I have just finished reading, for the first time (and without taking any notes), Philip Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project. Kitcher’s take on ethics is practical and naturalistic. He calls his kind of ethics pragmatic naturalism, and links it closely to the pragmatism of Dewey and James. He assumes that ethics started out in tribal conditions where altruism failures were a problem. According to Kitcher, the ethical project got its start by establishing roles and rules designed to correct altruism failures. Furthermore, he suggests, with considerable reason, it seems to me, that contemporary ethics is a developmental extension of those first rough attempts to produce, first, a form of behavioural altruism, which was then, by necessity, extended to a truly psychological altruism. (Careful definitions of behavioural and psychological altruism are provided.) When I have reread the book more closely I will get back to what he is proposing in more detail, for what he does propose, it seems to me, might help to break the logjam caused by the many metaethical proposals that are still in play, from the intuitionism of Moore to the emotivism of the logical positivists.
Alongside Kitcher I am also rereading (after many years) Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which starts from the very odd premise that modernity was a mistake, and that to reestablish ethics on sound foundations we have to return to Aristotle and Aquinas. An interesting sidelight on the publication of After Virtue is that the first edition of the book was published shortly after MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. And an interesting comment on that is that the woman who was his wife at the time of his conversion was his third! Since the Roman Catholic Church holds that divorce is impossible, and that the marriage bond is essentially indissoluble by anything but death, it was an odd choice of religious allegiance, except that, in After Virtue, he more or less takes the position of Pope Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (otherwise known as Pius IX) with respect to modernity, and assumes that it is largely a logical and cultural mistake. (At least that’s the way MacIntyre’s argument seems to me. If only we had retained the virtue ethics of Aristotle as perfected by Aquinas, transitions to the scientific world view would have moved more smoothly, as well as being more intellectually respectable.)
In the first chapter of After Virtue, “A Disquieting Suggestion,” MacIntyre suggests a thought experiment. It is not clear to me that the thought experiment is even entertainable, since it does not explain clearly enough on what basis governance is to be continued in the conditions supposed. He asks us to imagine a time in the future when people have got fed up with science, have removed science from the curricula of schools and universities, killed or imprisoned all the scientists, and then government is carried out — well, how, exactly? Since science is not only physics and math and chemistry and biology, but a fairly strict methodological approach to information, how would a government function where fact checking was ruled out, and decisions were based on pure whim? MacIntyre seems to forget that science is not only composed of lists of facts, but is tied together by theory and based on experience, and that that process can scarcely simply disappear when we stop teaching the sciences. However, imagine it done for the purposes of argument. Now, says MacIntyre, we are to suppose that a generation comes along which is opposed to this science-destructive world outlook. However, during the anti-science period the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed. There are fragments left, a book here or a page there, and a few memories of phrases and scientific terms, like the periodic table without any sense of what it was once about. But now we are to imagine people trying to reconstruct science in the absence of any understanding of what science was once really about, so they begin using scientific language without really understanding what the language was for, or what it really signified. Science, for this new generation, is a bunch of disjointed technical terms thrown out more or less at random, and repeated pointlessly in a form much like some postmodernist free association.
In this situation, MacIntyre supposes, people would still have theories about how science functioned. As MacIntyre puts it:
Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism. 
And he imagines that, in this context, we could still have the kind of philosophy which was done in the mid-twentieth century, where philosophers considered it their task, not to add anything to the sum of knowledge, but in Wittgensteinian (or even Lockean) mode, to be clearers of the conceptual ground upon which others were working the seams of knowledge. Philosophy would proceed undisturbed, and a “Husserl or a Merleau-Ponty would be as deceived as a Strawson or a Quine.” [loc. cit.]
MacIntyre uses this imaginary account to throw some light, as he supposes, on the plight of ethics in the context of modernity. He really does think that ethics was abolished during the Enlightenment, and that subsequent attempts to understand morality is limited by the fragmentary nature of the remains of the great destruction that took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The tradition that entered the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century, as a complete functioning ethics, was carelessly flung away, and all we have left are bits and pieces of it, fragments of a once true morality which had its own completely comprehensive functional procedure for distinguishing true from false ethical principles and norms. Instead, what we are left with is very much like those (in the thought experiment) who are trying to reconstruct science from bits and pieces of the scientific tradition, fragments from here and there without any underlying or intelligible rationale. Modern morality, which seems to have lost touch with the old objectivity suggested by Aristotle and Aquinas, is composed of disjointed fragments of a now forgotten objective morality. The result is, consequently, not a morality at all, but a metaethical attempt to rediscover a sound basis for morality, and finding, instead, only fragments, and no way to keep moral judgement from floating free of the situations to which it belongs.
