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.