30 Αυγούστου 2016

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre.

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

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, by Alasdair MacIntyre
(University of Notre Dame Press)

Prologue: After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century ix

Preface xvii

1. A Disquieting Suggestion

2. The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism

3. Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context

4. The Predecessor Culture and the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality

5. Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail

6. Some Consequences of the Failure of the Enlightenment Project

7. ‘Fact’, Explanation and Expertise

8. The Character of Generalizations in Social Science and their Lack of Predictive Power

9. Nietzsche or Aristotle?

10. The Virtues of Heroic Societies

11. The Virtues of Athens

12. Aristotle’s Account of the Virtues

13. Medieval Aspects and Occasions

14. The Nature of the Virtues

15. The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition

16. From the Virtues to Virtue and after Virtue

17. Justice as a Virtue: Changing Conceptions

18. After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict


This arbitrariness in modern culture is a product of the Enlightenment project, which, from about 1630 to 1850, attempted to provide some justification for morality apart from what were seen as the encumbrances of religion. The project meant to give morality a rational basis, independent of particular traditions. Yet for all of its efforts, what was produced was a deeply incoherent philosophy, exemplified in Sren Kierkegaard’s Enten/Eller: Et livs-fragment (1843; Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, 1944), in which one chooses the ethical over the aesthetic life simply because one chooses. There is no reason to choose a particular ethical direction beyond one’s actual choice; yet that ethical direction is supposed to have authority over those who have chosen it.

Kierkegaard inherited this mixed sense of radical choice, and that choice’s authoritativeness, from the culture of Immanuel Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative (“Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of others, as an end, and not as a means”) does not come with any good reason, outside itself, for subscribing to it. Reason therefore fails to ground morality; there is in Kant an element of radical choice only made explicit in Kierkegaard.

Kant in turn was heir to the failure of philosophers such as David Hume to ground morality in a person’s passions, or desires. Hume maintained that passions, not reason, moved a person to action. Reason might give some direction, but desire is the motive force. Yet passions have a social context, and MacIntyre suggests that Hume smuggles in his own conservative standards, just as Kant did, with no compelling reason that those particular moral standards should be desired.

The entire Enlightenment project was doomed, because in seeking to ground moral rules in some aspect of human nature (reason for Kant, the passions for Hume, fundamental choice for Kierkegaard), it foundered on its inability to draw prescriptive conclusions from the facts of human nature. No “ought” could be derived from an “is.” This bifurcation of fact and value arose because the classical, or Aristotelian, conception of the telos (end) of man had been rejected. For the Greeks, man was essentially a rational animal. Ethical precepts acted as teachers to bring man from an untutored ethical state to a realization of his potentiality. That which aids man in reaching his telos—that which aids man in functioning in accordance with his nature—is called “good.” It is an evaluative statement, but also a factual one.

This functional concept of man is not unique to Aristotle among its classical exponents, and it does not derive from what MacIntyre calls Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology.” Rather, this concept of manis rooted in the forms of social life to which the theorists of the classical tradition give expression. For according to that tradition to be a man is to fill a set of roles each of which has its own point and purpose: member of a family, citizen, soldier, philosopher, servant of God. It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that “man” ceases to be a functional concept.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment conceived of the individual as an autonomous agent, ostensibly freed from the constraints of classical or medieval moral and religious tradition. Yet the old values were still present, at least in name, but without any real grounding. The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, even as modified in the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill, was unable to provide a new telos for man. The principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number” offers no good reason for a man’s being a monk rather than a soldier, no good reason that a man should sacrifice a present pleasure for a future one. The utilitarian principle is devoid of real meaning because it cannot order or distinguish between conflicting claims to pleasure or happiness.

After Virtue was a tour de force when it hit the shelves roughly 20 years ago. It laid bare the utter incoherence of the use of moral language in societies of "advanced modernity", i.e., modern Europe, the former USSR, and the US. His critique of the various descendents of the Enlightenment, from utilitarians and Nietzscheans, blasted moral philosophy out of its slumber into a field that continues to grow to this day. Even today, most moral philosophers have spent most of their time attacking Macintyre's positive theses [*] rather than critiquing his critique (a definite sign of the respect at his assessment of the use of modern moral language). To summarize it here would definitely deprive the would-be reader of the insightful journey that MacIntyre brings the reader on as he tries to look at the state of modern society. However, I will summarize the major motivations on why this book was written and why someone would read it:

1) Why are there so many types of moral disagreements in modern societies?

