A Review of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

In his seminal work After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that our Western society has lost the conceptual context for and foundation within which moral language makes sense. In the premodern world moral judgments were understood as governed by impersonal standards justified by a shared conception of human good. That context was lost in the Enlightenment when Aristotelian Scholasticism and Christian theology were discarded and, with them, the idea of teleology. After teleology was discarded, several conceptual systems attempted to provide a new account of morality which would maintain the status, authority, and justification of moral rules. All of these new conceptual systems failed in their attempt, and what we’re left with today is a situation where moral judgments are merely expressions of our attitudes and feelings (emotivism). And yet, moral judgments are still uttered as if there were still some impersonal standard that existed by which moral disagreements might be resolved rationally. The language of morality has passed from a state of order to a state of disorder – we still use the same moral words, but they’re not attached to the basic conceptual foundations which gave them meaning in the first place. MacIntyre’s thesis statement includes two tasks: first, to describe the lost morality of the past and evaluate its claims to objectivity and authority; and second, to argue that we live in an emotivist culture, that most of our current moral debates presuppose the truth of emotivism.

The Premodern Era

Ethics in the premodern era presupposed a conceptual account of the essential nature or essence of man and, above all, some account of the human telos. What is morally right is what will lead to man’s true end or telos. A moral virtue is a quality, the exercise of which leads one to the achievement of the human telos. This account is found in the two great intellectual movements that made up the conceptual framework in the premodern era: Aristotelianism and Christianity. Because MacIntyre views Aristotle as the key representative of this era, he often refers to it simply as Aristotelianism, though he notes that there were a number of precursors and successors to Aristotle who articulated this view. For instance, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas disagree in their respective lists of virtues, but they agree in their presupposition that there is a cosmic order which dictates the place of each virtue in a total harmonious scheme of human life. Thus in this review, I’ll refer to this conceptual account as premodernism.

The Modern Era

During the modern era Western thinkers repudiated the classical view of human nature and teleology when they rejected Christianity and Aristotelian science. Many people at the time saw this as a liberation from the burden of theism, the confusion of teleological modes of thought, and the hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such an order. Through the power of human reason, the moderns thought they could strip away all interpretation and confront fact and experience just as they are. They proclaimed their era “the Enlightenment” and called the previous era “the dark ages.” What Aristotle obscured through his teleological interpretation, they now saw clearly. This conceit was just the sign of an unacknowledged and unrecognized transition from one interpretation to another. Thus, the Enlightenment is the period par excellence in which people lacked self-knowledge; the blind proclaimed their own vision! The individual moral agent, now freed from hierarchy and teleology, was conceived as autonomous and sovereign over his own moral philosophy. However, there was at the same time a desire to find a new basis for morality such that the resulting moral rules would apply objectively to all in order to prevent appealing to these rules as merely an appeal of individual desire or will. But could this be done now that teleology and human nature/essence had been discarded? MacIntyre argued that all such attempts ultimately failed, leaving us with emotivism.

David Hume

Almost all key thinkers in the modern era were overly optimistic concerning human reason, but not everyone was so enamored. Calvinists and Jansenists looked down upon reason because they thought the power of reason was destroyed by the fall of man. It’s not a coincidence that of the two earliest critics of reason, one was a Jansenist (Blaise Pascal) and the other was raised a Calvinist (David Hume). Hume read Pascal’s work and possibly was influenced by it. For Hume, moral judgments are expressions of feelings and passions, for it is the passions, and not reason, that move us to action. Hume also attacked the teleological understanding of human nature. However, replacing teleology with a definition of the virtues in terms of the passions creates a situation where there are no longer any clear criteria for right and wrong.

