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After Virtue

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When After Virtue first appeared in 1981, it was recognized as a significant and potentially controversial critique of contemporary moral philosophy. Newsweek called it “a stunning new study of ethics by one of the foremost moral philosophers in the English-speaking world.” Since that time, the book has been translated into more than fifteen foreign languages and has sold over one hundred thousand copies. Now, twenty-five years later, the University of Notre Dame Press is pleased to release the third edition of After Virtue, which includes a new prologue “After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century.”

In this classic work, Alasdair MacIntyre examines the historical and conceptual roots of the idea of virtue, diagnoses the reasons for its absence in personal and public life, and offers a tentative proposal for its recovery. While the individual chapters are wide-ranging, once pieced together they comprise a penetrating and focused argument about the price of modernity. In the Third Edition prologue, MacIntyre revisits the central theses of the book and concludes that although he has learned a great deal and has supplemented and refined his theses and arguments in other works, he has “as yet found no reason for abandoning the major contentions” of this book. While he recognizes that his conception of human beings as virtuous or vicious needed not only a metaphysical but also a biological grounding, ultimately he remains “committed to the thesis that it is only from the standpoint of a very different tradition, one whose beliefs and presuppositions were articulated in their classical form by Aristotle, that we can understand both the genesis and the predicament of moral modernity.”

304 pages, Paperback

First published September 28, 1982

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About the author

Alasdair MacIntyre

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Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a leading philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology. He is the O'Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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Author 10 books101 followers
December 13, 2009
What if our contemporary moral discourse were a cargo cult in which we picked up fragments of a long lost, once-coherent moral philosophy, and ignorantly constructed a bunch of nonsense that didn’t work and could not work in principle?

After Virtue argues that this indeed is what happened, and this explains why our moral discourse is such a mess.

Why when we argue about moral issues do we make our case in a form that resembles rational argument, but the effect seems to be only like imperative statements or exclamations? Why do pro-life folks and pro-choice folks keep arguing when there is no resolution to their argument?

MacIntyre believes we are reenacting forms of argument that once made sense, since people once did have a common ground of morality, but that we have since lost this in a Tower of Babel-like catastrophe.

Our moral arguments today are interminable because the values they express are incommensurable. Though the claims of the emotivists are not necessarily true, they happen to be true for contemporary moral philosophy: when people make moral arguments today they really are just making exclamations of (dis)approval while disguising these as rational arguments about facts.

Moral philosophy adopted the idea that moral systems must eventually descend on first principles that everyone must choose for themselves and for which there are no rational criteria: you cannot get an “ought” from an “is”. The only way to defend any moral framework is in a form that ultimately reduces to “my first principles are better than your first principles, nyaah nyaah.”

Modern philosophy has not found a way out of this predicament. The emotivist explanation of moral argument makes the most sense, and so people who engage in moral arguments are essentially trying to manipulate others and at the same time to resist being manipulated, knowing on some level that there is no resolution, which leads to the perpetual histrionic impasse that keeps the news networks and political parties in business.

Some philosophers suggest that there are no right answers in ethics or that the whole field of inquiry is bogus. MacIntyre says that this isn’t necessarily true but is just the result of the catastrophe that shattered a once-coherent ethics.

Our concept of “the moral” was invented in the 17th–19th centuries to cover “rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic.” The philosophical project of justifying these rules developed along with it. The classical world didn’t have this concept — moralis or etikos meant something more like our word “character.” The failure of this philosophical project is “the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.”

MacIntyre works backwards through Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, and Hume, and says that they were unable to find a rational ground for morality in choice, in reason, or in passion and desire. Each was capable of decisively refuting some of these grounds, but each failed to show that their own best guess was right.

The morality that these philosophers were trying to justify consisted of surviving remnants of the virtues like those Aristotle discussed in The Nicomachean Ethics, in which ethics is considered to be the science of how we govern our lives so as to best meet the ends of human living: the human telos.

Aristotle’s ethics has this structure: 1) Humans are untutored; 2) Humans have a telos; 3) Ethics is the tutelage necessary for us to achieve our telos. Enlightenment philosophers abandoned the idea of a telos, and in so doing, lost the only way of making ethical statements statements of fact. To Aristotle, an ethical statement was true if the ethical rule it described did in fact help people achieve their telos. Without reference to a telos, ethical statements don’t mean anything at all.

Enlightenment thinkers, who were okay with #1 (humans are untutored) and #3 (moral precepts correct human nature) stuck themselves with the impossible task of deriving #3 from #1.

The insistence that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” that so perplexed the moral philosophers is, MacIntyre insists, a bugbear that results from this same undeclared premise: that humans have no telos. For things with purposes, “is” may very well imply “ought” (this is a watch; it ought to tell the correct time). Good or bad for watches is embedded in the very concept of watch. Similarly, if a person has a telos, his or her actions will be more or less ethical, to the extent that they assist in achieving it. What actions are ethical is a factual inquiry: is implies ought.

We still make moral arguments as if they were statements of fact, but we’ve lost the ability to articulate what makes them factual. To try to fill in the gap, we resort to fictions. To replace teleology we have “utility”; to replace God’s revealed laws, we have the categorical imperative or “inalienable human rights”. These are just phantasmagorical placeholders designed to fill in the inconvenient gaps in moral theory, but that have no more real existence than things like the luminiferous aether, which once served a similar purpose in physics.

But we continue to argue as though one of these gambits had succeeded, though we suspect that our moral discourse is just a machiavellian struggle to manipulate and deceive.

This leads to petulant “protest,” a modern form of moral discourse, because rational argument has no hope of succeeding. The other dominant variety of moral discourse today is “unmasking,” in which foes discover each others’ moral pronouncements to be sham façades that mask selfish and arbitrary desires. This amounts to a parlor game, since everybody’s ethics have become incoherent and contradictory.

Along with such fictional devices as “right” and “utility,” the modern age created “effectiveness” as a moral fetish. The bureaucratic manager uses the myth of managerial expertise to manipulate those being managed and to justify the managers’ power. The idea of managerial expertise implies a domain of real knowledge about social structures and their inputs and outputs of which the manager has specialized and true knowledge. This turns out to be a false claim.

The enlightenment also caused the Aristotelian notion of ethics to split into the study of ethics (“what is good?”) and will (“how do intentions become actions?”). In the Aristotelian view, explanations of human actions only make sense in reference to a hierarchy of goods and to the telos, but in the mechanistic worldview, human action must be explained independently of any intentions, purposes, or telos. The social sciences of which managers are presumed to be experts are those in which human subjects are seen this way.

People being manipulated by the practitioners of the social/managerial sciences are considered to have no intention or purpose or telos of their own worth respecting, but the same is implicitly not the case for the manipulators and social scientists themselves.

Human affairs are systematically unpredictable, for several reasons: It is impossible to predict the effects of radically new conceptual innovations. People cannot confidently predict even their own actions. Chance trivialities can have large effects. Game-theory-like situations map poorly to real-life situations, and even so, they imply a necessary level of deceptiveness and recursive counter-plotting that makes real-world scientific observation and prediction difficult. (For example, during the Vietnam war, war-theorists working for the U.S. government cleverly created simulations and projections for victory using the best data they had at their disposal — data that was being systematically falsified by other elements of the government who were using their own game-theory-ish reasons for using deceit in the service of victory.)

All we really should expect from social scientists are “usually”s. Managerial pretensions to expertise (and thereby to the power and money that come with positions like President of the United States or CEO) are based on unfounded claims for the precision and accuracy of the social sciences. When somebody claims to be doing something because of managerial expertise, you can be sure they are really disguising their own desire or arbitrary preference, just the same as if they claimed to be fulfilling the will of god, maximizing utility, or respecting inalienable human rights.

Nonetheless, the contemporary vision of the world is bureaucratically Weberian — Max Weber mixed with Erving Goffman.

MacIntyre says that we are like the Pacific islanders who had taboos they could not explain to the explorers who visited them. Whatever reasons originally led to the establishment of the taboos had vanished, so all they could do to explain their odd customs was to say, “but to do otherwise would be taboo.” MacIntyre says that Kamehameha II could abolish the taboo system abruptly and by fiat precisely because it had no foundation anymore.

(I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s recollection of Nazi Germany: “…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”)

MacIntyre says that Nietzsche was our Kamehameha. Nietzsche thought he was abolishing morality, but in fact, MacIntyre says, he was only pointing out the futility of the enlightenment project of rationally justifying the fragmentary remnants of classical ethics — our taboos.

If the classical ethical philosopher asked “what sort of person am I to become, and how?” the modern ethical philosopher asked “what taboos must I follow, and why?” It was a doomed project, because the taboos had become dislodged from their justifications, and the whole framework in which those justifications made sense had been abandoned. The virtues became nothing but tendencies to obey the taboos, with the taboos being somehow more fundamental.

What’s the alternative? In the background of our moral philosophy, and in the virtues we sympathize with but don’t understand enough to be able to justify, is the ghost of an earlier and more coherent ethical system.

The characteristics of “heroic” societies are revealed in the myths of antiquity. In these societies, everyone had a purpose just by virtue of being born into a particular station in society with relations to particular people. Nobody is defined by their “hidden depths” or their inner lives, but by their actions relative to their roles; a person is what a person does. Morality and social structure are the same thing. You can’t “step outside” your society and judge its moral system in comparison to some other system. A story like a saga isn’t just a story about a life, but is a representation of a life that is already understood to have the form of a story. Virtue is what enables you to fulfill the role you have and to conduct yourself in your story.

This heroic background was refined by the Greeks in several ways: The tragedians (Sophocles in particular) focus on what happens when the moral system produces contradictions. A person has two contradictory ethical obligations that cannot be reconciled and the tragedy that results is just that there is no right way to proceed. The Sophists insist that virtues are relative, and the right way to proceed is whatever gets you what you’re after. Plato, and later Aristotle, hoped to show that the virtues don’t actually conflict and aren’t as flimsy as the Sophists would have it.

MacIntyre next recaps The Nicomachean Ethics. But he points out problems with trying to bring Aristotle’s ethics into the modern era. For one thing, they require a telos for human beings, but Aristotle's idea of this was based on his now-ridiculous-seeming metaphysical biology. Also, if Aristotle’s virtues were closely tied to his particular society and to the roles available in it (as we have learned such virtues must be), how can these be relevant to us today? Furthermore, Aristotle views human life as perfectable — he thinks we can ultimately remove the conflicts from it; MacIntyre thinks it’s more likely that conflicts are more basic, and, like the tragidians concluded, are unavoidable.

Healthy, undecayed accounts of virtue have three things in common: a concept of practice, an idea of the narrative order of human life, and a moral tradition that develops out of these.

By “practice,” MacIntyre means some sort of occupation or activity that is deliberate and well-defined and traditional at least to the extent where it can involve internal goods — that is, rewards that exist only within the practice itself and not in terms of what the practice enables you to gain outside of it. For example, if you play chess well, the reward you get is the internal good of having played a good chess game.

External goods are more zero-sum, more the objects of competition. Internal goods are more about personal excellence; when we succeed in attaining internal goods, this tends not to detract from the good of those around us but to enhance them. MacIntyre says that a virtue is that which enables us to achieve internal goods.

This doesn’t mean that all practices are good. Nor does it mean that any practice and associated set of virtues is as good as any other (for that would lead us back to the same problem as our current catastrophe). When you see that life has a telos and therefore there is a practice of life, you see that life itself has its virtues — you can extrapolate from your idea of the internal rewards of a practice to the idea of The Good in life as a whole. In this way the idea of a practice and the understanding of the narrative nature of human life lead to the development of a coherent moral tradition.

The modern view of life makes this difficult. Life is divided into stages and further into roles (“work-life” and “home-life” for instance), and we are encouraged to view behaviors atomistically rather than seeing our lives as unified and ourselves as engaged in large-scale narratives.

But human activity is intelligible and our actions are within a narrative context. An action isn’t just part of a narrative but is part of many narratives from many points of view. These narratives are unpredictable (what happens next?) but that doesn’t mean they lack telos or that the telos is merely retrospectively assigned. The only way I can answer the question “what am I to do?” is if I can answer the question “what stories am I a part of?”

When you ask yourself whether or not you are behaving ethically right, you are trying to justify yourself. You justify yourself by accounting for your behavior, that is to say, telling its story, putting it in a narrative context complete with its telos. By doing this you create a context in which the virtues will shine forth as the sort of excellences of character that advance you to your telos.

The concept of virtue MacIntyre has described was destroyed, he says, by the cult of bureaucratic individualism that emerged from the enlightenment. Employees, for example, do not typically engage in a practice associated with internal goods (they are motivated by salary or other external goods); the typical modern person is not a practitioner but a spectator/consumer, engaged in what MacIntyre calls “institutional acquisitiveness” or “aesthetic consumption”.

Today, people in our culture are unable to weigh conflicting claims of justice because they are inherently incommensurable. John Rawls and Robert Nozick represent sophisticated philosophical justifications of something akin to popular quasi-socialist liberal and property-rights libertarian perspectives, respectively. MacIntyre notes that even if you accept either or both of their arguments as valid, this resolves nothing, since it is their premises that are incompatible.

(Interestingly, neither Rawls nor Nozick relies on the concept of desert, which is central in the popular versions of justice they are trying to provide philosophical support for. MacIntyre says that this is because desert requires a social context in order to make sense, and the thought experiments that Rawls and Nozick rely on assume atomistic individuals without preexisting communities or cultures. The popular notion of desert, MacIntyre says, is yet another remnant of premodern justice that shines through the cracks left after the catastrophe.)

Because there is no common ground on which disagreements can be argued, “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — nothing but power masked by rhetoric. But this is not because Nietzsche disproved morality. He successfully defeated the various enlightenment projects of justifying morality, but he left the Aristotelian ethical framework unscathed.

What to do about it? Our task in this post-catastrophe world, MacIntyre says, is to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”
Profile Image for Jan Rice.
523 reviews444 followers
February 7, 2017
I began this book around September 2015, then reviewed the first half in January of 2016 in advance of a hiatus in reading. I resumed in April, but this time I wasn't alone. It had looked like such fun that Dennis wanted to study with me.

First we backtracked and did some review, and then we forged ahead, reading out loud, mostly me. I read over half the book out loud. And then I took notes on every paragraph, since that's the only way I could digest it. My notes constitute, in effect, a condensed and semi-digested version. We also discussed and argued as we went--as I've done with some of you, as well--and it's still not any easier to review! It's like math or a foreign language. The author keeps building his edifice. If you don't keep track of where you are you'll get lost, and despite everything you can lose track of where you've been.

