The therapist as moral mask
In starting from the premise that our theoretical and practical moral language is in ‘a state of grave disorder’, MacIntyre presupposes a culture of general decline (2). Ours’ is a culture, he claims, in which ‘[t]here seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement’; it is a specifically ’emotivist’ culture where ‘all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character’ (6; 11-12). Perhaps the most immediate difficulty with MacIntyre’s lexicon here is the possessive pronoun ‘ours” with its assumption of a shared experience of modernity – a formative problem to which we shall return. An emotivist culture houses the emotivist self, the moral agency of which is sovereign: ‘Anyone and everyone can thus be a moral agent, since it is in the self and not in social roles or practices that moral agency has to be located’ (32). Unequivocally, for MacIntyre, an emotivist culture marks a profound ‘degeneration and a grave cultural loss’; more specifically with respect to the concept of selfhood, it marks the loss of ‘traditional boundaries provided by a social identity and a view of human life as ordered to a given end’ (22; 34).
On the basis that ‘a moral philosophy […] characteristically presupposes a sociology’, MacIntyre depicts the ‘social content’ of emotivism in terms of its bureaucratic individualism, the vital consequence of which is ‘the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations’ (23). This same critical emphasis can be found in Lasch in the following terms:
In a society that has reduced reason to mere calculation, reason can impose no limits on the pursuit of pleasure – on the immediate gratification of every desire no matter how perverse, insane, criminal, or merely immoral. For the standards that would condemn crime or cruelty derive from religion, compassion, or the kind of reason that rejects purely instrumental applications; and none of these outmoded forms of thought or feeling has any logical place in a society based on commodity production. (1991 , 69)
The difficulty that presents itself, for MacIntyre as much as for Lasch and Sennett, is how to re-establish the grounds for non-calculative social relations.
In MacIntyre’s account the Rich Aesthete, the Bureaucratic Manager, and the Therapist are identified as the ‘stock characters’ that embody and legitimate the contemporary emotivist culture. The first does so through his patterns of consumption; as a consequence of wealth and leisure time, the aesthete faces the ‘problem’ of enjoyment and engages in relations with others as a means to the achievement of his own satisfaction. The latter two characters embody the emotivist doctrine in parallel ways: ‘The manager represents in his character the obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations; the therapist represents the same obliteration in the sphere of personal life’ (30). MacIntyre goes on to say that just as the manager is concerned with ‘technique’ in the public sphere, so the therapist is concerned with ‘technique’ in the private sphere; neither is capable of engaging in moral debate, and their social effectiveness is invariably tied to their status as ‘uncontested’ figures of authority.
MacIntyre binds his three characters to the prevalent ‘moral fictions’ of the age: the concept of rights which ‘was generated to serve [… ] the social invention of the autonomous moral agent’; the concept of utility; and the (managerial) concept of effectiveness or expertise (70). All three characters ‘cannot escape trading in [these] moral fictions’, but it is the therapist who is the most likely to be ‘deceived’ by them (73). In MacIntyre’s presentation, despite the notable lack of a distinction between self-interest and altruism (between manipulative and nonmanipulative relations), the emotivist social world is a split one. There is a ‘realm of the organisational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgement and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available’ (34). In the former ‘there are procedures for eliminating disagreement’; in the latter ‘the ultimacy of [moral] disagreement is dignified by the title "pluralism"’ (32). The therapist’s stance is particularly compromised because, more explicitly than the other two characters, he is said to traverse this bifurcation of social spheres – the organisational and the personal.
As a technical expert of the private sphere who shares the bureaucrat’s allegiance to the twin principles of value neutrality and manipulative persuasion, MacIntyre’s depiction of the therapist contrasts starkly with
Rieff’s early depiction of the Freudian analyst as someone who attends explicitly to the moral dimensions of mental life. Impotent on questions of morality, MacIntyre’s therapist presumably cannot support Rieff’s acknowledgement that psychoanalytic work concerns itself with ‘the health and sickness of the will, the emotions, the responsibilities of private living, [and] the coercions of culture’ (1965, 300). MacIntyre’s idea that the therapist is an ‘uncontested figure’ produced by and producing the ‘realm of fact, the realm of means, the realm of measurable effectiveness’ will remain open to challenge (30).