In his book, Dependent Rational Animals, philosopher Alasdair Macintyre coins the phrase “the virtues of acknowledged dependence.” A common theme running through the work is that moral virtue is inseparable from the social ties of mutual dependence and obligation in which humans necessarily find themselves. Contrary to the assumptions underlying liberalism, human beings are not meant primarily for independence (which is different from freedom). They are social and political animals, which means that they flourish in the context of society and its constitutive networks of relationships.
Nowhere is this more evident than the relation of a child to his parents. While family life by no means contains all the lessons of moral and social life, it certainly contains many lessons that may be extrapolated into the wider realm of human sociality, if society is to be healed of its many wounds. Consider the example of a child. When he is an infant, he is literally helpless. He cannot take care of himself. He can barely express anything but a constellation of intense needs and desires, which necessarily make great demands upon the attention, time, and energy of his parents. These basic needs are a part of his nature; they cannot be eradicated or ignored without detriment to his full development into a mature human being.
As the child develops, and becomes more capable of fulfilling his most basic material needs, he does not therefore become more independent in an absolute sense. On the contrary, his emotional and psychological needs only become more complex as he grows, so that even as he becomes more physically autonomous he also becomes more emotionally and psychologically dependent. At the same time, he becomes more capable of and responsive to love: he notices the love his parents show him, and he cannot help but show them his love in return. From physical dependence and through psychological dependence emerges the moral dependence of love.
As he approaches adulthood, his capacity for love — which coincides with the need for relationships — extends beyond the safe confines of the family and into the wider social world of spouse, extended family, friends, etc. Networks of relations are formed, in which the original instinct of dependency is fulfilled in a community, where all the needs of the members are met in varying degrees by the community itself. In these contexts, key virtues such as justice and friendship are acquired, practiced, and allowed to flourish. Dependence is essential to virtue.
This ethical vision differs markedly from the individualism which is often preached, with a variety of moralistic overtones, to the citizens of a liberal, capitalist, and meritocratic society such as our own. In America today, one is perceived as virtuous to the extent that one has achieved a measure of “success,” as narrowly defined by the competitive standards of the professional workplace. Individual achievement, which requires a measure of independence from external sources of assistance or encouragement, is thus the sole basis of virtue. Various moral ideologies and therapies are concocted to uphold and legitimize this individualistic system: the “Protestant work ethic” is the classic example of such an ideology, while a variety of ideologies of self-care and therapeutic sentimentalism serve as more contemporary examples.
Counterproductively, these ideologies serve to legitimize a social structure wherein the individual is expected to seek independence from the care of others, as precondition for the ultimate goal of professional success in a hyper-competitive and hyper-individualistic environment. In such an environment, even the psychological needs of individuals must be met by themselves. They are expected to be almost entirely self-motivated. The “Protestant work ethic” demands a noble self-motivation and virtuous sense of ambition from the individual. Psychotherapy, likewise, is not where the patient goes to receive encouragement from the therapist, but where he acquires the tools to provide himself with the self-motivation he needs in order to compete well.
“Whether we are rich or poor, successful or down on our luck, to insist that we do not need the assistance and support of others is arrogance, no matter how persistently we rationalize it by the moralistic logic of classical liberal individualism or the therapeutic logic of woke sentimentalism.”
At some level, these ideologies — or psychological dispositions — may appear to be well and good. There are real natural virtues associated with a good work ethic, healthy ambition, self-motivation, etc. But the flipside of these ideologies, inasmuch as they exalt independence as such to the level of a moral virtue, is an ethic that berates and punishes the needy for their neediness — an ethic that would condemn human dependency as such. To be dependent, and worse, to acknowledge one’s dependence is thus labeled as “entitled” and “victim-playing.” On such a view, acknowledging one’s dependence is a sign of moral weakness, a lack of industriousness, and a presumptuous demand upon the time and energy of others.
While the lineage of the Protestant work ethic is commonly attributed to Calvinism (e.g. Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), Americanist individualism is also (paradoxically) the heir of Pelagius, the 5th century Christian heretic who attributed all virtue to the effort of the independent individual, refusing to attribute virtue primarily to the gift of grace. Translated into the social sphere, a Pelagian moral ideology refuses to acknowledge the primary role of society itself as an element in the life of virtue. Such an ideology upholds a concept of virtue that is oblivious to the gifts of human society, without which the human being would not have his being and his well-being.
In Dependent Rational Animals, Macintyre argues that among the virtues of acknowledged dependence are those of giving and receiving. In particular, the virtues of receiving are those associated with dependency upon the gifts of others, e.g. the virtue of gratitude. Such virtues, remarks Macintyre, are “bound to be lacking in those whose forgetfulness of their dependence is expressed in an unwillingness to remember the benefits conferred by others.” Such people suffer from an “illusion of self-sufficiency,” an illusion sustained by exactly the individualistic ideology which American liberalism has inherited from Pelagianism.
It must be said bluntly: to pretend that we are absolutely independent and self-made, or that our virtue comes exclusively from being thus self-made — and to congratulate ourselves for this independence — is a kind of arrogance. Whether we are rich or poor, successful or down on our luck, to insist that we do not need the assistance and support of others, that we are good enough on our own, etc. — this is arrogance, no matter how persistently we rationalize it by the moralistic logic of classical liberal individualism or the therapeutic logic of woke sentimentalism. Indeed, these ideologies (or psychoses) only give cover to an arrogance that cannot bear to be indebted to someone else, whether God, neighbor, or society at large.
The truth is that we never really escape from the dependence into which we were born as helpless children; and our consciousness of this dependence is fundamental to maintaining virtuous relations with others. In the supernatural realm, this is undeniably the case with respect to God’s grace: our virtue, and our salvation, depend not on our individual initiative and responsible decisions, but on the gratuitous gift of God’s favor and our acceptance of it. But the natural realm is no different: there too we are dependent creatures. Our virtue comes from acknowledging our dependence on others, as well as the dependence of others on us. In Christian terms, this used to be called the virtue of humility. We have nothing that we have not received.