International Catholic University : Twentieth-Century Ethics

Lecture 9: After Virtue

David Solomon

Welcome to our ninth lecture. In the last four lectures, I have explored the recovery of normative ethical theory which has occurred since roughly the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the fifth lecture, I talked about the project of normative ethical theory, which from its beginning in ancient Greece can be divided into three main schools of thought: virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. In lectures six, seven, and eight, I looked at the way each of these different traditions in moral philosophy has been developed by contemporary analytic philosophers.

Today I want to narrow our focus and discuss a remarkable book that was written in the early 1980s called After Virtue. Written by my Notre Dame colleague Alasdair MacIntyre, it is a book within the virtue tradition in ethics that picks up many of the themes explored in Elizabeth Anscombes great article, "Modern Moral Philosophy". It is almost as though MacIntyre, almost twenty-five years after that article appeared, took to heart Miss Anscombe's advice and developed a sophisticated philosophical psychology that served both as a basis for a revived virtue theory and as the grounds for a critique of Kantianism and utilitarianism. After Virtue really is a remarkable work, which has attracted the attention not only of moral philosophers but also of students of literary studies, the social sciences, and theology, all of whom are interested in the trenchant cultural critique which MacIntyre develops in it. After Virtue is unique among the classic works in 20th-century analytic moral philosophy in its ambitions. It not only responds to most of the controversies in classical metaethics and normative theory, but also provides a comprehensive critique of modern culture and some proposals about what would be necessary to reform this culture.

Professor MacIntyre has been a leading figure in moral philosophy for almost half a century. His career is unique not only because of its length and distinction, but also because his thought has continually evolved in interesting, and surprising, ways. He has flirted with various forms of Marxism throughout his career, being especially involved with the Trotskyite movements of the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1980s, he entered the Roman Catholic Church as a convert. He now does his work against the background of what he calls an Augustinian Thomist approach to moral philosophy.

In this lecture, we will be considering the main threads of MacIntyre's argument in this book, and how they relate to our larger concerns in this course. We can organize our discussion by noticing that, in After Virtue, MacIntyre is interested in asking, and answering, the following kinds of questions: What is the state, particularly with regard to morality, of modern Western culture, that culture dominated by liberal democratic theory? How did we get into that state? If it is a state that we should be worried about, how should we think about remedying our problems and building on our strengths?

Let us begin by focusing on the first question. MacIntyre's diagnosis of the moral state of modern liberal societies is, to put it briefly, pretty grim. Contemporary culture, he thinks, is dominated by moral discussions which are not merely difficult to resolve but also, given the conceptual resources of modernity, irresolvable. We can best understand why he makes this claim by looking a bit more carefully at what he takes to be the three main features of contemporary moral disagreement.

The first main feature of moral disagreement in contemporary discourse is that the arguments put forward for the various positions defended depend upon premises which are incommensurable in a strong sense. In saying that the premises are incommensurable, he means not only to emphasize that we disagree about the legitimate starting points for moral discussion, but also that there seems to be no rational way to decide whose proposed starting points are correct. We can understand this first point by looking more carefully at the examples which MacIntyre uses to illustrate it. Consider, MacIntyre suggests, three moral areas in which there are quite large disagreements in our culture: abortion, the morality of war, and the basic principles of economic justice. In each of these areas, there is a wide range of moral views currently being defended. In each area, moreover, philosophers defending at least three vastly different positions are able to produce valid arguments in defense of their claims. Their arguments, in other words, do support their conclusions, and the only question is whether or not the premises themselves are true. This alone, of course, would not be problematic. What is problematic, MacIntyre thinks, is that there appears to be no rational way of deciding between the various premises to which the differing philosophical camps appeal. In the abortion debate, for instance, pro-life advocates tend to start with premises about the inviolable nature of human life, whereas pro-choice advocates tend to start with premises about autonomy and freedom. From these various starting points, each party to the debate seems to make a convincing case for their position. What neither party to the debate succeeds in doing, however, is giving us good reason to accept their premises, and reject the premises of their opponents. We seem simply to lack the resources to rationally adjudicate between them.

There is another salient feature of these disagreements, moreover, which may partially explain the first one. The differing incommensurable premises to which participants in these contemporary debates appeal tend to have very different historical origins. Arguments that begin with claims about rights can frequently be traced to 17th century discussions. Arguments that talk about the shape of a good life frequently have their origins in the ancient world. Arguments that talk about laws governing human action might have their origins in something like the 12th- and 13th- century natural law tradition or, alternately, the Kantian deontological tradition.

The third and final feature of these arguments is that they are put forward as if they had impersonal authority. We do not engage in moral argument in the same way in which we discuss what type of food that we prefer, fully recognizing that we are going to disagree amongst ourselves, and completely content with the fact. People who disagree about abortion, war, and about just economic arrangements not only say different things, but believe that they are right to say these things and that others should join them in advocating their position.

