I shared with you not long ago MacIntyre’s opening illustration in After Virtue, an illustration drawn from Canticle for Leibowitz. In it, all scientists are killed in retribution for a nuclear holocaust. Over time, people try to regain the language of science. They have the vocabulary—neutrons, atoms, relativity, gravity—but they lack the framework in which those terms make sense. This is our moral world, MacIntyre argues (and I believe he’s right).
Here’s another illustration from MacIntyre getting at the same thing, an illustration from exotic Polynesia! I’ll let Alister McGrath make some good comments first and them summarize it for us:
I would like to reflect on their importance to the modern American situation, using Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue as dialogue partners. Bellah and his coauthors, surveying individualism and commitment in modern American life, concluded that morality was in a state of chaos. There is no longer any consensus. There is no common language of morality. There is no moral Esperanto, which can be abstracted from the moral traditions of humanity. Bellah quotes Livy’s reflection on ancient Rome: “We have reached the point where we cannot tolerate either our vices or their cure.” And MacIntyre, pursuing the analogy with ancient Rome a little further, declares that “the New Dark Ages are already upon us….”
The foundations of secular ethics are in serious disarray. The notion of some universal morality, valid at all places in space and time, has lost credibility. Secular ethics has been fascinated by the notion of moral obligations, based on the Kantian notion of a sense of moral obligation. But, as MacIntyre pointed out with great force, there are alarming parallels between the western appeal to a sense of moral obligation and the eighteenth-century Polynesian idea of taboo. Captain Cook and his sailors were puzzled by the Polynesian concept, which seemed quite incomprehensible to them. MacIntrye points out that the liberal notion of moral obligation is just as arbitrary as taboo. The difference is that liberals fail to realize it.
Alister McGrath, “Doctrine and Ethics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34: 2, 1991, p.155.