Friday, November 19, 2010

Aristotelian-Thomism in the Era of Globalization

"[Alasdair Chalmers] MacIntyre’s conversion to Catholicism in his fifties... occurred as a result of being convinced of Thomism while attempting to disabuse his students of its authenticity," writes John Cornwell of the man who "[b]lend[s] ideas from ancient Greece and medieval Christendom (with an admixture of Marxism)" — MacIntyre on money. Some excerpts:
    MacIntyre’s key moral and political idea is that to be human is to be an Aristotelian goal-driven, social animal. Being good, according to Aristotle, consists in a creature (whether plant, animal, or human) acting according to its nature—its telos, or purpose. The telos for human beings is to generate a communal life with others; and the good society is composed of many independent, self-reliant groups....

    Aquinas combined Aristotle’s account of a universe knowable through observation with Christian philosophy, arguing that such a world still required God’s existence as its sustaining creator. An Aristotelian-Thomistic view of society and the world, as set out in After Virtue, offered the best philosophical underpinning for human flourishing, and the only alternative to the fragmentation of modern moral philosophy.

    MacIntyre argues that those committed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of the common good must begin again. This involves “capturing the double aspect of the globalising economy and its financial sector, so that we understand it both as an engine of growth and as such a source of benefits, but equally as a perpetrator of great harms and continuing injustices.” Apologists for globalisation, he argues, treat it as a source of benefits, and only accidentally and incidentally a source of harms. Hence, the view that “to be for or against globalisation is in some ways like being for or against the weather.”

    MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt. The owners and managers of capital always want to keep wages and other costs as low as possible. “But, insofar as they succeed, they create a recurrent problem for themselves. For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high.” Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.

    This expansion of credit, he goes on, has been accompanied by a distribution of risk that exposed to ruin millions of people who were unaware of their exposure. So when capitalism once again overextended itself, massive credit was transformed into even more massive debt, “into loss of jobs and loss of wages, into bankruptcies of firms and foreclosures of homes, into one sort of ruin for Ireland, another for Iceland, and a third for California and Illinois.” Not only does capitalism impose the costs of growth or lack of it on those least able to bear them, but much of that debt is unjust. And the “engineers of this debt,” who had already benefited disproportionately, “have been allowed to exempt themselves from the consequences of their delinquent actions.” The imposition of unjust debt is a symptom of the “moral condition of the economic system of advanced modernity, and is in its most basic forms an expression of the vices of intemperateness, and injustice, and imprudence.”

    So what is his answer? His principles involve “issues of deserving,” “responsible risk-taking,” and “setting limits to the burdens of debt.” Deserving is an issue, he argues, when the consequences of debt are inflicted on those who played no part in incurring it, such as children. Those who expose others to risk in the financial markets must spell out in public and in advance the risks that they are distributing in intelligible terms. And when risk-taking goes wrong, the consequences for those who made the decisions must be made as bad as they are for their worst-off victims. Finally, he argues that limits should be set to the burdens imposed by debt on individual and family lives, so that they are not disproportionate—this may involve caps on interest rates, as in Germany, or even forgiving debt. Despite such principles, MacIntyre does not advocate bank nationalisation, preferring it seems a return to the paternalistic style of bank manager represented by Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army.

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