Review of After Virtue (3rd edition) by Alasdair MacIntyre

I have been meaning to read Alasdair MacIntryre’s ground-breaking book After Virtue for decades, but only just recently got around to it. I am glad that I finally did. Rarely does one encounter such a profoundly original work of moral philosophy. Even though, as I explain below, I ultimately do not land where MacIntyre wants to land, his insights have already changed the way I think about morality, and will probably continue to influence my thinking as I digest his ideas further.

In a short review, it is very hard to do justice to a book that is as wide-ranging and ambitious as After Virtue. At the risk of over-simplification, I will highlight what I consider to be the two most important projects that MacIntyre sets for himself. The first is defending what I will call his Canticle for Leibowitz thesis, and the second is laying the foundations of virtue ethics.

In the opening lines of Chapter 1, MacIntyre alludes to the premise behind Walter Miller’s famous science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz: the world has suffered an apocalyptic catastrophe, and scientific knowledge as we know it has been almost entirely eradicated. All that remain are a few extant scientific texts, preserved by monks who can regurgitate their content and make some formally correct scientific statements, but who do not fully understand what they are saying, because the context which would make the statements intelligible—i.e., a living community of scientists who actively practice science—has been lost. MacIntyre makes the provocative suggestion that in the real world, something analogous has happened with moral language. We are able to formally manipulate certain moral statements, but at some point in the past, there was some kind of catastrophe that resulted in the loss of important pieces of context—a loss that has rendered modern moral discourse largely unintelligible.

As evidence that there is something disordered about modern (Western) moral discourse, MacIntyre points to certain seeming impasses that have occurred in moral debate, where people who disagree with each other have incommensurable premises, with no common basis on which one might make progress toward agreement. Three specific moral issues that he highlights (in Chapter 2) are war, abortion, and justice. Later in the book (Chapter 17), MacIntyre discusses the debate about justice in more detail, by referring to the differing accounts of justice offered by John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Rawls (according to MacIntyre) takes as axiomatic that justice demands that the greatest benefit should accrue to those who are least advantaged, while Nozick takes as axiomatic that someone’s possessions are justly held if they were obtained via a just act of acquisition (or a just act of transferral from someone who justly held them). As MacIntyre puts it, “Rawls makes primary what is in effect a principle of equality with respect to needs. … Nozick makes primary what is a principle of equality with respect to entitlement.” There is no way to adjudicate between these incommensurable axioms, so any attempt at rational reconciliation is doomed to fail. MacIntyre notes that perhaps the most popular response today among philosophers who acknowledge these impasses is to argue for some sort of emotivism; i.e., they claim that even though moral assertions superficially seem to be about moral facts, the truth is that there are no moral facts, and when I engage in moral discourse, I am doing nothing more than attempting to bend others to my will.

MacIntyre, however, rejects emotivism in favor of an alternative explanation. Here is how I would put his argument in layman’s terms. In ordinary, non-moral speech, when I say that you ought to do something, usually there is an implicit understanding that it is the appropriate action to achieve a certain goal. For example, if you are trying to get to the post office, then you ought to turn right at the next light. Naturally, if your intended destination is somewhere else, then it might be the case that you ought to instead turn left at the next light; as the Cheshire Cat responded when Alice asked which way she ought to go, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” We can summarize this simple observation by saying that the word ought is normally teleological; i.e., that it presupposes a purpose.

Now, let us note that in moral discourse, the word ought plays a fundamental role, but curiously, if we ask for the purpose, then we will elicit all kinds of wildly different responses from different moral philosophers. Those whom we might call existentialists might say that it is up to us to choose whatever purpose we see fit. Others will say that there is no answer to such a question, and that the reason to obey a moral imperative is “just because it is what you ought to do.” Utilitarians will appeal to a principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, while rights theorists will appeal to universal human rights (MacIntyre, by the way, rejects both utilitarianism and rights theory in Chapter 6; he points out that are many incommensurable types of “good” that cannot be summed up the way a utilitarian needs to, and he equates a belief in rights with a belief in “witches and unicorns”). At this point, MacIntyre makes a key move. He argues that in the distant past, the moral “ought” was teleological, and was tied to a purpose (what we might colloquially call “the meaning of life”). It was only because of a catastrophic historical event that the moral “ought” became detached from any sense of ultimate purpose. It is this catastrophic detachment from a purpose that explains moral impasses; without any concept of what our destination is, we cannot possibly determine whether we ought to turn right or we ought to turn left at the light. Restore the teleology, says MacIntyre, and we need not capitulate to emotivism.

But what was this catastrophic historical event, and when did it occur? According to MacIntyre, it happened during what is often called the early modern period, the transitional period between the medieval world and modernity. One key feature of this period, in MacIntyre’s view, was that production moved outside the household, causing a major change in social structure.

