Alasdair MacIntyre’s search for lost virtue

I am a person of strong moral beliefs who has always been troubled by lack of religious or philosophical grounding for my beliefs.  Rather I judge religious and philosophical doctrines by my pre-existing morality.  For example, I can’t believe there can be such a thing as a loving, all-powerful deity who condemns sinners to an eternal Hell.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book, AFTER VIRTUE: A Study in Moral Theory (1981, 1986), says that this dilemma reflects the failure of modern philosophy.  I read his book over a period of months as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.

In the first part, MacIntyre indicts modern philosophy and culture.  In the last part, he tries to recover the lost ancient Greek idea of virtue and apply it to our own times.  It is an extremely rich book, ranging over literature, philosophy, psychology and the social sciences.

Most modern philosophy consists of algorithms for generating moral rules, he wrote.  Immanuel Kant said you should always act according to rules that you would want all of humanity to follow.  Jeremy Bentham said you should always act in a way that would generate the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

G.E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica, wrote that there is such thing as “good” that exists independently of human beings, but which human beings can detect through their moral sense; that a moral action is the one that does the most good; and that the greatest goods are personal affection and aesthetic enjoyments.   As MacIntyre pointed out, there is no evidence at all for any of these things.

That is why thinkers such as Bertrand Russell adopted the idea of “emotivism”—that moral judgments are simply a matter of personal preference, like preferring ice cream to baked beans.  You can discuss morality only with people with whom you already hold certain moral beliefs in common, including the belief that morality matters at all.

Political philosophy has the same weakness.  John Rawls such a just society reflects a just distribution of wealth and income.  Robert Nozick said a just society is based on property rights that have been legitimately acquired.  These conflicting philosophies offer no basis for proof or disproof, and, even worse, no basis for compromise, MacIntyre noted.

He attempted to debunk most of modern thought in wide-ranging commentary that I won’t even try to summarize.

For an alternative, he returned to the culture of ancient Greece, where Aristotle and other thinkers sought excellences to be achieved rather than rules to follow.   The alternative, he said, was Nietzsche, who taught that there is no God and superior people have to create their own morality out of their own self-will.

In this way of thinking, a good shoemaker is someone who makes good shoes.  A good soldier is someone who fights bravely and well.  A good citizen is one who is loyal to his city and performs the duties of citizenship.

The ancient sagas praised heroes who were brave and mighty fighters, victorious in battle, who were wealthy and lavish with their wealth.   Homer’s Iliad and some of the Norse sagas developed the idea that someone who was brave and honorable deserved respect even if they were defeated in the end.

In the Iliad, Achilles is an invincible warrior, favored by the gods.  But he shirks his duty out of a personal feud with Agamemnon, the leader, which leads to the death of his best friend, Patroclus.

Hector, on the Trojan side, is not invincible, but he loves his wife, his little son, his worthless younger brother, his aged father and his community.   He goes out to fight Achilles, knowing he probably will lose.  But he manifests an excellence of character that Achilles lacks.

MacIntyre showed how the idea of excellence was developed by Greek dramatists and philosophers and reached a culmination in Aristotle.  The teaching of Aristotle was that if you were of strong moral character, you would be more fit to deal with whatever happened to you, whether good fortune or bad.

Aristotle’s actual beliefs are unacceptable today.  He thought that men were superior to women, and that some people (mainly non-Greeks) were natural slaves.  What makes his philosophy valuable, according to MacIntyre, is his way of thinking.

Aristotle’s teachings were combined with Christian teachings by St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers.  They taught that human reason showed the value of the natural virtues (courage, justice, wisdom and temperance) and that these support the supernatural virtues (faith, hope and love) taught by the church.

Both ancient and medieval philosophers in the Western tradition were grounded in the individual’s relation to society and nature, MacIntyre wrote.  They went wrong when they thought they could detach themselves from society and nature and generate new systems of thought out of their own minds.

This reminds me of the debate between Bertrand Russell and John Dewey.  Russell’s lifelong quest was to generate a system of logically certain knowledge through his own reason, and he never was satisfied with the result.  Dewey accepted the lack of certain knowledge.   Reason for him was what you called on when your habits and traditions failed you.

