Sewanee Senior Theses 1999

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    Objective Truth, Morality, and Confusion: A New Solution Through Narrative and Tradition
    (1999-04) Love, Hannah
    When faced with the prospect of evaluating two competing moral traditions, many of us feel frustrated. Some prevalent postmodern trends tell us that we are unable to choose one tradition as superior over another, since all traditions are relative to a specific culture or religion and therefore cannot be judged objectively. Others following Descartes' lead claim in opposition that there is perfect objective truth to be found only if we can only shed our ingrained biases and approach truth with a blank and inquiring mind. It is no wonder that most of us in contemporary society are poorly equipped to deal with either thorny moral issues or moral traditions alien to our own. As the journey in this paper will show us, enlightenment thinkers began the attempt to systematize morality through reason, and their endeavors hundreds of years ago have left us with this legacy of assuming that there are either unrelated moral traditions which cannot interact or that truth is outside all traditions waiting to be discovered by the unencumbered seeker. It seems, then, that we are forced to hold one of two opposite but equally inadequate positions when it comes to deciding the validity of a moral tradition. Hope is not lost, however. Two contemporary philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre and Mark Johnson, have addressed this problem through a new approach: the recognition of the place of historical narrative in shaping moral tradition. These men argue that it is indeed possible to reject moral relativism and Enlightenment-style objectivism and embrace a unique theory of moral approach. Each emphasizes the fact that we cannot understand a person's or a society's moral tradition without understanding it as a story, and it is by understanding the language of that story that we can intelligibly evaluate one tradition against another and decide which is more competent. Where MacIntyre and Johnson differ, however, is in how we understand the resourcefulness important to deciding superiority between two traditions. MacIntyre believes in a form of dialectical resourcefulness in which we seek to discover which tradition can better handle "epistemological crises." Johnson, on the other hand, borrows a cue from Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy and argues for transperspectivity as the new and improved moral objectivity. In the course of this essay, I plan to accomplish several things. I will present the philosophies of MacIntyre and Johnson, showing their systems of evaluation and understanding of moral traditions. In order to exhibit their thought in action, I will evaluate Augustine's Confessions and Nietzsche's Zarathustra, two pertinent models for MacIntyre's and Johnson's systems. These two works serve as examples by virtue of their being narrative philosophies exhibiting the moral and rational progressions and features that MacIntyre and Johnson will expound upon. In addition, each examined philosopher serves as a foundation for the one examining; Augustine lends his wisdom to MacIntyre's theories and Nietzsche offers ideas that Johnson adopts in his book. Finally I will turn to the essence of the debate between MacIntyre and Johnson, which I briefly mentioned earlier. Through exploring their systems of moral theory, we will see that each one is also working from within his own tradition to offer his explanations. It may seem at first that resolving the disagreement between MacIntyre and Johnson is a difficult prospect; however, this is not the case. My central goal in this paper is to offer an intense exploration and application of MacIntyre and Johnson's philosophies, ending with a resolution between the two that will offer us a new rational alternative to postmodern trends as well as creatively solve the disagreement between MacIntyre and Johnson. MacIntyre's theories of the relation between morality and tradition and rationality were quite unique when they arrived on the scene, and remain foundational for other philosophers who seek to advocate the same ideas in some slightly different form. Much of his general approach will be apparent in the discussion of Johnson's philosophy later on, but even at the risk of overstating certain of his key principles, I would now like to provide a comprehensive overview of MacIntyre's thought and method. His concern in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? deals mostly with the issue of whose account of rationality and justice (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hume) is superior while taking into consideration the conception of traditions in which the specific philosophies develop. The ideas in this book are just as valuable to us when we are dealing with two rival personal or cultural traditions, as MacIntyre offers many ways in which rivals can interact and even prove superiority. His earlier book After Virtue concerns itself even more with the issue of narrative and its place in moral thought by focusing specifically on the nature of virtue in different moral traditions. By combining the theories set forth in these two books, we will gain a clear understanding of MacIntyre's though as it applies to this project, and we will see his ideas echoed later when we explore Johnson.