Feb 232009

Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book, Dependent Rational Animals, offers us a picture of the human situation as fundamentally dependent and derives from this a corresponding picture of the relationship between rationality and various virtues. In the last chapter he concludes that “we are able to become and to continue as practical reasoners only in and through our relationships to others,” and hence that, “rational enquiry is essentially social.” It is “not something that I undertake by attempting to separate myself from the whole set of my beliefs, relationships, and commitments and to view them from some external standpoint. It is something that we undertake from within our shared mode of practice” (MacIntyre 1999 156-157). While I ultimately share these conclusions, it is valuable to consider how some of MacIntyre’s specific arguments and discussions undermine this general insight. At various points he himself falls prey to what he calls “illusions of self-sufficiency” by supposing that critique requires transcendence, that accountable practical reasoners must be independent practical reasoners, and that speaking with “my own voice” must replace “my originally infantile desire to please others.” I will suggest that these assumptions are residues of a Kantian picture of reason and morality which are inappropriate to the essentially social nature of being dependent rational animals.

MacIntyre begins his sketch of our situation as dependent rational animals by pointing out that early modern thinkers distorted our situation by contrasting being human with being an animal, instead of emphasizing how humans are included in the class of animals. Aristotle’s “rational animal” became the essentially bodiless “thinking thing” of Descartes. Even after Darwinian evolutionary naturalism firmly placed human beings in continuity with other animals, contemporary thinkers are prone to seek for an essential human characteristic—“the capacity for having thoughts, or beliefs, or the ability to act for reasons, or the power to frame and use concepts” (MacIntyre 1999 12)—which is denied to all nonhuman animals. When this self-congratulatory distinction is made, MacIntyre argues, random examples of nonhuman animals are considered from bees and worms to cats and dogs, without any further consideration how intelligent mammals have a lot more in common with humans than they do with reptiles and worms. The crudeness of the resulting dualism between humans and animals tends to obscure the extent and importance of the continuities between them. MacIntyre seeks to correct this distortion by showing the analogies between certain activities and capacities of dolphins, chimps and dogs and the activities and capacities of humans. This is not merely a matter of doing justice to animals, but to ourselves. We need to see how our own cherished rational capacities rest on and emerge out of more basic capacities of our animal nature.

For example, he argues at some length, against Norman Malcolm, Donald Davidson and Stephen Stich, that it is perfectly reasonable to attribute beliefs to these animals as they clearly exhibit intentions in their actions and modify their beliefs in light of their perceptions, just as we do. In MacIntyre’s words, we too express our beliefs “in the multifarious ways in which we move unreflectively and prereflectively through the natural and social world, comporting our bodies, … and giving expression in that comportment to a range of beliefs deriving from our perceptions” (MacIntyre 1999 40). In many ways, our right to attribute beliefs to animals is no more problematic than our right to attribute beliefs to other human beings. When threatened by a big dog, we do not doubt its intentions.

MacIntyre also rejects Anthony Kenny’s claim that nonhuman animals cannot have reasons for their actions. Many intelligent animals seek out means to certain ends, food, shelter etc., and these ends are the goods by reference to which they act as they do. They may indeed lack the capacity to articulate these reasons in language and to reflect on them, but if we deny that they have reasons we thereby also deny the preconditions of rationality in our own case: “it is because we do have reasons for action prior to any reflection, the kinds of reason that we share with dolphins and chimpanzees, that we have an initial matter for reflection, a starting point for that transition to rationality which a mastery of the complexities of language use can provide” (MacIntyre 1999 56).

Similarly MacIntyre questions John McDowell’s claim that “Human beings are born mere animals, and they are transformed into thinkers and intentional agents in the course of coming to maturity” (MacIntyre 1999 60; McDowell 1994 125). The problem here is that the “mere animal” beginning is contrasted to adult human thinkers in a way which ultimately makes the transition incomprehensible. McDowell claims that “In mere animals, sentience is in the service of a mode of life that is structured exclusively by immediate biological imperatives” and that “merely animal life is shaped by goals whose control of the animals behavior at a given moment is an immediate outcome of biological forces” (MacIntyre 1999 60; McDowell 1994 115). MacIntyre responds:

it is only because some of what McDowell calls “mere animals” are already guided by a kind of practical reasoning that is exhibited in their taking this to be a reason for that, one that is to be characterized by analogy with human understanding, that some of the prelinguistic conditions necessary for the development of human rationality—conditions satisfied by members of some nonhuman species as well as by human beings—are satisfied. Dolphins, gorillas, and members of some other species are not merely more responsive to the inputs of their senses than we are (MacIntyre 1999 60).