In my review of the first half of the book, I wrote how farfetched it was that MacIntyre could ever convince me we're in a new dark age. That was hyperbole to me: as Steven Pinker would say, those were the words of believers in some lost cause they are trying to keep alive. Then, in Chapter 18, MacIntyre is explicating Nietzsche's Übermensch, via whom post-Enlightenment society is to escape pseudo-concepts such as utility and natural rights but instead brings forth something far worse: this man who, in his will to power bursts all constraints, wears a mask, is beholden to no one but himself, lies rather than tell the truth. And so, he writes, we may expect society to breed these "great men" from time to time, "Alas!"

Those words have a kick to them. It's what we were reading when the election happened.

I've left the review of the first half as-is, other than a few corrections. Then I'll touch on high points from the remaining chapters, and on to conclusions and closing thoughts.

Thoughts at (Near) the Halfway Point (from January 2016)

The Enlightenment Project--that is, the attempt to establish a secular and rational basis for morality--is a failure. All attempts to do that are mere masks for what you want. The society we have is a reflection of that basic fact. So says Alasdair MacIntyre. This is the new dark ages.

Even if the first part were true, that morality as we know it today is a sham, I don't know how he could convince me of the second part about the dark ages or of the seeming implication that past times before the paradigm shifted was better.

Another consequence of the failure of morality are our interminable arguments. Our lived reality, which always reflects the philosophical paradigm that is in effect, is deeply emotivist, emotivism being "the doctrine that all evaluative judgment, and, particularly, all moral judgment is nothing but an expression of preference." That being the case there is no moral basis on which to settle any argument.

Each society is represented by characters for whom personality merges with social role, for example, that of the headmaster in Victorian England or the Prussian officer. Other societal roles don't require that synthesis: think of a clergy person who could go through the motions even if he has lost his faith. The character, in Alasdair MacIntyre's sense, can't do that; "Characters are the moral representations of their culture." The three characters we have today are the manager, the therapist, and the rich aesthete.

Organizations have aims assumed to be value-neutral, yet unavailable for conscious scrutiny; the personal is the realm for debate over values--but no resolution is to be had. Modernity celebrates the individual's release from the confines of social identities and telos, while leaving us stripped of telos and identity.

A breakthrough? Not so fast, according to Alasdair MacIntyre. Picture from Münchhausen's Pigtail, or Psychotherapy & "Reality" by Paul Watzlawick

With me so far? The philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to find rational bases for morality, for example, Kierkegaard and radical choice, and Kant, reason. But each attempt involved a first cause beyond which reason couldn't go. And Hume saw Kant had failed, so he used the passions as his basis for morality. We thus have the various philosophers debunking each others' theories--which reminds me of religions critiquing and defaming each other, thus doing the work of atheists for them.

The only reason their moral theories worked at all was that their bits and pieces had a previous life in a prior social system and philosophical paradigm from which the philosophers had unwittingly retrieved them. The picture I get here is of the cartoon figure zooming along so fast that, when he runs off the precipice, he is suspended in the air momentarily--before dropping like a rock. In other words the moral theories can still seem to make sense even though they have lost their foundation. We still talk as though they are true, even while living the emotivist lifestyle that reflects our actual philosophy. It is that philosophy Alasdair MacIntyre claims has let us down.

So, the Enlightenment Project only worked, according to him, because its philosophers were coming out of a shared Christian moral tradition, part of a more sweeping classical tradition in which people had a purpose (an end; a telos): good was anything that contributed to that purpose, while bad detracted from it. Thus, in the classical tradition, a role did carry moral weight, and unlike within our present system, you could derive "ought" from "is" (that is, values from facts). By rejecting everything but reason, the modernist philosophers could deal only with means, not ends. Thus it is that thought reflects practice, and the modern self requires a new social setting: the individual in his emotivist culture, within which meaning has fallen out from under him.

One of the implications is that, in the culture we have, rights cannot be established; rights require a socially established set of rules. The author asserts that claiming rights without the requisite social order is like presenting a check for payment in a society without money. Thus it is that rights, like utility, is a fiction. We're taught to see ourselves as agents but become engaged by modes of practice (aesthetic or bureaucratic) that are manipulative (in other words, treating others as means, not ends). He goes so far as to say that, like witches and unicorns, there are no such things as rights.

Without any rational way to decide, we have protest, which used to be a positive, a la Protestants, or protesting the truth, but now we have protest against. Given its predicament, protest is reduced to preaching to the choir and has acquired its quality of shrillness. Since what passes as morality reduces to preference and predilection, the function of protest is unmasking, to which everyone is vulnerable, with defensive unmasking as doing unto others before they can do unto you (he credits Freud for that insight).

He uses these issues to further elaborate the stock characters of our society, the aesthete, the therapist, and the manager. The aesthete, he says, is the least likely to be deceived by our societal fictions (utility, rights, etc.). The therapist is most likely to be deceived, and not only by moral fictions, yet to keep on keeping on despite being unmasked (as with psychoanalysis). Lastly are bureaucratic managers of all kinds (government and in the business world), the coin of whose realm is manipulation (that is, means, not ends).

It is in MacIntyre's discussion of the fiction of managerial effectiveness that he shows his kinship with Nassim Nicholas Taleb's thought, management science being an oxymoron and Fortuna his black swan. The game is not the real thing, nor the map the actual geography.

We all want predictability so our own plans will prevail, so we aim to keep ourselves unpredictable to others ("play our cards close to our chests") while making others predictable. In bureaucracies, predictability and effectiveness are mutually exclusive, since achieving the former would entail total control, while the latter requires flexibility and spontaneity. The fiction of managerial effectiveness functions as the belief in God functions (for those for whom that is a fiction):

It is one more illusion and a peculiarly modern one, the illusion of a power not ourselves that claims to make for righteousness. Hence the manager as character is other than he at first sight seems to be: the social world of everyday hard-headed practical pragmatic no-nonsense realism which is the environment of management is one which depends for its sustained existence on the systematic perpetuation of misunderstanding and of belief in fictions. The fetishism of commodities has been supplemented by another just as important fetishism, that of bureaucratic skills. For it follows from my whole argument that the realm of managerial expertise is one in which what purport to be objectively-grounded claims function in fact as expressions of arbitrary, but disguised, will and preference. (p. 107)

The example that comes to mind is our manager-in-chief, the US President (the role, not the current inhabitant of the White House [who was Barack Obama at the time of this part of the review]).

In the final chapter that I have read, the author says Nietzsche's role is to have shot down our societal roadrunner who had found himself unsupported and out over open space. Nietzsche demolished the moral fictions (British emotivism and French existentialism) to reveal our true state, that is, unless Aristotle's telos, or something like it, can be supported.

That touches on Jonathan Haidt's Westerners who found themselves tongue-tied when trying to express moral intuitions other than those involving fairness or harm (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion). It also is consistent with Steven Pinker's description of the function of "political correctness" in guarding against resumption of past moral failures (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), and how it is that PC is showing failure in its function.

For Aristotle, honor is secondary to that for which it is deserved, but in emotivist society, success is only what passes for success. Honor in pre-modern societies was due to position in the social order. Today, an insult is considered a private matter. How this all contrasts with Pinker's value system, in which honor systems are the source of evil and modernity the wellspring of "the better angels of our nature!"

Yet it is not of course just that Nietzsche's moral philosophy is false if Aristotle's is true and vice versa. In a much stronger sense Nietzsche's moral philosophy is matched specifically against Aristotle's by virtue of the historical role which each plays. For, as I argued earlier, it was because a moral tradition of which Aristotle's thought was the intellectual core was repudiated during the transitions of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries that the Enlightenment project of discovering new rational secular foundations for morality had to be undertaken. And it was because tha project failed, because the views advanced by its most intellectually powerful protagonists, and more especially Kant, could not be sustained in the face of rational criticism that Nietzsche and all his existentialist and emotivist successors were able to mount their apparently successful critique of all previous morality. Hence the defensibility of the Nietzschean position turns in the end on the answer to the question: was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle? For if Aristotle's position in ethics and politics--or something very like it--could be sustained, the whole Nietzschean enterprise would be pointless. This is because the power of Nietzsche's position depends upon the truth of one central thesis: that all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will. (p. 117)

If a premodern view of morals and politics is to be vindicated against modernity, it will be in something like Aristotelian terms or not at all. (p. 118)

There you go. What about all the killing over whose system of the good would be enforced? What about people outside the going system and therefore unavailable for honor, or people who don't care for their position in the system?

MacIntyre does some initial talking about philosophers whose claims have been refuted but who don't accept that they've been refuted. Might not his proposed system suffer from the charge that it embodies his preferences?

He is not writing for the masses here. He uses terms he doesn't translate and concepts he doesn't deign to explain. There is a degree of esotericism in the formal sense. We could call this modernity he condemns "Protestantdom;" I flashed on that just before the last chapter I've read. But at least he carries his arguments to their logical conclusions and comes out and says what they are. No hypocritical half-assedness here!

This book was referenced in both Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future, although for two different aspects. I got curious. At any rate, I want to review what I've read so far--also because I'm studying it alone, have had to pause to accommodate other reading commitments, and have reached something of a turning point in the book.

Oh, yeah--the title. My husband is taking Greek, and he says Aristotle's Metaphysics didn't originally mean transcendent. It just meant it was written After Physics. And Alasdair MacIntyre is an Aristotelian, among other things.

Disclaimer: the unread portion could make me change any overarching conclusions.

The Rest of the Book (from February, 2017)

Chapter 10, "The Virtues in Heroic Societies:" This is my favorite chapter in the whole book. MacIntyre says heroic societies (read Homeric society, his main case) may or may not be historical, but for his purposes it doesn't matter. Traditional societies treat heroic societies as what came before. Here, and in the next chapters, he broadened my understanding of a number of the Greek virtue words.

I was expecting he'd treat bible stories as outgrowths of heroic societies, too, but the author exhibited hands-off of scripture.

Chapters 11 and 12, on classical society, i.e., Athens, and then Aristotle. In Homeric society, there are only the kinship group and friends, and their roles. What you see is what you get. "Owe" = "ought." In classical society there is more complexity, as now there's the added ingredient of the polis. There still is no existence outside social role, but the catalogs of the virtues are different. And there's the "false turning" (to which MacIntyre alludes but never explains) that Socrates made. I think MacIntyre is referring to Socrates' making himself an arbiter of what to do over and above the good decreed by the city--a fatal early turn in a direction MacIntyre decries.

Yet MacIntyre acknowledges that no society may ever have actually conformed to Aristotelian ideals.

For MacIntyre, as I wrote in the first half of my review, liberal, modernist, individualist society, that is, post-Enlightenment society, is what's bad. Dedication to pluralism signals departure from the tradition of the virtues. By the end of the book, he repeats those three words or their stand-ins so often that reading them is like cuing the silent-movie villain-music that plays whenever the guy with black hat and twirling mustache appears.

As with Marx, for MacIntyre there are no better or worse forms of modern society. It's all bad, lacking any foundation and mirroring defective philosophy, and with political conservatism being merely the conservation of a slightly earlier form of liberal individualism.

Remember, from the first half of the book, the emphasis on emotivism and the insolubility of our social dilemmas. If this whole book seems easy to dismiss as so much BS, there are our current dire straits to remind you otherwise.

By Chapter 13, "Medieval Aspects and Occasions," Christianity has made its entrance along with various new virtues. The known world has just emerged from more recent forms of heroic society (e.g., Arthurian), with thinkers and theologians trying to deal with their own inner paganism while creating institutions to bring forth civilization from chaos.

What has yet to be invented in the twelfth century is an institutional order in which the demands of divine law can more easily be heard and lived out in a secular society outside the monasteries.

In subsequent chapters we have MacIntyre forging his concept of a virtue out of the multiple and contradictory catalogs of the virtues across the ages. First, virtues are what enable one to seek the inner goods deriving from a dedication to practices in sort of an apprenticeship in which one acknowledges the need to learn and develop one's skills and capability--inner goods being human capital, so to speak, in contrast to outer goods such as wealth and fame. Virtues exist via traditions, virtues being the dispositions that sustain practices and quests for the good, and a tradition being a living argument about what a given community or enterprise ought to be.

And the crux of the matter: We connect with our history and with the future through the stories we tell. We have been drafted into a certain role or roles that we must come to understand if we are to figure out why others respond to us as they do. And we have to know what stories we're in to know what's the right thing to do.

The above entails a telos, that no-no of science and modernity. (I knew that so I've tried to cover it up when writing about it--but what else is it when one claims to have discovered "one's purpose" or to feel he or she is carrying out one's intended role?) MacIntyre's picture is the mirror image of the existentialism on which I cut my teeth, i.e., radical freedom and the artificiality of all social roles.

There is the appearance of circularity at times, with the good defined in terms of the pursuit of the good.

There is the fact MacIntyre sees all the good aspects and none of the ill of the tradition he supports, and the reverse for the one he abhors.

There is his making of distinctions without differences between the path to which he commends us* and the one he considers a dead end. *That being that we should invest no more energy in liberal pluralistic modernity (cue that villain-music!) but should repair forthwith to some monastic stand-in for the duration.

There is his comparison of noisy, messy present-day reality, not with the reality of other times but with the ideals of those times.

There is the possibility that the foundational order for which he yearns comes not from right thinking but from power.

And, there are conflicting story lines, but there is no sheer chance, or luck.

Yet the thesis of this book cannot be summarily dismissed. Look at the fix we're in!

Even so, it's liberal democracy for me. With all its warts.
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,706 reviews621 followers
August 31, 2018
Intertextuality Update: fairly obvious, in the course of my current re-read of A Confederacy of Dunces, that author here has simply taken protagonist there and channeled him as non-satirical: MacIntyre is Ignatius Reilly. The worm is the spice!

A fairly conservative endeavor overall. Outworks note, for instance, that “Marxism’s moral defects and failures arise from the extent to which it, like liberal individualism, embodies the ethos of the distinctively modern and modernizing world” (xviii). Marxism’s purported “moral impoverishment” (FFS) comes “as much because of what it has inherited from liberal individualism as because of its departures” therefrom (id.). (The text is not about Marxism, however, though he concludes also with some thoughtful commentary, such as “”Marxism is exhausted as a political tradition,” but “this exhaustion is shared by every other political tradition within our culture” (262) OH NOS.) We know nevertheless that it will get motherfugly when dude seeks “the lost morality of the past” (22) and “more traditional modes of existence” (35). Great fear, here, then of all that is solid melting into air. When we get to “fragmentation of morality which accompanied the rise of modernity” (205), we are well into Griffin (Modernism and Fascism)/Paxton (Anatomy of Fascism) territory.

