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After Virtue is an extended philosophical argument, informed by linguistic, historical, and sociological analyses, that seeks to explain the continuing irresolution of modern moral disputes; to critique the modern bureaucratic state and the claims of management science; and to provide an alternative to emotivist ethics in the form of a refashioned conception of the Aristotelian idea of virtue.

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Written both for the practicing philosopher and for the interested layperson, the book arose from author Alasdair MacIntyre’s growing conviction that while every system of morality originates from, and is embedded in, a particular historical stream, it is nevertheless possible to offer a sound defense of one system over other competitors—without abstracting each system from its context and comparing abstractions. That, says MacIntyre, is a “barren” enterprise; for it is only within social contexts that ethical systems have meaning, and it is only through a historical and sociological analysis of each moral tradition that one, the Aristotelian tradition, can be vindicated.

The modern world, or at least the industrialized West, has, in terms of moral discourse, descended into a new Dark Age. Moral judgments lack content and are merely expressive of how one feels about a matter; this kind of ethical emotivism is an inheritance from the failure of the eighteenth century Enlightenment to provide an objective basis for moral judgments. In marked contrast is another historical stream, the Aristotelian virtue tradition, which can not only produce a coherent picture of the Enlightenment failure and the consequent breakdown of moral discourse but also show itself superior to contemporary moral fragmentation.

MacIntyre’s dialectical analysis of competing ethical traditions—how each tradition enlarges itself by building on its own failures and successes—owes a debt to G. W. F. Hegel. Since the development of each tradition takes place in history, historical explanation is central to MacIntyre’s project of telling a story that “hangs together” in its delineation of the modern moral lapse into emotivism and its characterization of the virtue tradition as a coherent alternative. Historical explanation (and here MacIntyre is influenced by historian R. G. Collingwood) assumes that each historical act expresses a thought; the historian’s quest is to discover the thoughts expressed in those acts: The thought explains the act.

It is MacIntyre’s thesis that, though many continue to argue moral issues as if their words had rational force, “we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” Analytic philosophy, as well as academic history, lacks the evaluative categories with which to discover and chart this profound disorder in moral discourse. The first eight chapters of After Virtue are devoted to the modern moral disorder. In the pivotal ninth chapter (“Nietzsche or Aristotle?”), MacIntyre paints a stark picture of contemporary society at a moral crossroads. Finally, chapters 10 through 18 trace the various conceptions of the virtues developed since classical times and how the virtues, properly reconceived, make it meaningful to speak of the unity of a human life and coherent moral discourse. (A nineteenth chapter, published in the second edition of the book in 1984, contains various short replies to MacIntyre’s critics.)


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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory represents perhaps the widest-ranging and most far-reaching example of Alasdair MacIntyre’s historicist and Aristotelian thinking. MacIntyre developed the work as a conscious response to the failure of modern philosophy in general, and contemporary moral philosophy in particular, to find any means to resolve its disputes. The work was also a reaction to what MacIntyre calls “armchair” philosophy and to the fragmentation of academic disciplines. As such, it became a determined effort to link philosophy with other forms of knowledge, particularly history and sociology. A working knowledge of theology and literature is also noticeable as cultural evidence of moral thinking and valuing.

In this, MacIntyre is typical of “virtue” ethicists. Where he differs from certain proponents of virtue ethics is his adherence to and restatement of Aristotle’s teleology. He is skeptical of all attempts to separate ethics from ends, though these are not to be described in any utilitarian sense. He acknowledges that different lists of virtues have been produced by different cultures but sees this as a historical inevitability rather than as a weakness. The real concern is to be able to discern virtues as productive of inner goods, not as simulations aimed only at externals and reducible to utilitarian ends or rule-based systems.

