📙 Reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
Author: Christopher Stephen Lutz
Full Title: Reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
MacIntyre’s criticism of Marxist politics has nothing to do with any defense of capitalism. MacIntyre’s objection, like Popper’s, has to do with Marxist claims to have discovered a scientific account of human history and behavior.
From the standpoint of human agency, human acts are “uncaused” in the modern scientific sense, although in the Aristotelian sense, it could be said that the “final causes” of human acts are to be found in the ends or goals that agents pursue through their actions. In this case, the final causes of the immigrants’ actions are to be found in their beliefs about the good life and their desires for freedom and opportunity.
From the standpoint of human action, ethics is the study of human action; it investigates the goods people seek to gain through their Choices, and the conditions that affect people’s abilities to judge and to act effectively in that pursuit.
The standpoint of human action does not assert that human freedom to desire goods, to choose goods, and to act in pursuit of goods is somehow absolute. It may happen that human weakness, ignorance, foolishness, or psychological illness may weaken an agent’s freedom or impair an agent’s judgment. From the standpoint of human action, these restrictions on free agency do not destroy our freedom. These shortcomings only show that human freedom is limited and difficult in a variety of ways. They point to the importance of learning how to improve and enhance human freedom and agency, and they make these improvements and enhancements central concerns for philosophical ethics.
Skinner’s work belongs to the same tradition of determinist social science that MacIntyre began to criticize in the 1950s.
Skinner’s behaviorism is materialist and determinist, and on these points, it is in keeping with a long tradition of causal determinism whose modern proponents include the twentieth-century Stalinists who were the original target of MacIntyre’s critique.
MacIntyre marked a sharp distinction between the bureaucratic Marxism of Stalinism and the classical Marxism of Karl Marx. MacIntyre saw Marx, as he saw Trotsky,21 as a champion of human freedom and agency. MacIntyre saw Stalinism, as Trotsky had, as a betrayal of Marxism and the victory of Bureaucracy over human freedom.
In Marxism’s internal disputes between Marx’s theories and Stalin’s politics, MacIntyre sided with Marx’s critique of capitalism and his concern to enable human agency. MacIntyre’s mature work continues to pursue these ends.
As Marx himself had pointed out in the third of his Theses on Feuerbach, the very notion that some group of social scientists should manage the behavior of others according to determinist laws implies that those social scientists are not governed by those determinist laws.
MacIntyre began his academic career as a committed and active Marxist, and the Marxist readers of AV immediately recognized the book’s criticism of the social sciences as a critique of Marxist theory.
I take it that Stalinism has five salient characteristics. Stalinists (1) believed in the possibility of “socialism in one country”, rather than in the making of socialism as a world-revolutionary enterprise; (2) made the working class serve the needs of the party and the Bureaucracy rather than vice versa; (3) were guilty of “the cult of personality”; (4) believed that the end of achieving communism justified unlimited terror and unlimited deceit as means; (5) accepted Stalin’s crude mechanistic versions of dialectical materialism and historical materialism.
MacIntyre saw the moral criticism of Stalinism as a temptation, not as an imperative, because he could find no ethical theory that could vindicate the moral rejection of Stalinism on rational grounds. Certainly, Stalinism must be rejected, but it must be rejected for a reason.
MacIntyre finds late Modernity to be populated by individuals who have learned to understand themselves not in terms of their social backgrounds, relationships, or commitments, but in isolation from all of these.
Practically but unreflectively agnostic, the culture of emotivism maintains elements of traditional morality selectively and justifies its moral commitments fictionally.
The standpoint of civil society, the standpoint that informs all modern moral and political philosophy, sees the individual as a singular who joins together with others only by Choice.
From the standpoint of civil society, there is no Common Good in the traditional sense of the term. From the standpoint of civil society, the good of any individual is only one small element of the aggregate collective good of society.
From what we may call “the standpoint of the Common Good,” the standpoint of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, the Common Good is not an aggregation of private interests, and it is not a formal or procedural good like justice or the right to due process. From this ancient and medieval standpoint, the Common Good is a substantive good that we can seek for ourselves only through participation in the life of the communities to which we belong; it is a good for each of us that we can all share, but only if we seek it together. This ancient and medieval standpoint of the Common Good views the human person as a political animal who belongs to a community neither by Choice nor by accident, but by Nature.
