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Fr. 430

November 5, 2013

Were one to concede MacIntyre’s broader arguments, i.e. that:

1. contemporary society is divided among a variety of rival traditions, as attests the mere fact of pluralism;

2. this society is thus unable to respond as one to the important questions concerning how life is to be led;

3. finally, it is likewise unable or unwilling to formulate the appropriate values for the leading of that life;

4. this lack of consensus on the all-important life questions leaves us in a situation where we are fundamentally unable to communicate with one another.

what then would become of the world in which we currently live? It goes without saying that we cannot simply return to a past where opinions on the life questions were more uniform; this is neither possible, nor is this among the solutions that MacIntyre himself envisages in his work. Moreover, it should be added that the hard consensus of the past was not as uniform as it might now seen from contemporary nostalgic perspectives. Even in limiting the range of traditions considered to that of pre-Reformation, medieval Catholicism, there existed entrenched institutional disputes over how certain questions were to be answered, e.g. the duties of the church and clergy, the nature of the divinity, and so on and so forth, such that organized resistance to the wider consensus arose in the form of heresies and reform movements.

In the absence of a hard consensus, one might nevertheless be tempted to speak of a soft consensus in this case in that the participants to the pre-Reformation, medieval Catholic discourse were agreed on certain basic issues that grounded their way of approaching the world through thought, speech and action: the truth of Christianity, the promotion of the true faith, the avoidance of sin, etc.. Would it be possible for contemporary society to come to a new consensus through discussion and the construction of new values?

Even if this soft consensus seems firmer than anything that the present might conceivably advance as its own consensus, given the cultural diversity within any given nation-state, it is perhaps important to remember that the present could advance a consensus of a different kind, one that, in the words of John Rawls, does not draw on a comprehensive doctrine. Leaving aside the question of whether such a purely “political” doctrine is possible, it would seem that there is already a soft consensus of a related sort at work in Western society as a whole, a task that Paul Silas Peterson takes on briefly in an article at The Immanent Frame. Therein, Peterson lists four basic tasks with which Western society charges itself:

(1) to live with a modern democratic political order;

(2) to enforce concepts of unalienable human rights;

(3) to uphold the rule of law;

(4) to secure the separation of powers;

as well as a four values presupposed by those above, but capable of standing in their own right at independent tasks or values:

5) the high view of the individual, and thus the high view of that individual’s opinion;

6) the high view of freedom and choice;

7) the importance of reason and rational justification;

8) a high regard for cooperation.

These provisional eight elements make up what Peterson sees as a contemporary soft consensus, one that grows out of the fact of pluralism rather than in spite of it. Although the precise formulation and realization of the eight tenets above is bound to differ from one particular society to another, these tenets carry with them a substantive, historical content, issuing as they do from a long development in the political arrangements and theory of the Western world. Furthermore, on Peterson’s take, the sorts of tensions and intractable conflicts that MacIntyre tends to ascribe to pluralism itself might be found to stem more readily from “external social, economic, and political pressures that turn it [the issue of pluralism] into a tinderbox for ethnic and social conflict”, pressures from such diverse issues as “the contemporary economic crisis in many Western countries, the reported high rates of unemployment (especially among the younger generations) and the mountains of trans-generational national debt that have been irresponsibly produced”. Indeed, Peterson goes on to add, in some ways, contemporary society can be seen to be more unified in its values than the society of centuries past, as would seem to attest the decrease in bloody conflict and the increase in mutual understanding between different parties.

It is precisely this idea of a soft consensus for which MacIntyre’s position leaves the reader unprepared. Such an idea or even its possibility is inadequately addressed in his work, as the latter leaves the reader without a proper way forward or back. If there can be no way back as seen above, the possibility of finding a way forward on MacIntyre’s view is likewise uncertain in that it would consign us either to a future in which the various traditions cannot interact directly with one another or one in which one tradition must come to incorporate others and thus expand its reach through translation and immanent criticism or still other means of persuasion. In the end, the issue of a way forward or back proves to be misguided. After all, as seen in the soft consensus, it is not clear that contemporary society had lost its way to begin with.


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