MacIntyre thinks there is something very puzzling about this state of affairs. We all recognize that we are caught up in these arguments in which our premises are incommensurable, and we therefore lack the resources to rationally convince one another. We notice also that these arguments have their origins in completely different historical circumstances. In spite of these two facts, however, we continue to put forward our arguments as if they had impersonal authority. Instead of slipping into a kind of easy relativism, which the first two facts about moral disagreement might suggest, we continue to put forward our moral positions and arguments as if they were authoritative.

MacIntyre's audacious thesis, which he takes to explain this puzzling state of affairs, is that contemporary moral life is made up of a set of fragments of various moral traditions. Recall that Anscombe suggested, in "Modern Moral Philosophy," that the modern deontological view is a mere fragment of traditional divine law theory. Ethical laws made sense in a context of belief in a God who was a Lawgiver. Now that hardly anyone, at least in academia, takes the existence of God seriously, the concept of ethical laws is a mere nonsensical fragment. MacIntyre's suggestion is that this is true of virtually all of our moral concepts and practice; rather than form a coherent whole, our moral beliefs and practices are a mixed-up set of fragmentary ideas inherited from the entire history of the Western world. In the morning we wake up and think like Kant, by noon we are thinking like an Aristotelian, and in the late afternoon we are all utilitarians. This is the audacious proposal.

An alternate explanation of these facts, someone might suggest, is to assume that the emotivists were right when they said that moral judgments are simply expressions of attitude. If this is the case, the historical contingency of our premises, and our inability to rationally adjudicate between them, make complete sense. MacIntyre rejects this solution, however. Emotivism cannot be right as an analysis of the meaning of our moral terms, he thinks, because we still continue to think of our moral judgments as exercising impersonal authority, and this is part of what we mean to imply when we claim that something is a moral judgment.

And yet, even though emotivism cannot be true as a theory about the meaning of our moral terms, the emotivists were right about something. They were right, MacIntyre thinks, that people often use moral language in ways that are characteristically emotivist. We live, in other words, in an emotivist culture. The fact that we live in an emotivist culture is demonstrated by the dominance in our culture of three characters. The first of these, a characteristic figure in modern literature, is the rich aesthete. The aesthete's central preoccupation is attempting to avoid boredom by pursuing a series of momentary pleasures; Kierkegaard makes this character famous in his Diary of a Seducer. The manager, often hailed as a hero, is the person who can devise the most efficient means to any proposed end. If you want to make widgets, the manager can tell you how to do it; if you want to make nuclear bombs, the manager can tell you how to do that, too. What the manager cannot tell you is anything about the goodness of the particular end which you are pursuing. The therapist, finally, is a character who helps individuals adjust to whatever ends they happen to have. What each of these characters has in common with the other is that he never evaluates the ends of human action, but only the means. Like the emotivist, they take ends to be something like mere preferences or desires, which are not subject to rational evaluation. The cultural importance of these three characters, MacIntyre suggests, is evidence for thinking that our culture in general is emotivist.

We now have the answer to our first question on the table: the state of modern Western culture, MacIntyre thinks, is pretty grim. It is dominated by massive moral disagreement, with no hope on the horizon of bringing any rational order to these disagreements. In the meantime, the majority of people in our culture have taken to using moral language as if emotivism were true, even though it is not. Such a dire diagnosis, of course, makes the second of our questions particularly pressing: How did we manage to get ourselves into such a sorry state?

The answer to this question, MacIntyre suggests, is that there was something called the Enlightenment Project, and it failed miserably. The Enlightenment Project, which MacIntyre associates with 17th- and 18th- century moral philosophy, is the attempt to give a rational justification of morality on the basis of human nature. The specific facts about human nature which enlightenment philosophers appealed to varied; David Hume tried to base ethics on features of our passions, while Immanuel Kant tried to base it on features of reason. In each case, though, they were trying to give a foundational account of morality which both explains and justifies its claim to impersonal authority.

MacIntyre's key claim is that the Enlightenment Project not only failed, but that it had to fail. MacIntyre's argument for this claim is complex, but the outlines of it can be explained fairly clearly and straight-forwardly. The first important claim he makes is about the nature of moral philosophy, classically conceived. A classical picture of moral philosophy the picture of moral philosophy as it was developed in the ancient and medieval worlds makes use of three indispensable notions. There is the notion, first of all, of human nature as it happens to be; this is simply the notion of people as we find them. There is also, however, another notion of human nature a notion of human nature as it could be if it realized its telos, or end. Virtues, along with moral rules, constitute the third element in this conceptual picture, and are conceptualized as those things which can move us from the way we are now (human nature as it happens to be), to the way we ought to be, if we realize our end. To justify a moral rule as binding, or to vindicate a character trait as a true virtue, is to show that it facilitates this transition.

By the time of the Enlightenment, however, this classical picture of moral philosophy seemed no longer to be viable. Protestant Reformers, along with the Jansenists, argued that the corruption brought about by Original Sin is so catastrophic that we have no hope of discovering, by the light of natural reason, in what our end consists. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution, with its movement toward a mechanistic understanding of nature, suggested both that we could not have access to Divine Moral Law and that there is no such thing as human nature as it ought to be. The end result of these three changes is that human life is no longer thought of as having a teleological structure. Moral philosophy thus takes on the task of trying to justify moral rules and virtues based solely on an appeal to human nature as it happens to be. The way we ought to be disappears from the picture altogether.