MacIntyre in the final chapter returned to Nietzsche, whom he now dismissed as an extreme product of 19th century individualism.  He also brought up Leon Trotsky and Saint Benedict.  I know that MacIntyre started out as a Marxist and ended as a Roman Catholic Christian, but I don’t know where he was on his intellectual journey when he wrote this book in 1981.

Trotsky, like MacIntyre, thought the Western intellectual tradition was bankrupt.  He and his comrades sought to create an entirely new society and morality.  At the end of his life he had to face the fact that the Bolshevik revolution had produced the dictatorship of Stalin, the opposite of what he had hoped for.

MacIntyre wrote at several points, without explanation, that Marxism has to become Weberian.  I think what he meant is that while Karl Marx said the basis of society is its material conditions and means of production, the sociologist Max Weber said in The Sociology of Religion and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is that the basis of society is religion.

Weber, who was not a religious believer himself, thought that religion and culture determine the class structure and the development of technology, not the other way around.

In a way, Saint Benedict, who was born in 480, succeeded where Trotsky failed.  He did create a new form of society.  Followers of the Rule of Saint Benedict were devoted to prayer and meditation, but they weren’t beggars.  They thought work was holy and, unlike most monks of the time, they were self-supporting.  They rode out the collapse of Roman Empire and preserved the knowledge, both practical and academic, that was needed to reboot civilization.

The Benedictine Order actually realized the Marxist ideal.  Each monk contributed according to his abilities and received according to his needs.  Production was for use and not for profit.  Workers owned the means of production.

MacIntyre closed After Virtue by writing that modern Western civilization awaits its “doubtless quite different” Saint Benedict.

But what exactly is Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of virtue?  Virtue for him consists of a practices embodied in a meaningful life and a society with a moral purpose.

A practice is an activity with a good intrinsic to itself.

Agriculture, football and architecture are examples of practices.  Planting a seed, throwing a football or laying a brick are not.  There is a right way and a wrong play to plant, to throw and to lay brick, but once you’ve mastered these techniques, that’s as far as you can go.

Practices are open-ended.  There is no upper limit to how much you can learn or how good you can get as a farmer, an athlete or an architect.

Practices are embedded in a society.  Nobody with any sense starts out to reinvent how to farm, play football or design buildings.  You learn over a period of time from a master practitioner or coach and then you possibly can add a contribution to the art on your own.

Because you are engaged with both social and physical reality, you are freed from emotivism and postmodernism.  Your crop either grows or it doesn’t  You either win the game or you don’t.  Your building is either suitable for its purpose or it isn’t.

I’m reminded of the ideas of Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft (which I haven’t read) and The World Beyond Your Head.  Crawford’s day job is (or was) running a motorcycle repair shop, and he said working with your hands keeps you grounded in reality.

What practices are available to you depends on your society.  Athens offered the practices of philosophy, of dramatist, of sculptor, of orator, among other things.  None of these practices were available in Sparta.  About the only meaningful thing a Spartan could be was warrior.

Virtue consists in doing what is appropriate to your role, not in following rules.  MacIntyre pointed out that a good leader of a party lost in the woods will speak and act in a different way than a good leader of a group organizing a picnic.

Ideally practices add up to a life you can look back on with justified satisfaction—a narrative, as MacIntyre puts it.  Being a good son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother can be practices.  Being a good citizen can be a practice.  I think, contrary to MacIntyre, that being a good American is meaningful.

Can there be such things as evil practices?  Could being a good Ninja assassin be a practice?  If not, how could you prove it?  I think MacIntyre’s philosophy is like every other moral philosophy I’ve encountered.  It rests on assumptions that are un-provable within its own framework.

I didn’t get what I was looking for from Alasdair MacIntyre—a metaphysical basis for my pre-existing moral beliefs.  Instead I got a reminder that I am a product of a particular culture in a particular era, and that all my reasoning is within the limits that culture and that era.

Update [2/17/2020] When I say I have strong moral beliefs, I don’t mean to imply I am an exceptionally moral person.  I’m not.

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One Response to “Alasdair MacIntyre’s search for lost virtue”

  1. Vigour of Film Lines Says:

    Interesting article. I admire MacIntyre’s clarity, audacity and reasoning. I fond his critique of emotivism more than relevant today. Yet, his project cannot find a basis in reality since it is practically impossible to establish a rational basis for morality which society as a whole accepts. Thus, Aristotelianism seems barren


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