After Virtue Essay - Critical Context

Alasdair MacIntyre

Critical Context

After Virtue is a watershed book, a powerful, provocative, and contentious critique of contemporary society and a literate revisioning of the Aristotelian genius. The book has created wide-ranging debate in the fields of linguistics, rhetoric, political science, religion, and ethics. By the late 1980’s, portions of the work were finding their way into undergraduate ethics texts. The publication of After Virtue was in part the bellwether of a new interest in the virtue tradition. Yet the debate over the nature of the virtues and the validity of the tradition itself has continued unabated.

MacIntyre’s redefinition of the meaning of the virtues profoundly alters the Aristotelian conception based on an ahistorical account of human nature. MacIntyre grounds his notion of virtue in the ongoing, historical human enterprise, and thus he is open to charges of historicism and relativism. Yet, though he admits that the virtue tradition is one tradition among many, he also affirms that in the dialectical interchange with rival traditions it shows itself to be the “better” choice. If other critics have taken exception to his characterization of Kant or Hume—or even Aristotle—MacIntyre affirms that continued dialogue will shed light on and correct the deficiencies in his theory. Of particular importance is a better understanding of how the virtue tradition was displaced as the medieval classical-Christian synthesis began to disintegrate and the age of reason began to dawn.

In two earlier books, Marxism: An Interpretation (1953; revised as Marxism and Christianity, 1968) and Against the Self-Images of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy (1971), MacIntyre was in the process of developing his cultural critique and of finding his own narrative tradition. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), a technical but accessible sequel to After Virtue, the author endeavors to demonstrate how the very conception of rationality and practical reasoning (especially in what it means to “do justice”) is radically different among several competing traditions (including those of Aristotle and David Hume). MacIntyre finally affirms that the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis is, of all the traditions he considers, best able to meet objections and, as the long dialectical debate has shown, most worthy of vindication.