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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2387

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.

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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 Henry Sidgwick wrestled with how the utilitarian principle might be grounded; in the end, he could suggest no objective reason, only what he called “intuition.” This failure to provide an objective ground for morality fed naturally into G. E. Moore’s own brand of intuitionism (in which goodness could not be defined), and thus, through the medium of C. L. Stevenson in the twentieth century, to emotivism.

Analytic philosophy’s attempt to ground morality on a concept of rights also fails. For it to claim universality, the concept of rights must be tied to something essential in human nature, and this analytic philosophy is loath to do. Rights, like the concept of utility, are what MacIntyre calls “moral fictions.” They purport to give an autonomous moral agent some objective criterion for moral behavior but do not; without a conception of the proper function of man, “rights” and “utility” are meaningless. The terms are used in modern society in a manipulative sense: There are protests over someone’s rights being violated but never any rational debate, for there is nothing about which to reason. Bureaucracies ply their trade in the name of utility (their own), and though there is much talk about what is or is not moral, such utterances are simply forms of propaganda, of manipulation. Emotivism has led to arbitrariness in moral discourse, and to perhaps the ultimate exemplar of modern society: the manager.

The central task of the bureaucrat, as Max Weber observed, was to adjust means to ends in the most effective, most efficient way. That presupposes the existence, at least in principle, of a genuine science of management. Yet MacIntyre finds such a science to be a social fiction. Valid generalizations in the social sciences are fatally weakened by the unpredictability of human beings. Bureaucracy’s goal is to make the world as predictable (and thus as manageable) as possible; yet each individual’s goal, once he realizes that he is being scrutinized, is to be as unpredictable as possible. “Management science” boils down to efforts of manipulation, an expression of sheer will and power.

The rotten core of contemporary moral utterance has been found out by Friedrich Nietzsche, who sees that the “rational and rationally justified autonomous moral subject of the eighteenth century is a fiction, an illusion.” Thus, Nietzsche resolves, “let will replace reason and let us make ourselves into autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic act of the will. . . .”

It is in what MacIntyre calls the “classical view of man” propounded by, but not limited to, Aristotle, that a genuine alternative can be found. In the Heroic Age of ancient Greece, the virtues (or excellences) included courage, friendship, and fidelity, and these virtues received their meaning within a particular social structure. Here MacIntyre notes that the modern aspiration for a morality freed from particularity is a chimera. With the rise of the Greek city-state (or polis), the conception of the virtues changed when the central focus changed from the kinship group to the community; virtues in the polis included not only courage but also justice and liberality. Much later, in the setting of the medieval church, Thomas Aquinas, in developing his Augustinian-Aristotelian synthesis, elucidated the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, as well as the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance.

Lists of the virtues varied with the social context; what was common in each historical instance was not the list, but how the accepted virtues were worked into a certain kind of human narrative. That is, “Every particular view of the virtues is linked to some particular notion of the narrative structure or structures of human life.” Aristotle’s thought, at least regarding ethics, tends to be ahistorical, and thus MacIntyre does not construct such a narrative for the structure of Aristotelian life, except to say that for Aristotle the exercise of one’s virtue must involve the idea of a common political community in which all the members are interrelated. For Sophocles, by contrast, human lives take the form of stories recounting the passage through manifold dangers; the exercise of the virtues is precisely the exercise of those qualities that enable persons to overcome those dangers to a greater or lesser extent. Virtues could make competing claims within a moral universe, thus providing the framework for tragic drama; for Plato and Aristotle, however, the virtues formed a unity, and one virtue could not be in conflict with another virtue in the cosmic order of things. Regardless of the heterogeneity of the tradition, however, the central core of historical narrative remained.

In the high medieval period, the narrative is deepened through the genre of the quest; the completion of the task (salvation or redemption) is barred not only by evils without but also by evils within. The virtues are those qualities which make it possible for the evils to be conquered and the quest completed. The core conception of each particular virtue tradition involves what MacIntyre calls a practice, which takes its place in the narrative order of a human life, which in turn finds its context in MacIntyre’s conception of a tradition.

In MacIntyre’s provisional definition (or redefinition) of a virtue, it becomes “an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.” Unlike the Aristotelian conception of virtues as those qualities which fulfill common human needs, MacIntyre’s idea of virtue is not based on an account of human nature. Rather, virtues allow for the achievement of goods internal to practices; a practice isany coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to . . . that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.

Practices include games such as football or chess, the rearing of a family, and the academic disciplines. MacIntyre believes that the internal goods of any practice must involve the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty. Cheating at a game of football prevents the exercise of the virtues and the extension of human excellence (that is, skill at football). External goods, such as money, power, or fame, are indeed goods of a sort, but any society in which external goods are in the ascendant is a competitive and manipulative society, where only the husk of the virtue tradition remains.

Many internal goods inform practices; they must be brought into a coherent pattern through the use of narrative. “The unity of a human life,” writes MacIntyre, “is the unity of a narrative quest.” The virtues inform practices and also enable human beings to overcome the dangers they encounter in their quest for the good life for man. According to MacIntyre, “The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.” This narrative always has a historical context; one’s exercise of reason takes place within a particular tradition, which, if that tradition is in good order, actually takes the form of an argument extended in time, an argument about what constitutes the good life for man. The virtues not only sustain practices and inform one’s individual narrative but also support the very tradition which provides the practices as well as the context of human narrative.

Modern bureaucratic individualism, in its denial of the factual nature of moral judgments and thus the possibility of an intelligible narrative of the unity of human life, tends to demean virtues as mere moral sentiments which produce the obedience of certain rules. Yet the choice of rules is arbitrary; one picks which rules one wants to follow, averring to some social or moral fictions such as “rights,” “utility,” or “management science.”

Modern individualism has failed to provide a coherent rational account of itself. A modified Aristotelian tradition successfully confronts its rivals both in its power to understand and to explain the moral fragmentation that constitutes the modern debacle and in its ability to change over time, taking from the strengths of its rivals. MacIntyre has little hope that the virtue tradition will triumph in contemporary society, yet he holds out the prospect that small communities can keep the tradition alive in the midst of the new Dark Age.

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Critical Context