Lacking any Common Good in the older sense of the term, modern moral and political philosophy places a sharp distinction between egoistic and altruistic actions.
Modern liberal individualism seeks to replace appeals to traditional moral authority with appeals to universal reason, to replace the commands of God with the rules of universal morality, and to replace the old social structures of medieval feudalism with democratic structures in which all people may enjoy freedom and prosperity.
It was Marx’s “revolutionary practice” that opened the way to AV’s definition of virtue in terms of action, practice, and social identity.
MacIntyre accepts Marx’s materialist critique of enlightenment natural rights—modern, secular, and liberal individualist natural rights. When pressed to justify its moral and political claims, liberalism fails because it is incoherent. But Marxism has its problems too, and when pressed to justify the claims of its progressive, socialist political program, it too fails because it, too, is incoherent.
For Lakatos, Marxism provides a prime example of a degenerating, pseudoscientific research program.
MacIntyre’s critique of the social political, pseudoscientific abuse of the social sciences in AV does not mention Marxism or the politics of the Left explicitly, but MacIntyre’s Marxist and post-Marxist friends had no question about its intended object.
The point of MacIntyre’s story is that an event occurred in our past that suspended the rational investigation of morality and practice, and that modern efforts in moral philosophy are nothing but faulty attempts using broken tools to resuscitate a study that had once been dead.
In short, what gives birth to the culture of emotivism in AV is the enlightenment as it played out in the Protestant countries of northern Europe. This might be taken—mistakenly—to identify the catastrophe with the Protestant Reformation, but it certainly does indicate that the Protestant Reformation is an episode in the process that constitutes the catastrophe.
The focus here is on the peculiarities of the theologies of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen; all three were theological voluntarists, that is, all three posited the divine will as the primary principle of existence. Where Thomas Aquinas, in his synthesis of Christian Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian hylomorphism, always maintained the priority of the intellect in creation, theological voluntarists asserted the priority of the divine will, and this had far-reaching consequences for philosophy and theology.
MacIntyre's Catastrophe is not the Protestant Reformation, nor is it Protestantism combined with Jansenism, rather it is the whole process of that turn from natural Teleology to theological voluntarism and nominalism—the foundation of which is typically attributed to William of Ockham—that leads to the voluntarist theologies of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen.
If I were to formulate the moral question that Aristotle answers in the Nicomachean Ethics, it would be, “How can I become the kind of a Person who has the practical wisdom to recognize what is good and best to do and who also has the moral freedom to act on that judgment?” Thus understood, ethics is about developing a rich, natural understanding of living well. This ceases to be the case when morality is reduced to rule-following.
The reduction of morality to consent to obey impoverishes ethics and opens the door to the rejection of nature as a source of moral norms. Morality as a rich understanding of living well is replaced by morality as a meeting of two wills, and all other factors begin to fall into the periphery.
Stoicism reduces virtue from a complex account of the functioning of the powers of the soul to a singular perfection of the will, and Stoicism abandons the teleological notion of moral excellence as the perfection of the rational and appetitive powers of the free human agent, affirming instead only the unconditional goodness of the will that obeys moral law
The rejection of the Aristotelian tradition with its natural Teleology and the transition to voluntarist morality is the philosophical event that corresponds to the destruction of science in the “Disquieting Suggestion.”
The outcome of the rejection of Aristotelian natural Teleology in ethics was the establishment of a morality in which obedience to moral norms can be conceived only as an end in itself.
Every human act worthy of the name is pursued for an end, and sound practical rules are nothing but wise counsels, directing the complex web of human actions toward the Common Good. But when the Common Good is no longer understood, the rules survive only as social habits, as material survivals of a culture that is formally lost.
MacIntyre’s Critique of Modernity has two main points: The first is that Modernity has lost its capacity to understand the real practical wisdom of its traditional morality, and has formulated an approach to moral thinking that is unintelligible, unjustifiable, and ultimately arbitrary. The second is that morality, formulated in this modern fashion, can be used, and has been used, as a tool for social manipulation
The constructive argument in the second half of the book will make the case that ordinary people can recover the standpoint of the virtues through rational action, involvement in practices, and attention to their social identities.
Unlike modern moral philosophy, Aristotelian ethics does not treat morality as something distinct from the pursuit of personal happiness, but as a necessary part of that pursuit.
