Form and Content

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.

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...

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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

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...

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The Failures of Moral Philosophy

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.


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...

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The Practice of Virtue

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

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.


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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....

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