How would one write an essay on chapter 5, "Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality had to Fail," in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, especially his rational investigation?  

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To be able to think of your thesis and write your essay, you first need a thorough understanding of what Alasdair MacIntyre has set out to do in his book After Virtue and specifically what argument he makes and proves in his fifth chapter, "Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality had to Fail." Below are a few explanations and things to think about to  help get you started.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre criticizes today's moral philosophy called emotivism. Emotivism is the belief that views of morality are based on nothing more than an individual's feelings. Emotivism goes hand in hand with relativism, which teaches that truth is only subjective, not absolute, and what is morally true for one person or culture will not be so for another. MacIntyre argues that, if we base morality only on emotivism, then there is no way to "adjudicate competing moral claims," meaning that there is no way to judicially reconcile any conflicting moral views (eNotes, "After Virtue Essay--Critical Essays"). He continues to describe conflicting moral arguments about war, such as how Aristotelian moral theory could argue that nuclear weapons being held by every country would lead to pacifism versus the Machiavellian-substantiated argument that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter enemy aggression. In short, there is no way to reconcile all the differing positions. He further argues that emotivism stems from Enlightenment thinking. During the Enlightenment period, 1630 to 1850, philosophers tried to legitimize the need for morality without using religion as the basis--they tried to make morality important outside of religious principles. In doing so, they tried to "give morality a rational basis, independent of particular [religious] traditions" (eNotes). However, the result was a "deeply incoherent philosophy" because one is left with absolutely no reason to make one ethical choice over another (eNotes).

In chapter 5, "Why the Englightenment Project of Justifying Morality had to Fail," MacIntyre spells out even further the failure of Enlightenment philosophers to create a coherent philosophy. In particular, MacIntyre argues that ethics are supposed to stand above the person making the ethical decision, yet if no reasons exist for making an ethical choice, then it's really individuals who have authority over ethics; it is no longer ethics that has authority over individuals. MacIntyre further lists the specific failings of specific Enlightenment philosophers. For example, Immanual Kant argued for the necessity to treat humanity as an end rather than as a means to a specific end; however, MacIntyre points out that if there is no reason for doing the above other than as a reason in and of itself, then Kant failed to make morality rational, based on reason. MacIntyre makes a similar argument for David Hume. Since Kant failed to base morality on reason, Hume next tried to base morality on an individual's passions and desires, asserting that passions move a person to make a specific choice, ethical or otherwise, not reason. Hume further argued that rationalization gave you a pathway for directing your course of action, but only the true passion to act will motivate a person to actually act. However, MacIntyre points out that passions cannot be separated from their sociocultural contexts, and even Hume failed to separate "his own conservative standards" from a basis upon which to act morally (eNotes). Therefore, even Hume failed to separate morality from absolute principles, like those founded in religion. In short, MacIntyre argues that the philosophies of Enlightenment thinkers, or the "Enlightenment project," failed because, if the need to act morally is only grounded in human nature, then human nature alone becomes the ruler of morality; morality no longer governs human nature. As Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces phrases it, MacIntyre essentially argues, "No 'ought' could be derived from an 'is,'" meaning that declarations about what we must do cannot be derived from what already exists, like human nature (eNotes). MacIntyre expresses Enlightenment philosophers' failure in the following:

Thus all these writers share in the project of constructing valid arguments which will move from premises concerning human nature as they understand it to be to conclusions about the authority of moral rules and precepts. (p. 62)

However, sadly, morality can no longer have authority if the need to act morally is only based on human nature.

In order to write your essay, you want to consider your own opinion about what MacIntyre is saying above. Do you agree with him? Do you see any holes in his argument or in his examples to substantiate his argument? What are your own thoughts about either relativism or emotovism and what sources do you have to validate your opinion? As you think about your opinion of MacIntyre's argument and any sources you have to either prove or disprove your own opinion, you'll be able to come up with your thesis. A thesis for this type of paper might say something like the following:

  • In After Virtue, MacIntyre successfully proves the incoherence of emotivism and the need for us to change our philosophical views, an argument further proven by X, Y, and Z.

In that sample thesis, the letters X, Y, and Z represent any sources outside of MacIntyre you can use to validate your own opinion about MacIntyre's argument.

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