Argument proper proceeds upon a clever apocalyptic hypothetical (drawing specifically upon A Canticle for Leibowitz) wherein science is blamed for some sort of catastrophe and abolished somewhat effectively—but then later an attempt to revive it is very partial, recalling only words without access to the underlying referents: “everything conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably” (1). In this setting, “the language of natural science […] continues to be used but is in a grave state of disorder” (2); because “the techniques of analytical philosophy are essentially descriptive and descriptive of language of the present,” the ‘grave disorder’ aforesaid would never be revealed thereby. Similarly, phenomenology is worthless to expose the ‘grave disorder’:
All the structures of intentionality would be what they are now. The task of supplying an epistemological basis for these false simulacra of natural science would not differ in phenomenological terms from the task as it is presently envisaged. (2)
Author advances the hypothesis that “in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder” (id.). We have rather a “simulacra of morality” (id.)—curious! What indeed was the catastrophe to produce our grave disorder? In Miller’s Canticle for Liebowitz, it was global thermonuclear warfare, of course. I suspect one might make the case that the cause is the same for us with respect to morality (i.e., did we finally jump the shark in 1945?), though dude doesn’t lay that down, except to state, somewhat dogmatically, that “a central thesis of this book is that the breakdown of this project [of an independent rational justification of morality] provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible” (39).

We know that there’s been a catastrophe because author finds “no rational way of securing moral agreement” (6). This lament assumes of course that there had previously been some way of securing moral agreement; I for one controvert this assumption (he states “the language of morality passed from a state of order to a state of disorder” (11), but this is postulated, rather than rigorously developed). He identifies “conceptual incommensurability” of rival theses as the problem, wherein “every one of the arguments is logically valid” but “the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims” (8), using jus ad bellum, termination of pregnancy, and employment discrimination as topoi to demonstrate incommensurabilities. My own position is that it is elementary to prefer the correct answer in each question, as the rival positions are irredeemable, but whatever, there wouldn’t be a book here if he just killed off the stupid right away—it is in fact not difficult in the slightest to prefer rationally one set of premises over the other.

There is a fatal equivocation here in the argument, which is fallacious to the extent that the rival arguments are valid, but they are not sound—we can assess the comparative truth values of the premises, despite the fact that the arguments are valid otherwise, normally with reference to rigorous interrogation of historical processes, say, as all issues will have a determinative history.

Author considers this alleged state of catastrophic disorder to be “emotivism,” “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (11-12). That is GE Moore’s “naïve and complacent apocalypticism” (16), which had reduced morality down to “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine […] This is the ultimate and fundamental truth of moral philosophy” (15). OH NOS? The result is “unsettlable, interminable arguments of own culture” (59). Does this constitute dialectical impasse, as noted by the Hegelian theory of tragedy? (Text discusses the Philoctetes and the Oresteia at length, NB, keys to the Hegelian theory.) I.e., we should be clear that the point of the exercise up front is that we have an ethical catastrophe aptly described as the reduction of the ethical to the mere aesthetic. Author proposes to rescue us from the grave disorder of this reduction.

Works through and subjects to discipline therefore the various standard positions (Bentham, Kant, Kierkegaard, et al.; Rawls v. Nozick; with some excellent refutation of Burke and burkeans at 221 ff.; Hume’s alleged “universal human nature” turns out to be “the prejudices of the Hanoverian ruling elite” (231), &c.; the stoics; and so on). Much interesting commentary—and I mean that in the most severe sense possible—author is very smart, and this text is full of cool observations: nearly every page has an insight that connects across centuries, much like reading Toynbee’s macro-history, things about which I’d been thinking for years resolve in several sentences. Great little bit, for instance, regarding ‘psychological continuity’ doctrine (217 ff.)—the body changes, the mind changes, but the self remains as a narrative: “The self inhabits a character whose unity is given as the unity of a character” (217), which is wonderfully suggestive of a baudrillardian simulacrum wherein the self is merely a copy lacking an original.

And that indicates one of the great things about this text: that it certainly is suggestive of other connections, even if it doesn’t necessarily make them. So, for instance, when dude is working through the sophists, he states that they originate in a “wish to provide a consistent and coherent redefinition of the central evaluative expressions” of Greek philosophy (139). They “generated inconsistency” at various points, via “using expressions which themselves embody a non-relativistic standpoint inconsistent with the relativism which led him to use that vocabulary” (id.). The sophist “wishes to employ the conventional vocabulary” in both praising justice and praising injustice as what is in the interest of the stronger, say (id.). This reveals that sophism is a sort of agambenian state of exception, an anomic breach of the constitutional order necessary for its maintenance, inscribed directly into the nomos of that constitution. But it is also Kant’s antecedent position of choice—the relativist requires the protections of non-relativism in order for relativism to find any purchase. This leads to the inference that the APoC is in the SoE. (There’s another line of reasoning earlier where nietzschean eternal recurrence becomes ludic nihilism.)

Ultimately, however, the critiques of modernity and liberalism must end, the cool insights must be exposed as incidentals, and dude shall be compelled to lay his cards on the table: “moral judgments are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices” (60)—the loss was produced by liberalism, i.e., “the achievement by the self of its proper autonomy” (id.): the question becomes “whether we view this decisive moment of change as loss or liberation, as a transition to autonomy or to anomie” (61), which is kinda gross as an undecidability. Denies the existence of rights (“There are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns” (69), which is the type of philistinism that only non-attorneys can muster.) Similarly denies the overlap of science and empiricism: “indeed something extraordinary in the coexistence of empiricism and natural science in the same culture, for they represent radically different and incompatible ways of approaching the world” (81). States that “the salient fact about [the social] sciences is the absence of the discovery of any law-like generalizations whatsoever” (88).

Following upon these proclamations is the source of the leibowitzian catastrophe:
the forms and claims of kinship, although not the same in fifth-century Athens as they had been in earlier centuries, survive in substantial form. The aristocratic household preserves a good deal of Homer in life as well as in poetry. But the Homeric values no longer define the moral horizon, just as the household or kinship group are now part of a larger and very different unit [having earlier lamented that the effect of the Oresteia is to remove moral decision-making from the oikos to the polis OH NOS]. There are no more kings, even though many of the virtues of kingship are still held to be virtues. (132)
This leads to the conclusion that “the conception of a virtue has now become strikingly detached from that of any particular social role” (id.). Virtue has been radically decentered, and this is an apocalypse for some people. Lotsa working through Athenian virtues, Aristotle’s ideas. Very cool, actually, even if in support of raising a corpse several millennia buried.

So, yeah, we’re in aretaic ethics. “Aristotle has cogent arguments against identifying that good with money, with honor or with pleasure. He gives it the name of Eudaimonia - as so often there is a difficulty in translation: blessedness, happiness, prosperity” (148). For author, “Aristotle treats the acquisition and exercise of the virtues as means to an end” (184). And the end?
it is with the virtues and the telos which is the good life for man on Aristotle’s account. The exercise of the virtues is itself a crucial component of the good life for man. (id.)
That is, the end of Aristotelian ethics is an aesthetics.

This shows up again in the discussion of Franklin’s utilitarian ethics:
According to Franklin in his Autobiography the virtues are means to an end, but he envisages the means-ends relationship as external rather than internal. The end to which cultivation of the virtues ministers is happiness. (185)
Dude desperately wants to throw Moore’s emotivism under the bus, but is unable to do so, if virtue is simply a matter of aesthetics—he even argues that “the authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all subjectivist and emotivist analyses of judgment. De gustibus est disputandum [sic]” (190). That is, taste is disputable, a fatal admission if one is attempting to pull ethics out of aesthetics. So, in killing off Moore's emotivism, we are here only killing off the relativism and keeping the aesthetics, which strikes me as a bakhtinian monologism, a single tone of seriousness. Whose tone, then?

There are hints of who sets the single tone of seriousness here. It is mature enough to admit that ‘virtues are of course themselves in turn fostered by certain types of social institution and endangered by others” (195).
For liberal individualism a community is simply an arena in which individuals each pursue their own self-chosen conception of the good life, and political institutions exist to provide that degree of order which makes such self-determined activity possible. Government and law are, or ought to be, neutral between rival conceptions of the good life for man [!], and hence, although it is the task of government to promote law-abidingness, it is on the liberal view no part of the legitimate function of government to inculcate any one moral outlook. (195)
Jefferson’s preferred virtues were good for a “society of small farmers,” whereas “the institutions of modern commercial society” threaten them (id). (All that is solid melts into air. Duh?) This text is probably one of the more important recent instances of anti-capitalism from the Right, however, with statements such as “the tradition of the virtues is at variance with central features of the modern economic order and more especially its individualism, its acquisitiveness and its elevation of the values of the market to a central social place” (254). He also rejects “the modern political order” (255): “Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical, or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition” (id.)—so, what’s left? Fascism? Aristocracy? Primitivism? Theocracy?

And the content of the aesthetics? “We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man” (219), which is kinda the same type of self-reflexive argument that Heidegger deploys in defining dasein, as I recall it (and is again the same type of philosopher-centric argument articulated by Plato—truly nothing new under the sun, vanity of vanities, at least for rightwing greasers). In that connection (I am so pleased that dude brought it up), we must recall the excellent bit from Derrida’s Aporias, regarding Heidegger:
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of what is being decided, so authoritatively and so decisively, at the very moment when what is in question is to decide on what must remain undecided. (loc. cit. at 54)
What I have come to understand in reading this text, then, is that there is an authoritative moment of decision in electing an aretaic ethics over a deontology, say.

In going aretaic, then, one is essentially deciding a list of undecidables ab initio. As a means to an aesthetic end, of course virtue ethics can only always take into consideration those items that author wishes to leave undecided—Moore’s emotivism—for his position and Moore’s are in the end substantially identical, mere aesthetic wishes elevated to Hume's unintentionally comical ‘universal human nature.’ Similarly, I as some kind of kantian am well aware that in adopting deontological principles I have disregarded the content of virtue ethics and instead seek out obligations to discharge. To assume obligation as the key to ethics is to become some sort of Kantian, just as to assume virtue as the key to ethics is to become some species of emotivist. As a Kantian, am finding virtue ethics violative of the categorical imperative, at least insofar as these aesthetic principles are not universal law.

In disagreeing with author’s conclusion, we might furthermore point out that the logical extreme of aretaic ethics, which is not at all obligation-oriented but self-oriented as a mere aesthetics, is randian objectivism, which would take the rational maximizer of Smith’s Wealth of Nations and strip it of all obligation to anything outside the self, as perhaps found in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, i.e., the eponymous ‘virtue of selfishness.’ The objectivist would howl, of course, at the comparison, as author here is generally anathema to Randians, and of course author finds market participation and cappy individualism, if such can be said to exist in any meaningful sense, to be distasteful (and it is truly an aesthetic determination). But stripped of those incidentals, the focus on an aesthetic ends to ethics can mean only one thing: This is John Galt speaking.

Recommended for those who think that pagan teaching is the devil’s work, readers who think we have something to learn from heroic society, and citizens of the universe.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,401 followers
September 9, 2017
A big reason that modern debates over moral issues seem completely interminable and unresolvable is that we no longer have a shared idea of what the goal of a society should be, nor, correspondingly, any idea of the ultimate purpose of an individual living in a society. In this book, Alistair Macintyre compellingly argues that our contemporary moral reasoning is nothing more than the detritus of a previous moral order that made clear sense: the Aristotelian tradition. Enlightenment philosophers succeeded in destroying the old moral order (wedded as it was to a defeated natural science) but failed in their goal of rebuilding a new morality that they could justify rationally. As such, moral discourse has devolved into "emotivism"; an attempt to simply force personal preferences on people using moral language. As a result moral discourse has become merely a battle of wills and attempted manipulation without any means of actually resolving moral questions and moving forward (see for instance: the U.S. debate on abortion), placing society into what Macintyre describes as a state of permanent civil war. Without being able to have real moral debates, much effort is focused on "exposing" other bad faith, character assassination and simple information warfare.

During the period when Aristotelian ethics reigned, the moral qualities we cite today were tied to a now-alien concept known as the "virtues." The virtues served a specific purpose: to make human beings good at being human. But the whole notion of what constitutes a "good" human no longer has any clear meaning. Lacking a teleological vision of our society, and, consequently, of individual lives, we have no idea what attributes to encourage. Older societies used to make sense of their purpose and the purpose of individual lives by situating them into narrative stories. Today, there is no story that we have to tell about ourselves, nor about the virtues that we should cultivate to make our narratives successful. We still use the old moral language tied to the virtues, but they have been divorced of the context that made them make sense. By way of analogy, when we describe what makes a "good" watch, we can identify qualities such as effective timekeeping, durability and tuning as qualities that make it "good." But when we are talking about human beings, the answer of what qualities make one "good" are no longer clear. They have become entirely subjective, and both utilitarian ethics and rights-based philosophy have failed to find any clear ground for rebuilding a coherent moral discourse. Returning to the Aristotelian conception of morality where morality had a specific purpose to cultivate "virtues" would require a return to communities with specific goals and ideas about their telos. Such communities do exist on the fringes today, but as a whole the societies we live in are completely undirected. Macintyre describes this as our descent into a dark age - a characteristic of previous times when conceptions of the virtues were lost and the world became a battle of wills.

I'll be reflecting on this book for some time. It was challenging at times, and I don't feel qualified to give a complete account of it (other reviewers have done a capable job). But I'm very much impressed with his powerful articulation of the ephemeral basis upon which our contemporary moral reasoning is based. The next time I hear a politician (the quintessential Enlightenment bureacratic managerial character of our time) using moral language to argue a position, it will be hard to avoid thinking about the emotivist manipulation they are inevitably employing in doing so. Nietzsche got it partly right by seeing through the hollow morality of his time, but rebuilding it would require going a bit further back.
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
497 reviews725 followers
February 23, 2019
The poor Enlightenment. Trapped by its inherent contradictions, we in the West find ourselves locked into playing out the game set by it, struggling to make the best of a bad hand until inevitably forced to fold, though the precise manner and consequences of that folding are yet to be determined. The Enlightenment’s defenders, cut-rate Rolands all, including Steven Pinker and many other Pollyanas across the political spectrum, try their hardest, even though it is now pretty obvious that the Enlightenment only awaits a few good kicks to the head to put it down permanently. But the open and widespread realization of this looming denouement is quite new. When Alasdair MacIntyre first published "After Virtue," in 1980, it was perhaps the first modern, sophisticated attack on the foundations of the Enlightenment. It has not lost its power in the past forty years, even though it has been joined by many others.