Immanuel Kant

Kant’s attempt to base morality on reason was a response to Hume and Diderot’s appeal to desire and the passions. Kant looked for a foundation of morality in the universalizable prescriptions of that reason which manifests itself in arithmetic and morality. Yet in the second book of his second critique, he acknowledges that without a teleological framework the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible. This teleological framework is presented as a necessary presupposition of pure practical reason, but his followers thought that this seemed like an arbitrary and unjustifiable concession. Ultimately, Kant universalized morality not through a shared teleology among all humans but a supposed shared rationality and a shared obligation to follow the moral prescriptions of this rationality. Kant and Hume both rejected any essential human nature and objective human teleology.

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard realized that Kant’s strategy of basing morality on reason failed, so he tried to base it on choice. One has to choose his first principles prior to any others in the chain of reasoning, and no more ultimate reasons can be adduced to support them. With these three (Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard), we have the vindication of each position resting on the failure of the other two. Hume founded morality on the passions because his arguments excluded the possibility of founding it on reason. Kant founded it on reason because his arguments have excluded the possibility of founding it on the passions. And Kierkegaard founded it on choice because of what he takes to be the compelling nature of the considerations which exclude both reason and the passions. Thus, criticism by all three of the others turns out to be the failure of them all. They all rejected any teleological view where man has an essence which defines his true end, and this is why their project of finding a basis for morality had to fail. The project of finding a vindication of morality failed, so now our morality lacked any public rationale or justification.

The Rise of Utilitarianism

The utilitarianism of the 1800s was an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the autonomous moral agent from the predicament in which he was thrown because the Enlightenment project failed to provide him with a secular, rational justification for his moral allegiances. The moral agent was now unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural teleology, or hierarchical authority. But now, why should anyone else listen to him? Utilitarianists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill thought that attraction to pleasure and avoidance of pain could provide somewhat of a telos. However, the notion of human happiness is not a unified notion, so it cannot provide us with a criterion for making key choices. The very idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is a notion without any clear content. With Henry Sidgwick, the scrutiny of utilitarianism by utilitarianists came to a culmination, and with him the failure to restore a teleological framework for ethics finally came to be accepted. He unhappily concluded that our basic moral beliefs must be unargued for in their acceptance and no further reasons can be given for them. To such basic moral beliefs, he gave the name “intuitions.” His disappointment was evident in that he proclaimed he went looking for cosmos but found only chaos.

Enter G. E. Moore

G. E. Moore borrowed Sidgwick’s final positions without acknowledgment and presented them in his Principia Ethica. But what Sidgwick proclaimed as a failure Moore took to be an enlightening and liberating discovery. Moore and his followers viewed themselves as rescued from utilitarianism, much like the Enlightenment rescued people from Christianity. Moore’s argument was declared a renaissance that shattered previous ethics from Aristotle to Christ and saved us from the philosophical nightmares and religious entanglements of the past. But Moore and his followers didn’t realize that they had been deprived of any ground for claims to objectivity. What they called “good” has, in fact, no such property as good, and they’re doing no more than expressing their feelings and attitudes, disguising their preferences by an interpretation of their own utterance which confers upon it an objectivity that it does not, in fact, possess. They began in their own lives to provide the evidence to which emotivism was soon to appeal.

And Finally, Emotivism

The history of utilitarianism is connected, through Moore, to the decline down into moral emotivism. Wherever emotivism is found to flourish, it is generally the successor theory to views similar to Moore’s. The process can be broken down into three stages:

  1. Moral theories try to be genuinely objective and impersonal so as to provide rational justification for their judgments.
  2. Unsuccessful attempts are made to maintain the objectivity and impersonality of moral judgments such that eventually rationality breaks down.
  3. The theories of an emotivist kind secure wide implicit acceptance because claims to objectivity and impersonality cannot be made.

Emotivism asserts that there are and can be no valid rational justifications for any claims that objective and impersonal moral standards exist, and so there are no such standards. People can’t appeal to impersonal criteria because there are none. Ultimately, in emotivism, the sole reality of moral discourse is the attempt of one will to align the choices of another with its own so that others are means, never ends. All faiths and all evaluations are equally non-rational, all are subjective directions given to sentiment and feeling. Nowadays, people talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be; emotivism has become embodied in our culture.

