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After Reading After Virtue

23 May 2012

Alasdair MacIntyre (Photo Credit: Sean O’Connor)

As part of my developing interested in the so-called aretaic turn, the modern day renaissance of virtue thought in analytic philosophy, I have recently finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal title, After Virtue. While I would hardly pretend to write a review of a title that is not only over a quarter of a century old but widely recognised as classic of modern philosophy, I would like to share some comments, responses, and reflections on MacIntyre’s work.

While I hardly agree with everything MacIntyre has written I cannot overstate the degree to which his work has affected my thinking. While previously I was interested in virtue ethics as an alternate mode for ethical reflection, an additional dimension to be considered within a ‘larger’ ethical theory, I am now drawn to the notion of virtue as the very paradigm of ethical, and even broader philosophical, reflection. It has been nothing less than a breath of fresh, spring air and I look forward impatiently to reading the remaining three titles of his project.

Despite my general agreement with MacIntyre’s project I disagree with one of his primary assertions: that moral language was evacuated of meaning by the Enlightenment (the actual events which he narrates take place partially prior to the Enlightenment proper but his critique is directed largely at that period). MacIntyre’s now famous assertion that the renunciation of the Aristotelian teleological moral tradition but continued application of its terminology has resulted in Western ethical discourse becoming unintelligible is, in my opinion, and overly strong one. MacIntyre’s catastrophic diagnosis trips, I think, over it’s own implications, ones which, it bears noting, MacIntyre states explicitly. MacIntyre makes plain his view that moral discourse since the repudiation of the Aristotelian ethical tradition has become unintelligible, since it employs the linguistic framework of the Aristotelian tradition while rejecting the teleological perspective to which that tradition oriented them. The problem with this assertion is that were it truly the case it would seem that this should have become fairly painfully obvious long ago. The critical engagements with the concepts would likely have long since stumbled upon their meaninglessness and the incoherence of their application. Rather, I think that the problem has been once-unprecedented plurality of fundamental conceptions about the nature of the human good, in contrast to the previous dominance of aretaic, teleological conceptions, which results in the presence of numerous, irreconcilable, competing ethical systems, each of which has appropriated and re-contexualised the terminology of the previous age of relative homogeneity in different ways as incompatible with each other as with their original source. Whether this situation is positive or negative is certainly debatable but it is equally certainly not so dire as MacIntyre bemoans.

It also bears pointing out, if only because I’m fussy when it comes to historical accuracy, that, contrary to MacIntyre’s assertion, the tripartite division of history into the Classical, Dark, and Modern Ages was not a product of the Enlightenment. As previously noted, that problematic but well established periodisation was the invention of Petrarch and became dominant during the Renaissance.

Despite my misgivings about some of MacIntyre’s first-order assumptions I found his project, the reassertion of the Aristotelian, teleological, virtue-centered ethical theory compelling. In my disenchantment with the categorical ethics to which I have long held and my continuing distaste for consequentialistic theories like utilitarianism I became interested in this project which MacIntyre helped to spark. Regardless of whether those other theories are, as MacIntyre argues, incoherent, his proposal to lean instead upon Aristotle’s teleological conception of human good is a striking one. I am particularly drawn to the notions of ‘living well’ as the summus of moral reflections and the holistic approach to moral reasoning which it entails. Rather than reasoning proceeding from inflexible principles MacIntyre’s Aristotelianism focuses upon a complex end and makes the achievement of that end the center of moral calculation. Though MacIntyre does attempt to precisely define ‘living well’ he conceptualises it as the positive end to which human beings are naturally inclined. This provides for a less narrow center for moral reasoning than moral absolutes which do not allow for complex, nuanced contexts or competing moral claims. As MacIntyre makes clear in the chapter on the changing conceptions of justice, rival incommensurable claims to define moral absolutes (MacIntyre cites Rawls’ and Dworkin’s competing conceptions of justice and their incompatible assumptions) result in a moral discourse  that lends itself to no image more than that of ships passing in the night. MacIntyre seeks to rehabilitate the Aristotelian tradition as the original discursive context within which the terminology of moral reasoning developed its meaning and thus give back to that terminology the meaning which it has lost.