True, as with the major works of other modern politically relevant philosophers, such as John Rawls and Robert Nozick (both covered and rejected by MacIntyre), I am quite sure this is a book that a great many people talk about, and very few have read. I once read half of Nozick’s libertarian manifesto, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia." It defeated me, but perhaps I was not dedicated enough. At least the book was not obviously dumb. On the other hand, I have not, nor will I, read Rawls. The first I heard of him was twenty years ago, when one of my law school roommates, more educated than me (and now a prominent law school professor), returned home and announced excitedly he had gone to see the amazing John Rawls speak. (I, of course, was unaware that such a talk was even happening on campus, or that Rawls existed.) Curious, I asked about Rawls, and my roommate offered some summaries of his thought. To each summary, I posed a response, querying an item that seemed obviously defective in Rawls’s ideas, to which, in each case, my roommate struggled to find an answer. Finally, he said “I’m not doing a good job of explaining his thought.” After twenty years of much other similar second-hand exposure to Rawls, it’s clear that my roommate was doing a great job. The problem is that Rawls’s thought is glaringly stupid except to someone who has already bought into his project, which is finding pseudo-philosophical justifications for leftist political positions first assumed as conclusive. He offers nothing but a giant exercise in question-begging, and he is therefore worthless. And why, more precisely, Rawls is worthless is, in many ways, the subject of this book, even if not framed so.

Such worship of obviously stupid philosophers is not new. MacIntyre spends a fair bit of time on the obscure G. E. Moore, who in the early 1900s was the John Rawls of his day, worshipped by everyone from John Maynard Keynes to Lytton Strachey. Moore wrote a famous book claiming to prove definitively that “personal affections and aesthetic judgments” were the only goods that mattered, as proven by “intuition,” even though he claimed to be a utilitarian. This was very attractive to people like the Bloomsbury Group and their ilk, obviously. After expertly dissecting Moore, and noting the slavish adoration he received from his acolytes, which today seems inexplicable, MacIntyre notes “This is great silliness of course; but it is the great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people.” Why did they “accept Moore’s naïve and complacent” ideas? They “had already accepted the values of Moore’s [book], but could not accept these merely as their own personal preferences. They felt the need to find objective and impersonal justification. . . . .” So with Rawls.

Enough beating up on intellectual cripples, though as we’ll see, beating up on such cripples is the entire point of "After Virtue." Why read this book at all? After all, while this book is famous, and especially famous among conservatives, analytical philosophy is not my usual reading. It hurts my head. Moreover, I am always more interested in doing than navel gazing (we can bracket for now that what I am doing visibly now is writing, which is not doing). Therefore, my purpose in reading this book, other than to be able to say I have done so to nods of knowing appreciation, is to aid in the construction of my own program for the remade future.

However, in the context of remaking the world, I do think books like "After Virtue" are of somewhat limited value. We, as a society, have long passed beyond the stage when discussion, much less discussion of high-level philosophy, has any use in deciding the existential questions (which, ironically, is part of the point of this book). Two wholly incompatible visions cannot coexist; one must give way permanently, in the real world of zero-sum games that will ultimately be decided by force, not fought on the pages of books. That said, a revived and remade society has to be well-tutored, or more accurately its ruling classes have to be, and at that point the philosophers can become directly relevant again, so this book may yet prove valuable to a reborn society. I just suspect that’ll be later, not sooner.

In any case, MacIntyre’s basic point is that modern claims of what is moral, of which there are many systems, falling into several general groups, are not only all incompatible with each other, but contain within themselves no possible mechanism to resolve their competing claims. Viewed from outside, all are based on arbitrary premises that cannot be demonstrated. This is true for emotivism, MacIntyre’s main target, the claim that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” Emotivism is the characteristic philosophical mode of modernism, and it, in fact, embraces this irresolvability of moral claims. But it is just as true for utilitarianism, the characteristic mode of the major earlier Enlightenment thinkers, who invariably denied that claims are irresolvable. Ultimately, all these systems require the individual to make the choice without reference to anything outside himself, which is not surprising, given that autonomic individualism is the core belief at the heart of the Enlightenment.

Much of MacIntyre’s writing is dense, though leavened with funny parts. We get “What I have described in terms of a loss of traditional structure and content was seen by the most articulate of their philosophical spokesmen as the achievement by the self of its proper autonomy. The self had been liberated from all those outmoded forms of social organization which had imprisoned it simultaneously within a belief in a theistic and teleological world order and within those hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such a world order.” But we also get, “In the United Nations declaration on human rights of 1949 what has since become the normal UN practice of not giving good reasons for any assertions whatsoever is followed with great rigor.” Yeah, pretty much.

MacIntyre examines and dismisses all attempts to justify Enlightenment conceptions of morality, from Hume to Kant to Kierkegaard. He demonstrates that either their belief that they have found an objective basis for their conclusions on virtue is somewhere between incoherent and totally defective, or it is merely echoes of Christianity into which most of these thinkers were embedded so far they could not recognize it (a point I make regularly). MacIntyre thus comes to focus on Nietzsche, after dismissing the others as offering nothing but smoke and mirrors. In MacIntyre’s analysis, Nietzsche correctly saw the insupportability of the Enlightenment project to justify morality by hanging it on a skyhook, so he stands apart, or appears to stand apart, from all other modern thinkers. But instead, he fell back into the Enlightenment’s atomism by incorrectly thinking that another type of individualism, that of the pre-Christian supposed heroic age, was the solution.

MacIntyre’s main point about Nietzsche is that contrary to the core of his claims, whatever the historicity of the heroic age, that of Homer, its morality had nothing to do with individualism. Rather, morality was dictated by compliance with assigned social roles, with the warrior-king at the apex of the pyramid of social roles. But the warrior-king was not free to choose; for him, and for all others, virtue consisted in completely and competently fulfilling the role he had been assigned. Had he picked actions inconsistent with that role, it would not have been heroic, or virtuous in the view of the time, but contemptible. His will was not at all sovereign; it was less sovereign by far than that of the modern believer in autonomic individualism. “Nietzsche replaces the fictions of the Enlightenment individualism, of which he is so contemptuous, with a set of individualist fictions of his own.” Thus, Nietzsche is no less beholden to the prison of individualism than any Enlightenment thinker, and MacIntyre then declares a clean sweep of the Enlightenment field.

What does MacIntyre offer in opposition? A return to the teleological conception of man. I have often made a MacIntyre-type claim, that all modern and Left visions of morality are incoherent. I tend to phrase this in terms of the echoes of Christianity, that all not incoherent modern visions are merely the reverberations of Christian belief, and that is certainly true for certain elements that can only be found as central in Christianity, such as the Golden Rule. But MacIntyre is right, that the dividing line is not so much Christian/non-Christian, as teleological/non-teleological. Christianity is a subset, or the culmination, of such thought, not the exclusive provider. What is the end, the goal, the purpose, of the life of each human? If the answer is “I don’t know” or “that is for him to decide,” the answers given by all thinkers of and since the Enlightenment, the inevitable consequence is moral incoherence, as MacIntyre demonstrates at great length. The remainder of the book mostly revolves around demonstrating that no teleology, no coherent morality or concept of virtue, with side departures into discussions of matters such as the emotivism of the Weberian concept of management.

MacIntyre does not say we can, even through agreement on teleology, come to agreement on what, in all cases, constitutes virtue. What he offers is common ground in opposition to the Enlightenment’s necessary inability to offer any. He does not offer an airtight box. Thus, MacIntyre repeatedly refers to the “table of virtues,” by which he means the list of virtues any given society holds as virtues. For moderns, he means this as a criticism. For pre-moderns, though, it is not a criticism, but a recognition that even a teleological view of humanity does not dictate a wholly identical set of virtues. For example, humility, the outstanding medieval and Christian virtue, did not even have a word for it in Greek (just as there were no words for “sin,” “repentance,” or “charity”), and humility was in no way thought of as a virtue by Aristotle. MacIntyre multiplies such examples, including as between pre-modern systems, most of all between Aristotelianism and medieval thinking (pointing out, among other things, that Aquinas was, in his great regard for Aristotle’s conception of the virtues, “a highly deviant medieval figure”). The author even brings in conceptions of virtue from some people not philosophers, examining how their “tables” differ— Benjamin Franklin, progenitor of the Prosperity Gospel, and Jane Austen, noting her reconciliation with Christianity of the ancient conception of virtue as tied to social roles.

Still, McIntyre believes that despite these disagreements, a “unitary core concept of the virtues” can be distilled from these pre-Enlightenment lines of thought. After quite a bit of windup, including technically defining a “practice” to relate to the achievement of excellence that helps define an activity, thereby extending “human conceptions of the ends and goods involved,” he says “A virtue is 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.” Sounds reasonable, though I am far from competent to parse it, and obviously it requires a non-emotivist and non-utilitarian, but rather teleological, conception of terms such as “excellence.” By this way of thinking, MacIntyre says, justice, courage, and honesty are always virtues; other virtues may be society-dependent based on practices (as technically defined).

“The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good.” Determining the good is a quest (shades of Jordan Peterson) and “It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood.” This quest can never be an individual quest; it is of man as embedded in society, and emancipation from multitudinous unchosen bonds is both not a goal and unthinkable.

The final paragraph of "After Virtue" is often cited, and its last sentences were taken by Rod Dreher as the basis for his famous Benedict Option. Predicting a turning point, parallel to late Rome (though disclaiming such analogies as generally appropriate), away from the “moral community” supporting the “imperium,” towards groping in the direction of “forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us,” MacIntyre says “We are waiting . . . for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” What interests me in particular is that the last paragraph is the only paragraph like it in the book. Most of the book is dry and highly technical, and while there are embedded within it other conclusions to much the same import, they are cloaked in the language of philosophy. Only in this last paragraph does, quite unexpectedly, MacIntyre step out from behind the curtain to make an expansive claim of how what he has outlined earlier has fatally affected our society, and what must be done in response. This makes his conclusion much more effective; the book avoids polemic, or at least polemic obvious to the layman, until at the very last MacIntyre delivers his conclusive hammer blow to the Enlightenment.

So After Virtue is very well done, to the extent I can understand it. Still, as I say, what need of philosophical justification for a project that, to have practical impact, must first have visceral impact? Perhaps the main purpose of this book is to provide intellectual heft for the hypothetical Man of Destiny who may, at some point, remake the West. He does not have to understand it, quote it, or use it, but he can say—Look, MacIntyre agrees that there are virtues, and we know what they are. Since the utter remaking of the ruling classes is critical for any renewal, and this is the type of book that influences the influential among the ruling classes, perhaps it serves a more essential purpose than is obvious. “[Y]ou cannot hope to re-invent morality on the scale of a whole nation when the very idiom of the morality which you seek to re-invent is alien in one way to the vast mass of ordinary people and in another to the intellectual elite.” Helping to provide non-alien common ground on basic morality to all sectors of society is, perhaps, the fate of this book.

I think MacIntyre senses both the need for remaking and the role of his book. He explicitly rejects Burkean tradition, identifying it (somewhat unfairly, I think) with a refusal to acknowledge that any living tradition is a “continuous argument” and with accepting Enlightenment premises, and therefore being a doctrine “as liberal and as individualist as that of self-avowed liberals.” Like me, MacIntyre rejects “the conventional conservative role of laudator temporis acti [one who praises past times].” “It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present. Living traditions, just because they continue a not-yet-completed narrative, confront a future whose determinate and determinable character, so far as it possesses any, derives from the past.” That is to say, or practically endorse, my repeated claim that what we need is a new thing informed by the wisdom of the past, not a return to the past. Not nostalgia, but a new thing for a new age. But MacIntyre does not say what will replace it, so that is the question that must be answered—not with an ideological program, but with a frame that escapes the Enlightenment prison and can be adopted to circumstances as they come into focus.
Profile Image for Andrew.
86 reviews84 followers
May 15, 2021
After Virtue is probably one of the most important books I've ever read. Accordingly, it took me nearly five months of steady reading to really appreciate its content, including extended breaks to read the authors that MacIntyre drew inspiration from. In particular, a friend recommended that I pause After Virtue in order to refresh myself on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (which forms the basis for MacIntyre's exploration) and read Anscombe's Modern Moral Philosophy (which heavily informed his historicist approach). Notably, though not explicitly mentioned in After Virtue, MacIntyre also appears to draw upon Thomas Kuhn's concept of historical paradigms.

MacIntyre's scathing commentary of liberal, individualistic modernity is based on his painstakingly methodical "historicist" approach, in which he shows that major philosophical traditions can be understood by tracing the fate of the historical ideas that led up to them. Using this approach, MacIntyre argues, as did Anscombe, that central questions of modern moral philosophy—that is, modern concepts of right and wrong, and their corresponding analogues in political debate—are unresolvable because they anachronistically use conceptual fragments from different traditions, ripped from their historical context. In particular, contemporary "morality" as a concept is incoherent when it is juxtaposed against earlier, Aristotelian conceptions of "ethics", in which virtues (not "morals") are those character attributes and qualities that dispose one toward realizing an essential human telos or destiny. To this end, the "moral" labels of "good" or "bad" become factual descriptors of one's aptitude to realize a given goal rather than expressions of subjective moral preferences. In MacIntyre's words, Aristotle’s ethics is the "teleological scheme [in which] there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter."

It is Aristotle's ethics that MacIntyre believes to be most authoritative and worth rediscovering. To this end, he begins the book as an exploration of the nature of moral disagreement today, noting that liberal society's attitude toward moral debate can be traced back to emotivism, the theory that moral utterances are simply expressions of subjective individual preferences, and are thus unresolvable on the basis of any appeals to rational, impartial criteria.

MacIntyre notes that emotivism emerged in the early 1900s in England after the Enlightenment. He identifies the Enlightenment as a particularly destructive period in history and the decisive moment in which Aristotelian ethics were abandoned, after which Western civilization was left without a shared moral background. This was because Enlightenment thinkers, having abstracted God away (and, by extension, the Aristotelian tradition that influenced and melded with the Abrahamic religions), were doomed to fail in their project of rationally justifying morality. Core to this failure was the Enlightenment's rejection of the Aristotelian / Judeo-Christian notion of a human essence and destiny. Morality only makes sense, MacIntyre notes, with respect to a telos, which does not and cannot exist in the Enlightenment's concept of the individual. It is a concept vehemently rejected by the likes of Enlightenment philosophies conventionally thought to be opposites (Bentham and Mills's utilitarianism and Kant's deontology), by later existential thinkers (Nietzsche and Sartre), and by modern analytic philosophers (Carnap, Ayer, and more), all of whom MacIntyre explores in some detail.