There is, after all, some evidence that this is the situation that we are faced with. There is no agreed way of establishing our moral judgements, and fixing them in something objective in the situations in which moral judgement is called for. Some people have suggested that moral judgements are only subjective affirmations of our preferences, simply emotional grunts of approval or disapproval. Others imagine wholly imaginative situations in which we are thought to have agreed with certain outcomes in communal situations, so that we are, in some sense, bound contractually to the acceptance of those outcomes. Others, like Bentham, suppose that what we are really saying when we speak of right and wrong, or duty, obligation, and guilt, has to do with the effects of our actions in increasing or diminishing happiness or well-being. Others suppose, with Kant, that our duty follows directly from our rationality, and that the rational person must acknowledge that reason itself determines what we ought or ought not to do, with a kind of absoluteness which brooks no argument, and permits no escape. So what we seem to have is a bunch of loosely connected fragments of moral understanding, but no overall structure in terms of which we can confidently express our moral convictions, and expect them to be affirmed by others with equal confidence.
Thus far, then, MacIntyre seems to be justified. European society did make a transit from a situation in which moral language seemed to have decisive and general purchase, to a situation in which moral justification of our actions seemed to be called into question, and moral discourse became hopelessly fragmented amidst a jumble of contending factions. Finding some coherence in this jumble may take a while — I am speaking personally — but I think there are a few things that can be said at this point. The first thing to say is to raise a question about MacIntyre’s confidence that the old Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis could really have provided a way forward from the position it had reached during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To a large degree, this synthesis was maintained by the unique position and power of the Roman Catholic Church, and the church’s use of that synthesis during the unsettled and unsettling events of the time, does not really lend confidence to the claim that it provided an adequate moral basis for the development of modernity. However, rejecting the modern experiment as he does, it made sense that MacIntyre should covert to Roman Catholicism, for it was the church’s power, and the loss of that power, that both kept alive the dream of moral consensus, but also showed how impossible it was to continue to support that consensus in greatly changed circumstances.
MacIntyre seems to me to be willfully blind to the failures of the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis. He should have looked more closely at the history of those times, and asked not only whether the consensus could have been maintained, but whether it should have been. Could the exercise of papal power — in the way that it was actually exercised – during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation really justify the maintenance of the old moral consensus? And could such a moral consensus be maintained without the exercise of that kind of power? To my knowledge — and it’s a long time since I read After Virtue and Whose Justice, Which Rationality? – these are questions that MacIntyre never asks or answers. Instead, he confines himself to what he thinks are the philosophical reasons why this particular ethical and moral system is to be preferred to the evident confusion of ethical discourse within what has come to be called modernity, a cultural transformation of Europe which was condemned outright by Pope Mastai-Ferretti in his Syllabus of Errors.
But there is another angle from which to approach MacIntyre’s disquieting suggestion. MacIntyre seems to forget, when he is imagining the destruction of science, that science is not science at all without a fairly clear method of theory construction and empirical confirmation and disconfirmation, and that science does differ from ethics in this respect. What he seems to neglect is that, were science entirely to disappear, except for a few catch phrases here and there, as he is supposing in the thought experiment, more than just the disappearance of science would occur. People would no longer have any sense of learning from experience, for that is what science does, even though it does so by showing that what we think we know by experience often deceives us to the real nature of reality, since the truth about reality is often only accessible to those who are prepared to question what it is that they think they see. But still, even within this greatly diminished science, if MacIntyre’s thought experiment permits the normal processes of learning from experience to continue – and it is difficult to see how he could, even in imagination, disallow that — there would be a basis for piecing together the fragments of science, after the destructive period is over, because there wouldn’t even be fragments of science left if the empirical methodology was completely missing, and the fragments of science were just arcane catch phrases without any empirical context.
However, morality is different in this respect. Even though MacIntyre thinks he can find, within a Thomist framework, some kind of objective ground for ethics, there is still nothing like the theory construction and empirical confirmation or falsification of science. Ethics is still something that is exercised in an entirely different context, and is still more closely related to the humanities than to science. Questions of sensitivity, compassion, empathy, desire, preference and so on abound in ethical contexts, and are ineliminable from it, whereas science does not deal in this kind of subjective, emotional, appetitive content. Emotions, feelings of approval and disapproval, desires, hopes and fears all enter into ethical thought, but these are not integral to the scientific enterprise — although of course scientists are human and experience hopes and fears, desires and repugnances, just like other human beings, as some of the unfettered competition amongst scientists testifies. My initial response to MacIntyre is that he has awakened in the wrong century, and is imagining the logic of ethics as much more science-like than he has a right to. It makes more sense to trace the ethical project to its remote beginnings, as Kitcher does, than to start, in medias res, as MacIntyre thinks appropriate, for MacIntyre begins with a moral system fully developed, without noticing that that system, whatever else we may say about it, seemed to a large number of people during the Enlightenment, not only inadequate to account for their experience of morality, but also came to conclusions they thought were definitely immoral, as many of the thundering denunciations and affirmations from the Vatican today continue to confirm. Not only were Aristotle and Aquinas not sufficient to ground morality, whatever their strengths; they brought people to conclusions which they came to regard as contrary to reason and moral decency. The need for a revision of the morality that MacIntyre takes as foundational is no less needed now. It may be a difficult and sometimes confusing project, but, given the moral disasters continually exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church in action, a very necessary one. So it seemed to our predecessors during the Enlightenment; so it still seems to many of us today. Whether it can be done remains to be seen, since religion’s footprint in morality and ethical discourse is still extremely large, even today, but that it must be done, the great immorality of religious moral systems reinforces daily.