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Stout and individual IX

March 31, 2016

We can consequently consider that extreme cases of ethical disagreement and vocabulary disagreement do not prove so dire as initially suggested. With enough time, will and effort, two persons from different times and places could offer ethical justifications in terms acceptable to one another. Yet this may not get at the root of the problem in satisfactory fashion. Given that time, will, effort or all three can lack in any given instance of justification and that any number of persons and, hence, vocabularies can be involved in justification, there remains reason prima facie for concern about fragmentation of ethical vocabularies. To some, the only solution may appear as restricting participants in any given instance of ethical justification to those whose vocabularies sufficiently overlap.

In this way, we arrive at a view on which the problems plaguing ethical justification arise from having too many vocabularies in play at the time of justification. As it happens, a group of “traditionalist” critics strongly affiliate themselves with this line of thought, of whom the most visible is Alasdair MacIntyre. Stout locates the crux of the problem in conceptual incommensurability:

The reason we have so much trouble securing moral agreement on such issues, MacIntyre suggests, is that the various premises from which people argue are conceptually incommensurable. The premises from which argument proceeds employ concepts originally at home in quite different moral languages (EB, p. 210).

At this time, it is important to recall that, for MacIntyre, conceptual incommensurability obtains not only between different, more or less complete vocabularies or discursive formations, but also between the different premises which result and may be isolated therefrom. When confronted in public discourse and justification, premises from different vocabularies participate in the same conceptual incommensurability as those vocabularies from which they issue. In this way, public discourse and justification would suffer from a twofold fragmentation: the fragmentation between different publics tending towards opposition; the fragmentation of those publics into a single mixed public tending towards confusion.

In both cases, the problem amounts to much the same as we have suggested above. If, in ethical justification, the position of the individual places the locus on a person’s vocabulary and vocabularies differ between persons in virtue of times and places, it seems natural to conclude from the divergence of vocabularies to their incommensurability. Nevertheless, this conclusion obscures an inference for which we have, as of yet, no warrant. More simply, divergence does not in and of itself imply incommensurability; otherwise, we surreptitiously introduce an additional premise, such as “static” or “hermetic”, into the former.

Stout comes to a similar conclusion with regards to MacIntyre’s indictment of contemporary ethical justification. It proves necessary to allow for a greater measure of plasticity when the time comes to assess possibilities for public discourse and justification:

[MacIntyre] may be thinking of the various fragments of our moral language as static systems that could only make sense in their original settings. He seems not to consider the possibility that the coherent moral languages of earlier generations were themselves products of eclectic bricolage, on the one hand, and conceptual adaptations to new circumstances, on the other […] If premodern language-users have been able to converse across cultural boundaries, change their minds in dialogue with strangers, and invent new moral languages out of apparently incompatible fragments, perhaps we can too. Moral languages, our own included, are not static systems. We need a kinematics to understand their changing presuppositions, an evolutionary history to understand how old concepts, originally at home in one environment, might find their niche in a new one, combining with others in unanticipated ways to form a viable linguistic ecosystem (EB, pp. 218-219).

On this reading of ethical history, public discourse and justification has proceeded, largely or at least in part, in terms of fragments and on the strength of participants in discourse and justification to associate fragments in new ways and novel combinations, within a single vocabulary, between vocabularies or within a mixed vocabulary. To cite but one example, Thomas Aquinas, in ethics as elsewhere, provides a striking case for his ability to associate Augustianism and Aristotelianism, a feat which MacIntyre has praised at some length in his various works. MacIntyre’s fault would thus lie in making static that which has, to this point, demonstrated great plasticity.

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