Summary: Dependent Rational Animals chapter 1, Vulnerability, dependence, animality

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues.

“It is most often to others that we owe our survival, let alone our flourishing.” McIntyre opens by drawing attention to human vulnerability to affliction, such as illness, and the corresponding dependence on others for protection and sustenance, especially in childhood and old age. These facts, MacIntyre argues, “are so evidently of singular importance that it might seem that no account of the human condition whose authors hoped to achieve credibility could avoid giving them a central place.” “The disabled” are not “a separate class”, but “ourselves as we have been, sometimes are now and may well be in the future.”

Thinkers throughout history, such as Adam Smith, have recognized affliction and vulnerability in “the perspectives of ill health and old age”, but “at once put them on one side” in their considerations on the human condition. The same occurs with dependence. “Dependence on others is… often recognized in a general way… [but] an acknowledgment of anything like the full extent of that dependence and of the ways in which it stems from our vulnerability and our afflictions is generally absent.” Feminist philosophers recently have helped to remedy this, but there is much work to be done.

MacIntyre argues that a question arises as to the difference made in moral philosophy if vulnerability, affliction, and dependence were treated as central to the human condition. As a starting point to answer this question, he suggests acknowledging “that the habits of mind that have been apt to obscure the significance of the facts of affliction and dependence for the moral philosopher are not only widely shared, but genuinely difficult to discard.” He will later argue that these habits are deeply embedded into the modern nation-state and the modern family.

MacIntyre considers a failure or refusal to adequately acknowledge the bodily aspects of human existence. This is “perhaps rooted in, is certainly reinforced by the extent to which we conceive of ourselves and imagine ourselves as other than animal.” Theories about what distinguishes human beings from other animals may seem to provide grounds for for believing that our thinking is independent of our animality. We forget that we are embodied beings and “how our thinking is the thinking of one species of animal.”

A central thesis of Dependent Rational Animals will be that the virtues needed to develop into independent rational agents and the virtues needed to confront and respond to vulnerability and dependence belong to the same set of virtues. He names this set the “distinctive virtues of dependent rational animals”, whose dependence rationality and animality have to be understood in relationship to each other.”

So MacIntyre begins with and from a reassertion of human animality. As Aristotle argues, rationality is an animal (as opposed to a human non-animal) property. Though commentators on Aristotle have ignored the question of how non-human phronesis is related to human rationality, we cannot do this. Our bodies are “animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies.”

Though he looks to Aristotle as a starting point, MacIntyre points out two Aristotelian barriers to acknowledging the facts of affliction and dependence. First, Aristotle’s ethics and politics have excluded the most obviously afflicted and dependent in their considerations, such as women, slaves, and servants. The second barrier is a conception of masculine virtue, which is unwilling to have others saddened by one’s grief and which dislikes the recognition of the need for aid from and consolation by others. These barriers anticipate many moral philosophers, including Smith, who adopt the standpoint and standards of the “self-sufficiently superior” self. Nonetheless, MacIntyre argues that Aristotle provides the best resources for identifying and correcting these and other barriers and errors.

Finally, MacIntyre lists three theses he will defend while “turning Aristotle against Aristotle, sometimes with the aid of Aquinas.” First, we must “comport ourselves towards the world in much the same was as other intelligent animals” and never entirely separate from what we share with them. Second, to help avoid obscuring some features of rational agency, the virtues of independent rational agency must be accompanied with the virtues of acknowledged dependence. Third, “neither the modern nation-state nor the modern family can supply the kind of political and social association that is needed” to sustain and transmit these virtues.


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