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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981)

af Alasdair MacIntyre

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Highly controversial when it was first published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has since established itself as a landmark work in contemporary moral philosophy. In this book, MacIntyre sought to address a crisis in moral language that he traced back to a European Enlightenment that had made the formulation of moral principles increasingly difficult. In the search for a way out of this impasse, MacIntyre returns to an earlier strand of ethical thinking, that of Aristotle, who emphasised the importance of 'virtue' to the ethical life. More than thirty years after its original publication, After Virtue remains a work that is impossible to ignore for anyone interested in our understanding of ethics and morality today.… (mere)
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  atman2019 | Dec 11, 2019 |
I'm not sure I entirely agree with MacIntyre's thesis that we have necessarily descended into a subjective, emotivist morality due to our loss of a sense of duty to a larger, communal whole, but its interesting to contemplate in light of other non-philosophical works like "Bowling Alone" documenting a similar decline in civic engagement. I wouldn't say this was a light read but it was accessible to me as a lay reader with basic familiarity with Western philosophy (although I'm sure more familiarity with the other philosophers mentioned would have enriched my experience considerably). ( )
  Jthierer | Oct 7, 2019 |
An exploration of moral philosophy in the Western tradition.

The author's main premise, if I have understood it properly, is to commend the Aristotelian tradition and many aspects of its framework in order to have a coherent, rational discussion of virtue and morality, declaring all modern attempts to formulate a rational secular basis for morality and virtue to have failed.

The author begins with this failure, and here he is at his best, demonstrating the reduction of morality/virtue into a sort of emotivism: what is right is right because it feels right. He traces this from Kant and Hume and Kierkegaard to utilitarianism and Marxism, pointing out the flaws in each argument, and demonstrating that the project is all doomed to failure because of emphasis on the individual and the denial of any sort of telos in moral discussion, leading to a default Stoicism. He also does well at critiquing the elevation of law as enforcing virtue or defining virtue and the problems manifest in such a shift.

To the author modern moral discourse is a hodgepodge of various artifacts from previous ages which cannot be coherently molded together; he credits Nietzsche for identifying the failures of Enlightenment moralism but shows how his project suffers from the same individualistic failings.

The author explores how virtue has been understood in the Western tradition; I found his point regarding how the Greeks attempted to reconcile their understanding of the heroes and virtue outside of the heroic age to be compelling, and appreciated his exploration into the difficulties of both Plato and Aristotle in not imagining how there could be a contrast in rival goods, something acutely understood by Sophocles and the tragedians. He explores the variations in what is seen as the virtues throughout time but attempts to show how there is a coherent framework which is bequeathed by Aristotle and improved upon by the New Testament, Aquinas, and others.

His goal is not to commend any given tradition, instead suggesting that each conception of the virtues and morality tends to reflect the context in which they develop or are maintained. Instead, he seeks to find a tradition which has the tools available to reckon with other conceptions of virtue and morality and can incorporate what is good and commendable and thus proves adaptable, and he finds this in Aristotle's framework above all others.

His critique of how justice is understood is insightful, explaining well how different groups of people can focus on certain elements of what seems just while neglecting others, and thus finding it difficult to communicate effectively in an individualist, emotivist age.

In the postscript the author engages with some of his early critics and proves willing to learn from the critique and express how the work is not complete but an invitation to further exploration of the theme.

I am somewhat familiar with ancient philosophy but only have a surface level understanding regarding many of the modern philosophers described. I am strongly tempted to agree with the author and desire a more pre-modern framework but cannot competently fully adjudicate his claims. Nevertheless, a compelling and challenging read. ( )
  deusvitae | May 9, 2018 |
MacIntyre holds that After Virtue makes seven central claims.[1] It begins with an allegory suggestive of the premise of the science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz: a world where all sciences have been dismantled quickly and completely. MacIntyre asks what the sciences would look like if they were re-assembled from the remnants of scientific knowledge that survived the catastrophe.

He claims that the new sciences, though superficially similar to the old, would in fact be devoid of real scientific content, because the key suppositions and attitudes would not be present. "The hypothesis which I wish to advance," he continues, "is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described."[2] Specifically, MacIntyre applies this hypothesis to advance the notion that the moral structures that emerged from the Enlightenment were philosophically doomed from the start because they were formed using the aforementioned incoherent language of morality. MacIntyre claims that this failure encompasses the work of many significant Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment moral philosophers, including Kierkegaard, Marx, Kant, and Hume. These philosophers "fail because of certain shared characteristics deriving from their highly specific historical background."[2]:51 That background is the Enlightenment's abandonment of Aristotelianism, and in particular the Aristotelian concept of teleology.

