Understanding intelligible action is one of Alasdair MacIntyre’s areas of focus in After Virtue. He argues, for instance, that the intent to be gardening comes before the actions necessary to garden. You might fail to do anything intelligibly gardening related, but you can’t act without the intent of doing some particular intelligible action. This means that the narrative in which you are participating (or at least trying to participate) is more fundamental than the possibility of discrete or unconnected action. There may be a multitude of simultaneous narratives at play and you may appear to others to be doing something other than what you’re trying to do, but that does not mean that discrete action is at the ground level – some particular narrative is underneath all action.
I suspect there is an analogy to be made between discrete action vs intelligible action and the individual vs community. Postmodernity and much of modern ethics suggests that we are individual agents first and that we then have to make decisions of how to act – the results, responsibilities, and/or intentions of which will define whether we are seen as ‘ethical’ or not. The problem is that the individual is no more a meaningful concept than discrete action. To name any characteristic or meaning of an individual is to presuppose a community/narrative definition in which that individual either fits or does not fit. Denying community is ultimately denying the possibility of a coherent life. And an incoherent life has no purpose, no aim, no direction, no character.
The implication is that I can never define myself apart from the narrative language and categories of thought from communities into which I do and do not fit. From the moment we are born, who we are is defined more by the people in our lives than by whatever it is that makes us a distinct individual. Even in rejecting the influence of those in our lives, we can only do so because of the way in which their influence upon us has provided the space to develop categories of acceptance and rejection of the way they are. To claim that I am X, whether in agreement or distinction with those who have influenced my individuality, requires a conception of what “X” and therefore “not X” entails such that acceptance and rejection are possible choices to be made.
The ‘self made man’ is a recent falsity that obfuscates the extent to which an individual cannot have meaning or character apart from community. Thus, the modern notion of self denies our inherent need for a definable community to embrace or reject. The compartmentalization of life institutionalizes the fiction that there is a definable or meaningful self that exists apart from the life they live. To recognize that the self is first defined by community is to at least reject the notion that what is true for person A could possibly be true irrespective of the people in A’s life. Relativism can only be true to the extent that it is a rejection of the defined alternatives in one’s life – but there is no definition of alternatives or rejection that is not itself the acceptance or rejection of a communally defined position.
The fiction of an autonomous self is often viewed as the moral agent who must make choices about how to live. But if the narrative/communally defined self is more basic than the autonomous self, what most determines the “goodness” or “badness” of actions and character and identity is grounded in the most basic and fundamental narrative into which the agent is attempting to live. There is no objective and autonomous agent who can be defined as “good” or “bad” as such. To be a perfectly ethical person is to fully embody the virtues and never the vices of a given narrative – but there is no objective ground on which an observer might stand to determine whether or not that is the case and there is no way to separate overlapping narrative contexts of a life in such a way as to prevent an action that is virtuous in one context from having some characteristic of a vice in any of the overlapping contexts in which each person necessarily lives. Imperfect moral action is, therefore, not a possibility but the rule.
- Community is more basic than individuality to the same extent that intelligible action is more basic than action as such. Individuality per se is just as meaningless as action per se.
- Who we are is determined more by how we are formed than by how we affect the world, even if who we are is exactly equivalent to whatever it is that defines the difference between one person’s effects and another’s.
- Defining an ethical person is only possible to the extent to which we can define a coherent narrative context in which to locate that person’s thoughts, intents, and effects.
- Any narrative definition of a life will be marked by multiple incomplete and competing narratives, which means both that any narrative context can never be fully defined and that the moral implications of a person’s actions will never be limited to a single narrative context.