2) Why do these disagreements never seem to end but go on indefinitely?

3) Can any moral theory be related to actual facts or is all moral language sui generis?

Not surprisingly, MacIntyre traces most of these problems to those thinkers of the Enlightenment yet it would be a MISTAKE in thinking that MacIntyre is somehow laying the blame solely on the Enlightenment for the current situation. Rather, his whole thesis is that they did the best they could in defending in what they thought was the CONTENT of morality (the culture of post-Enlightenment Europe being as it were a mix of
Christian values with an intense admiration of newly re-discovered Greco-Roman pagan texts on a range of subjects) with their own philosophical methods (See Hume's reasoning on why women should remain chaste until marriage). MacIntyre's insight is that they HAD to fail. No philosophical brilliance they could muster could save the CONTENT they wished to save (for example,"always tell your mother the truth") with their prescribed METHODS of doing philosophy (for example a la Kant, "all moral laws have the character of being assented to by all rational persons at all times in all cultures"). The Enlightenment thinkers chose an impossible task and thus failed (and moreover had to fail in such a way that their failure was relatively hidden from the thinkers themselves and their respective cultures at large). It is only with Nietzche do we have a thinker brave enough to raze the CONTENT they wished to save with the METHODS and start totally anew.

Thus, half-way through the book, MacIntyre offers the reader a stark choice: either we must choose that all moral talk (talk of right & wrong) is really an attempt to impose one's will on another person a la Nietzsche or that there is form of moral language that is not undercut by Nietzsche's own rather devastating attack on (post-)Enlightenment moral theories.

Hence begins MacIntyre's foray from critique to laying out a positive philosophical programme that leads to several books and a refining of his ideas.

Does Nietzsche win?

That is for the reader to decide. MacIntyre has been steadily producing a body of work that tries to show that Nietzsche does not win (it starts as a whisper in this book and finally gets turned into a shout in later works). However, like all philosophy, his attempt is an argument, and it is up to the reader to decide if it is a good one.

5 stars, hands down. I really hope you decide to buy (or check-out) this important work which deserves to taken seriously for years to come ( 20 and counting!).

[*] Αφού είδε κι απόειδε ο άνθρωπος με τον μαρξισμό και την αναλυτική φιλοσοφία, έγινε Αριστοτελιστής για να καταλήξει Θωμιστής: he says, "Marxists have always fallen back into relatively straightforward versions of Kantianism or utilitarianism" and criticises Marxism as just another form of radical individualism, saying about Marxists, "as they move towards power they always tend to become Weberians".

Peter R: I am rather flabbergasted that the only review on this page thus far is one comparing Alisdair MacIntyre to radical islamists. That is rather disconcerting as the author's roots, as others have already noted, come from the 1960-70's British Labour movement and from a very deep, very thought-out Marxism in the context Marxism demands to be judged on, namely, not only as a socio-economic theory, but as a robust and encompassing worldview. When MacIntyre finally decided to officially leave the Communist party, he noticed that his moral critique of Marxism seemed to lack any force, as the only two seemingly possible moral outlooks were that of a rather brass individualism ( an odd modern mixture of Kantian and Sartrean thought where each person chooses the moral law for himself ) and the tradition he was leaving, i.e. Marxism, which seemed incapable of serious self-critique. The shrillness of his own protest sent him on a philosophical journey which he continues to go on to this day but we are lucky enough to have collection of his thoughts along the way.

[-] Conservatives who think they have found an ally in MacIntyre fail to attend to his understanding of the kind of politics necessary to sustain the virtues. He makes clear that his problem with most forms of contemporary conservatism is that conservatives mirror the fundamental characteristics of liberalism. The conservative commitment to a way of life structured by a free market results in an individualism, and in particular a moral psychology, that is as antithetical to the tradition of the virtues as is liberalism - Stanley Hauerwas