Ancient and medieval ethics, argues MacIntyre, relied wholly on the teleological idea that human life had a proper end or character, and that human beings could not reach this natural end without preparation. Renaissance science rejected Aristotle's teleological physics as an incorrect and unnecessary account, which led Renaissance philosophy to make a similar rejection in the realm of ethics. But shorn of teleology, ethics as a body of knowledge was expurgated of its central content, and only remained as, essentially, a vocabulary list with few definitions and no context. With such an incomplete framework on which to base their moral understanding, the philosophers of the Enlightenment and their successors were doomed from the beginning.

MacIntyre illustrates this point through an example of a people who, he argues, experienced a similar incoherence in their own moral and ethical tradition: the Polynesian people of the South Pacific and their taboos. King Kamehameha II removed the taboos of the people in order to modernize their society and met little if any resistance. The Polynesians had no issue with abandoning their long-standing cultural traditions and MacIntyre claims this is because the taboos, though once meaningful to the islanders, had been shorn over the centuries of their underlying spiritual and didactic purpose, becoming a set of arbitrary prohibitions. The fact that Kamehameha II could abolish them so easily and without opposition is evidence, MacIntyre argues, of their incoherence. A similar incoherence, he argues, bedevils the ethical project since the Enlightenment.

Another reason MacIntyre gives for the doomed nature of the Enlightenment is the fact that it ascribed moral agency to the individual. He claims this made morality no more than one man's opinion and, thus, philosophy became a forum of inexplicably subjective rules and principles. The failure of the Enlightenment Project, because of the abandonment of a teleological structure, is shown by the inadequacy of moral emotivism, which MacIntyre believes accurately reflects the state of modern morality.

MacIntyre offers a critique of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he calls the "King Kamehameha II of the European tradition," in reference to the Polynesian allegory above.[2]:113 MacIntyre explains that, "Nietzschean man, the Übermensch, [is] the man who transcends, finds his good nowhere in the social world to date, but only that in himself which dictates his own new law and his own new table of the virtues."[2]:257 Although he disagreed with Nietzsche's inegalitarian and elitist view of humankind, he acknowledged the validity of Nietzsche's critique of Enlightenment morality as an explanation of the latter's degeneration into emotivism, and that, like Kamehameha II, Nietzsche had identified the moral imperatives of his time as arbitrary and incoherent in demanding their abolition.

The nineteenth-century critic who has most lastingly and profoundly influenced MacIntyre is not Nietzsche but Marx — indeed, After Virtue originates in MacIntyre's plans to write a book repairing the moral weaknesses of Marxism.[2]:ix-x His critique of capitalism, and its associated liberal ideology and bureaucratic state (including what, in After Virtue, he condemned as the state capitalism of the USSR) is not expressed in traditional Marxist terms. Instead, it is written as a defence of ordinary social 'practices', and of the 'goods internal to practices'. Pursuit of these helps to give narrative structure and intelligibility to our lives, but these goods must be defended against their corruption by 'institutions', which pursue such 'external goods' as money, power and status (chapters 14-15).

MacIntyre seeks to find an alternative to Nietzsche's philosophy and eventually concludes that only classic Aristotelian thought can hope to save Western humanity. While Nietzsche seems to include the Aristotelian ethics and politics in his attack on the "degenerate disguises of the will to power,"[2]:127 MacIntyre claims that this cannot be done due to important differences between the structure and assumptions of Aristotelian and post-Enlightenment philosophy. These include:
Aristotle's assumption that man is as-he-happens-to-be and that this is distinct from man-as-he-should-be. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, offers no metaphysical framework whatsoever in place of teleology.
Aristotle's claim that rules are based on virtues, which are derived from an understanding of the telos. The Enlightenment reversed this and predicated virtues on an understanding of subjective (but purported to be universal) principles.
Aristotle's assertion that virtue and morality are integral parts of society, as an understanding of the telos must be social and not individual. In the Enlightenment, however, societies lost their moral authority and the individual became the fundamental interpreter of moral questions.

MacIntyre opposes Nietzsche's return to the aristocratic ethics of Homeric Greece with the teleological approach to ethics pioneered by Aristotle. Nietzsche’s critique of Enlightenment moral theory does not work against a teleological ethics. For MacIntyre, "Nietzsche replaces the fictions of the Enlightenment individualism, of which he is so contemptuous, with a set of individualist fictions of his own."[2]:129 Nietzsche’s Uebermensch, his solution to the lies of the Enlightenment, exposes the failure of the Enlightenment's epistemological project and of its search for a subjective yet universal morality. Nietzsche neglects the role of society in the formation and understanding of tradition and morality, and "Nietzsche’s great man cannot enter into relationships mediated by appeal to shared standards or virtues or goods; he is his own only moral authority and his relationships to others have to be exercises of that authority... it will be to condemn oneself to that moral solipsism which constitutes Nietzschean greatness."[2]:258

After Virtue ends by posing the question 'Nietzsche or Aristotle?', although MacIntyre acknowledges that the book does not give sufficient grounds for a definitive answer that it is Aristotle, not Nietzsche, who points to the best solution for the problems that the book has diagnosed. Those grounds are set out in MacIntyre's subsequent works, in which he elaborates a sophisticated revision of the philosophical tradition of Aristotelianism.

