Storytelling and invidualism

I’ve long described myself as a classical liberal on this blog, and I’ve tried on occasion to define what that means — for example, with this doodle (above). Its point was to locate the unit of analysis of liberals in the individual, not in any groups that individuals might belong to. That’s always made intuitive sense to me, and it still does.

So consider that Premise 1.

I’ve also expressed my appreciation of storytelling here over the years, with what has (to my surprise) turned out to be the longest-running thread on this blog. My intuition tells me that humans make sense of the world and of themselves through stories, that we form identity from narratives.

So consider that Premise 2.

I was therefore delighted to be disturbed by a suggestion that Premise 1 and Premise 2 might actually contradict each other. (Perhaps that’s the definition of ‘intellectual’: somebody who delights in seeing his contradictions uncovered, espying an opportunity to learn.)

The suggestion struck me, roughly, between minutes 5 and 10 of the lecture below, by Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of philosophy. (I recommend the entire course, which covers some of my favourites, from Rawls to Aristotle and beyond, in a very entertaining way.)

In this segment, Sandel introduces the British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

  • MacIntyre also starts from the premise that identity (‘the self’) is a product of narrative (ie, my Premise 2).
  • But he then concludes that individualism (ie, my Premise 1) is impossible, because narrative necessarily leads to a communitarian identity.

Specifically, Randel quotes MacIntyre saying:

Man is … essentially a story-telling animal. That means I can only answer the question ‘what am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only qua individual. … We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, a citizen of this or that city. I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation.

Hence what is good for me has to be the good for someone who inhabits these roles. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is, in part, what gives my life its moral particularity.

So: anti-individualist (and thus implicityly anti-liberal) and pro-communitarian. Right? Liberalism says: I am free and thus I am responsible for myself, but I don’t answer for parent, country, tribe, or history. MacIntyre says that is self-deception:

The contrast with the narrative view of the self is clear. 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 is to deform my present relationships.

It’s made me think a lot. Watch the entire lecture. (But first, read this update regarding this post’s title.)