Voluntarism and Modernity

Liberal theory can be seen as the offshoot of Protestantism and the secularisation of protestant theology. I am finding more and more that MacIntyre’s critique of this is proving to be exceptionally valid, but seems to only be fully visible when approached from a position which is radically outside of the current acceptable discourse, this position being that society comes before the individual, and one which in effect aligns with the medieval theological position (and also the Aristotlean position) of the primacy of the Intellect over Will, in which goods, desires and wants are a result of the Intellect.

Here are some excerpts from an extremely useful essay on the issue in MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

After Virtue begins with ‘A Disquieting Suggestion’: “Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. (MacIntye 1985, 1)


This is an interesting story, it is fascinating to imagine what might pass for science in such a culture, but the real ‘Disquieting Suggestion’ itself soon follows: “The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived.


To find the catastrophe in the text, we must begin by returning to chapter one to find out what kind of thing we are looking for. Professor MacIntyre writes:

“We shall have to look not for a few brief striking events whose character is incontestably clear, but for a much longer, more complex and less easily identified process and one which by its very nature is open to rival interpretation.” (3)

The catastrophe is not any singular event; it is a series of events stretched out over several centuries; and it is not recorded as a catastrophe because it is not typically interpreted as such. In all likelihood it is familiar to us, but is ordinarily seen as a great achievement, or at least as a positive development. Where, then, do we see such a process described in After Virtue? There are four places where Professor MacIntyre indicates most clearly what he takes the catastrophe of the ‘Disquieting Suggestion’ to be. The first place is in chapter four. After describing the incoherence of moral language in our postcatastrophe culture of emotivism in chapters two and three, MacIntyre turns in chapter four to a discussion of the predecessor to the culture of emotivism, namely the culture of the enlightenment. But here MacIntyre begins by drawing a very peculiar picture of the enlightenment. It is not the French enlightenment of Rousseau and Voltaire, but a specifically Anglo-Scottish-German enlightenment of Hume, Smith, and Kant; and MacIntyre gives very specific reasons for drawing this peculiar picture:

“What the French lacked was threefold: a secularized Protestant background, an educated class which linked the servants of government, the clergy, and the lay thinkers in a single reading public, and a newly alive type of university exemplified in Königsburg in the east and in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the west. [. . . ] Hence what we are dealing with is a culture that is primarily Northern European. Spaniards, Italians, and the Gaelic and Slavonicspeaking peoples do not belong to it.” (37)

In short, what gives birth to the culture of emotivism in After Virtue is the enlightenment as it played out in the Protestant countries of northern Europe. This might be taken—mistakenly—to identify the catastrophe with the Protestant Reformation, but it certainly does indicate that the Protestant Reformation is an episode in the process that constitutes the catastrophe. MacIntyre clarifies the identity of the catastrophe in a second place, in chapter five:

“Suppose that the arguments of Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, Hume, Smith and the like fail because of certain shared characteristics deriving from their highly specific shared historical background. [. . . ] Whence did they inherit these shared beliefs? Obviously from their shared Christian past compared with which the divergences between Kant’s and Kierkegaard’s Lutheran, Hume’s Presbyterian, and Diderot’s Jansenist-influenced Catholic background are relatively unimportant.” (51)

The focus here is on the peculiarities of the theologies of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen; all three were theological voluntarists, that is, all three posited the divine will as the primary principle of existence. Where Thomas Aquinas, in his synthesis of Christian Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian hylomorphism, always maintained the priority of the intellect in creation,1 theological voluntarists asserted the priority of the divine will, and this had far reaching consequences for philosophy and theology. So after summarizing some points of agreement among medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers who shared an Aristotelian view of nature and reason MacIntyre writes:

“This large area of agreement does not however survive when Protestantism and Jansenist Catholicism—and their immediate late medieval predecessors—appear on the scene. For they embody a new conception of reason.” (53)

MacIntyre’s catastrophe is not the Protestant Reformation, nor is it Protestantism combined with Jansenism, rather it is the whole process of that turn from natural teleology to theological voluntarism and nominalism—the foundation of which is typically attributed to William of Ockham—that lead to the voluntarist theologies of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen.

Of course, from this secularised voluntarism we get Smith, Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, materialism, spontaneous order from the ground up, republicanism in which laws rule, the entire world as being a meeting places of wills that are merely capable of negotiation, determinism of all stripes, scientism galore.

The loading of voluntarism onto everything is seeming to me to be more and more the very definition of Conquest 2nd law.  It works like this – any organisation directed toward virtue – definable roughly as the pursuit of excellence in a given endeavour qua the greater good of an order (thereby the pursuit of internal excellence), is miss-directed by the inclusion of advocates of the goods of effective co-operation, which is premised on voluntarism. The goods of co-operation being definable as the effective co-operation of the organisation with the greater order in pursuit of external rewards. A superb example is provided by the Catholic Church’s current corruption – it no longer pursues the internal goods provide by pursuing excellence in being good Catholics, but instead pursues the external goods of co-operation – “relevance”, “acceptance”, “inclusion” with the International Community”, not being attacked and vilified by the liberal media. This is how liberal/ voluntarism corruption works. Once you start dancing like a cheap whore to the external rewards provided by Havard, you are owned for good.

The really interesting aspect of this corruption is that the advocates of voluntarism act with complete lack of understanding of what they are doing. We see it as the progressive assumption that everything rightly understood is progressivism. The concept of virtue is completely invisible to voluntarism advocates as they perceive all good as a matter of formulating the correct rules and regulations. The world of virtue just doesn’t compute at all – nothing matters until it hits the law courts and becomes subject to a law.