MacIntyre then explores the modern implications of the Enlightenment's failure in justifying morality and the subsequent rise of emotivism. In particular, he rails against modern bureaucracies, which have power solely on the basis of their effectiveness in coercion. It is only in a world in which moral appeals are ineffective where a self-justifying appeal to power is most effective. On the other hand, if, in modern political debate, the dialectic is between bureaucracy and individual freedom, MacIntyre notes also that libertarian appeals to individual freedom are just as symptomatic of Enlightenment misconceptions. Modern political debate, MacIntyre writes, has become a false dichotomy between the statism and individualism. Similarly, the authority of modern bureaucracies and "managerial expertise" depends on the predictive power of the social sciences. Accordingly, the development of the social and political sciences, MacIntyre notes, is also undertaken with a characteristically Machiavellian (my words, not his) ethos, as they assume that human activity can be as predictable as the natural world.

As an aside: it is interesting to note the similarities of MacIntyre's explorations up until this point with the likes of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss (conservative philosophers who also identified the Enlightenment as that point at which the absurdities of modern liberalism began) and George Soros (a liberal hedge fund manager who spoke about the failure of social sciences in replicating the achievements of the natural sciences).

Next, MacIntyre turns his attention to proposing a plausible alternative to modern individualist liberalism. In order to do so, he first explores a variety of historical conceptions of virtue, beginning with the Heroic (pre-Socratic) societies, continuing on to Athenian society, Aristotle's account of the virtues, and concluding with medieval and Judeo-Christian virtues (as well as some brief commentary on the virtues of English and American societies personified by Jane Austen and Ben Franklin, respectively). In Heroic societies, MacIntyre explains, virtues are those qualities which enable an individual to fulfill their social role in a city-state or as part of a heroic journey. In this view, no virtue can be embodied outside of the community or city-state in which an individual resided—being a good citizen and good individual were inexorably bound in the pre-Socratic mind. Athenian society retained the linguistic terms used to describe virtue, but with a shifted framework, wherein Plato believed that apparently conflicting virtues had to be reconcilable to a single set of virtues. In Aristotle's account, described briefly above, virtues are those dispositions which enable individual and communal eudaimonia (flourishing, prospering). MacIntyre notes three central problems with Aristotle's ethics: (1) his metaphysical biology (i.e., Aristotle's belief in a more or less divinely ordained hereditary aristocracy) (2) the fact that it presupposes the existence of the city-state as the arena in which virtues are expressed and (3) Aristotle's inheritance of Plato's denial that there can be competing virtues. Finally, MacIntyre frames the medieval / Christian virtues as an amalgam of Christian theology and Aristotelianism, wherein virtues are those traits which enable an individual to conquer the evil encountered in the journey of a human life.

As I understood him, MacIntyre rejects (1), noting that Aristotle's ethics can still stand so long as a compelling conception of human flourishing is offered as a replacement, reaffirms the need for a communal city-state (though embodied differently) as in (2), and rejects (3), noting that while virtues sometimes conflict for good reason, there can still be a unifying theory of the virtues. That unifying theory is founded on three things: practices, the unity and narrative structure of human life, and the concept of a moral tradition.

1) Practices are any coherent and complex form of socially established human activity (e.g., brick-laying is not a practice, but architecture is). Within the concept of practices, MacIntyre distinguishes between internal and external goods: internal goods are those realized in the course of trying to achieve standards of excellence appropriate to the practice, and external goods are rewards and accolades given for the achievement of those standards.

2) Common to each of the above historical accounts of virtue is the narrative structure of human life and the concept of a telos, without which human activity has no orientation, and the variety of goods which we value cannot be ranked. In the climactic chapter entitled "The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life, and the Concept of a Tradition", MacIntyre writes about how actions and activity can only be rendered intelligible when they are considered with respect to a goal (and about how the concepts of telos and intelligibility are foreign concepts in liberal, postmodern society) and when life is considered as a unified whole. Indeed, "When someone complains – as do some of those who attempt or commit suicide – that his or her life is meaningless, he or she is often and perhaps characteristically complaining that the narrative of their life has become unintelligible to them, that it lacks any points, any movement toward a climax."

3) Because our narratives are inextricably bound up with the narratives of others, and because different societies have different conceptions of the "good" that are tied to specific circumstances and social roles, we have to express virtue in the context of a tradition: “The virtues find their point and purpose not only in sustaining those relationships necessary if the variety of goods internal to practices are to be achieved and not only in sustaining the form of an individual life in which that individual may seek out his or her good as the good of his or her whole life, but also in sustaining those traditions which provide both practices and individual lives with their necessary historical context. Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues – these corrupt traditions… To recognize this is of course also to recognize the existence of an additional virtue… the virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one. This virtue is not to be confused with any form of conservative antiquarianism; I am not praising those who choose the conventional conservative role of laudator temporis acti. It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.”

Following in his historicist approach, any positive account of the virtues has to understand the history of the tradition of the virtues in order to fully "understand to what kind of degeneration it has proved liable." To this end, MacIntyre notes that in modernity, the narrative unity of a human life and the importance of practices have been displaced because:

* narratives have been relegated to the separate realm of art and are no longer considered accurate representations of reality (Sartre),
* internal goods have become subordinate to the external goods awarded by economic markets and bureaucratic institutions,
* virtues, following Hume and Kant, have become understood as those character qualities that lead to obedience to rules (what rules, and for whom?),
* modernity partitions human life into a variety of segments (personal, work, public, etc.)
* modern analytic philosophers reason about complex actions in terms of simplistic, atomic components and existential philosophers don't believe in an essential self or narrative, separating individuals from their environment and context.

I might add that related phenomena include: in mathematics and the sciences, the rise of statistics and computation as the dominant analytical tool (over calculus); in business, the rise of value-free A/B testing (the dominance of external market rewards); in technology, Silicon Valley's obsession with "big data"; in investing: fears of active investing and the shift toward no-opinion, diversified strategies; in colleges, the elevation of identity politics over intellectual discussion (the dominance of Nietzsche's "will to power"); etc...

MacIntyre believes that, core to all conceptions of virtue, there are the virtues of courage, justice, and honesty. He devotes an entire chapter to justice in particular when exploring why virtue ethics face headwinds in modern society, contrasting Rawls and Nozick's conceptions of justice (which are, in a word, redistribution- and private-property- based, respectively). He notes again, that while both seem to oppose one another, both seem to consider society as "something akin to strangers shipwrecked on an island" with "no moral or social bonds between them"—i.e., both forgo the concept of a moral tradition or community, and like the Enlightenment thinkers before them, attempt to reason from a moral vacuum, separate from their historical contexts.

Finally, he concludes the book with a critique of Nietzsche. Though Nietzsche was the first modern philosopher to truly recognize the Enlightenment's failure, Nietzsche's proposed alternative (the Ubermensch and the will to power) was not a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism, but an unfolding of it. MacIntyre notes parallels between our age and the late Roman empire, suggesting that we could be on the precipice of a new Dark Ages. But if Aristotelian virtue has survived even in the last Dark Ages, MacIntyre concludes, perhaps there is hope for us yet.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
978 reviews580 followers
April 30, 2020
All value systems after Aristotle have been wrong except when they have been slightly modified through a lens of Christian thinkers like Aquinas or Jane Austin at least that’s what the author is going to argue in this book.

The Enlightenment’s valuing of the individual and the rejection of authority went too far, he’ll say. The truth is out there as for living a virtuous life and we just need to re-channel Aristotle and reconnect with our community, character and social standards, he will say.

There is a purpose driven life and our meaning for life revolves around the universal truths that supplant any feelings that tell you differently, he’ll say. The authentic life is not achievable if you discover it on your own, he'll say, and it is not for you to own your own life and it is best outsourced, he'll tell the reader. He mostly doesn’t like Nietzsche and would consider him a nihilist lacking of consideration since the author really thinks there is a meaning and purpose from our telos and the only worthwhile narrative that is deserving of our consideration is the myth he appeals to, a variation of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle with some Christian modifications.

One must determine their own ethics and purpose in life, I say. Reason is just a label we slap on our thoughts to justify our past acts or plan our future deeds, I say. Life is complex and our actions and thoughts are always within a greater whole and our meaning comes from any source we can find and synthesize and we are best served when we don’t outsource our values and telos to anything beyond our own judgement derived from our total life experiences and searching.

Macintyre is forcing meaning and purpose with a telos beyond what reason would dictate. He puts himself in the text cleverly between Nozick (only individual liberty matters) and Rawls (perfect equality predominates) within an intermediate space which will stamp character on to ourselves from outside of ourselves through a yielding to the will of the community and at times a submission to a stifling conforming norm of the society at large. There is a real yuck factor to what he’s getting at and it would lead to a world where our individual nature is beaten down to a pulp. There are two books that he basically synthesizes while adding in Aristotle, one written before this book, The Social Construction of Reality, by Berger, and the other after Contingency and Irony by Rorty (he mentions Rorty very favorably multiple times in the text).

Macintyre makes a whole lot of pleasant diversions while trying to make his points and that’s why I gave this book two stars not one star, because I like Aquinas, Dante, Marx and Aristotle as much as he did, and I like Nietzsche, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard as much as he seems to dislike them, and he actually understood almost all of the characters he introduces beyond the superficial level; it’s his big overriding system that I don’t like whatsoever. I want to note something, he really and truly misunderstood Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard’s ‘Either/Or’, he just puts it and him in the wrong context but I’m going to just give him a pass on that since he is writing this book in 1982 and perhaps that’s what they thought in those days.

Morality is more than just character and values in the obtaining of ‘the good’ as he basically lays out his story. The world doesn’t just have one narrative and there is at most ‘a good’ we strive for, not ‘the good’. It’s a dangerous path when we outsource our beliefs to just one set of values (virtues) especially when the world is complex and there are multiple moving parts which we never quite get at in our quest for excellence as an individual, a member of a community or within a social order (basically his definition of virtue). Perhaps, Nietzsche and his active nihilism and his perspectivism can serve us better than an appeal to Aristotelean ethics. (BTW, you do know that Aristotle would hold pride as a virtue, and the Greeks would see hope as an evil worthy to remain in Pandora’s Box while almost all Christian thinkers would see them conversely).

A conservative is one who blames an individual for a lack of character shaped by an inadequate community commitment due to a lack of Christian upbringing. I see this book as a total agreement with that formulation and I believe that is what the author is trying to get at with his dissing of the Enlightenment and a return to Aristotelian ethics. That’s one of the reasons I really reject this book because I think the brand of conservatism the author is advocating has given us Donald Trump and that is too close to making us into Fascists. There is no one overriding single Good and we are best served by finding our own meaning, purpose and telos and not relying on a myth of a magical distant past.
Profile Image for Salma.
394 reviews1,091 followers
March 18, 2019
لن أتمه، استسلمت
مع أن الموضوع قيم والمؤلف لديه لفتات ذكية في نقد الواقع الأخلاقي الحالي الذي آلت إليه الأمور في عصرنا، لكن الترجمة رديئة، وبالكاد تريك شيئا من المعنى وكأنك تحاول النظر من وراء حجاب أو تتنفس من ثقب الباب، لا يكاد يصلك نتف منه
هذه ث��ني تجربة كارثية مع ترجمة حيدر حاج اسماعيل
الأولى كانت مع كتاب تشارلز تايلر منابع الذات، وحينها تداركت الأمر قليلا بالاطلاع على النسخة الأجن��ية في الجمل المشكلة أو المهمة حتى أفهم، لأن الموضوع جدا أعجبني، واستغرقني الأمر وقتا طويلا
وهذه كانت الثانية، ولم أفعل كما فعلت هناك لأني مللت وشعرت بالغيظ الشديد من المترجم
وأحسبها ستكون تجربتي الأخيرة معه
ليس كل من يتقن لغة أخرى يصلح للترجمة
يحتاج المترجم لأن يتقن سبك الجمل العربية وللقدرة على التعبير عن الموضوع الذي التزمه بلسان قومه قبل أن يفكر بالنقل من اللغات الأخرى
أتمنى أن تعاد ترجمة هذا الكتاب وكتاب تشارلز تايلر منابع الذات من قبل مترجم آخر يتقن بناء الجملة العربية
Profile Image for Paul.
58 reviews2 followers
November 24, 2012
I've often wondered why I cannot seem to construct a coherent, rational argument with respect to any of the hot-button social issues of our day. MacIntyre says I'm not alone; both liberals and conservatives today are trapped in a radically individualist philosophical liberalism that cannot be defended despite "three centuries of moral philosophy and one of sociology." His counter-proposal is that the "Aristotelian tradition can be restated in a way that restores intelligibility and rationality to our moral and social attitudes and commitments." So now I have to revisit all my previous views and imagine how Aristotle would approach them in terms of "relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared conception of goods." Not to mention catching up on thirty years worth of anti-MacIntyre polemic.
Profile Image for David .
1,239 reviews154 followers
June 30, 2014
In my twenties I read a lot of books. I was in seminary, reading assigned readings, and then I was starting out in ministry reading books on leadership and spiritual formation and the like. Over time I began to notice some authors were referenced in numerous books I was reading. Now in my thirties, it seems as if I am reading the authors who were often being quoted in books I read in my twenties. Alasdair Macintyre is one such author. I’d heard of his books numerous times but it wasn’t until a friend told me I seriously should read him that I finally did.

It feels odd to call this a “review” of After Virtue, just as I always feel weird reviewing any book that could be considered a classic. This may not be a classic, but it has been incredibly influential in moral philosophy and I am nowhere near a philosopher. That said, this is the sort of book that I love reading. It stretches me. It is not as easy to read as those spiritual formation books of a few years back for it is the deep well which those authors were drawing on. But there is tremendous benefit in going to the well yourself rather then letting someone else get the water. I think a lot of my pastor and ministry friends would not only benefit from this book, but would receive great intellectual stimulation in reading it.

Macintyre asks early on, why is it so difficult to have a debate over morals in our society? People on both sides of the argument can give solid, cogent cases for their points but there never seems to be any headway made. Right there I was hooked. Whether it is gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, foreign affairs, or economics, this problem is clearly apparent. We argue and argue and argue. More often then not our arguments devolve into simple assertions, saying more about how we feel then anything else. That is because there is little common ground to gain headway in the “anything else”.

What I loved about this book, and what makes it readable, is Macintyre makes his case through looking at history, telling a story. He argues that the division between history and philosophy is artificial and unhelpful. The historical situation in which a philosopher lived was always very important. So instead of dry, difficult philosophy, Macintyre gives us a narrative.