Since these animals pursue ends, their behavior is not merely a deterministic “outcome of biological forces” but may involve judgment and innovative adaptation.

Each kind of animal, MacIntyre suggests, pursues goods which when achieved represent the flourishing of the animal. This flourishing can be thwarted in various ways. Humans, like dolphins, are vulnerable to injury, disability and death. MacIntyre uses this vulnerability to establish the need for virtues which regulate our interdependence. MacIntyre explains,

If I am to flourish to the full extent that is possible for a human being, then my whole life has to be of a certain kind, one in which I not only engage in and achieve some measure of success in the activities of an independent reasoner, but also receive and have a reasonable expectation of receiving the attentive care needed when I am very young, old and ill, or injured. (MacIntyre 1999 108)

The virtues of just generosity and misericordia (pity without condescension) provide the unconditional grounds for establishing the basic relationships of giving and receiving and extending them beyond the family. Generosity by itself, MacIntyre suggests, might be best understood by the Lakota expression “wancantognaka,” which refers to “the virtue of individuals who recognize responsibilities to immediate family, extended family, and tribe and who express that recognition by their participation in ceremonial acts of uncalculated giving, ceremonies of thanksgiving, of remembrance, and of the conferring of honor” (MacIntyre 1999 120). These familial and communial responsibilities are not merely executed out of a Kantian sense of duty but out of a genuine Humean sentiment of “affectionate regard” (MacIntyre 1999 122). And misericordia involves “grief or sorrow over someone else’s distress” and extends these senti­ments to strangers we encounter who have “urgent and extreme need” (MacIntyre 1999 124-125).

Given the central role these virtues of acknowledged dependence play in achieving the flourishing of vulnerable human animals, MacIntyre argues that it is wrong to see the individual’s good as conflicting with the communal good:

Adam Smith’s contrast between self-interested market behavior on the one hand and altruistic, benevolent behavior on the other, obscures from view just those types of activity in which the goods to be achieved are neither mine-rather-than-others’ nor others’-rather-than-mine, but instead are goods that can only be mine insofar as they are also those of others, that are genuinely common goods, as the goods of networks of giving and receiving are (MacIntyre 1999 119).

Indeed it is such networks which make market relationships possible: “Market relationships can only be sustained by being embedded in certain types of local nonmarket relationship, relationships of uncalculated giving and receiving,” like those informed by just generosity and misericordia (MacIntyre 1999 117).

The central, and ultimately misguided, element in MacIntyre’s account of human flourishing is our need to transcend our infantile desires to please others and to become independent rational reasoners. He writes: “One early cause of inadequacy as a practical reasoner is a failure to separate ourselves adequately from our desires, so as to be able, when necessary, to pass judgment on those desires from an external point of view” (MacIntyre 1999 83). Yet this external point of view needs to be more than an echo of the voices of others. He explains: “my originally infantile desire to please others may result in my becoming someone whose opinions are indefinitely responsive to a pressure to conform to the opinions of certain types of other” (MacIntyre 1999 147). Thus we need to develop our own voice, a voice which is distinct from both our own desires and the opinions of others. In short, MacIntyre argues, we need to move from a state of dependence to one of independence:

The very young child from the moment of birth and indeed even before that is engaged in and defined by a set of social relationships which are not at all of her or his own making. The passage that the child has to make is to a condition in which her or his social relationships are those of one independent practical reasoner to other independent practical reasoners (MacIntyre 1999 74).

This is reminiscent of how Kantian children need to develop from empirically determined phenomenal beings into autonomous adult members of the kingdom of ends. Only through becoming independent reasoners, MacIntyre suggests, can we become capable of weighing reasons regarding goods, and of participating in rational public debate about them, instead of merely being partisans driven by arbitrary opinions and desires.

