Philosopher speaks on society and modern ethics

The Center for Ethics & Culture hosted their annual conference on campus from November 1 through 3, on the theme of “Higher Powers.” The theme, borrowed from a Solzhenitsyn quote, pointed to the question of “the proper relationship between God, the human person, and the state,” as the Center’s description noted.

This question is brought up, some might note, at a rather salient time. The political climate of the past few years has brought forth a bevy of doubts from notable thinkers about the future of modern politics. Notre Dame’s own Patrick Deneen (Editor’s Note: Deneen is a Rover faculty advisor) recently published a widely read book entitled Why Liberalism Failed which, in many ways, indicted the trajectory of modern western politics.

It is in light of this that one should take note of one of the talks delivered at the conference by Notre Dame professor emeritus (and CEC senior research fellow) Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre, now 89, who rose to special prominence with the publication of his own critique of modern morality, the celebrated After Virtue. MacIntyre’s talk, entitled “Absences from Aquinas, Silences in Ireland,” took on certain holes and issues faced by modern political societies from a Thomistic perspective.

MacIntyre began the lecture by noting: “What we can say, at any particular time and place, depends on what words we have in our vocabulary.” And, he noted, this is especially apparent in the inability of modern societies—the rapidly changing Ireland as an example—to understand and learn from the thought of ages past, like that of thinkers like Aquinas.

What are some important parts of Aquinas’ thought that we can learn from? MacIntyre emphasized that Aquinas’ understanding of the goals of society involves, crucially, ideas about the “common good,” which the society arrives at through “shared deliberation.” And when a society loses such a conception, in favor of more individualistic notions about the function of society, negative effects result.

MacIntyre noted certain bizarre attitudes that result from this lack of understanding of common goods, comparing them to someone who saves people from a shipwreck, and then walks away from them injured on the shore—a position that is “morally unintelligible.” And yet, in modern society, there are a number of debates which are exactly of this nature; isolating questions about life and death without discussing the common good, and leading to an impasse involving “rival and incompatible claims about rights” (the right to life, the right to free choice, and so on).

Thus, MacIntyre stated, we find ourselves in situations much like modern Ireland faces. Ireland’s shift towards increasingly liberal attitudes towards issues like same-sex marriage and abortion can be understood in terms of Ireland’s loss of a sense of its final end (evidenced by the “increasing secularization” present)—and the common goods necessary to that end. And so, MacIntyre said, “the Irish referendum becomes unsurprising.” (This especially in light of the “quite inadequate concern” displayed by the Church in Ireland in caring for the common good of children.)

In pointing out the areas in which “the Irish were unable to speak…namely, their own political and social common good,” the question was raised: “did Ireland have to develop as it did?” MacIntyre then brought up another Irish case of political turmoil. In 1951, Father James McDyer moved to a dying Irish community where most of the youth were moving to America—and in response, helped the community develop its infrastructure and “a will to act together as a community.” The community went on to flourish. The reversal towards fostering senses of the common good is possible—but it is also something which our societies severely lack today.  

James Rahner is a senior. You can contact him at