His argument is that we have lost teleology, the sense of where a human life ought to be going. In the past moral decisions fit into a life lived towards a clear goal. It was akin to playing a game of chess – some moves are better then others and all moves are oriented towards a clear goal. Once this was removed it became impossible to present a rational moral system. Macintyre argues that all who have tried in the last three centuries, from Kant’s categorical imperative to Mill’s Utilitarianism, have failed. Our morals may be similar to those of before, but we’ve lost the ground for them. All we’re left with is preferences, some prefer one thing and some another. Macintyre’s solution is a call for a return to Aristotle’s virtues that would lead us to our life’s best ends.

Overall, a fantastic book. I will definitely be reading more Macintyre in the future.
Profile Image for Dan.
262 reviews60 followers
March 19, 2021
Nice critique of the modernist project that is still trying to justify and reconstruct ethics on individualism, rationalism, “natural rights” and other “objective” and “universal” assumptions. The solution proposed by the author is a return to our given cultures, practices, and more generally by a return to Aristotle's theory of virtue. The book as a whole seems slightly loose; however there are some really great sections in it.
Profile Image for Samantha.
125 reviews12 followers
October 7, 2014
Though I didn't necessarily agree with all the author's ultimate conclusions, I found After Virtue to be a cogent and well-argued work on moral theory. One of MacIntyre's claims against "emotivism" that he finds to be pervading societal discourse on morality--that is, morals and "virtues" reduced to mere claims of preference--is that logical reasoning is actually being done in support of those chosen moral standpoints. He roots many of the virtues we now intuitively view as "good" (i.e., courage, loyalty, etc.)in their historical traditions, going back to the so-called "heroic" societies of myth and legend, and particularly to Aristotle. He traces the downfall of a common basis for the foundation of morality to the Enlightenment and particularly to the changes in the understanding of natural science, which discredited Aristotle's conception of the natural world, on which his ethics and metaphysics rested.

MacIntyre finds the "Enlightenment project" to find a universal secular basis for "the good life for man" to have been a failure. He denies that philosophical concepts can be divorced from their historical context. There is certainly some truth to this on some level, but he uses this refusal to give ground to what he sees as "academic" divisions between the disciplines is sometimes problematic, as in his discussion of social science, which he sees as founded on emotivism. Social science is not philosophy, however much it may be grounded in philosophy. Likewise, MacIntyre tends to regard concepts that do not have deep linguistic roots (i.e. "utility" and "rights") as "fictions"--a point which may be arguable but hardly settled. He finds Nietzsche's views on morality as the refuge of the weak to be a stronger argument than the claims of other post-Enlightenment philosophers, though he admits that Nietzsche's "superman" or "man who transcends" is problematic if not ludicrous. Nietzsche, he claims, only rejected the then-current foundations for moral thought, without offering a replacement.

To the problem of "interminability" of moral arguments in modern society--that is, that people are proceeding from incompatible premises when they advance their arguments--MacIntyre suggests a solution of something of a revived Aristotelianism without the Physics (as well as without some of that philosopher's more odious views, such as on slavery). Even if the reader has accepted that the philosophers of the Enlightenment did not provide the foundations for a universalizable basis for moral theory (and there is room for disagreement there), the solution presented doesn't seem quite workable. Though the radical individualism of an "emotivist" society is problematic for moral thought and behavior, a return to "tradition," even defined broadly and with a nod to modernity, is not without quagmires of its own.
Profile Image for Scriptor Ignotus.
495 reviews174 followers
October 29, 2014
Never before have I read a work of nonfiction which argues that we are already living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but according to MacIntyre, we are indeed living through a new Dark Age - at least as far as morality is concerned.

MacIntyre lays out a famous hypothetical at the beginning of this work which imagines a world in which science has become demonized and banished from the intellectual scene, only to have scholars several generations later uncover fragments of the lost scientific age and attempt to piece them together, having the impression that they represent something profound but being more-or-less ignorant of the broader scientific method of which these fragments were a part. These scholars would dust off E=MC2, for example, and assert it as a truth without actually understanding what the equation was used to figure out, or even the fact that it is an equation rather than an assertion. This, according to MacIntyre, is what has happened to the language of morality since the enlightenment.

In our contemporary moral discourse, we are quite certain that the moral precepts we hold to are true, and yet we find ourselves unable to articulate why one moral argument is superior to another. There seems to be no objective standard of right and wrong against which we can weigh moral questions. Moral discourse is thus reduced to a competing array of shrill assertions which are built upon unverifiable premises.

The horrific public debate over abortion that has taken place over the last few decades is a useful example. Those on the "pro-life" side argue from the premise that human life is an inviolable right, and that life begins well before birth. Those on the "pro-choice" side argue from the premise that a woman's right to sovereignty over her body is inviolable, and she should thus be able to choose whether or not she wants to carry a fetus. But by what standard do we determine whether the premise of sovereinty over one's body or that of the inviolability of a (actual or potential) human life is of greater precedence? Both sides in the debate are unable to make this determination, and so both parties simply will their view over the other, and this fact manifests itself in the name-calling and palpable personal hostility which characterizes the controversy.

But according to MacIntyre, there was indeed such a time when a universally-accepted moral order existed, and moral language actually had a rational basis within a coherent ethical system. This universal moral system was lost in the hyper-individualism of the enlightenment. In emphasizing the independence and sovereign character of each individual as the primary actor of social, moral, and political life, moral universalism was divided into a spectrum of individual wills. An individual had the right to live by her own conscience rather than having moral precepts dogmatically handed down to them from outside; and thus one's subjective personal conscience became one's guide for life, rather than an objective morality that could not be understood on an individual level, but only in the context of a community understood as a moral body.

I think this collapse of universalism is the essential story of modernity as a whole. Modernity is the process through which secular time emerged out of premodern timelessness, and this in turn has caused a gradual "awakening" of "consciousness" on the part of more and more "limited" social actors. The story of modernity is the story of increasing subjectivization. States assert their subjective agency, then nobles within such states, then the common people of such states, then the poor vis-a-vis the rich, women vis-a-vis men, homosexuals vis-a-vis heteronormativity, etc.

Here MacIntyre alleges that Nietzsche, in postulating that rationalizations of moral arguments were merely masks worn by the subject's will to power, was not actually tearing down the moral system like he thought he was. Rather, he was illuminating a transformation that had already taken place, and running with it. Humorously, Nietzsche is compared to King Kamehameha II of Hawaii, who abolished the taboos of the polynesians over which he ruled. The polynesians could no longer articulate why such taboos existed, because the prohibitions the taboos instituted were based on a code of behavior which no longer existed. They made perfect sense at one time, but no longer did so and were only adhered to out of force of habit. One is reminded a bit here of the rather bizarre prohibition one finds in the laws of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Nietzsche played a similar role in "abolishing" the fragmented moral prohibitions of the European tradition.

According to MacIntyre, Nietzshe's prognosis for a moral future in which morality is willed on a personal level by the individual is despairingly accurate unless a lost past in which a coherent objective moral system existed can be unearthed and reconstructed; and MacIntyre finds hope for this in Aristotle. For Aristotle, morality cannot be understood outside of the context of the polis and an individual's moral authority comes from his place within this community. The community works toward virtue as its common end: its telos of moral excellence which enlightenment philosophy set aside.

Included in MacIntyre's presentation of Aristotle is a helpful treatment of Aristotle's conception of friendship. Nowadays, friendship is seen as an emotional state; you are friends with her because being around her pleases you, you enjoy her company, and so on. Friendship for Aristotle is based on the common pursuit of virtue. One's emotional bonds with friends arise out of a mutual pursuit of an objectively-verifiable good.

So in the end, we're waiting for something of a new Saint Benedict, figuratively speaking; a revival of the old Aristotalian-Christian-Teleological conception of moral justice to carry us out of the moral darkness in which we unwittingly live.

Well now.

Profile Image for Krista.
76 reviews7 followers
May 3, 2021
I’m totally guessing on my star rating...but from what I understood about this book, I feel confident I’m in the ballpark.

I began reading After Virtue with an incredible group of people - two years ago. They definitely helped me through it! Sadly, we fizzled out, and I put down the daunting book but never shelved it since I was determined to finish it. I’m so proud that I did in fact finish it!

AV requires multiple readings. It was difficult, in part, because of the names and terms that I am unfamiliar with. Additionally, there are so.many.words. I equate it with Norms and Nobility - AV is the N&N of the philosophical world. (Or maybe I just don’t read many difficult books?)

Either way, I do think it’s worth revisiting. I’m thankful for my friends who I read alongside and gleaned so much from.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
Author 2 books231 followers
Want to read
May 15, 2023
Mark Lilla calls this book "catnip for grumpy souls." Read the prologue here, and read a quote from p. 216 (on narrative and mythology; Justin Taylor is writing about N.D. Wilson's fiction) here.

See here for a connection to A Canticle for Leibowitz. The conclusion (waiting not for Godot, but for a different St. Benedict) led to Dreher's Benedict Option.

This may be the MacIntyre book where he says that you can't talk about right and wrong without talking about purpose . . . and you can't keep from talking about right and wrong.

Apparently, in 2022 MacIntyre spoke at Notre Dame and said that "Until [a free created] agent finally makes her or his decision, her or his future action is undetermined. There is no fact of the matter about what she or he is going to decide or to do, nothing to make any statement about, true or false. Not only does she or he not know what she or he is going to do, no one else can be said to know this either, including God. . . . So, even if an omniscient God does exist, there have been and will be numerous occasions on which he cannot be said to know what will be done or happen, until it is done or happens." Yikes. Here's a response.
Profile Image for Jonathan Karmel.
363 reviews37 followers
March 19, 2015
According to this book, after the Enlightenment, moral philosophers rejected Aristotle’s teleological philosophy of ethics in search of a rational basis for morality. But the effort to find a universal rationality for morality failed. Therefore, we are just left with Emotivism, the belief that moral arguments are ultimately just based on the subjective, personal feelings of individuals. The author believes that we should return to the teleological morality of Aristotle.

What is teleological morality? A sea captain ought to act like a sea captain. A watch ought to be portable and tell time accurately, because that’s what a watch is supposed to do. Likewise, humans ought to act human. People happen to be a certain way, but they could be something else if they fulfilled their purpose as humans. Like a person on a quest, we should look for narrative unity in life consistent with the role we have in our community in accordance with social tradition.

The author discusses a long list of philosophers who attempted to find a universal morality in the scientific tradition, and he finds flaws with all of them:

Immanuel Kant simply stated maxims he already believed by his contemporaries to be virtuous and then stated that they could be universalized, but it’s easy to find situations when one should not follow those maxims and well as maxims that can be universalized but are not virtuous.

Max Weber invented the science of sociology. But there is really no such thing as social “science”; human behavior does not follow any law-like principles.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were utilitarian. Benjamin Franklin believed in utilitarian virtues that would make a person wealthy and successful. But “happiness” could be achieved by drinking beer or exercising, by being a monk or being a soldier. Since happiness means different things to different people, how could we create rules to maximize it? The author believes that there are no “natural” rights. Utility and rights are moral fictions based on the modern idea of individualism.

John Rawls stated that justice is what would be chosen by a rational person who had a veil of ignorance regarding what his station in life would be. Robert Nozick stated that what is fair is to give people what they are entitled to from work and fair acquisition. Both theories sound nice, but they are incompatible with each other, and they are both all about individuals pursuing selfish goals and not about furthering the shared goals of the community.

This leads us to the present day, where the philosophy of Nozick supports Joe the Plumber, who believes he is entitled to keep what he has earned and does not want to pay taxes. The philosophy of Rawls backs up Bill Mahar, who supports Estate & Gift Taxes and has liberal views about redistributing wealth to foster equality (see his Affluenza and the Culture of Dependency, March 14, 2015).

The author believes that moral discourse today uses fragments of a conceptual scheme without any context. We have moral debates as Emotivists believing “should” statements are ultimately just the intuition of the speaker even though those who express these statements clearly intend to express something different from mere subjective statements of taste.

The author traces the rise of Emotivism back to G. E. Moore in 1903. According to Kant, to influence others for selfish reasons is to treat people as means, and to influence others through reasoned persuasion is to treat people as ends. Emotivism obliterates this distinction.

Another exponent of Emotivism was Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote Either/Or (Enten-Eller). In that book the “either” character is a rich aesthete, who just tries to live life as a series of pleasurable moments. The “or” character lives a responsible life, dutifully honoring commitments to marriage and career. We choose one way of life or the other, but neither is satisfying, so we fall back on religious faith.

David Hume argued that our actions are governed by passions, and that morals cannot have a rational basis.

Friedrich Nietzsche, author of The Gay Science, rejected any rational basis for morality. He argued that values are just an act of individual will, and he believed that individuals need to have faith in themselves.

Today, in addition to the aesthete, there are other emotivist “characters,” including the Manager of a bureaucratic organization, who tries to motivate workers to accomplish the mission for the organization. A Manager is an emotivist for social relations, and a Therapist is an emotivist for the personal life. They both treat ends as being outside their scope.

In contrast to the Enlightenment way of thinking, which divides philosophy into rational versus emotivist, is the teleological way of thinking.

Homer wrote tales of heroes excelling in combat and achieving excellence in accordance with their social roles. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics argues that humans by nature move toward a specific telos. The author appears to recognize that Christianity is teleological in believing that we are born sinners but that we can reach our telos by following God. The author also seems to be a big fan of Jane Austen, who he says was the last representative of traditional virtues.

So what is virtue? The author states that a “practice” has internal goods achieved through excellence, and virtue enables us to achieve goods internal to practices. Some examples of virtues are truthfulness, justice and courage. This is Aristotelean because it based on character traits that we can voluntarily chose regardless of intelligence or natural ability. Aristotle believed that people develop a good character under the influence of teachers, and good character leads to voluntary habits. An example of virtue would be someone who becomes a chess master and supports other chess players through a chess club that is part of the United States Chess Federation, all for the love of chess. Patriotism is a virtue when it supports a moral consensus (Be all that you can be in the Army), but not in support of an institutional bureaucracy that lacks moral authority. There are three stages of describing virtue: a first which concerns virtues as qualities necessary to achieve the goods internal to practices; a second which considers them as qualities contributing to the good of a whole life; and a third which relates them to the pursuit of a good for human beings the conception of which can only be elaborated and possessed within an ongoing social tradition. In this book, “virtue” means the Greek word arete, which is spelled alpha, rho, epsilon, tau, eta in Greek.