So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household in turn sustains. As, and to the extent that, work moves outside the household and is put to the service of impersonal capital, the realm of work tends to become separated from everything but the service of biological survival and the reproduction of the labor force, on the one hand, and that of institutionalized acquisitiveness, on the other. (Chapter 16)

Another key feature, probably even more important, was that people considered themselves to be throwing off the shackles of an oppressive social hierarchy. From MacIntyre’s point of view, something very serious was lost during this process, though he admits that those who lived through the period would likely have regarded it as a process of liberation.

Many of those who lived through this change in our predecessor culture saw it as a deliverance both from the burdens of traditional theism and the confusions of teleological modes of thought. What I have described in terms of a loss of traditional structure and content as 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. (Chapter 5)

It was of course recognized that if traditional justifications for morality were to be rejected, without jettisoning morality itself, then new justifications would have to be found. MacIntyre calls this challenge the “Enlightenment project of justifying morality,” and he cites Kant, Kierkegaard, Diderot, Hume, Smith, and others as engaging in that project. But according to MacIntyre, not only did this project fail; it had to fail, because there is no way to make sense of the inherently teleological ought of morality if teleology has been explicitly excised from the theory. MacIntyre credits Nietzsche with articulating a particularly perceptive and acerbic critique of this failure.

In a famous passage in The Gay Science (section 335), Nietzsche jeers at the notion of basing morality on inner moral sentiments, on conscience, on the one hand, or on the Kantian categorical imperative, on universalizability, on the other. In five swift, witty and cogent paragraphs he disposes of both what I have called the Enlightenment project to discover rational foundations for an objective morality and of the confidence of the everyday moral agent in post-Enlightenment culture that his moral practice and utterance are in good order. But Nietzsche then goes on to confront the problem that this act of destruction has created. The underlying structure of his argument is as follows: if there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’ (Chapter 9)

So what options remain to us? If Nietzsche is right, then are we not doomed to some form of emotivism or even nihilism about morality? No, says MacIntyre; there is an alternative. In a crucial chapter entitled, “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” MacIntyre proposes a remedy: a return to the classical, broadly Aristotelian tradition, in which teleology is restored to its rightful place in moral theory, and virtue is restored as the foundation for moral behavior. Virtue, roughly speaking, comprises the characteristics of a person that are conducive to achieving that person’s purpose in life. In fact, MacIntyre goes further, and claims that this broadly Aristotelian tradition is the only viable alternative to Nietzche’s devastating conclusions.

Before turning to MacIntyre’s account of virtue, let us pause and take stock of what I have called his Canticle for Leibowitz thesis. Does MacIntyre make a convincing case for his claim that a moral catastrophe happened in the West around the 16th and 17th centuries—an abandonment of teleology as an essential component of morality, followed by an inevitable descent into irresolvable moral debates?

A proper assessment of MacIntyre’s argument would require going through his long historical analysis of the history of Western morality, starting with what he calls the “heroic age” as depicted by Homer, continuing through the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and the sophists) and the middle ages, and culminating with the failed Enlightenment project of justifying morality. Undoubtedly there are many times when MacIntyre’s account oversimplifies, and paints over the messiness of historical reality with broad brush strokes. However, I think that given where MacIntyre wants to go, all he really needs to do is establish that moral philosophy today has done away with the notion, commonly accepted in pre-Enlightenment times, that there is a readily discernible overall purpose to one’s life, which provides the foundation for all moral judgments. This more limited conclusion I find to be highly plausible, and argued rather convincingly by MacIntyre. I believe that he has put his finger on a critical weakness that runs through a wide variety of otherwise disparate modern moral philosophies.

But MacIntyre is not concerned only with his Canticle for Leibowitz thesis. He is also eager to show that in classical times, there was a robust teleological account of morality, that can be largely recovered and adapted to present-day realities. To be clear, despite the chapter title “Nietzsche or Aristotle?” MacIntyre is not advocating a literal return to Aristotelian ethics. While lauding the Nicomachean Ethics as “the most brilliant set of lecture notes ever written,” MacIntyre is quick to criticize Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology” which gives rise to Aristotle’s low view of barbarians and slaves, and MacIntyre also believes that Aristotle overstates the unity of the virtues. Nevertheless, MacIntyre does believe that the only viable path to a coherent moral theory is along the lines indicated by Aristotle—what we might call virtue ethics, a system in which the social structure provides the context for the purpose of each person’s life, and virtue is the vehicle by which that purpose is attained. But just what does MacIntyre mean by virtue, if it is similar but not identical to what Aristotle means by that term?

In Chapter 14, MacIntyre identifies three vital ingredients in his theory of virtue.

