After Virtue – A Bird’s Eye View

Alasdair MacIntyre is a major figure in the modern revival of virtue ethics and After Virtue is a key text of that revival. The book covers a lot of ground, both in depth and breadth. Unfortunately, MacIntyre doesn’t lay out the argument he is meticulously building, and the writing style and formatting makes separating central threads from sub-arguments difficult. This post is an attempt at a very high level understanding of that central argument. [Note: MacIntyre did concisely write out his core argument a few years after publication in a very helpful article, The Claims of After Virtue (pdf).]

MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche’s analysis of modernity, but believes there is an alternative to accepting Nietzsche’s prescription. He sees modern philosophy as a kind of a reverse cargo cult that attempts to deduce accepted ethical doctrines from objective principles when those doctrines developed as pragmatic prescriptions to reach ends we no longer believe in.

A succession of powerful critiques beginning in the Enlightenment confirm that this task is impossible. They culminate in Nietzsche’s realization that will to power is the only ground on which morality can rationally stand and subsequent rejection of shared morality. But Nietzsche is not just a rebel against modernity, he is also the summit of its tradition of liberal individualism.

MacIntyre believes that virtue ethics is a viable, rational alternative to Nietzsche because it isn’t susceptible to the critiques applicable to the Enlightenment and does not accept the concept of an individual or morality that stands outside of history and society.

The emotivist impasse in philosophy is mirrored by the incoherent state of language and practice of morality in the real world. Our beliefs, institutions, and expectations are a mashup of ill-assorted fragments of our past. Our debates are fundamentally unsettleable, but we act as if we are rational agents presenting universal truths. Shrill protests and unmasking of unacknowledged motives of opposing positions are some of the favorite past times of modernity. Aesthetic search for ends, along with focus on reaching unquestioned ends by Bureaucrats and Therapists, fills out most of our remaining pursuits.

The archetype of Bureaucratic Manager is one of the stars of modernity. The Manager’s demand for power rests on his claim to effectiveness, which is rooted in success of natural science and in the 18th century philosophy’s acceptance that man is a machine and that facts are value-free.

Yet this claim to expertise is largely theater. MacIntyre gives numerous reasons including that social science lacks the properties of natural science, that there are multiple sources of systemic unpredictability that apply even if determinism is accepted, and that the manager must grant himself the freedom of an autonomous rational agent just as he claims that others are machines he can manipulate.

Managers can reduce some sources of unpredictability and fragility, but their demands for power far exceed what their abilities warrant. Furthermore, the legibility required to pursue these reductions is in violent conflict with the illegibility desired by modern actors.

MacIntyre’s virtue ethics blends particularity of morality and necessity of narrative with the Homeric acceptance of tragedy, Christian rooted concept of a quest, and Aristotle’s centrality of virtues, importance of judgment, and view of friendship as primarily a relationship bound by common purpose. He seeks to free Aristotelian virtue ethics from its flaws while amending the tradition with contributions of history.

At the core of MacIntyre’s argument, and of virtue ethics in general, lies a rejection of reductionism. As unsatisfying as it is to accept untanglable interrelationships, it is MacIntyre’s conviction that little stands alone and that there is a limit to the level of certainty we can rationally achieve.

Yet this compels neither the common acceptance of arbitrariness nor Nietzsche’s acceptance of loneliness. We can respect tradition without giving up on progress. We can accept inaccessibility of conclusive arguments without ceasing to evaluate. We can acknowledge that multiple conflicting claims can be right without devaluing the responsibility of choice between them. In short, we can once again learn to value wisdom.

3 thoughts on “After Virtue – A Bird’s Eye View

  1. Nice post. It sounds like MacIntyre was trying to “synthesize” (in the Hegelian sense) elements of both Aristotle and Nietzsche. The synthesis seems inherently hard to describe because it is itself a rejection of reductivism. I wonder whether MacIntyre’s system might be easier (or possibly harder) to describe in practice than it is in theory. What practical applications do you see for MacIntyre’s philosophy? That is, how would one who agrees with it navigate some of the moral conflicts of modern life?

    1. Some of the broad practical applications that come to mind: Treat many of the modern discussions as not-even-wrong. Use coherence of individual and group narratives in choice evaluation. Accept that conflict is inevitable and is often between good and good. Bias towards situation specific, smaller scale, decentralized solutions.

  2. by Thomas Hurka, R. Jay Wallace, and Christopher Janaway (whose recent book slouhd easily rank among the best monographs on Nietzsche in 2007)… The rigor of Patrick Farber’s critique of Richardson in Nietzsche was no Darwinian [Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 75 (2), 369 382] might also merit its candidacy among the better articles of 2007 on Nietzsche.

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