the search for a reason for universal moral principles with or without a concept of God is at the heart of what Rowan Williams was trying to address -- the questions posed in particular by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his books After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality? and other writings (see also article links here). Now, let me quickly say that the fact that some ex-British Marxist now Thomist philosopher and the Archbishop of Canterbury have addressed Jonathan's question does not suddenly make it more credible or worthy (on the contrary). However, seen in the context of what I've been able to glean briefly from MacIntyre's writings (as summarized by others), I now think I understand it a lot better.
The basic premise of Whose Justice, Which Rationality? is that the Enlightenment ideal of universal philosophy is unachievable, that no moral philosophy can stand outside its particular sociological and historical context. As Matthew Ray described it:
... Whose Justice, Which Rationality? argues that certain social traditions - such as the Christian religious tradition - embody conceptions of rational enquiry within them, so that what makes for a rational reason to act, for example, can only be answered by accepting the philosophical commitments of a given tradition in the first place. On this view, what justifies a theory is 'the rational superiority of that particular structure to all previous attempts within that particular tradition to formulate such theories and principles', Whose Justice, Which Rationality? There is thus no conception of rationality to be found over and above any tradition, no possibility of an objective rationality outside - and therefore able to adjudicate between - all traditions.(From "Philosopher of the Month") October 2002, The Philosopher's Magazine). This work builds on earlier work, including After Virtue, which draws upon Nietzsche and Thomas Kuhn, and the notion that contemporary Western moral philosophy is mutually and sometimes internally incoherent.
In this context, I can better appreciate the thrust of Jonathan's question. I would still maintain my skepticism, at least about what can be gained through such inquiries other than the satisfaction of intellectual play, while meanwhile culture and politics grind on, with little or no regard for what the philosophers or theologians may say. But dropping names like Nietzsche and Kuhn is enough to whet my intellectual appetite, even though I suspect that I might do better listening to the likes of Augusta Victoria and Clumber++. While "moral relativism" is often a red herring, I am intrigued with anyone's efforts at exploring how one can or should work with traditional notions of ethics and morality in the context of one's own culture and dare to seek to impose them (preferably with more persuasion than force) on others. I also ponder something of the reverse of Jonathan's question (insofar as it asks how can it be done without reference to God), in terms of whether the church, as an institution, inevitably must fail (see Theo Hobson's "Oh thou great irredeemable") -- never mind MacIntyre's apparent great faith in St. Thomas Acquinas as the beacon for us all.
I will have to read further to see if I can discern what Williams and MacIntyre are talking about, or at least whether I want to inquire further. However, one summary of MacIntyre that gave me pause was the following:
MacIntyre wants to overthrow the liberal capitalist ideology that currently dominates the world both in the realm of ideas and in its manifestations in political and social institutions and actions. He seeks to achieve this not through the use of force but by changing how people think about, understand, and act in the world. To show that the changes he wants are possible and desirable, he returns to an older conception of morality, derived from the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and ultimately, through Aquinas, the philosophy of Aristotle and the way of life of the Athenian polis. He portrays this older conception of morality as both superior to and fundamentally hostile to the modern order, and his philosophical arguments are meant to help restore it to the world. On the other hand, he understands that liberal capitalism has tremendous power and appeal both in the world of ideas and in the power it has over people in the social, political, and economic spheres. Ultimately his recommendation is that the particular conditions of the modern world require that those who agree with his arguments should, to the greatest possible degree, withdraw from the world into communities where the old morality can be kept alive until the time is right for it to re-emerge.(from Introduction, "The Political Philosophy of Alsadair MacIntyre" by Ted Clayton, Central Michigan University, for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Personally, I could care less what boxes of Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative, in which anyone's thoughts might fall. There are both silly and thoughtful comments about MacIntyre's books over at Amazon.com speculating as to whether MacIntyre is reactionary, left or right. But there does seem to be an alarming trend among the radical left turned whatever. I wrote earlier about Phillip Bobbitt in "Rowan and his shadow" -- another former British Marxist gone to U.S. academia, taking an odd turn far left to what might be viewed as far right (or simply off the map). I find it intriguing, though not surprising, that these fellows hold such fascination for Rowan Williams. While I can empathize with those on the left (as well as the right) who yearn for certainty, stability, and hope, I wonder whether all of us who have been plagued at various times with a burning sense of righteousness (especially but not only us Baby Boomers), really expect too much of both ideas and the people who hold them. Instead of retreating into the relative safety of communities where the "old morality" reigns (as did those renegade Mormons in Texas?), maybe we should set aside our fears and our arguably petty need for fixing everyone's world view and instead work on feeding the hungry, spend some time in the local soup kitchen and see whether the demons that plague us all are not sprung from modernism, relativism, or philosophic incoherency, but rather the same old, same old problems that have plagued humanity from at least the dawn of history, which no religion, ideology, or science has yet figured out how to "fix" (at least without creating a whole new set and, in the meantime, ignoring how we may be destroying our physical environment in which we continue to muddle and experiment, and the new ways we find to treat both human and non-human creation with disrespect). Why does not Original Sin humble us and lead us to the practical good we know we can do if we put aside our hate, intolerance, and arrogance in thinking we can preach our way out of it, if only we can find the right words, or books, or leaders to guide us?
But who am I to say, sitting here on a Saturday morning in front of the computer with my hyperlinks, open web windows, and stacks of books and papers on the side? Time to shove it all aside for awhile until maybe someday some sense may emerge (or at least until the household chores get done). But here's to Mad Priest for keeping track of the Big Questions and speaking bluntly to all.