There are no less than three stages in the logical development of the concept which have to be identified in order, if the core conception of a virtue is to be understood, and each of these stages has its own conceptual background. The first stage requires a background account of what I shall call a practice, the second an account of what I have already characterized as the narrative order of a single human life and the third an account a good deal fuller than I have given up to now of what constitutes a moral tradition.

Of these three ingredients, perhaps the most mysterious is the notion of a practice. What does MacIntyre mean by that term?

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. Tic-tac-toe is not an example of a practice in this sense, nor is throwing a football with skill; but the game of football is, and so is chess. Bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is. Planting turnips is not a practice; farming is. So are the enquiries of physics, chemistry and biology, and so is the work of the historian, and so are painting and music.

An important feature of a practice is that it provides community standards by which judgments of excellence can be made. In contrast to the existentialist dictum that you are free to choose whatever standards suit your fancy, an architect whose building falls down or a football player who scores an own goal is definitely not exhibiting excellence. Virtue—not necessarily moral virtue per se, but a more general concept of virtue that applies to any practice—can therefore be thought of as the collection of character traits that promote excellence in a practice.

One interesting point to note is that behavioral rules do not play the central role in MacIntyre’s theory that one might expect them to play. The complex nature of a practice means that development of character takes precedence; a list of rules runs the risk of having too many exceptions or of becoming obsolete as circumstances change. In Chapter 9, MacIntyre discusses the Polynesian word taboo to illustrate that a behavioral rule may survive in vestigial form long after the original justification for it has evaporated and been forgotten. Adhering scrupulously to an outdated taboo, simply because it is traditional to do so, is not virtuous.

There is of course more to MacIntyre’s theory than the notion of a practice; excellence in football cannot be equated with moral excellence, so that is why MacIntyre’s second and third ingredients are also needed. But a full examination of MacIntyre’s account of virtue is beyond the scope of this review. Instead, I want to turn our attention to two broader questions. The first is, does MacIntyre succeed in sketching a plausible account of morality that avoids the criticisms that MacIntyre levels at rival accounts? The second is, does MacIntyre’s Nietzsche/Aristotle dichotomy really exhaust the options—is there no third alternative?

One possible criticism of MacIntyre is that the moral impasses cited by MacIntyre near the beginning of his book, which he claims are indicative that modern moral discourse is fundamentally disordered, remain just as intractable in the context of virtue ethics. Indeed, in Chapter 14, MacIntyre spells out five different lists of virtues (those of Homer, Aristotle, the New Testament, Jane Austen, and Benjamin Franklin), and then acknowledges the challenge that this diversity poses for his project.

We have therefore accumulated a startling number of differences and incompatibilities in the five stated and implied accounts of the virtues. So the question which I raised at the outset becomes more urgent. If different writers in different times and places, but all within the history of Western culture, include such different sets and types of items in their lists, what grounds have we for supposing that they do indeed aspire to list items of one and the same kind, that there is any shared concept at all? A second kind of consideration reinforces the presumption of a negative answer to this question. It is not just that each of these five writers lists different and differing kinds of items; it is also that each of these lists embodies, is the expression of a different theory about what a virtue is.

We can put the matter even more starkly. Two different developed societies with rival moral traditions can arrive at diametrically opposed verdicts, and there is no way to rationally adjudicate between them from some neutral vantage point. What good is it to provide a teleological foundation for the moral ought, if the choice of teleological foundation is just as arbitrary as the arbitrary choices made by a practicing existentialist? Nothing seems to have been gained, and emotivism seems to remain as plausible as it was at the beginning of the discussion.

I think I can partially rebut this criticism. I do not believe that MacIntyre claims to have found a way to reach universal agreement on moral questions, nor do I think he is saying that the existence of intractable moral disagreements necessarily implies that emotivism is true. Rather, his point is that moral discourse does not have even a hope of being meaningful, or of reaching any kind of rational conclusions, if teleology is removed from the picture. Restoring the notion of a purpose to one’s life that forms the basis for ethical decisions is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving difficult moral problems. MacIntyre’s concept of a moral tradition allows for the possibility of extended debate and discussion, without necessarily providing immediate answers to hard questions. The point is that at least there are community standards which can be appealed to in such debates; it is not simply a free-for-all. So I think that MacIntyre does at least partially succeed where he says his rivals fail.

Nevertheless, I do believe that there remains a pressing question: what do we do when two rival societies with incommensurable moral traditions collide? In my opinion, MacIntyre does not offer a satisfactory answer to this vital question. (He does attempt a partial answer in the Postscript to the Second Edition, in response to Robert Wachbroit, but he acknowledges that incommensurable moral traditions can exist, and offers no complete resolution to such situations.) Obviously, one thing that can happen in practice is that one side can prevail by conquering, or even obliterating, the other, but I doubt that MacIntyre would wholeheartedly recommend all-out war whenever a major rivalry arises. The answer offered by modern liberalism, roughly speaking, is to call for some sort of compromise; a central government adjudicates the conflict by claiming some kind of allegedly neutral ground. Each party relinquishes its claims to moral authority in exchange for some kind of truce. Though this answer has the advantage of potentially saving many lives, I think that MacIntyre would not be fully satisfied with it either, since it sends us down the road that he has taken such pains to steer us away from, where the highest authority is some kind of impersonal government that abstains from providing any kind of purpose to life.