After Virtue consists of eighteen chapters with a preface; an additional chapter was added to the 1985 second edition as an answer to some of MacIntyre’s critics. The book can be divided into two halves: Chapters 1 through 9 form a historical examination of post-Enlightenment moral philosophy and its failure, and chapters 10 through 18 restate the Aristotelian alternative. The second part can be further subdivided: Chapters 10 through 13 trace the development of classical moral philosophy, particularly virtue ethics, from heroic societies through the Middle Ages, and chapters 14 through 18 look at the fortunes of virtue ethics in same period, seeking to redefine virtue ethics in a continuing Aristotelian format.

A Critique of Modernism

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MacIntyre’s critique of post-Enlightenment moral philosophy points to a much wider radical critique of modernism as a whole. This critique, in the first part of After Virtue, has three elements: the features of modernism, the philosophers of modernism, and the failures of modernism.

The main features of modernism can be categorized under its philosophy, its characters, and its fictions. Its philosophy MacIntyre sees as emotivism, wherein all moral truth statements are reducible to personal expressions of approval or disapproval and can therefore have no universal import. Under emotivism, “All X is good” comes to mean “I like X” or “I approve of X.” MacIntyre traces emotivism back to philosopher G. E. Moore, who wrote at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The “characters” of modernism, that is, the types that most exemplify its values, MacIntyre sees as the bureaucratic manager, the therapist, and the rich aesthete (as exemplified in the novels of Henry James). All are manipulators, the essence of modernist individuality being to manipulate or be manipulated. To be manipulated is to lose one’s own liberty.

MacIntyre also delineates the fictions of modernism, much as Charles Dickens did in his novel Hard Times (1854) with its “fictions of Coketown.” Two of MacIntyre’s fictions are, in fact, the same: the fiction of utilitarianism (there are all sorts of happinesses and miseries, not just one reductivized one) and the fiction that “facts” are morally neutral, unattached to any value system. Other fictions are those of “rights,” “universalism” (that is, philosophic “universals” detached from any social context), and “managerial efficiency.” The first two fictions stem from the overarching fictiveness of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which MacIntyre clearly sees as a philosophic disaster area. “Managerial efficiency” is a fiction because just as value-free facts do not exist, value-free efficient management is an impossibility. The more impersonal and amoral management is, the less creative and motivated those who are being managed will be, and therefore, the less efficient.

According to MacIntyre, the key figures in this failed Enlightenment enterprise were Scottish philosopher David Hume, German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard. All rejected Aristotelianism, especially its communal and teleological dimensions; all therefore had to search for new grounds on which to base the choice for moral action. Hume excluded reason as a possible basis and claimed that therefore it must be the passions. Kant, on the other hand, rejected the passions, grounding his ethics in practical reason. Kierkegaard rejected both grounds, claiming the basis of ethics was a criterionless choice. MacIntyre cites Kierkegaard’s Enten-Eller (1843; Either/Or, 1944), with its choice of the aesthetic self versus the moral self, as representative of the writer’s views on this subject.

The Failures of Moral Philosophy

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MacIntyre traces the continuing search for new groundings for a moral self through the nineteenth century from John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians to G. E. Moore and into the twentieth century with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It is in the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, however, that MacIntyre sees the logical outcome of post-Enlightenment ethics. Nietzsche is the seer of modernity; Nietzsche’s disgust with all rational attempts to ground morality exemplifies it. His substitution of will for reason has made him appealing to certain postmodern thinkers. MacIntyre argues that although Nietzsche thought he had ended all rational moral philosophy, in fact, he had merely killed off the post-Enlightenment enterprise.

The failures of modern moral philosophy are manifold. The main areas of failure for MacIntyre are its rejection of a sense of tradition and of a sense of community, which leads, ultimately, to the disappearance of the self; the separation of “is” and “ought” (the naturalistic fallacy is fallacious); and its claims that the social sciences are scientific and, therefore, their truths are not moral claims. In fact, for the social sciences, one must allow for unpredictability (political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s notion of fortuna is cited); effective organizations actually allow for a high degree of it. The eighteenth century prophecy of scientifically managed social control has not been fulfilled, only the imitation of it.