The tools of modern analytic philosophy are limited to judging the logical consistency of philosophical claims; they allow us to judge philosophy formally, but they do not enable us to judge substantive claims.
MacIntyre proposes that modern formal philosophy coexists with the deep substantive incoherence of modern ethics without recognizing it.
Emotivism’s account of moral agency—ill-defined agents doing as they choose—cannot be socially embodied, for whenever it is embodied it threatens—rather than fosters—social life.
the secularized Protestant culture of Northern Germany and Great Britain, and includes certain similar groups in other parts of Western Europe (p. 37). In these places, voluntarist Christian moral theology (a theology that held the arbitrary will of God to be the only source of moral law) had taught a morality of arbitrary divine commands, and had thus separated moral judgment from practical reasoning and denied that we may discover what is right through any consideration of natural inclination or desire.
Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard represent three different ways of justifying morality in the absence of a fixed goal for human desire and action. Each approach excludes the other two.
Given the constraints of enlightenment thought, specifically its rejection of any fixed goal or Telos of human life, these three approaches seem to exhaust the possibilities, and all three have failed to justify the authority of moral rules over the lives of human agents.
The enlightenment project of justifying morality had to fail because enlightenment moralists refused to treat ethics and human action teleologically.
But teleology in rational ethics suffered two historical challenges. First, Luther, Calvin, and Jansen all denied that reason could genuinely comprehend “man’s true end” because “that power of reason was destroyed by the fall of man” (p. 53). Second, secularization and the scientific rejection of Aristotelian natural philosophy combined to eliminate “any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos.”
Where the classical tradition saw imperfect people seeking human excellence through moral development, Modernity sees imperfect people who must obey the rules of morality—period (p. 55). The task of modern moral philosophy was to find a rational basis for the rules of morality without directing those rules to any purpose beyond “morality.”
Any movement from is to ought presupposes a “functional concept” which is defined “in terms of the purpose or function which . . . [it is] characteristically expected to serve” (p. 58). MacIntyre presents the examples of a watch and a farmer; the watch is good if it keeps time accurately and the farmer is good if he farms well. But the modern concept of the human Person is not a functional concept, because Modernity abstracts the Person from all roles, relationships, and responsibilities (p.
The notion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is a notion without any clear content at all. It is indeed a pseudo-concept available for a variety of ideological uses, but no more than that. Hence when we encounter its use in practical life, it is always necessary to ask what actual project or purpose is being concealed by its use.
In Homeric, Icelandic, and Irish heroic societies, moral life and social life were inseparable, for one’s social role and status, one’s work and deeds, and one’s relationships to Family and community were the main elements of personal identity. The Greek term “aretê,” which we translate as “Virtue” meant “excellence” in strength and skill as well as character, and courage, defined as “the quality necessary to sustain a Household and a community” was a central form of excellence
The purpose of this chapter is to distinguish medieval Christian thought from the properly Aristotelian tradition of the virtues. On this account, the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues is absent from the mainstream of European thought in the middle ages.
Inasmuch as it was Christian, medieval ethics was moral theology, it was concerned with revealed moral law and sin and moral reasoning, rather than with human goals, human excellence, and practical reasoning. Stoicism, with its emphasis on the will, had a great impact on medieval thought.
Thomism combines Aristotle’s notion of the good life as an activity to be lived in this life with the Christian revelation that something better awaits. For Aquinas, the Christian lives the good life in this world as a sign and foretaste of the life that awaits all who are saved.
MacIntyre finds two benefits to the medieval modifications of Aristotelian Teleology: First, eudaimonia is opened to all people, regardless of the external circumstances of their lives, since the focus of virtue moves from earthly success to moral goodness. Second, the medieval view of virtue has an awareness of its history.
MacIntyre was not yet a Thomist when he wrote AV, and MacIntyre’s thinking on Thomas, Thomas’s contribution to Aristotelianism, and Thomas’s value as a philosopher develops considerably through the decades following AV.
Practices occupy only the first place in MacIntyre’s three-part definition of Virtue. The account of virtues in terms of (1) practices is incomplete until it is supplemented in chapter fifteen with additional definitions in terms of (2) the Narrative order of a whole human life, and (3) moral traditions.