In the end, however, MacIntyre tells us that we are waiting not for Godot but for St Benedict. MacIntyre criticizes individualist political philosophy, such as John Rawls' A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. To MacIntyre, morals and virtues can only be comprehended through their relation to the community in which they come from. Whereas Rawls tells us to conceive of justice through abstracting ourselves from who we are (through the veil of ignorance, for example) MacIntyre disagrees. Running throughout After Virtue is the belief that in order to comprehend who we are, we must understand where we come from.

Reception[edit]

George Scialabba found After Virtue to be a strong critique of modernity, but claimed that MacIntyre "faltered" at the conclusion of the argument, when he sketched the features of what virtuous life should be like in the conditions of modernity.[3] In particular, Scialabba objected to MacIntyre's claim that the good life for human beings consists in contemplating the good life for human beings; Scialabba found this insufficient and anticlimactic. Scialabba also argued that, although he appreciated MacIntyre's insistence on participation in community life as the best defense against the perils of modernity, this insistence was not justified with any discussion of how community life can be reconciled with the critical spirit that Scialabba finds to be one of the great achievements of modernity and of the philosophical enterprise.

In a review for Political Theory, William E. Connolly argues that MacIntyre sees Nietzsche as "the adversary to be defeated, but Nietzsche's voice is not heard clearly". Connolly objects that MacIntyre's defense of virtue does not take into account Nietzsche's critique; MacIntyre also fails to build an account of telos that does not draw on biology in the way MacIntyre wanted to avoid—such a theory doesn't account for the fact that we are embodied.[4]

Anthony Ellis, in the journal Philosophy, argued that MacIntyre's positive philosophical project is not explained as well as it could have been: it is "of daunting opacity, though tantalizingly interesting" but not given enough space in the book. Ellis also states that the discussion of Rawls and Nozick in After Virtue "is slight and assertive".[5]

In the Review of Metaphysics, Christos Evangeliou said that if the reader "had expected to find in this book concretely how a revived Aristotelian tradition is supposed to work in order to shape ethically and rationally the irrational and disorderly modern world", they "may be a little disappointed in their expectations".[6]

Francis Wheen included a brief critique of After Virtue in his own book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. The thrust of Wheen's book was a defense of the principles of the Enlightenment against various strands of irrationalism, and Wheen identified After Virtue and MacIntyre as constituting one such strand. In general, critics[Like whom?] identified Wheen's disparagement of MacIntyre as one of Mumbo-Jumbo 's few missteps. While MacIntyre certainly is a fierce critic of the Enlightenment, Wheen refused to engage MacIntyre's case but dismissed his work on the grounds that any objection to the Enlightenment qualified as "mumbo-jumbo" ex hypothesi.[7]
  aitastaes | Mar 9, 2018 |
Is there anything left to be said about After Virtue? With this book, Alasdair MacIntyre brought Aristotelian-style virtue ethics back into the modern conversation. It is a true classic, still quoted and built upon today, almost forty years after its original publication date.

After Virtue falls into two parts. The first half of the book is deconstructive. MacIntyre carefully explains how the ethical problems of our time cannot be answered from within our post-Enlightenment framework. The ethical landscape today resembles the ruins of a once great culture. We have bits and pieces of ethical material from the past, but no historical context with which to apply them. Without context there can be no ethical progress beyond the emotivism of the day.

"[M]oral judgments are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices" (60).

The second half of After Virtue is constructive. Now that the problem is diagnosed, MacIntyre prescribes Aristotelian medicine. Humans are social creatures, narrative construed toward a telos or goal. It is through the practice of virtues within a community that humans mature and become the sort of people who are able to encounter the moral quandaries of the day.

It is difficult to overstate the value of this book. After Virtue is one carefully argued perspective in which each of the 286 pages adds value. It is multidisciplinary, combining philosophical argument with sociological and historical context. Despite its age, I found myself continually reflecting on current political and social events through MacIntyre's lens.

This is not a Christian book per se, but it has serious implications for the church. This is the foundation on which Stanley Hauerwas has based his ethical perspective. Pastors who wish to understand the moral makeup of the world and the church would do well to revisit this venerable volume. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Dec 14, 2017 |
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Highly controversial when it was first published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has since established itself as a landmark work in contemporary moral philosophy. In this book, MacIntyre sought to address a crisis in moral language that he traced back to a European Enlightenment that had made the formulation of moral principles increasingly difficult. In the search for a way out of this impasse, MacIntyre returns to an earlier strand of ethical thinking, that of Aristotle, who emphasised the importance of 'virtue' to the ethical life. More than thirty years after its original publication, After Virtue remains a work that is impossible to ignore for anyone interested in our understanding of ethics and morality today.

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