Perhaps the most engaging aspects of MacIntyre’s independent project (as opposed to the actual content of the theory which he propounds) were his intimately-connected concepts of intelligibility and tradition. Though under-theorised in After Virtue, a problem I am given to understand is addressed in the follow-up work, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, these concepts address for me my own persistent issue with much of modern moral discourse. My difficulty, simply put, is the tendency of proponents of rival ethical positions to speak and act as though their ideas referred to some objective rational order, set outside the historical, cultural, intellectual, and linguistic context(s) in which they are speaking. What MacIntyre seeks to make clear that is that ethical reasoning takes place within a tradition of paradigms and modes of thought and that any attempt to construct a theory based on ‘pure reason,’ to employ a rather unpleasantly accurate Kantian phrase, is not transcending this reality but is merely blind to it, making of it a burden rather than a tool. When one seeks to employ the tools of a tradition without acknowledging its paradigms and limitations, one is bound to produce thought that is, to use MacIntyre’s terms, unintelligble, that does not make sense within the modes of thought in which one exists. This is clearest when a thinker introduces creative new definitions of existing terms, such as so-called Eudaimonistic Utilitarianism, which both redefines eudaimonia, in a notably materialistic and classic manner, no less, and conflates it with a global conception of the good. Of course, once these competing definitions and conceptions are around and read long enough they form traditions of their own, leading to the battle of competing ships mentioned above.

Having read his presentation of the Aristotelian tradition itself and having embarked upon a more thorough reading of that tradition’s source works I find myself in growing agreement with MacIntyre’s final assessment of it: while it is hardly a perfect or necessarily absolutely correct ethical theory, it is the best one put forward so far in the history of Western ethical thinking (I’m not privileging Western ethical discourse here, merely acknowledging that I exist within the Western world and its modes of thought). This is simply because it proposes, or provides the tools for the proposition of, a coherent theory of how human beings ought to act while avoiding the pitfalls of its two main competitors, consequentialism (which I find reductionistic and insuperably materialistic, reducing ethics to calculations and the good either to unquantifiables which it seeks to quantify anyway or to quantitifiables which do not adequately inform the moral agent) and categoricalism (which, even if it could justify its rules, could never come up with enough rules to cover every conceivable situation except by making them excessively broad and ultimately dehumanising [see Kant]). Like MacIntyre I accept that another theory, completely different from and wholly superior to virtue ethics, may yet be proposed, but in the absence of such a wondrous theory I will make do with the best I have available to me.

I am now eagerly engaging with some of the later work done in the virtue tradition which MacIntyre rehabilitated, especially that of epistemologist and philosopher of religion Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, one of the pioneers of so-called ‘virtue epistemology.’ Her concept of practical reason as an architectonic virtue upon which knowledge itself, as well as ethics, is based is an engaging and promising proposition. I also find myself curious regarding the possibility, clearly non-existent to MacIntyre himself, of a virtue-based theory of rights. Though MacIntyre flatly rejects the concept of ‘rights,’ I cannot but wonder if his teleological ethic could not lay the foundation of a contractarian theory of civil, or even human (read: natural), rights. Like a good environmentalist I also tracked the only major work applying modern analytic virtue ethics to environmental ethics and look forward to picking up Louke van Wensveen’s Dirty Virtues. I can honestly say that reading After Virtue has resulted in nothing less than a tectonic shift in my ethical and even broader philosophical thinking, a rare occurrence to say the least.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 November 2012 3:15 pm

    While previously I was interested in virtue ethics as an alternate mode for ethical reflection, an additional dimension to be considered within a ‘larger’ ethical theory, I am now drawn to the notion of virtue as the very paradigm of ethical, and even broader philosophical, reflection.

    Yes! I have come to the same conclusion, though I wouldn’t have been able to state it so succinctly and clear.

    Have you written any posts/articles following up on that idea?

    • 1 November 2012 3:57 pm

      Thank you for that kind assessment. As virtue ethics is a side project for me I am left with relatively little time to explore thoroughly except as it relates more directly to my academic research interests (and is then invariably is personally relevant). I did write a rather brief reflection on my reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in my post Ad fontes. Fortunately the necessities of research mean that I must soon read The Philosopher’s Politics, so a post on that work will also likely be forthcoming.

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