Study Guide

After Virtue

by Alasdair MacIntyre

After Virtue Essay - Critical Essays


Contemporary moral debate is incapable of resolution, because modern society has no way to adjudicate competing moral claims. Moral positions commonly draw on vastly different moral traditions, but the positions are fragmentary, as if the disputants were relying on hazy memories of particular moral systems, memories that provided the words but not the substance of those systems. The interminable argument over war might pay homage to the Aristotelian tradition with the insistence on the part of one disputant that a nuclear world should make everyone a pacifist. Yet a Machiavellian might affirm that weapons of mass destruction are needed as a deterrent. A Marxist might maintain that wars of liberation in the Third World are indeed ethically justified. There can be no reconciliation of the positions because each is part of a different historical stream and context. Similarly, the argument that equal opportunity for everyone means government intervention owes a debt to the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Still, that position cannot be reconciled with the tradition of Adam Smith, that free enterprise means lack of government restraints on private practice.

What is worse, according to MacIntyre, is that if emotivism is universally true (that is, if all moral arguments are nothing but the expression of individual feelings), then the appeal to any ethical tradition is simply a power play on the part of a disputant. Yet emotivism, which substitutes personal preference for independent standards, has its own history and sociological context; it is no more universal than any other ethical system. Sadly, many people act as if emotivism had a universal claim, and as if one simply chooses his or her values according to taste; true explanation, maintains MacIntyre, will reveal the error.

This arbitrariness in modern culture is a product of the Enlightenment project, which, from about 1630 to 1850, attempted to provide some justification for morality apart from what were seen as the encumbrances of religion. The project meant to give morality a rational basis, independent of particular traditions. Yet for all of its efforts, what was produced was a deeply incoherent philosophy, exemplified in Sren Kierkegaard’s Enten/Eller: Et livs-fragment (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, 1944), in which one chooses the ethical over the aesthetic life simply because one chooses. There is no reason to choose a particular ethical direction beyond one’s actual choice; yet that ethical direction is supposed to have authority over those who have chosen it.

Kierkegaard inherited this mixed sense of radical choice, and that choice’s authoritativeness, from the culture of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative (“Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of others, as an end, and not as a means”) does not come with any good reason, outside itself, for subscribing to it. Reason therefore fails to ground morality; there is in Kant an element of radical choice only made explicit in Kierkegaard.

Kant in turn was heir to the failure of philosophers such as David Hume to ground morality in a person’s passions, or desires. Hume maintained that passions, not reason, moved a person to action. Reason might give some direction, but desire is the motive force. Yet passions have a social context, and MacIntyre suggests that Hume smuggles in his own conservative standards, just as Kant did, with no compelling reason that those particular moral standards should be desired.

The entire Enlightenment project was doomed, because in seeking to ground moral rules in some aspect of human nature (reason for Kant, the passions for Hume, fundamental choice for Kierkegaard), it foundered on its inability to draw prescriptive conclusions from the facts of human nature. No “ought” could be derived from an “is.” This bifurcation of fact and value arose because the classical, or Aristotelian, conception of the telos (end) of man had been rejected. For the Greeks, man was essentially a rational animal. Ethical precepts acted as teachers to bring man from an untutored ethical state to a realization of his potentiality. That which aids man in reaching his telos—that which aids man in functioning in accordance with his nature—is called “good.” It is an evaluative statement, but also a factual one.

This functional concept of man is not unique to Aristotle among its classical exponents, and it does not derive from what MacIntyre calls Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology.” Rather, this concept of manis rooted in the forms of social life to which the theorists of the classical tradition give expression. For according to that tradition to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God. It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that “man” ceases to be a functional concept.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment conceived of the individual as an autonomous agent, ostensibly freed from the constraints of classical or medieval moral and religious tradition. Yet the old values were still present, at least in name, but without any real grounding. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, even as modified in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, was unable to provide a new telos for man. The principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number” offers no good reason for a man’s being a monk rather than a soldier, no good reason that a man should sacrifice a present pleasure for a future one. The utilitarian principle is devoid of real meaning because it cannot order or distinguish between conflicting claims to pleasure or happiness.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the utilitarian...

(The entire section is 2387 words.)