The author believes that ultimately there are only two choices for moral philosophers: Nietzsche or Aristotle. The author seems to agree with those who believe that moral philosophy has no rational basis. But he also rejects the idea that virtue is simply an individual act of will. Rather, he believes that a person’s life ought to be a quest that has narrative unity and fulfills a role within a social context.

Not sure I understand or agree with this book, but it's gotten me more interested in philosophy.
Profile Image for Kaleb.
65 reviews6 followers
April 29, 2023
The book starts with the argument that our moral disagreements can't be solved rationally because we don't share the same moral premises. For example, the abortion debate can't be rationally solved because one side asserts that there’s a right to life that trumps all the other rights, and the other side asserts the same for the right to bodily autonomy. The debate can't be "rationally" solved; we just have competing moral premises, and there's no way to "objectively" weigh which right is more important. MacIntyre thinks this is because the Enlightenment attempt to give us a singular moral standard (deontology/utilitarianism) has failed and left us with a world where there isn't a way of rationally solving moral disputes.

So, MacIntyre argues that we have to reject the Enlightenment project of using reason to ground morality and bring back Aristotelian virtue ethics. We only make sense of these ethics through a narrative, a narrative that we inherit and continue through our communities.

Overall, I really liked the book. I think anyone who's noticed how bad moral discourse today is or how insufficient most academic ethics is going to really like this book, and it'll leave you with a lot of interesting questions. Also, fun fact, MacIntyre points out that Nietzsche is the only philosopher who has accurately pointed out the problems with the Enlightenment project, and that the choice the modern world has to face is between Aristotle and Nietzsche. MacIntyre chooses Aristotle, but I actually think his criticisms of Nietzsche weren’t great.


The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestors can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'
Profile Image for Mike Horne.
536 reviews13 followers
May 22, 2011
Pick a virtue you would want to have in spades. Pick a virtue you want others around you to have. Are they the same? Why or why not?

From the Iliad (or Njal’s Saga)
Allegiance to Kin


Aristotle’s (from the Nichomachean Ethics
(Nameless concerned with ambition)
(Nameless concerned with gentleness)

Seven Heavenly Virtues

Rectitude (義 ,gi)
Courage (勇 ,yuu)
Benevolence (仁 ,jin)
Respect (礼 ,rei)
Honesty (誠 ,sei)
Honor (誉 ,yo)
Loyalty (忠 ,chuu

Jane Austen’s
Being socially agreeable

Ben Franklin’s
Temperance—“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
Silence—“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
Order—“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
Resolution—“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
Frugality—“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
Industry—“Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
Sincerity—“Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
Justice—“Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
Moderation—“Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
Cleanliness—“Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
Tranquility—“Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
Chastity—“Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.”
Humility—“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Boy Scouts (by Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell)
A scout is loyal
A scout’s duty is to be useful and to help others
A scout is a friend to all, and brother to every other scout, no matter what social class the other belongs
A scout is courteous
A scout is a friend to animals
A scout obeys orders
A scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances
A scout is thrifty
A scout is clean in thought, word, and deed

I was reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (and thinking about one of my favorite political philosophy professor (John Danford). Is there a certain way that people should live, and if so what virtues help them to live that way?
Profile Image for Genni.
215 reviews36 followers
April 26, 2021
There is a disturbing phenomenon in moral discourse today (especially in the political arena), where you have opposing moral schemas, with conclusions that often neatly follow from their premises, and no rational way to choose between the two competing premises. MacIntyre traces why this is so in the first half of the book, and it all boils down to the Enlightenment.

MacIntyre declares himself to be an Aristotelian, and Thomist. Beginning with a rather scant sketch of morality under Aristotle (characterized by telos), he argues that the Enlightenment, by attempting to disassociate morality from any traditional authority and base it entirely in rationality, effectively destroyed moral language and also, that it has utterly failed in it’s quest. He makes his case philosophically, historically, and demonstrates how the search for law-like generalizations of people through sociology fails.

The second half of the book demonstrates how an Aristotelian moral paradigm differs from those proffered through and after the Enlightenment. What we are left with in the end is a problem similar to the one we start out with: we are seemingly left with two options and unsteady ground from which to choose between them. However, he does not claim to answer the question of why we should choose Aristotle over Nietzche’s response to the Enlightenment here. I am assuming he does in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?. If this book is any indication, he will make a powerful case.
32 reviews4 followers
November 16, 2017
MacIntyre begins with the observation that our modern moral arguments — on issues such as just war and peace, abortion, and economic opportunity — seem interminable and irresolvable, because neither side can accept the assumptions of the other, and so we loudly insist on our own assumptions as though emotivism (or as I would prefer to say, relativism) is true. The best of the emotivists, such as Hare, allowed that we could argue (reason) from a set of moral principles, but they had nothing to say about which moral principles we should begin with. MacIntyre traces the widespread belief in emotivism to the failure of the Enlightenment philosophers to "justify morality" (Diderot, Hume, Kant), i.e., to explain why we should be moral. The Enlightenment philosophers had inherited a Christian morality, but rejected the Christian idea of God as law-giver, as they also rejected the Aristotelian and Scholastic notions of human beings as having a fixed human nature or essence and consequently a telos ("end") which is discernible by human reason. On the contrary, they saw human nature as a bundle of passions — and reason as a mere calculator, with the job of finding the best means of satisfying the passions rather than directing and controlling the passions. The failure of the Enlightenment project was inevitable, says MacIntyre, because they inherited fragments of a once coherent view, but with missing parts, the thing was no longer coherent.

After some intermediate chapters criticizing utilitarianism and natural rights theories and attempting to characterize the nature and limits of the social sciences, MacIntyre argues that, given the failure of the Enlightenment project to justify morality, the only viable alternatives are Aristotle and Nietzsche: either an ethics based on virtue, or an "ethics" based on sheer will to power. But surprisingly, Nietzsche as well as Aristotle thought that we need to understand virtue first, before we can understand anything like moral rules. This leads into a history of the idea of virtue, starting with the age of the Homeric heroes, where a man's privileges and responsibilities depended on his social role (kinsman, friend, etc.); leading through the virtues in classical Athens, where they originate in his being a member of the city-state (polis), but there is some inclination to consider what is due to man as man, and we have Plato's famous conception of justice being in the soul when each part of the soul performs its proper function, that is, the reason directing the passions, the spirited part supporting the reason, and the passions obeying the reason, but alongside different conceptions of justice by the sophists and the dramatists; and Aristotle's conception of the human good as "activity of soul in conformity with excellence [virtue], and if there are more than one excellence, in conformity with the best and most complete ... in a complete life" (Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7, 1098a15-20).

So far, I like what I have been reading. But it is in the next part that we get into some difficulties. MacIntyre wants to develop a basically Aristotelian system of morality, but overcoming three issues that he sees as afflicting the original version:

1. Aristotle's moral philosophy is teleological, and his teleology presupposes a "metaphysical biology" which MacIntyre can't accept. Although Aristotle himself was the greatest biologist of his day, it is obvious that biology has made some progress since his time. But what is it, exactly, about Aristotle's biology that MacIntyre can't accept? I would like to see some greater clarity and precision about this.

2. Aristotle's ethics depends heavily on the relation of the citizen to the polis, but since we no longer have the Greek polis, how are we to situate the citizen?

3. MacIntyre doesn't want to accept Aristotle's and Plato's belief in the harmony of the virtues and its implication that conflict is ultimately avoidable. Instead, he favors a tragic view of life, like Sophocles, in which conflict is an unavoidable part of the human condition.

Beginning in Chapter 14, "The Nature of the Virtues," then, MacIntyre attempts to reconstruct the concept of virtue in a way that avoids these difficulties. He does so in three stages (not related one for one with the difficulties, however). It seems to me that this attempt ultimately fails.

In the first stage, he defines virtues as characteristics which promote success in a practice — an activity such as chess, football, architecture, farming, painting, music, and any of the sciences, with "internal goods" (such as playing chesss well, as opposed to external rewards). Success here means achieving the internal goods of the practice. He argues that truthfulness (or honesty), justice, and courage are virtues in this sense. — But at best these arguments show that we should be truthful, just, courageous, to those persons with whom we cooperate in the pursuit of the goods of a shared practice, not necessarily to the rest of the world.

In stage two, he seeks to expand this notion into the context of a human life as a whole, a thing with a unity, and he finds the basis for this unity in narrative and intention — there is a story of your life, and you do things with purposes. But where does this get us? Doesn't it just postpone the question? If the unity of a human life is to be found in the unity of a narrative, in what does the unity of the narrative consist? Ultimately he comes down to the notion of a quest (as in the quests of medieval knights), and states that it is an essential characteristic of the quest, that it begins with some initial conception of the goal, but the understanding of the goal becomes better understood as a result of the quest. This leads to the second-stage conception of virtues as dispositions which are not only helpful within the practices, but "which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good." — All of this is very round, if not positively circular! Similarly: "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." (p. 219)

The third stage places the pursuit of good in a social and community context, for I never do so as only an individual, but in my many roles as son or daughter, parent, citizen, etc.

As I see it, Stage 1 is fine so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough; it does not get us beyond virtues for the practices and towards our fellow practitioners. Stage 2 appears to be viciously circular. Stage 3 rightly insists that there must be a social dimension to the good life and to virtue, but without an adequate foundation in Stage 2, we are not able to build anything very high with Stage 3.

Although I think that MacIntyre's three-stage reconstruction of virtue ultimately fails, there are interesting insights and observations along the way, about Kant, Hume, utilitarianism, social science, individualism, community, the historical approach to philosophy, and much else.

After Virtue was originally published in 1981. In the Prologue to the Third Edition (2007), MacIntyre observes that when writing it he was "already an Aristotelian, but not yet a Thomist." He now recognizes that while he was right in rejecting most of Aristotle's biology, his effort to account for the human good in purely social terms "was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do." He provides a biological grounding (though not Aristotelian) in Dependent Rational Animals, in which work he also reflects on the significance of our animality for morals, our kinship with non-rational species, and the "virtues of acknowledged dependence" (misericordia). I, therefore, look forward to reading Dependent Rational Animals and other more recent work by Alasdair MacIntyre.
Profile Image for Alina.
271 reviews142 followers
June 24, 2019
Our modern debates on moral subjects are not rationally resolvable -- think of the abortion debate; such debates arise from a difference in the prioritization of values, which cannot be 'weighed' against each other. It seems that our differences in fundamental values are simply result of enculturation; and this seems to quickly lead to total relativism regarding morality. MacIntyre shows that this is not so; such relativism is not the only option once we acknowledge that moral systems are always socioculturally contingent.

MacIntyre argues that the appearance that moral debates are not rationally resolvable (or more generally, the "is/ought gap") is due to a loss of the original context in which our basic moral concepts (e.g., virtues, rights, duties) developed and served their roles. Without this context, we no longer have access to the former significance of these moral concepts, and the meanings that have replaced the originals are insubstantial and allow for our irreconcilable moral disputes. MactIntye's method is to present the history of cultural milieus in which such moral concepts originated and transformed. Moral systems can be understood only in the context of a social structure and way of life of the time. MacIntyre starts the ancient Greek Homeric tradition, goes through Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and medieval traditions, the Enlightenment period, and ends with our current times.

MacIntyre focuses especially on the Aristotelian tradition of virtue theory. He thinks only in that tradition do our moral concepts make sense, and by studying that tradition, we can see the reasons for the modern appearance of moral relativism. Aristotelian metaphysics is teleological; the natural universe includes proper functions or ends, which organize the structure and behaviors of objects and creatures. In this teleological world, factual descriptions can be about values; there is no "is/ought gap" at all. For example, stating "The option of abortion is good for human beings" could be a factual statement, if the option of abortion really did contribute to humans fulfilling their natural telos.

For Aristotle, "the good" is the human telos, which stands above and beyond any individual's conception of the good, and from which any individual's actual good is derived. This telos is also described as eudaimonia, or the fulfilled life (which for Aristotle is a life of philosophical contemplation; this particular detail, however, is not essential to MacIntyre's account of Aristotelian virtue theory). Fulfilling this telos requires having adequate material and social circumstances met; this in turn requires that each person fulfill her roles within her community, so society may function as a whole, be harmonious, and provide for everyone.

In Aristotelian virtue theory, virtues are human qualities that enable us to fulfill our telos. MacIntyre expands on this account and defines virtues as relative to any practice, which is a human activity that serves a purpose in a society and contributes to its harmony (e.g., the arts and sciences; or various forms of production and care-taking). Virtues include courage and temperance, which are important for fulfilling our commitments in the face of potential challenges.

MacIntyre also expands on Aristotle's account of the human telos. He argues that each human life can be understood as a whole, unified by a narrative structure, which provides one's telos. For example, one common narrative structure might of that of the quest; we set out to achieve some good, and on the journey, through suffering and overcoming, our idea of this good is clarified, and we become closer to it. MacIntyre argues that the narrative of each life is interwoven with the narratives of all other people's lives; and individual narratives are subsumed under larger narratives of a community, nation, or culture. So although our apparent personal telos can seem to differ, at a higher level, they are related.

So morality does have an objective grounds; virtues, duties, justice, and the like are defined by a telos, which is demonstrated in the narratives that underlie and interconnect our lives. MacIntyre in effect shows that although a particular moral injunction, or moral value, might not be universally held, the processes by which that injunction or value derive their authority are universal. There is an objective functional structure of morality. Moreover, MacIntyre shows that the idea that moral injunctions are mere commands or rules is confused, a result of the loss of the original context in which moral concepts developed. Moral injunctions originally are based in virtues, which defined the human qualities needed for us to excel at our activities and to flourish as communities.

In our modern world, people in a nation are no longer unified by some shared conception of "the good" (or telos). We have diverse ways of life and heterogeneous teloi. So, we longer longer believe in virtues, in the Aristotelian sense. But virtues are important for sustaining traditions and practices, and for protecting from from corrupting influences of material and egoist interests. (Think of this example: if I value the virtues of giving speeches, such as having a quick mind and communicating ideas, I will cultivate those virtues and sustain the tradition of this practice. But if I no longer believe in virtues, I am tempted to give speeches for the sake of controlling others and making money. The practice of speech giving can become distorted and lose its original qualities, if everyone who engages in the practice does it for these ulterior ends). In the loss of virtues and traditions, society becomes dominated by values of efficiency and material gain, which are vacuous of moral content. This provides the context in which moral debates can seem to be rationally irresolvable.

MacIntyre recommends that we remember that we are embedded in communities; that we can have shared goals with others; and that we value and cultivate virtues that allow us to achieve those shared goals. He recommends that we fight against the rampant individualism of our times, which is presupposed by both liberal and conservative political trends. We should look to Aristotle, Homer, and other champions of communalist conceptions of identity.

