The Teleological Gaze: Part 3, After Virtue

My first insight regarding the need for a teleological "gaze," looking at life in light of purposes, goals, reasons and ends, came from reading Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

MacIntyre's point in After Virtue is that virtue requires a teleological gaze. We can think of virtue as the art of living. This goes back to the Greek idea of arete, which means excellence of any kind, and when applied to living well can be translated as "virtue." The key insight is that virtue requires a teleological understanding of life. We can't live artfully, excellently, or virtuously unless we know what life is for, its purpose or telos.

For example, we can't judge an excellent guitar or guitarist unless we know what a guitar is for--its purpose or telos--and what a guitarist is for. A guitar, for example, would make a poor hammer. Hammering isn't what a guitar is for. In short, we judge the "excellence" of something in relation to how it fulfills its purpose. Same goes for a musician like a guitarist. A musician would make a poor accountant as a musician. Musical skill and art isn't meant for accounting (though one could be skilled in both areas). Judging excellence in music requires knowing what music is for as separate from knowing what accounting is for.

So when we step back and ask questions like "What makes an excellent society or human being?" we have to hold in hand a teleological account of what society and human life is for. Without knowing the telos we can't assess virtue.

MacIntyre's point in After Virtue is that when the modern world turned its back on teleology it turned its back on virtue. The modern choice of causality over teleology, as we discussed in the last post, made sense in the realm of science, but it's proven to be a mess in the realm of morality and ethics. Since the modern world lacks a teleological account of life, we can't agree on what society or human life is for. Consequently, we have no way of judging a good or virtuous social contract or a life well lived. True, MacIntyre points out, we have lots of competing opinions about what is or is not good or bad, right or wrong, but no way to resolve our disagreements when diverse moral and ethical positions come into conflict.

The ethos of the morality of the modern world can be reduced to two basic ideas. First, maximize freedom. Second, do no harm. Basically, as long as you don't hurt anyone you can do as you please. But in such a world we have no idea about how to live well. No clue about what flourishing should look like. So most of us just default to some form of benign or enlightened hedonism. We spend our lives watching Netflix. Trapped in either mindless or addictive routines. 
And while we sense that this is a waste of life, without a teleological perspective we can't say exactly why or how we are wasting it.

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