Ethics and traditions: Fromm and MacIntyre (Days 5-15 of Learning road trip)

While on the road, discussions ranged widely between me and my co-driver,  Raúl García Barrios, a resource economist, environmental activist, and public intellectual from Cuernavaca, México.  One strand was philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory of incommensurable moral traditions: the encyclopedic (enlightenment, rationalist), the genealogical (or deconstructive), and the Thomistic (or neo-Aristotelian).  There is no “formal and definitive argument that will settle moral disputes… by power of a calculative reason alone and without use of teleology” (i.e., a goal or purpose to the attainment of which our actions are directed).  MacIntyre favors a return to the Aristotelian tradition with a teleological account of good and moral persons.

MacIntyre holds that everyone comes from a tradition, whether wittingly or not, and one’s tradition is defined in relation to a community engaged in practice.  I wondered what tradition I practice in, but as I learned a little more about MacIntyre’s views, I saw myself moving across traditions.  In any case, the practice-emphasizing part of me doesn’t get too worried by philosophers not settling moral disputes by slam-dunk philosophical arguments.  In my view, action may be rationalized by, but does not get determined by, philosophies or moral accounts.

This line of conversation did, however, highlight the tension between my emphasis on cultivating collaborators (as if anyone could become better at collaborating with people different from them) and institutional change guided by traditions (and subject to strategic negotiation or bargaining among different parties with relatively fixed positions [at least for the timespan of the interaction]).  How do I think about institutional change from the perspective that actions are constructed from heterogeneous resources?  (The need to think more about this has a parallel in the next few days of the road trip highlighting my need to pay more attention to studies of infrastructural change; see here and here.)

Raúl’s thinking about strategic interactions draws somewhat from Fromm, who has 4 personality types: hoarding (keep what they have); Exploiting (take what they need); Marketing (promotion, image); Receptive (goods & satisfactions come from outside themselves).  (These seem to map onto Mary Douglas’s grid-group categories, which have been invoked in environmental analyses, except that I’m unsure which of Exploiting and Marketing correspond to High grid-High group and Low grid-Low group.)  Using, I diagnosed myself and found that I fit most strongly into a fifth category of Fromm, the Productive.  This category is Fromm’s ideal; the other 4 are problems or pathologies.  Yet I was medium to high in Hoarding as well.  (A popularization of this classification scheme in organizational theory is at  My usual take on these classifications is: a. where one fits depends somewhat on the context; b. we shouldn’t simply believe what people say, but rather look at how they act; c. what are the dynamics that funnel people into distinct categories—if we can change these, we don’t have to resign ourselves to interacting with people fixed into their quadrant of these classifications; and d. none of the preceding is surprising if it turns out people are a bit of each category (as I am with respect to Fromm’s personality types and as I think I am with respect to MacIntyre’s three traditions.)

(back to Start of road trip; forward to later on Day 15)


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