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The fallacy of the is/ought distinction stems from the rejection of Aristotelianism, where goodness is a virtue, a quality of being, not a set of rules. Nietzsche’s criticism of moral philosophy for not answering the question “What sort of person ought I to become?” is partially a result of the rejection of Aristotelian notions of ends (teloi) and virtues. MacIntyre returns the reader to what has wrongfully been rejected.

However, one of MacIntyre’s problems with Aristotle is that although he is a historicist, Aristotle is not. In fact, Aristotle believed he had dealt with most previous philosophical problems, and the past could therefore be discarded. MacIntyre reinterprets Aristotle within his cultural context. In this sense, he is not a classical Aristotelian.

MacIntyre begins his account within heroic societies, especially Homeric Greece. For him, the main feature of heroic ethics is its narrative structure. He develops this concept of narrativity throughout the second part of After Virtue. The epic generates epic virtues, which do not distinguish action from being, the physical from the moral. In Greek, “virtue” originally meant excellence of any kind. It was also communal, and MacIntyre rejects Nietzsche’s account of the heroic virtues as a fiction of nineteenth century individualism. As heroic community moved into the Greek city-state, virtues became linked to politics: The good man was the good citizen. The typical narrative structures now became fourfold: tragedy, comedy, philosophic discourse, and the legal system. All contained elements of conflict between the older epic narrative and the newer political ones. Aristotle saw such conflict as bad; MacIntyre was more relaxed about it.

Aristotle divided the virtues into those of the intellect and those of character. Education and exercise were the means to develop them. The virtues became a person’s character, moving the individual toward telos, which Aristotle defined as eudaimonia (“blessedness, happiness, prosperity”) and were not an external means but integral to life. The key text cited is the Ethica Nicomachea (Second Athenian Period, 335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797).

MacIntyre then fast-forwards his account to the Middle Ages, to see how Aristotelian ethics were developed in a fragmented society becoming Christianized. He examines the fusions of Christianity and Aristotelianism in the twelfth century, particularly in the work of philosopher Peter Abelard (he is surprisingly brief on Saint Thomas Aquinas). The four cardinal Greek virtues of justice, prudence, temperance, and courage were joined to the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love). However, Abelard emphasized the rival Greek philosophy of Stoicism, seeing the real moral battleground to be the will rather than the reason. Stoicism also denies telos: One wills to do what is right because it is right.

MacIntyre suggests that Stoicism becomes influential where the law displaces the virtues, as in fragmented societies. However, as medieval society unified, Aristotelian concepts predominated, the virtues became communal and also reconciliatory, as love demands forgiveness. Importantly, the Christian narrative became the quest: The virtues thus became those qualities that enable men to survive evils on their historical life journey.

The Practice of Virtue

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In chapters 14 and 15, MacIntyre reformulates a definition of the virtues that will withstand Nietzschean pessimism. The notion of a “practice” is the ground for his definition. Just as the professions recognize good practice, so should human life. Virtues can then be defined as those qualities necessary to achieve the goods internal to those practices. The gaining of external goods can only lead to simulation—Jane Austen is a writer whose work exemplifies the discerning of such falsity.

However, virtues must contribute to the good of the whole life. MacIntyre stresses the unity of the narrative quest for each human life. Only such a narrative quest makes intelligible particular actions and settings. Its account establishes individual entity as subject (of that narrative) by making the subject accountable. Integrity (to which he links constancy) is therefore, for him, the prime virtue.

Lastly, virtues are related to the pursuit of a good for all human beings, but this can be established only in a community and within an ongoing social tradition. As with the poet T. S. Eliot, such tradition is constantly being modified and can be kept alive only by the exercise of the virtues. Every practice has its own history and its own community.