We do not need the Virtues to perform simple tasks. We do not need to be virtuous to change tires, cook meals, or even to run for public office. We do need the virtues to excel in practices. We need the virtues to maintain automobiles, to become chefs, or to govern communities wisely. These latter practices, unlike the former acts, have an inherent moral component to them.
An intelligent and clever child who learns to play chess to win candy has every reason to cheat if doing so will help the child to win more candy. When that same child learns to play for the sake of excellence in the game of chess, cheating becomes counterproductive, whether it helps the child to win more candy or not. MacIntyre has identified this story as one of the most important passages in the book.
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.
In the essay “Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency” (1999) MacIntyre discusses his discovery in the mid-1970s of a problem in contemporary social life that he calls “compartmentalization.”
The unity of the self is to be the unity of one’s autobiography; this is not arbitrary, and it promises to liberate the issue of personal identity from any kind of metaphysical debate.
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. (p. 219)
MacIntyre moves toward the third-level definition of Virtue when he begins to consider the “moral starting point” for human agents. MacIntyre holds that the life of one’s community, its historic debts toward others along with its responsibilities, and the debts owed to it, make up an ineliminable part of the setting for human agency.
MacIntyre’s appeal to tradition is not a conservative call to return to historic moral norms. It is a final and thorough rejection of individualism.
One could imagine a highly talented, highly educated, and widely accomplished aristocrat or gentleman who embodied all the traditional virtues while ignoring the fact that his forefathers built his family fortune through corrupt business practices or the exploitation of poor laborers. Such a man could appear to be virtuous according to the insufficient first- and second-level definitions, but he could hardly be considered excellent as a human being.
Traditions do not transcend their limitations by rejecting the past and starting over, they do so “through criticism and invention” (p. 222), and such criticism demands understanding of and attention to what has gone before. A living tradition, for MacIntyre, is the property of a community engaged in practices that continues to seek new and better ways to pursue the goods internal to those practices.
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.
MacIntyre’s notion of excellence in the agent as a bearer of tradition requires a specific Virtue: “the Virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one” (p. 223). On MacIntyre’s account, recognition and appreciation of one’s own culturally developed moral and intellectual peculiarities, and awareness and appreciation of those of others, is to be accounted a high Virtue.
Bureaucratic individualism is the bifurcated ideology that allows the contemporary inhabitants of the culture of emotivism to discuss morality in terms of rights and then make political plans in terms of utility.
He finds the people of late Modernity shifting toward a non-culture—a collection of competing individuals, who lack any shared conception of their goals as human beings.
Without the “background concepts” of Teleology and the Common Good that make it intellectually coherent, the tradition of the virtues became an empty shell in the dominant culture of Modernity. Yet, the language of virtue has remained a central part of the Western moral vocabulary, and this has led to several redefinitions of virtue over the past few centuries.
Late medieval moral theologians rejected natural Teleology as a basis for morality, and replaced it with divine command ethics. This entailed identifying moral Virtue with obedience to divine commands.
with the moral freedom to act on that judgment. With the rejection of the concept of a natural end or Telos for the human person, the virtues become indefinite, for they lose the criteria that had determined their meaning and content.
Where the tradition had defined the virtues as habits of transformed desire that enable people to seek the Common Good, Modernity sees the virtues either as good natural desires or as dispositions to serve the public good against one’s own desires.
Between the extremes of the egoistic pursuit of one’s own good and the altruistic commitment to helping others in the pursuit of theirs, David Hume proposed a theory of enlightened self-interest
The shift from plural “virtues” to singular “virtue” is significant. It is part of a larger contraction and transformation of moral vocabulary.
independently of the summing of individual desires and interests. Virtue in the individual is nothing more or less than allowing the public good to provide the standard for individual behavior. The virtues are those dispositions which uphold that overriding allegiance. (pp. 236–7) MacIntyre notes that the republican approach to virtue retrieves part of the classical tradition without depending on Aristotelian natural philosophy and without tying itself
The voluntarism of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen made their accounts of moral norms, like their accounts of reward and punishment, essentially arbitrary.
Kant’s rejection of the moral worth of heteronomy, of doing good for any reason except respect for duty10 gives voluntarist morality a new philosophical expression, but does not change its character.
the stoic denial of the private self in a social arena that lacks shared conceptions of the common good.