Looking for Virtue after ‘Charlie Hebdo’

by Martin Percival

Our moral debates are so vitriolic and unproductive because they're nonsensical. They must be re-grounded on a shared conception of the common good

First published: 27 January, 2015 | Category: Philosophy and Theory, Religion

The murder of journalists at Charlie Hebdo triggered furious debates over freedom of expression. While shedding little light on the problems of legislating liberty in widely differentiated and sharply unequal societies, these did provide an instructive demonstration of how inept we tend to be at dealing with moral discussions. Consider the abrasive intervention made by the Pope when he suggested that those who criticise religion should ‘expect a punch’ and the subsequent hysteria amongst liberal commentators, such as Polly Toynbee who likened the Pope’s position to that of a 'wife beater'. This sensationalism distracted from the real question at hand: Is it morally justifiable, and ought it to be legally permissible, to publish images aimed at provoking ridicule and hurt amongst religions minorities? One imagines that neither the Pope nor Toynbee were swayed by this shrill exchange. 

Kantian philosophy advises that moral questions be settled by reasoned debate, but as is the case surrounding Charlie Hebdo, moral arguments are often fought out from stubbornly-held opposing positions and in practice amount to impassioned exhortations to mutually incompatible principles on the basis of unargued dogma. Reflecting on this chaos, the Aristotelian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre offers a valuable contribution to understanding why we are so incapable when it comes to ethical debates. MacIntyre’s philosophy centres on the argument that modern society has no fixed moral compass and, as such, most debates are nonsensical. Enlightenment philosophy brought with it a severe misunderstanding of morality, whereby moral applications are used but without any rational criteria: 

On ultimate questions of morality we cannot argue, we can only choose. And our choice is necessarily arbitrary in the sense that we cannot give reasons for choosing one way rather than another; for to do this we should have to have a criterion in moral matters more ultimate than our ultimate criterion. And this is nonsensical.[1]

This can be seen in the disagreement between the Pope and Polly Toynbee. For the Pope, to insult religion is to insult our very existence, as our faith is deemed to be an intrinsic part of our identity. The Pope’s moral applications is thus established on the basis of his Catholicism. On the other hand Toynbee comes from a tradition of liberal humanism and is a champion of political atheism, often drawing on cases of oppression committed in the name of religion. Toynbee’s moral applications are therefore centred on her belief that religion is reactionary, or at any rate disposable. Neither participant in this discourse will be able to explain to the other why their position is morally right and the other wrong as there is no common terrain on which they are debating; their perceptions of morality are altogether different. 

In After Virtue MacIntyre argues that both starting positions in this type of exchange are equally absurd as in both cases moral judgements have been chosen arbitrarily.[2] In this exchange morality is dependent upon entirely separate individual perceptions as opposed to a shared conception of right or wrong. This is the basis on which most disagreements are held today and new examples can be found on politics shows such as Question Time every week. Terry Eagleton calls this ‘the privatisation of the symbolic sphere’ in his recent book Culture and the Death of God, which endorses MacIntyre’s view that the emphasis placed on the individual during the Enlightenment expedited our moral decay.[3] To overcome this chaos we should look back to ancient concepts of morality and learn from the fundamental notion laid out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. MacIntyre argues that at the centre of Aristotle’s moral philosophy is the idea of ‘teleology’, that human beings have a natural purpose in life to reach a certain end. MacIntyre argues that this end purpose in today’s society translates most clearly to a social contribution. Instead of focusing on achieving our own individual desires we should instead look to address the shared needs and desires of a community. This is the only way we can come to virtuous decisions.

This poses an obvious problem: How are we supposed to reach this conclusion when we all have very different ideas on what the needs and desires of society are? For MacIntyre the answer lies in how we approach everyday discourse. When faced with moral disagreement, instead of adopting one of many polarised starting positions—like those offered by the Pope or Polly Toynbee—we should first look for common ground as a basis for fruitful debate. Doing this effectively requires a culture of toleration in which diverse opinions are treated democratically and with the fundamental aim of reaching an outcome that is agreeable to all participants. The solution is a long term one, whereby a common moral standard is gradually constructed through sensible discourse across communities.

MacIntyre’s philosophy can seem difficult to engage with, not least because it does not provide all the answers. Edward Oaks points out that ‘one difficulty we face reading MacIntyre is that he gives us no guidance in our sharp moral disputes. He takes no position on capital punishment, abortion, or just war’. In these cases moral questions are balanced on matters of life or death and we are often forced to take a position. In his later work MacIntyre concedes that in the age of modernity we will inevitably have to engage in moral disagreements. As Stanley Hauerwas explains, ‘the presumption that one might be capable of standing somewhere to reject modernity is the kind of peculiarly modern attitude his work is meant to disabuse’. The present aim is not to become a virtuous individual who stays out of disputes, it is to promote a climate conducive to the formation of rational judgements as a collective. Returning to the Charlie Hebdo debates, for example, if we focus foremost on the needs of the community and resist the shrill discourse which ends with accusing the opponent of being sympathetic either to racism or violent jihadism, we have a chance of reaching a sensible and broadly accepted conclusion. Most people, considering the problem in a clear light, will agree that both freedom of expression and respect for the dignity of vulnerable minorities are both worthy qualities for a community like ours to embody, and beneficial to nearly all its members. Agreeing on this does not suffice to resolve the difficult questions regarding just where the balance ought to be struck in any given instance, but would at least provide a broadly acceptable common ground on which to pursue further debate, and in consequence foster a more constructive spirit of discussion.

MacIntyre’s diagnosis of moral decay seems chillingly accurate amidst the moral conflicts that engulf us. For the left to effectively intervene in moral debates in such an environment, we first need to move beyond the absurd slanging matches that currently predominate. The likes of the Pope and Polly Toynbee offer inflaming dogma that does little more than stoke further conflict. MacIntyre suggests a radical alternative: we should look to develop our morality not as lone individuals competing with others, but as a community working together. By establishing a standard moral terrain through discussion with others, we will be better placed to rationally overcome the problems that challenge.

Martin Percival is a British writer and activist based in Oxford.

Top image: Isaac Cruikshank, Debating Society (Substitute for Hair Powder), London (Laurie & Whittle, 5 May, 1795), via Wikimedia.



[1] Alasdair MacIntyre ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’, Alasdair MacIntyre’s engagement with Marxism (Brill, 2008).

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[3] Terry Eagleton, Culture and the death of god (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 3.

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