I am very impressed by this book. MacIntyre writes very clearly and beautifully; the book has a sort of narrative structure, supplying suspense and impulse for the reader to read it through. His thesis is situated at a very fundamental level, which has bearing on how moral philosophy should be conducted in the first place. His ideas have direct relevance for our own lives as well, on how we should think about our personal identities, relate to others, and make moral decisions.

My only warning to the reader is that the book is not consistent in its "speed", with regards to developing the main argument. I found chapters 5 and 15 most important; they advance MacIntyre's main ideas and thesis. Some other chapters primarily present historical details, and might seem boring. It is important to read all chapters, however, as they either set the stage for his arguments. provide crucial empirical support, or pursue implications of his thesis for our present ways of thinking.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in meta-ethics and action; in archaeological approaches that reveal big philosophical problems as incoherent in the first place; in Nietzsche; in critiques of French existentialism; and in analyses of how individualism influences conceptions of rationality, morality, and politics.
Profile Image for A.
365 reviews43 followers
October 2, 2022

Virtue requires an objective Good, a teleological goal for man to strive for. It requires a scale of values that every person is judged by, and which you must fulfill. Without such a comprehensive and universal scale of values, morality falls into non-compatible heterogeneity. Utilitarians try to maximize pleasures; but how do you compare the pleasure of eating a banana to that of seeing your child first walk? How do you teach people to "maximize utility" without having them self-destruct in their "maximization" of immediate pleasures? You cannot. Despite that illogicality, there seems to be a distinct lack of teleology in the modern world. The religiously pious may have a moral teleology, but more and more they just want to "live and let live". But where does this morality get us but the heterogeneity mentioned above? If we want to rediscover teleology, we must trace it to its roots.

These lie in Homeric Greece. In Homer's time, morality was determined by one's birth, role, city, and family. You were assigned a teleology to fulfill at birth. Men must become warriors and farmers and serve their kin. A man's actions determine his worth: is he courageous, strong, and self-sacrificial? No psychological opinions or "passions" determine his worth. Women must learn to homekeep and nurture children. The whole value of the person is premised on their society. If they are uprooted, they are nothing; exiles are nobodies. One must keep in mind that almost all early societies, including Homeric Greece, label outsiders as non-humans: barbarians. If you leave your society, you become literally dehumanized.

In ancient Athens, this situated virtue then transforms its role to excellence in the polis. Instead of virtue being fulfilling your family's duty, it is fulfilling the duty of the homogeneous polis. Athenians viewed themselves as virtuous, ethnic Greeks, not as cosmopolitan universalists. They were Greek citizens first and foremost, and viewed themselves as being of noble stock. Their natural ability created the opportunity for cooperation in the polis. Slaves and barbarians can have no morals: they cannot govern themselves and are either despotic or stupid. Virtue in Ancient Greece is serving your state as a citizen, but citizens were not defined as random atoms; no, they must be of the nation of the Hellenes (noble stock). If that natural requirement is fulfilled, then virtue can commence. One must remember that the word for "virtue" in ancient Greece is by definition practical; it could be better defined as "efficacy" in today's English. Carpentry, strength, or metalworking are virtues. This lends credence to the aphorism that "a man is the sum of his actions".

But may different virtues conflict with one another? Yes. This is the dramatic function of Greek tragedy. Tragic plays show competing virtues in conflict with one another (e.g. the family and the city-state). The primary dilemma of characters is what aspect of the Good to value over another aspect, not the opposing pulls of virtue and vice. Greek tragedy destroys the notion that there is either an absolute duty to do one action (Kant) or that every action is subjective (Sartre et al.). There is a scale of the Good, i.e. better and worse actions in the eyes of human moral teleology. People must choose the most virtuous action in the moment, even if it is not perfect.

But Plato has a solution to the conflicting array of virtues: order. If man's soul is properly ordered, he can be whole and will have no moral conflicts. His reason is the chariot rider, with two horses in front. One is thumos, his honor, his desire for recognition; and the other is his base desires, driving him into the dust. If one's reason has proper control of the two horses, man's soul will be in order. This order can be generalized to the states: if the anarchical tendencies of the masses are let loose (like today), pure chaos will reign in the state. However, if a center leader, a Will can reign in these tendencies, it can improve them and make good of the state.

Aristotle perfects teleological ethics. Man is imperfect and ignorant when born into nature, and must be cultivated to get to his final end (telos). This final end is the true good life and can only be reached via one path. For Aristotle, "enjoyment", "utility", or pleasure is not to be pursued. Instead, excellence is to be aimed for, and enjoyment is its byproduct. Through practicing excellence and practical virtue, man rejoices in his abilities and therefore enjoys himself. If "enjoyment" is pursued overmuch, man languishing in gluttony and sloth — dulled in all sensations due to decadence.

What is the goal of man? To reach his telos, to cultivate himself in all aspects. He must improve his mind, strengthen his body, get practical skills to become financially secure, be skilled at relationships, and cultivate an indifference to hardship. When a man reaches such a point, he has "the good life". His virtuous habits are self-propelling, thereby keeping him virtuous (and by derivation, enjoying life) perenially. If a culture teaches its youth to be strong, hardy, and self-sacrificial, they will not only receive external skills but will also receive an internal predisposition to love the exercise of those skills. External discipline will become internalized as the youth mature.

But the youth will be lost without a telos. They can choose "whatever they want to be". They will become confused, lost within life. What will they turn to? The most immediate pleasure possible: social media, video games, food, pornography. Their strength will be sapped as they submerge themselves in their base desires. Without a telos, there is no normative state to pursue. This will especially hurt the less intelligent. As societal constraints weaken, those without the internal self-discipline to propel themselves upwards will falter. Just look at the divorce rate since 1960 (or, better yet, 1870). The upper class is staying relatively strong, but the lower class's divorce rate has become abysmal. Because social class correlates with intelligence and time preference, those in the lower classes will suffer the most when social mores and prescriptions are taken away. The lack of external rules will create an environment in which one's genetic potential — good or bad — fulfills itself more perfectly. This will disproportionately disfavor the lower class.

So the solution for any healthy society is to imbibe its youth with a moral telos, a goal which is the good life. This is, in fact, the truth! The solution for individuals is to view morality as teleological, as a normative hierarchy. One will be happier if one reaches higher on the moral totem pole, but virtuousness should not be pursued for its pleasing effect. Our society has a very hard time understanding this. Virtue must be pursued for its own merit, for improvement of the self in the hierarchy of virtue. The exercise of that virtue will make you realize its own internal merit. But virtue is not subjective and one can judge one's fellow man on the scale of virtue. Give him advice on how to reach higher, for tough love always beats bootlicking.

May God have mercy on this earth! Virtue has disappeared and our society encourages moral dissipation. Let us hope for a greater society in the future, one where humans can fulfill their being in a place where people around them support that fulfillment. The earth seems to lack any such future, so may heaven come fast!
Profile Image for Kris.
1,298 reviews174 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
January 26, 2020
No rating. I got 45% of the way through this audiobook, and I'm sadly putting it on my DNF shelf. I must admit I only understood about 40% of what MacIntyre was saying, and no matter how many times I look at it again, I've no desire to pick it back up. Life is too short to read books you don't enjoy. I may pick it up again someday.
Profile Image for Michael Contreras.
4 reviews3 followers
January 12, 2020
What did I come away with after reading this book? Western civilization's thought and way of life, from the Greeks to our current political and moral/religious fragmentation, is told through a reverse chronology as the author lights the way underground in the intellectual/cultural bedrock of our modern world, exposing crucial collapsed passageways (Aristotle's theory of the virtues), dangerous minerals that seeped into our marketplace (the Enlightenment break from tradition), and chambers of long-gone prophets side by side cultural detectives like Kierkegaard and other doctors of modernity working too late, scrambling for new paths against the unfolding of the break. The fracture we see today always has a history, and MacIntyre is a fitting storyteller for the philosophical segment of our development and end that transpired 'after virtue' became a forgotten word among a mileu too busy, hedonistic, and freed from the shackles of tradition. A quote by MacIntyre may help in understanding what the next steps might be after diagnosing the problem of what Hannah Arendt notes as our "unwilled inheritance" of the 20th century (and beyond).

"The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion... A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through many generations" p. 222, 'Virtues, Unity of Life and Concept of a Tradition'.

Even though this book may seem inaccessible to those not familiar with philosophy, I recommend it if one wants to hear a perspective on how powerful ideas can be.
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
889 reviews292 followers
May 17, 2011
MacIntyre provides a strong critique of contemporary moral theory, dominated as it is by varieties of emotivism: There are no objective standards; moral values are subjective and relative. This is the first half of his book. As much as MacIntyre admires Aristotle, he cannot go back to Aristotle's "metaphysical biology." Aristotle's "classical" perspective was replaced with a variety of rationalistic moral theories (e.g., Kant) that Nietzsche accurately and powerfully in MacIntyre's view said were nothing but expressions of subjective will. MacIntyre then outlines his attempt to thread the needle and put moral theory back on track. This is the second half of his book and this is where he flat lines. After three attempts, MacIntyre's "after virtue" thesis remains obscure. It is also not clear why he dismisses Aristotle's biology as "metaphysical," which suggests that the biological foundation for Aristotle's theory rests on thin air. Whether accurate or not in detail, Aristotle was on the right track in anchoring moral theory in biology. As biological beings, we seek survival and well being, which in varying degrees includes a personal need to love, a tribal need to belong, and a rational need to match up means with ends, including treating others as ends as the means to satisfy our own ends. Somehow this line of pursuit might provide the foundation for moral theory that MacIntyre seeks.
Profile Image for James.
205 reviews
June 11, 2019
A sweeping history of ethics in the west along with philosophical argumentation for how to approach moral philosophy today. The book is a whirlwind of analyses and criticisms of various moral concepts and movements. The overall pro-argument is historical, detailed, and subtle. Regardless of one's agreement or disagreement with the author, this book repays many revisits. As any good book of philosophy should do (indeed as *any* good book should do), it makes one really think about concepts and ideas that are assumed and used on an everyday basis. I highly recommend this volume not only as a work of moral philosophy but also as a work on the history of moral thought in the west.
78 reviews
December 31, 2018
Tried to start this book 4 years ago but gave up as it seemed to tedious for me. But after two years of Drumpf I see now that we really are living in a world ""after virtue""—this book is prophetic !!
Profile Image for Jon Stout.
279 reviews57 followers
December 28, 2022
MacIntyre’s book is an argument for Virtue Ethics, widely seen in current philosophy as an alternative to the two prevailing schemes of Utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) and Kantianism (act only on that maxim which can be universalizable). Virtue Ethics holds that morality should be conceived (following Aristotle) as determined by virtues (character traits), rather than by rules (the other two positions).

Aristotle famously argued that virtue is determined not just by virtuous acts, but by virtuous acts done by someone who has learned to take pleasure in acting virtuously. Thus a vicious person may on occasion act virtuously, but only someone for whom virtuous acts have become a habit may be considered virtuous. Thus the character of the actor is more important than whether the acts conform to a rule.

Along with this position goes another position, namely that what are considered virtues develop through history, and are relative to social structures and practices. Thus they are not regarded as absolute, but as the most adequate to the present point in history. This point of view is similar to Kuhn’s view of scientific paradigms. Different scientific paradigms develop in history (e.g., Newtonian, Einsteinian), and one is succeeded by another more adequate one, but none can claim to be absolute.

MacIntyre gives interesting examples of virtues changing through history. In the epics of Homer the virtues of excellence in fighting and loyalty to friends were important to heroic combatants. Plato and Aristotle talked about justice, wisdom, courage and moderation, virtues important to the Athenian city-state. Christian virtues are faith, hope and charity, which reflect an emphasis on inner life as opposed to social life. MacIntyre gives contemporary examples as well, such as those of Benjamin Franklin, who praised industry and acquisitiveness, and of Jane Austin, who praised constancy. The point is not that Aristotle nailed the right virtues, but rather that Aristotle recognized that virtue is dependent on one’s role in society.

MacIntyre argues that Kantianism and Utilitarianism are projects of the Enlightenment, in which religious authority was rejected, as well as Aristotle’s teleology (the idea that purpose is a cause of things). He considers that the alternative to Aristotle is Nietzsche, who argued that moral norms are dead, and that the strong will create their own. If Aristotle is right, then I would conclude that the task before us is to articulate what virtues are appropriate to the world in which we live, a multiethnic, multinational, heterogeneous world, in which we all are conscious of living on the same planet, and of possibly destroying it. As an example, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggested, in Braiding Sweetgrass, that the Native American virtue of cooperation with nature compared favorably with the Genesis virtue of dominion over nature.

I am highly sympathetic to MacIntyre’s take on ethics, especially to the idea that there is not one absolutely right ethics, but rather a progressive development of ethics, just as there is of science. What kind of virtues are appropriate to our present day is not developed by MacIntyre, but I’m guessing the answers are out there, in editorials and opinion columns, as well as in literature and art.
Profile Image for Brett Williams.
Author 2 books58 followers
November 18, 2019
MacIntyre’s landmark book has been so often referenced and complained about in so many other books I’ve read, I had to try it. After Virtue is galactic in its span of big ideas, with such complex sentences I had to rewrite them myself, hence the complaints. Prefiguring Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed by almost 40 years, MacIntyre plies some of the same waters underlying our Culture Wars. But MacIntyre’s more interested in the philosophical roots and branches of Western morality and how it got cut down, from Aristotle, to Aquinas, by Enlightenment philosophers who tried to replace the Greco-Judeo-Christian authority with rational arguments that justified moral behavior. What Enlightenment did instead was come up with competing reasons, from Kantian notions of means and ends, to social contractarians, to utilitarians, to Kierkegaard’s free choice option. All competing for the correct reasoning left none as an authority, when once that authority would have been an unquestionable God or a universally agreed upon Good, both based on individual-constraining virtues. Our culture is one of unresolvable moral disagreements, says MacIntyre. Disagreements that presuppose a shared impersonal standard of virtue that no longer exists. Our arguments harbor precepts that were at home in a context of thought, belief, feeling, habits and actions with shared concepts of the Good, long lost. Separated from a shared understanding of the Good, morality had to be rationalized (and ultimately politicized). Modern morality is stuck, unable to advance in its own moral enquiries, or extricate us from our moral dilemmas. While too expansive for a review, MacIntyre gets a greenlight for a miniseries in my blog. I treasure this book and the brain that wrote, but it didn’t come without a fistfight. Ultimately MacIntyre won, and I’m better off for the whipping.
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