MacIntyre’s Dependent Narrative Animals: Accountable Narrativity and Addressing the Problem of Racism

[Note: I previously posted this to the private blog of my Theories of Social Justice seminar, so I’m re-posting here to connect the theories of Janet Helms and Alasdair MacIntyre.]

Alasdair MacIntyre’s work has argued that our narratives are dependent on those of significant others. In MacIntyre’s work After Virtue and his more recent Dependent Rational Animals, he has decried the insufficiencies of older models of moral frameworks and has instead called upon a return to Aristotelian virtues as a way of thinking about the good life. Yet MacIntyre does not pull virtues out of a magical hat; he situates them in communities of practice and in the narrative unity of a person’s life.  After presenting MacIntyre’s understanding of narrative and its characteristic dependence on others, I will point out implications for this concept in the pursuit of justice, particularly racial justice.

To clarify MacIntyre’s use of “narrative,” he introduces the term in order to describe a concept of selfhood: “a concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end” (After Virtue, 205).  Simply put, he uses “narrative” to describe a story that has a beginning, middle and end, particularly the story of each individual life that begins at birth and ends at death. MacIntyre is concerned to stress that individual lives each contain a telos which he believes is best conceived of in terms of narrative: a quest. Being able to see one’s life as a narrative unity, or as a quest for the good (however one’s understanding of “good” may change over time), is an indication that to some degree one’s life is virtuous (it at least can be described in terms of the virtue of integrity or constancy). Thus, the context for MacIntyre’s discussion of narrative is his concern for being able to see a whole human life in its entirety in order to assess one’s success or failure at living a virtuous life.

MacIntyre’s understanding of narrative is then employed to reflect on the context of the individual’s life, making two claims: narratives are embedded, and narratives are co-authored. In support of this first claim, MacIntyre asserts: “For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships” (Ibid, 221). MacIntyre thus relates the concept of “narrative” to include not just a personal life story of birth to death, but also the stories of other individuals whose lives are connected to and encompass the story of the first. For instance, the narrative of my life is embedded in the story of my mother and father’s narratives, and it encompasses the narrative of my children’s lives thus far. Typically, I begin my own life story with information about my family of origin: “I was born the fifth of six children…”  More broadly, the narrative of the life I lead as a citizen of the United States is embedded in the much larger history of this country, including the injustices it has enacted upon native and African peoples.

This claim of the embeddedness of all narratives is related to the second: our narratives are always co-authored. MacIntyre explains: “we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please” (Ibid, 213).  He later speaks of how “[e]ach of our dramas exerts constraints on each other’s” (Ibid, 214). To say that we are only ever co-authors of our own narratives is to affirm the limitations of our own perspectives of the narratives we see ourselves living. Again, my own life narrative is in some ways co-written by my parents, spouse, and children. My life narrative will be presented differently were it to be told from the perspective of these others. Similarly, the story of this country’s founding will be told differently depending on whether you are asking a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or a member of a Native American tribe living on a reservation, or an African American whose great-great-grandmother lived her life as a slave.

The concept of embedded and co-authored narratives is a critical component to MacIntyre’s argument regarding the virtues of acknowledged dependence, a theme he stresses in his later work Dependent Rational Animals. Acknowledging one’s dependence on others, both remembering one’s dependence as a child and anticipating the future possibilities of one’s dependence on others, is itself an exercise in reevaluating one’s narrative, seeing oneself not as a “self-made man,” but rather as a person living interdependently with others:  “The history of any self making this transition [beginning to stand back and evaluate one’s desires] is of course not only a history of that particular self, but also a history of those particular others whose presence or absence, intervention or lack of intervention, are of crucial importance in determining how far the transition is successfully completed” (Dependent Rational Animals, 73). MacIntyre stresses how the individual is dependent upon these others for the resources necessary to develop a critical sense of self, not only as one is a child, but as one continues to go through life on the “scale of disability on which we all find ourselves” (Ibid). We are all dependent on others, not only for physical sustenance, but also “to help us discover what new ways forward there may be” (Ibid). It is in this capacity to help us imagine new possible futures that others become crucial to our own personal narratives. Our story is embedded in the history of others’ stories, and it is with the help of these others that our story can expand to include the new possibilities and challenges presented by various forms of disability.

Echoing his insistence that our narratives are always only co-authored, MacIntyre writes of genuine self-knowledge as being possible only: “in consequence of those social relationships which on occasion provide badly needed correction for our own judgments. When adequate self-knowledge is achieved, it is always a shared achievement. And, because adequate self-knowledge is necessary, if I am to imagine realistically the alternative futures between which I must choose, the quality of my imagination also depends in part on the contributions of others” (Ibid, 95). Here we see MacIntyre connecting self-knowledge to the knowledge and perceptions of ourselves provided by others. While “narrative” is not mentioned explicitly here, we can appropriately infer the concept of narrative as it relates to MacIntyre’s concept of self in After Virtue, “a narrative that links birth to life to death.” Thus self-knowledge can be understood as knowledge of the self’s life story or narrative, connecting the narrative of the self to the necessary self-correction provided by others. In order for our self-knowledge to be genuine or even “adequate,” it must be shaped according to the appropriate critiques of those others who are in our lives—thus, our narratives must be “co-authored” if they are to be reliable and truthful. This connects his earlier writings about the co-authored nature of all narratives, with the prescriptive injunction that we come to acknowledge the co-authored nature of our narratives, and actively seek the input of others to help us correct our judgment of the narrative we want ourselves to be living.

From MacIntyre’s description of individual narratives as embedded in the narratives of others and co-authored by significant others, we find several points of contact with the discussion on justice, particularly as it relates to racial justice. My project more broadly is to help whites preach about racism within predominantly white congregations. Speaking about racism among whites today must involve an ethical appeal to consider the stories of persons of color, hearing how they daily experience subtle and overt forms of racism and how we often appear to them to be racist. In doing so, we are acknowledging the co-authored nature of our own story. Outside perceptions of us are not our whole story, but we would live our lives in delusion if we failed to consider their critiques. It is also in these conversations with people of color that we begin to see new possible futures, not presuming that we will have the solution to offer or that we can clearly see what the future ought to look like, but rather listening together with others for what a new, alternative sacred story might look like that includes the thriving of all. Thus, MacIntyre’s concept of embedded and co-authored narratives proves to be a helpful model for fostering greater awareness of persons privileged by unjust social systems, opening up possibilities for greater collaboration in our self-narrations and new ways forward in the story unfolding before us.

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