After Virtue

After Virtue: A Study in Moral TheoryAfter Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MacIntyre wants to understand virtue. In particular, he wants to know not so much why virtue seems to be lacking in society today (this isn’t book moralizing on the problems of a post-modern society); rather, he wants to know why social discourse about virtue seems so incommensurate, so broken, so pointless. My first thought on reading the initial portions of this book was that he was simply critiquing the advent of post-modernity, but what he’s actually doing is something more sophisticated and systematic. Yes, he’s acknowledging that our dialogue on any sort of moral issues or claims seems to be absolutely stymied today, but he wants to rigorously explain why and analyze how it came to be this way. And the answer, according to his historical and philosophical treatment, is the loss of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

After Virtue is largely a historical analysis of virtue. MacIntyre’s central claim is that moral discourse is broken because there are no central agreed-upon premises to begin with and that historically Aristotelian virtue ethics has proven one of the most fertile starting grounds for questions of morality and ways of living. (I admit the philosophical sophistication of this work was such that my review may simplify to the point of obscuring.) He’s careful not to idealize Aristotle’s system of virtue, and he points out the failings and shortcomings of the Philosopher’s model, but historically he looks at the primary aspects of Aristotelian ethics, how they were abandoned in the Enlightenment, and the failure of the Enlightenment project to construct alternative groundings for morality.

There are two central aspects to MacIntyre’s reading of Aristotle’s concept of the virtues, two primary characteristics the abandonment of which have bankrupted societal dialogue and endeavors on morality today. For MacIntyre (as for Aristotle) an understand of virtue was tied to an understanding of the good of man—the intended end or telos of humanity—not as individuals (the individual rights and internal morality that have dictated how we talk about these things since the Enlightenment is a central problem for MacIntyre) but as the good of communities. A community exists and evaluates virtue in terms of those things that are useful between individuals in relationship with one another for the good of the community.

But this isn’t a utilitarian good; MacIntyre’s resurrection of Aristotelian telos is something more philosophically nuanced. It is related to the internal goods of practices, for instance, and here’s where his argument seemed most profound (and most apt to slip away from me). Internal goods are those goods that are intrinsic to the practice itself (excellence in the practice of chess-playing or baseball, for instance), as opposed to external goods (money, fame) that might be found through those practices but aren’t the intrinsic telos of the practice itself. If we lose a sense of humans in community working toward common, intrinsically-valuable ends, sharing practices that have internal goods—if we give this up for an Enlightenment sense of atomistic individuals pursuing their own self-interest—then MacIntyre says we don’t have a grounds to understand virtue.

The second aspect was that virtue can only exist in the context of narrative, also tied to Aristotelian views of telos. If we don’t have a clear understanding of our own story, of our own participation in narrative, and of our communities and institutions as also having narratives, then we won’t have a grounding for understanding virtue that is defined in terms of ends and intrinsic goods. Aristotle writes that it’s impossible to say someone has been happy until their death, until their story has played out. MacIntyre says profound things in this work (quotes I wish I would have saved, as they speak directly to the power of narrative) about the necessity of narrative and the view of humanity in a narrative structure to our understanding (or lack thereof) regarding virtue.

The problem with this book is illustrated by the fumbling manner in which I’m generalizing and vaguely pointing to the different aspects of the work. In reading it, one can follow MacIntyre’s thick analysis more or less. He’s building an argument for something that seems quite counter to modern analytical philosophy, but because he wants to engage philosophers he has to do it in a very careful and analytical manner. But because his ideas are radically different—a view that ethics and morality as a logical, analytical exercise is vacuous and things like history and narrative and practice have to come into play—he’s constantly reaching beyond analytical philosophy to make a bigger argument. It’s an argument that has a direct bearing on how we live (something that also makes it perhaps unique among analytical philosophies), yet it’s a book that’s out of reach of most, I fear. It would be ideal if there were a quality popularization of this work, something that pulled out MacIntyre’s central themes and set them out for the interested undergraduate or popular reader.

MacIntyre’s work has been influential (there’s a paper, for instance, in the latest issue of ISIS, applying MacIntyre’s concept of goods internal to a practice to the practice of science), but I’m not sure whether such an explanatory derivative work based on After Virtue exists. The posts of Father Stephen, an orthodox priest who maintains a popular blog, often draw on his arguments and in fact were where I realized I should probably read this book. (I don’t have an excuse for waiting so long, as an undergraduate roommate did his thesis on virtue ethics, and I ran into MacIntyre at least once during my time at Notre Dame.) Father Stephen goes so far as to say that he finds it useless to have discussions about modern morality (or lack thereof) unless his interlocutors have first read McIntyre’s work. I find that frustrating, as I imagine most people would find this book difficult going indeed. But the central concepts here are indeed crucial and deserve a far wider hearing. Indeed, the energy that most of us use arguing about morality, I would venture, would be far better applied to attempting to work through MacIntyre’s analysis.

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