Aristotle vs. Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche’s historic achievement was to understand more clearly than any other philosopher that appeals to objectivity were, in fact, expressions of subjective will. In a famous passage in his book The Gay Science, he jeers at the notion of basing morality on inner moral sentiments, on conscience, or on the Kantian categorical imperative. In five witty paragraphs he disposed of the Enlightenment project to discover rational foundations for an objective morality. The rationally justified, autonomous moral subject of the 1700s is a fiction, an illusion, and so Nietzsche encourages us to let will replace reason and make ourselves into autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic and heroic act of the will. Ever since belief in teleology was discredited, moral philosophers have attempted to provide some alternative rational secular account of the nature and status of morality, but all these attempts have failed, a failure perceived most clearly by Nietzsche.

MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche that the philosophers of the Enlightenment never succeeded in providing grounds for morality. The attractiveness of Nietzsche’s position lay in its honesty. He was the only major philosopher who did not flinch from the conclusion that we have to move beyond the language of past morality because of its misleading character in this modern age. His resoluteness alone would rescue us from the entanglement of such pseudo-concepts of utility and natural rights. But it’s clear that liberation from this is entanglement in another set of mistakes. Regardless, Nietzsche’s moral philosophy is one of the two genuine theoretical alternatives confronting anyone trying to analyze the moral condition of our culture. Ultimately, the only alternatives are premodernism (Aristotelianism) or going through the Enlightenment project to see all the mistakes and then being left with Nietzsche, both alternatives agreeing that the Enlightenment project was a mistake in the first place. It all started with the major error of rejecting teleology. If teleology actually exists, then the whole Nietzschean enterprise would be pointless. Thus, at the end of the day, we’re left with Aristotle vs. Nietzsche.      

An Evaluation

One of the key issues with MacIntyre’s position is whether or not it eventually slides into moral relativism itself. This is ironic because he critiques other moral positions for not having an objective moral standpoint.

In the first edition (1980) of his book, he claimed that all morality must take place in a particular social context. The Enlightenment project of trying to universalize morality objectively is impossible because one just cannot step back and be outside of a social context. The self has to find its moral identity in and through its membership in communities such as those of the family, city, tribe, polis, etc. The notion of escaping from one’s social context into a realm of entirely universal maxims which belong to man as such is an illusion.  

However, in the postscript to the second edition (1984), he noted that many have criticized him for supposedly promoting moral relativism and postmodernism. He explained that he had wanted to revive a premodern moral rationality that doesn’t claim absolute certainty (the mistake of modernism) but also doesn’t fall into relativism (the result of emotivism or Nietzsche). He proposed to do this via a teleological view of the Good, a view that was rejected in the Enlightenment. This premodern view is the best view we have thus far (p. 270, 277), even though there is no foolproof way for one view to decisively prove another view is incorrect. I can respect this conclusion because, like critical realism, it seems to foster an epistemological humility. Though we have good reasons and evidence to believe that there is a teleological objective morality, at the same time we understand that, because we are finite creatures, we cannot be 100% certain that we know for sure our view of reality is correct. His view here reminds me a lot of Michael Polanyi’s and Francis Schaeffer’s – a good balance between the optimistic certainty and objectivity of modernism and the pessimistic agnosticism and relativism of postmodernism. (For more on Polanyi’s and Schaeffer’s views, see “Created to Know: The Epistemologies of Michael Polanyi and Francis Schaeffer.”)

I was even more encouraged that in the prologue to the third edition (2006) of After Virtue, MacIntyre explained that he became a Thomist after writing this book because he became convinced that Aquinas was a better Aristotelian than Aristotle himself. He learned from Aquinas that his attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms was inadequate until he 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 within a tradition are able to function as they do. There he wrote that moral “…issues can on occasion be decided, and this in a way that makes it evident that the claims of such rival traditions from the outset presuppose the falsity of relativism. As do I and as must any serious enquirer” (p. xiv).

Convincing Proof