Posts Tagged ‘Alasdair MacIntyre’

Alasdair MacIntyre’s search for lost virtue

July 18, 2018

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.