Some friends were recently telling me of a conversation they had with a family they were staying with over the holidays. They were expressing their disgust at the recent reported behavior of a global supermarket chain re-labelling the products of another supermarket chain and passing them off as their own. While most of the family seemed disinterested or not surprised, the teenage son’s immediate reaction was to suggest that they were dumb, not because of what they did, but because they got caught.

We were discussing this story the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States and so we could not help but relate the two events, particularly after Trump’s Press Secretary got up in front of the world’s media and declared with a straight face that Trump’s inauguration was the biggest in history, period. It seems that in this so-called post-truth reality we now inhabit, it is acceptable to lie, cheat or steal, so long as you are arrogant enough or smart enough, or perhaps delusional enough, to get away with it.

There’s nothing new about human beings lying, cheating and stealing, of course. But if the new norm is to cynically accept such behavior, or openly reward and encourage it, then we are clearly in an historical phase of decadence and moral crisis—one, however, that was generated long before supermarkets and Trump emerged.

In 1981, moral philosopher, Alisdair MacIntyre, published his prophetic book, After Virtue. In it, MacIntyre argued that we were in the midst of a crisis of ethics. This crisis was generated by 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment thinkers as a consequence of rejecting the moral teachings of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and abandoning the idea of telos. Telos can be roughly translated as “goal” or “end.” In moral terms, it is the idea that there is an ideal of an ethical life that human beings should strive to realize. MacIntyre also argued that like the Greeks, such ethical development could not be achieved in isolation but only within an ethical community, one that could nurture and recognize such development.

It was from the Enlightenment and, with it, the scientific revolution, that the universe came to be seen as meaningless and purposeless—and so did life. Rene Descartes was driven to wipe philosophy clean of the Aristotelian tradition that was the foundation of his education and replace it with a purely mathematical, mechanical approach, and he was largely successful. Science ever since has rejected teleology, focusing instead on reducing meaning and complexity in the universe to a form that can be simply measured.

The rise of individualism generated by printed books, the privatizing of faith by the Protestant Reformation, and the subjective turn inward by philosophers such as Descartes and later, Immanuel Kant, saw morality reduced to individual psychology. Ethics became less about developing people capable of fulfilling their roles excellently in a community for the common good and more about calculating what is in an individual’s immediate self-interest—in utilitarian terms, the momentary gaining of pleasure and avoidance of pain.

For MacIntyre, this severing of morality from telos and community meant that there was no longer any rational basis for ethical behavior. Ethics is fundamentally about how we work out ways of best getting along with each other in groups. A world of individual pleasure seekers has no need for ethics; it is a recipe for chaos.

As MacIntyre argued in his Short History of Ethics, this becomes even more irrational when a world of individual egocentric snowflakes butts up against utilitarian bureaucracies which treat us all as bits of data to be manipulated. The result is a world in which rather than being mature citizens exercising self-restraint to mutually augment the conditions for life in our communities, including our institutions, we are egoistic individuals always mistrusting and at war with our institutions and each other; a war of all against all as Thomas Hobbes conceived reality. A Machiavellian world where lies and manipulation and being smart enough to get away with it, makes perfect sense.

MacIntyre emphasized the importance of stories for ethics. Your own story of moral development can only make sense within the larger stories you find yourself situated within. That is why any study of ethics or process of moral self-examination must be historical: a look back at the stories which formed your and your community’s character. If we are continually focused on the now, as theories of ethics such as Utilitarianism encourage us to do, we lose the plot and become, as MacIntyre characterized it, “unscripted, anxious stutterers.” This leaves us vulnerable to the smooth but often empty rhetoric of those who appear to have a coherent story to tell.

MacIntyre, of course, has his critics. They believe that he romanticizes Ancient Greek culture or, from a postmodern perspective, that there is no crisis of ethics and has never been one.  They argue that history has no such large, distinguishable patterns. But the range and scope of the ethical messes humanity is now creating, including the election of Trump, tell me that MacIntyre is on to something. The young boy who believes that it is cooler to get away with lies than to not lie at all is a product of the defective, egocentric thinking that is particularly common to our time. Trump has become a role model for such thinking.

MacIntyre suggests that we embrace Ancient Greek virtue ethics and I think he is right. This requires that our young people develop ethically through mimicking those in our communities who exhibit the most virtuous behavior, those who are acting in the interests of the common good. While Obama may not have always been virtuous getting to the White House, he developed into a relatively mature, virtuous character and positive role-model once there. But the poisonous nature of our crisis of ethics saw him written off as a soft, left-leaning idealist, not someone who is suited to the real, hard world of liars, cheaters, and manipulators. For that, the thinking goes, we need a businessman.

The focus of the work of the great German philosopher, Georg Hegel, however, shows the difficulty of reverting to what was a slave-based and patriarchal Ancient Greek communal life. Hegel wondered why Modern Germans were not like Ancient Greeks. He concluded that it was because Modern Germans had gone through the Reformation and so were more focused on their individuality, which they had struggled to have recognized. This individualism therefore needs to be recognized and taken in to account when developing a virtue ethics for the 21st century. It is this challenge which has been taken up by process philosopher, Arran Gare, in his recent book, The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future, in which he takes an ecological approach to re-connecting individuals to nature, including each other.

The longterm future is not a 70-year-old Trump, but the young teenage boy. The boy is still early in his development towards transcending egocentricity, so we can cut him some slack. But Trump represents a Peter Pan generation whose ethical development has been retarded. The adults of our world need to quickly grow up and re-examine the philosophical basis of our current crisis of ethics. We must seriously discuss what the goal of life is and learn to become virtuous in order to set better examples to such boys. As Immanuel Kant also argued, actions like lying, cheating, and getting away with it—while convenient at times—are not the right foundation for a healthy community.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

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Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.

  • I’ll share what Descartes actually determined and put to print: I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.
    The post-modern difficulty is with losing any concept of “therefore I think”, as everything has become about feeling. The Modernist had mistaken “I doubt” to mean ultimately there is no absolute Truth. IMO.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking article.