7 things I learned from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

I recently read Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic work, “After Virtue”. In the spirit of doing important things poorly rather than not at all, here are a few things I took from my reading, in no particular order:

First, there are so many things I do not understand. In the process of making his historical survey of “the Enlightenment project”, MacIntyre shows an easy familiarity with a broad swath of thinkers from that period. He weighs in on issues that I had never even heard about. It was like drinking from a fire hose. My store of knowledge was weighed and found wanting. To those that know what he is talking about, my weak grasp of the issues will be evident. I was left humbled and intrigued.

Second, MacIntyre says the moral structures of Western Civilization have been broken, burned, and pillaged by the vandals of the Enlightenment, leaving us without a shared vocabulary and conceptual stock to justify our moral beliefs. It leads to what he calls the “fact of incommensurability”: that is, since we appeal to incompatible standards, we cannot successfully defend our beliefs or disprove beliefs contrary to ours. It is a two edged sword that cuts everyone: at the same time that we cannot prove our beliefs to be true, others cannot prove theirs. Public discourse ends up being people talking to themselves and either yelling at or ignoring others in frustration.

Third, MacIntyre gives a very interesting history of the concept of “virtue”. I cannot fully recall or verify his account, but the following are things that I will be looking into further as I have opportunity. The Greek city states each defined virtue for their citizens: a man’s contribution to their establishment and defense was what made him virtuous. Different cities had different standards and that was that. There was no idea of virtues having reference to something more ultimate than the city and a man who was banished from his city could not be virtuous or, consequently, a true man.

Fourth, though I cannot call this even a paraphrase, virtues in the Aristotelian sense seem to be the cultivated and fruitful character traits that make for a fulfilled, good life. Virtues are inculcated by practices that form habits, which together make a character what it is. A community joins in the practices that aim at its vision of the good life and so it forms virtuous people according to its lights. MacIntyre denies that saying this makes him a relativist (although some of them claim him for their tribe).

I think this is akin to saying that a very pious modern liberal defends abortion like a sacrament, reverences alternative sexualities like medieval Christians honored faithful monks and nuns, and has no patience for theological reasoning. It doesn’t mean they’re right, it just means they’re very pious according to the standards of their community. I believe MacIntyre reserves the right to identify for himself which community embodies truth and goodness. I don’t know how exactly MacIntyre believes public discourse should proceed, though he has probably explained or hinted it.

Fifth, MacIntyre pushes back against the notion of the “naturalistic fallacy”, which says that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. It rests on the metaphysical claim that either there is no human nature or that, even if there is, that nature implies nothing about the good life. Aristotelian ethics says that the fulfillment (Greek, telos) of a thing is rooted in its nature. Thus, if we know what a human is, we can know what a good (fulfilled) human is. In passing, I will note that this is a claim echoed by modern Christian ethicists responding to modern homo- and transsexuality.

Sixth, MacIntyre says that idea of moral responsibility is based on the intelligibility of action. That is, intentions inherent to an action are observable and subject to judgement. I am not up to the task of grasping all that he said in this vein, but the implication of what he said seems to be that the stories we tell are made of the same things that make our own lives morally significant. In fact, our moral imaginations are stocked from the stories that are told in our community. By drawing on this store, we know ourselves and others as moral beings. By implication, the child that is told no stories cannot grow morally.

Seventh, he argues that ideas are best explained by examining their concrete manifestations in history. Consistent with this, he doesn’t just present ideas abstractly, but as they were held in particular times and places. I really like this idea: my preferred way to contextualize philosophy and other ideas is through literary quality intellectual history, which situates ideas as they have actually been worked out (eg. A.N. Wilson’s “Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker” or Robin Lane Fox’s “Conversions to Confessions”).

There’s so much more in this book, but this is the best summary I can give at present. From those who know better than me, I hope to receive gracious correction and stimulation; from those who don’t, I hope this will encourage you to pursue this book and its ideas.

One thought on “7 things I learned from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

  1. I’ve never read this very famous book, but I think you’re getting it because you’re getting stuff I know (a very little) of.

    You’ve got the ancient Greeks about right — there was no concept of an “individual” apart from the group. The concept “person” (as I understand it) is Christian, but persons are always in relationship. When Ockham denied there is any such thing as “human nature”, that opened the door to the concept “Individual”, and IMO is the root of our modern problems.

    You’ve got Aristotle about right too.

    MacIntyre would deny Relativism — he denies that saying this makes him a relativist because relativists deny there’s an objective moral order. MacIntyre doesn’t.

    If this or that society is mistaken about the human person, it will be mistaken concerning right behavior. Its mistaken behaviors are objectively wrong, but the persons in the society may not be subjectively culpable.

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