Alasdair Macintyre On Rights and Protest: Are We Just Talking To Ourselves?

In keeping with the conversation at bay, MacIntyre’s words on protest are fitting. In his seminal work “After Virtue” he focuses on arguing how and why the “Enlightenment project” failed. Essentially it is because the modern period has stripped away from humanity any social context in which to couch morality and instead focused solely on the individual (this in no way does justice to MacIntyre’s work).

And in his chapter on “The Consequences of the Failure of the Project,” he suggests there are three “distinctively modern” concepts that only work within this “failed project (68).” Those three concepts are: rights, protest and unmasking, I won’t deal with this last one.

Concerning rights he says, “those rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.” His point is that the idea of human rights as a separate sphere for morality is a new idea to modernity, there existed no language that could easily be understood as such prior to the medieval world. It’s not that there are no “natural or human rights (69),” but that people didn’t know what they were. And the problem with this idea then is because they are founded on “truths that are self-evident,” but know that there are no “self-evident” truths (anyone who listens long enough to arguments about the present war will come to understand this both points). The idea of “rights” based on self-evident truths then cannot work as an objective argument for morality.

From this follows that protesters argue for the rights of individuals. And MacIntyre historical explanation bears weight on my previous post. He says, “‘To protest’ and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else (71).”

And nowadays protest is almost completely negative. Protest, in light of this “occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someones rights in the name of someone else’s utility.” And because of the inability to place “rights” within any kind of objective framework from which to argue, protesters are unable to win arguments (this is where MacIntyre refers to the facts of incommensurability). The arguments become little more than talking amongst ourselves, telling each other what we already believe or hold to be true.

So where does this leave us? One major implication is to understand that modern morality as such gives us little room to say anything convincing because it is so overwhelmed by individualism and our own personal preferences about what we think ought to be done about this or that. Within this understanding then, we recognize the extreme importance it is to embody what it is we are pointing to. This was the main problem with one of my earlier protests.

Protest in and of itself, disembodied from a tradition and community, can only have hopes of grabbing the attention of media and putting issues before the nation. And it requires one more hope, that the media does not portray the protesters as wacko and “out of touch with reality.” But if we hope to have an ethic that truly transforms we will need more than mere optimism.

8 responses to “Alasdair Macintyre On Rights and Protest: Are We Just Talking To Ourselves?”

  1. Yes, thinking back on it, it does seem that the bulk of the protests I have seen have been negative and a reaction to a perceived reduction in rights, with the possible exception of some of the environmental protests. Even with those one could argue that the protesters are anthropomorphizing nature and attributing “rights” to spotted owls (or something) and protesting an invasion of the owls’ right to survival.

    What is a good place to start reading MacIntyre?

  2. Hi David, I think that starting with After Virtue is the best place to begin, it’s very dense and takes about half the book to get to his proposed solution to the problems he introduces in chapter one but the book is incredible and is a must read.

  3. MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” is instructive on many points and we all have much to learn from it. However, his conclusions which are somewhat ameliorated in his later work are too dark and therefore close down on the constructive work that ‘protest’ can make in various coherent traditions.

  4. Oh, sure. Well, my claim (and that of others) is that MacIntyre is right about needing tradition in order to have coherent moral reasoning, but his narrative of our plunge into the darkness emotivism in “After Virtue” is in fact too pessimistic. [He does himself back of his claims of large scale moral interminability somewhat in his later works – Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Three Rival Versions…] If this claim is correct and translation is always theoretically possible across the permeable boundaries of traditions, and if one conceives tradition slightly differently than in MacIntyre’s limited view, then there are quite likely many traditions which can put forth coherent moral statements. It stands to reason that protest can fit into these various traditions in their own unique ways, and in ways which provide the sort of positive stance which makes protest worthwhile.

    I agree that being against something without being for something is rarely a helpful enterprise.

  5. Hey, Wess,
    I’ve also been of two minds about this. What you’ve mentioned struck me as similar to the tree-falls-in-the-forest metaphor.

    One thing I think I usually forget, but which is also true of blogging, is that success counts a bit on who is paying attention to your efforts. Blogs are sometimes cults of personality, sometimes truly engaging enough for them to become communities and have a life of their own, and sometimes drops in the bucket of an already large pond, which don’t make much of a ripple.

    Similarly, rallies and marches are like advertising–it’s one way to bring attention to a cause that doesn’t meet the media-requirements for newsworthiness. I think sometimes we think that the news sources dictate what’s important, but marches try to bring that back around, to take some focus back into the light of people rather than “newsmakers.”

    One example of blogs, media, and marches coming together to build a critical mass is the concern (or lack thereof) over housing in San Francisco, which the news media rarely covers in a sexy way. One place where these met recently was at This is a small website devoted to local news as an alternative to the major press syndicate.

    Rallies and blogs depend on each other for success, though in this case, neither is classically “successful.” However, without the march, no news for BeyondChron. BeyondChron feeds upward to the local reporters and concerned citizens. So, even though only 100 people marches, many more (like myself) were informed and educated and, soon-to-be voters come Nov. 7th.

    Do protests work? Depends on what you want to have happen and how you measure success–a tree in the forest or one drop at a time.

  6. this is wonderful Wess. The church is to be about embodiment and ‘pro’test (not ‘anti’-test). Maybe then we can have the imagination of the kingdom and real nonviolent alternative (and therefore resistance) to the industral growth military complex instead of being a dependant paracite on the bum of what Dorothy Day called “The filthy rotten system”.