All of this, MacIntyre thinks, is a catastrophe. Moral virtues and rules were given point insofar as they served to show us how to make the transition from how we happened to be into what we ought to be, if we realized our end. Given this, moral virtues and rules are going to be just those sorts of things which human nature as it happens to be will find difficult to put into practice, and difficult to understand. Without a notion of human nature as it could be if it realized its true end, moral virtues and rules are bound to seem arbitrary and ill-suited to creatures such as ourselves. For this reason, any attempt to ground moral precepts on human nature just as it happens to be will be doomed from the start. It is for this reason that the Enlightenment Project not only failed, but had to fail.

The lesson of the failure of the Enlightenment Project, MacIntyre thinks, is that we must choose either to embrace a Nietzschean version of post-modern irrationalism or we must return to the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues. MacIntyre is not alone in thinking that Aristotelian virtue theory, Nietzschean amoralism, and some version of enlightenment foundationalism are the principal theoretical options from which contemporary moral philosophers must choose. Obviously, if MacIntyre's argument up until this point is correct, we cannot embrace the Kantian or utilitarian versions of the Enlightenment Project. This leaves us with Aristotelian virtue theory, and Nietzschean amoralism. It is for this reason that the hinge chapter in MacIntyre's great book, which comes right after his argument against the Enlightenment Project and right before his positive proposal, is called "Nietzsche or Aristotle?".

The rest of MacIntyre's book is an argument for embracing the Aristotelian option over against the Nietzschean one. On MacIntyre's view, to embrace the Nietzschean view is, in important respects, to give up on morality as it has traditionally been understood. It is certainly to give up on those features of our ordinary discourse which seem to presuppose that moral judgments have some kind of rational and impersonal authority. We should only do this, he thinks, if we cannot show that an attempt to revive virtue ethics of an Aristotelian sort is possible. He thus devotes the last half of his book to developing a sketch of how this revival could be carried out.

He recognizes that this is a difficult task. One thing that makes it so difficult is that we have inherited a number of different accounts of the virtues. In the ancient heroic cultures depicted by Homer, strength, loyalty, and friendship are the virtues par excellence. In the New Testament, virtues such as charity and humility come to the fore; these are virtues, however, that most ancients would have despised. Benjamin Franklin thought cleanliness was a virtue; most of us are probably doubtful. We have, then, different lists of the virtues. We have also different accounts of how the virtues are related to social life. For Homer, virtues are those characteristics which we need in order to play a particular social role in our particular local community. For Christians, virtues are related to the actual social world in much more complex ways -- to put it in Augustinian terms, the Christian thinks of herself first as a citizen of the City of God, and not as playing a particular role in some actual local community.

MacIntyre aims to unify these strands into a core concept of the virtues by developing a complex and compelling account which relates them to what he calls practices, the narrative unity of human lives, and the fact that we live in a world of traditions. This material is too complicated for us to talk about in detail now. The key point, though, is that MacIntyre attempts to replace the classical metaphysical basis for teleology with a different kind of teleology, one constituted by the nature of human action itself. Such action, to be intelligibly human, must be lived out in communities with rich social practices, where people are able to retain the narrative unity of their own lives, while at the same time recognizing that their lives are only intelligible when seen as part of a larger tradition of rational enquiry.

Despite these positive suggestions, MacIntyre remains, in many respects, a pessimist. After developing this beautiful view of the virtues and what it would be to reconstitute them in late modernity, MacIntyre speculates in the very last paragraph of his book about our condition and our hope for recovering these forms of life. Let me end by reading you this famous section of the book:

Its always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history [of the decline of the Roman Empire in the ancient world], occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead -- often not recognizing fully what they were doing -- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless very different -- St. Benedict.

MacIntyre is not calling us here to return to monasteries. He is reminding us that there came a time when rational people withdrew from the greater society of Rome, in order to cultivate local forms of life in which civilization, and the intellectual and moral traditions of the classical age, could survive the coming dark ages. Perhaps, he suggests, the time is coming when rational people in our own culture should begin to cultivate local forms of communities in which the traditions of the virtues can survive the barren landscape of our modern emotivist culture.

Required Readings:

Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), ch. 1-6, 9-14.

David Solomon, "MacIntyre and Contemporary Moral Philosophy," in Alasdair MacIntyre, Mark C. Murphy, ed. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003):114-151.

Suggested Readings:

Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 1999).

Study Questions:

1. What are the three main features of contemporary moral disagreement identified by MacIntyre?

2. Who are the three characters identified by MacIntyre that characterize our culture as emotivist, and how are these characters supposed to prove that our culture is emotivist?

3. Why, according to MacIntyre, was the Enlightenment Project bound to fail?

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