Having defined a practice of virtue, MacIntyre concludes his historical account, seeing in the perhaps unlikely combination of the Jacobins, Jane Austen, and William Cobbett the last true representatives of the classical tradition of the virtues. MacIntyre says that in the final quarter of the twentieth century, people are in a new dark age: They await a new Saint Benedict to lead them to a new virtuous community.

Moral Philosophy and Modern Times

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Upon its publication, MacIntyre’s After Virtue struck chords in at least three areas. First, its historicism accords with developments in literary, historical, and philosophic theory that stand out against historical postmodernist theory. Second, its holistic approach to human life and academic institutions is part of a groundswell of modern culture that is protesting against the increasing fragmentation, privatization, and bureaucratization of modern institutions and life. Third, its plea for a return to traditional values and its emphasis on the virtue of a sense of tradition appealed to the radical right, especially in the United States, where MacIntyre’s impact has been most keenly felt.

However, perhaps his biggest impact is in his attempt to make moral philosophy accessible to the educated layperson and the virtuous citizen. His style and approach, although logically rigorous, nevertheless are amenable to readers from various disciplines and concerns who wish to see a renewal in public life. Although he takes philosophy out of its armchair, MacIntyre also seeks to take it out of the postgraduate classroom and return it to the marketplace. The impact of After Virtue lies therefore in the opening up of traditional ways of thinking morally, not only to make a radical critique of modernism (including Marxism) but also as a strengthening and encouraging of an alternative, albeit minority, community, engaged in a traditional quest for a virtuous life.


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Additional Reading

Casey, John. Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. A very useful general discussion on virtue ethics from a distinguished moral philosopher.

Engelhardt, H. Tristram, Jr., and Daniel Callahan, eds. Knowledge, Value, and Belief. Hastings, N.Y.: Hastings Center, 1977. This contains a chapter on MacIntyre’s earlier work, put within the context of the Hastings Center Institute of Society, Ethics, and Life Sciences, with its focus on applied ethics, and where MacIntyre worked for a year.

Fuller, M. B. Making Sense of MacIntyre. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998. This book attempts to understand and pinpoint some of MacIntyre’s philosophical positions.

Gunnemann, Jon P. “Habermas and MacIntyre on Moral Learning.” In The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics. Boston: Society of Christian Ethics, 1994. Gunnemann notes that MacIntyre dismisses Jürgen Habermas’s Kantianism in Three Rival Versions, and that Habermas also dismisses MacIntyre. He looks at differences and areas of moral convergence, suggesting that Habermas does better in accounting for moral constructions and understanding other traditions, but MacIntyre does better on questions of moral identity.

Gutting, Gary. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A critical analysis of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor.

Horton, John, and Susan Mendus, eds. After MacIntyre. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994. Horton and Mendus bring together a collection of critical essays on MacIntyre, exploring especially his criticisms of the Enlightenment. The opening essay elucidates succinctly MacIntyre’s development since After Virtue. The collection as a whole balances elucidation and critique. There are sixteen essays, including one by MacIntyre.

McCann, Dennis P., and M. L. Brownsberger. “Management as a Social Practice: Rethinking Business Ethics After MacIntyre.” In The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics. Knoxville, Tenn.: Society of Christian Ethics, 1990. The authors see MacIntyre as having uncritically assimilated Aristotle’s prejudice against commerce. They take one of MacIntyre’s “social characters,” the business manager, and challenge his concept of him, and thus his critique of modern liberal societies. The article does this, however, within the context of MacIntyre’s theory of social practices, which they wish to retain.

McMylor, Peter. Alasdair MacIntyre: Critic of Modernity. London: Routledge, 1994. The fullest account so far of MacIntyre’s thinking, especially his radical critique of contemporary philosophy and culture. McMylor acknowledges both the strengths and weaknesses of such a critique.

Von Dohlen, Richard F. Culture War and Ethical Theory. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. This book contains a chapter on MacIntyre’s philosophical theories.

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Critical Essays