When referring to human beings as “dependent rational animals,” the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre highlighted aspects of our existence that often stand in tension to one another.
To be rational, we often believe, means to be independent, to have the capacity to stand on our own two feet, make our own decisions, and determine our own fate. Reason, early modern thinkers believed, if freed from artificial constraints, could control and dominate the world, bring it all to heel in “relief of man’s estate.”
But we are also animals, red in tooth and claw. We live in and partake of a natural order that is tempestuous and predatory. Our vulnerability rubs up against our rational convictions that we can control things, and creates a friction that wears down our illusions.
Whether it be wildfires in California or hurricanes in Texas, even if we are not in the disaster’s path we sense our shared vulnerability. Likewise, when we reflect on mass shootings such as the one in Las Vegas or the systematic sexual predations of priests or Hollywood moguls, we realize that often the greatest threat to our well-being is our fellow dependent rational animals.
We have, none of us, willed ourselves into the world or into this particular time and place. But we sense our weakness and have the capacity to empathize with that of others as well. It is not just the case that when others suffer we are brought face to face with our own vulnerability. Rather, we empathize, and want to help those who, through no fault of their own, are now suffering.
While grounded in the contingency of our lives, these impulses are a moment of transcendence wherein the law of love moves us beyond nature’s violence or our own sense of self-sufficiency.
In other words, our dependency on each other makes us capable of moral action.
We can express our moral impulses in many ways after the fact. We can volunteer time or money to be alongside those who have suffered. We can advocate for sound policies that bring aid to persons who through no fault of their own are suffering bad fortune.
But we can also act preemptively.
We can make policies that help guard against contingency, or live prudently and temperately as a way of storing up against emergencies.
The reason why MacIntyre’s emphasis on “dependency” is so important, however, is precisely because it nods in the direction of relationships which are caring and protective in nature. We save a special kind of reproach for those who abuse their authority, when it's precisely the person who ought to have cared for the well-being of someone in their charge who exploited that vulnerability for their own purposes.
Gwyneth Paltrow, in her interview with the New York Times, mentions that she told her then-boyfriend Brad Pitt about Harvey Weinstein’s behavior. Pitt then confronted Weinstein and threatened him if he ever tried it again. We take Pitt’s behavior here to be noble and honorable because it is caring. If Pitt didn't have the clout of a Harvey Weinstein, his fists seemed a good compensation. The women who most effectively navigated the waters Weinstein predated are ones who could count on someone or something (such as their reputation) to protect them.
My point is a fairly simple one: human beings are vulnerable creatures who don't like to face or admit it.
Because of that, we often are in reactive mode rather than preparatory. The nature of our dependency on each other stipulates that there should be protective structures in place and prepared to be efficacious, so long as we sustain their authority and exercise it properly.
The first duty of a good society, therefore, is to strengthen the modes of authority that attend to persons in their contingency and particularity. Harvey Weinstein may have given money to all the “right” causes, but it was the threat of Brad Pitt’s fists that did good.