I will now argue that with this account of the “independent reasoner” MacIntyre goes astray and returns to a Kantian picture of rationality and morality which his earlier arguments explicitly sought to dismantle. Consider, for example, how MacIntyre implies a dualism, between those who are merely dependent and passive products of their environment and those who are independent and creative agents, when he claims that “Independent practical reasoners contribute to the formation and sustaining of their social relationships, as infants do not.” This is both profoundly wrong and inconsistent with his earlier critique of animal-human dichotomies. Dependent as they are, infants contribute mightily to the formation, sustaining and shaping of their social relationships, and they are able to do this by virtue of their dependence and not their independence.

If we assume that parents are autonomous individuals and that it is their independence that enables them to be responsible for forming and sustaining relationships to children, then we must either attribute an implausible degree of altruism to parents or an equally implausible utilitarian calculus of how the lost sleep and the crippled careers are in their interest. Rather, the identities of children and parents are intertwined, and each sees his or her own self expressed in the other. The baby cries and the parent jumps. The child errs and the parent cringes. The process of becoming practical reasoners would be more plausible if we recognized, on one hand, that a very young child, and even an infant, is always already engaged in forming and defining social relationships, and on the other hand, that the height of human flourishing is to become a dependent rational animal, or rather, since a child is already a dependent rational animal, to become a better one.

It is misleading here to suppose that becoming better practical reasoners is a matter of pursuing goods instead of being ruled by desires. Granted, a child needs to learn to desire higher goods over lesser goods, but this process presupposes that the lesser goods are truly goods and not merely egotistical and arbitrary desires and that the higher goods should likewise become objects of desire and not merely dispassionate duties. While MacIntyre acknowledges that “The notion of acting without desire is itself a phantasy and a dangerous one,” he seems to suppose that the infant begins with mere desires and then later “becomes open to considerations regarding its good” (MacIntyre 1999 70), whereas in keeping with his earlier arguments against Kenny and McDowell, he ought to point out how the desires are always aiming at goods, like warm milk and being held securely against a warm breast. If these were not already goods, if the infant started with mere desires which were morally indifferent, as McDowell spoke of “mere animals,” the transition to being open to considerations regarding its good would be incomprehensible.

MacIntyre sometimes trivializes his most fundamental insight by focusing on the dependence of marginalized individuals and groups–children, the ill, the elderly and the disabled–instead of emphasizing how various forms of dependence lie at the very heart of the capacity for rational deliberation exhibited by the healthy mature adult. It is not merely that we achieve some degree of rational capacity despite our dependence, and this only by transcending this dependence to some extent and becoming autonomous individuals, but that we achieve our rational capacity through our dependence and through increasing the breadth, depth and sophistication of this dependence. As humans undergo socialization and broaden their horizons, their intersubjectivity and interdependence become more profound, both as a precondition for this increased understanding and as a consequence of it. A baby’s physical dependence on adults is trivial compared to our later cognitive dependence on socially constituted meanings, values and norms of judgment.

Dropping the illusory presumption of independence is consistent with MacIntyre’s conclusions that “rational enquiry is essentially social” and involves moral virtues (MacIntyre 1999 156), and it would also put him in notable company. Charles Sanders Peirce argues that a purely egotistical individual could not act rationally on behalf of his or her own personal interest, but that rational deliberation requires being part of a community of inquirers and taking an interest in the good of this community over the long run. A purely egotistical individual, Peirce concludes, could not help but be irrational in all his inferences (Peirce 1878 684-86).


Kenny, A. 1993 Aquinas on Mind, London: Routledge.

MacIntyre, A. 1999 Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (The Paul Carus Lecture Series 20), Chicago: Open Court.

McDowell, J. 1994 Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Peirce, C. S. 1878 “The Doctrine of Chances”, Popular Science Monthly, 2, 647-58.

  One Response to “On Behalf of Dependent
Rational Animals”

  1. Hi there Phil.

    Thank you so much for this article (On behalf of Dependent Rational Animals)! I am at a brand communications school called Vega in Cape Town and I am busy writing an essay on Primate Control regarding the baboons that invade our towns and city. I would like to reference your article and was wondering whether it would be possible if you could give me your full name for my reference list?

    Thank you,


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