My own tentative answer to this conundrum takes its cue in part from some remarks that MacIntyre makes, almost in passing, about stoicism. Interestingly, despite MacIntyre’s insistence that Aristotle is the only alternative to Nietzsche, he also states, “Stoicism remains one of the permanent moral possibilities within the cultures of the West” (Chapter 13). (We might add that something like stoicism, namely Mohism, is also a moral possibility is Chinese thought.) For MacIntyre, stoicism is a system in which virtue hitches its wagon to a star outside the world of human society.

The standard to which a rightly acting will must conform is that of the law which is embodied in nature itself, of the cosmic order. Virtue is thus conformity to cosmic law both in internal disposition and in external act. That law is one and the same for all rational beings; it has nothing to do with local particularity or circumstance. The good man is a citizen of the universe; his relation to all other collectivities, to city, kingdom or empire is secondary and accidental. Stoicism thus invites us to stand against the world of physical and political circumstance at the very same time that it requires us to act in conformity with nature.

MacIntyre rejects stoicism because for him, teleology must always be firmly rooted in social realities, while stoicism, being independent of social contingencies, necessarily abandons teleology: “to do what is right is to act without any eye to my further purpose at all, it is simply to do whatever is right for its own sake.” But here I see an opening for a third alternative—a version of stoicism whose cosmic order is rooted in a transcendent “kingdom of God” which provides both a community and an overarching narrative to one’s life but which at the same time does not derive its authority from specific social and political institutions. This, of course, is the point of view taken by Christianity—or at least by what we might call “other-worldly” Christianity. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is, there is indeed an ultimate purpose to life, but this purpose is neither grounded in visible social structures, nor tautologically defined as being rooted in itself; its true locus is transcendent. At the same time, there is also a visible manifestation in the form of the community of believers. It seems to me that this point of view retains MacIntyre’s crucial insight about teleology, while also furnishing at least a theoretical answer to which teleological account is the correct one. Moreover, MacIntyre’s emphasis on virtue over rule-following is reflected in the Christian doctrine that salvation is to be found not in obedience to the law, but in the regeneration of one’s sinful nature (being “born again”)—a regeneration that, again, has a transcendental source.

It is interesting to me that MacIntyre’s brief remarks about stoicism seem to hint that stoicism tends to manifest itself when competing societies clash. A thriving society with no external threats can afford the luxury of developing its own moral tradition without worrying about the arbitrariness of its teleological choices. But probing questions about ultimate foundations cannot be ignored when a powerful rival arises. It should not be surprising that in such situations, one of the options that always presents itself is to relocate one’s focus to somewhere transcendent, that rises above the profusion of conflicting voices in the here and now. In a certain sense, a transcendent locus for the purpose of life, being independent of any contingent social circumstances, is more “stable” to challenges. For example, we could pose the following question to MacIntyre: Suppose that your project to restore virtue ethics succeeds beyond your wildest dreams, and humanity rebuilds what it catastrophically lost during the early modern era. Presumably you would rejoice, but—to take another page from the Canticle for Leibowitz—what is to prevent another catastrophe from happening again in the future? The first catastrophe, it seems, occurred as a result of social unrest, causing people to cast off centuries of moral tradition. Might not history repeat itself? It would seem that some kind of transcendence is necessary for a permanent solution.

Of course, the (other-worldly) Christian view that I proposed above is not without its own limitations. At the moment, we still have to live in the visible world, and the kingdom of God can manifest itself only imperfectly. Visible social structures (e.g., the Church) have a tendency to usurp authority that properly belongs in the transcendent realm, and disagreements tend to cause the infinite fracturing that we observe in Protestantism. Perfection is available only eschatologically, in a future reality whose arrival date is murky at best. The system can work only for those who have faith in unseen realities.

As a final comment, let me mention that in the 3rd edition, MacIntyre says that he was not yet a Thomist when he first wrote After Virtue. So it seems that he converted to Catholicism at some point. While After Virtue does contain some discussion of Christian points of view, the discussion is not systematic, and in particular, Aquinas is given surprisingly little attention. It is possible that in MacIntyre’s later work, he moves somewhat closer to the Christian view that I have briefly sketched here (though I suspect that his Christian faith is less other-worldly than mine). In any case, it would be interesting to learn more about how, if at all, his views of morality have changed in the course of his conversion to Christianity.
Posted November 2022

Back to Christian Stuff