The individual, “characters” and social roles

Recently I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” On my other blog I have posted a range of quotes from that I found stimulating and provocative. One chapter, “Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context”, draws heavily on the work of Erving Goffman and also Philip Rieff’s work on therapeutic culture. In this chapter, which I found possibly the least convincing of the book (though perhaps for my own reason), MacIntyre discusses the notion of moral “characters” – the Therapist, the Rich Aesthete, the Manager. Most of his argument is around the Manager as character, in what is an assault on the idea of managerial culture and expertise.  Characters are not the same as social roles:

Characters specified thus must not be confused with social roles in general. For they are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which many other social roles do not. I choose the word ‘character’ for them precisely because of the way it links dramatic and moral associations. Many modern occupational roles – that of a dentist or a garbage collector, for example – are not characters in the way that a modern bureaucratic manager is.


For MacIntyre, the Therapist is one of those characters with dramatic and moral associations, although with a caveat you don’t always find in this kind of discourse:

It is of course important that in our culture the concept of the therapeutic has been given application far beyond the sphere of psychological medicine in which it obviously has its legitimate place… Philip Rieff has documented with devastating effect a number of the ways in which truth has been displaced as a value and replaced by psychological effectiveness.

This specific point is not one I am going to discuss at length now. The passage from MacIntyre I have found most helpful in this chapter – and one which perhaps offers a resolution of the somewhat uncomfortable air of “being a Character” is the following:

Contrast the quite different way in which a certain type of social role may embody beliefs so that the ideas, theories and doctrines expressed in and presupposed by the role may at least on some occasions be quite other than the ideas, theories and doctrines believed by the individual who inhabits the role. A Catholic priest in virtue of his role officiates at the mass, performs other rites and ceremonies and takes part in a variety of activities which embody or presuppose, implicitly or explictly, the beliefs of Catholic Christianity. Yet a particular ordained individual who does all these things may have lost his faith and his own beliefs may be quite other than and at variance with those expressed in the actions presented by his role. The same type of distinction between role and individual can be drawn in many other cases. [MacIntyre describes a trade union official who in his role acts in a way that “generally and characteristically presupposes that trade union goals … are legitimate goals” but who “may believe that trade unions are merely instruments for domesticating and corrupting the working class by diverting them from any interest in revolution.

As a psychiatrist, one is very often confronted with a certain response; in practice, in daily life, even in literature and the media. recently I read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence.

timetokeepsilenceIn it he suddenly imagines a discourse between “a psychiatrist” and the monks, in which the psychiatrist seems keen to dismiss their lives as an expression of various neuroses etc. I can’t imagine, as a psychiatrist, ever doing such a thing; partly Leigh Fermor is reflecting the norms of his time (the 1950s). I have found it helpful, since reading MacIntyre’s passage, to reflect on the distinction between myself as the individual people encounter, and the social role and character they expect to encounter.


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