After Virtue: history, ethics and identity

While walking around Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford I picked up Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", a book that I had seen in philosophy sections for over 20 years now after it having been recommended to me by my undergraduate Philosophy discussion partner Mark Pitt.

When I finally started reading it a few weeks later, I could no longer put it down. This is a philosophy book that starts like a novel, reads like a novel, and indeed it's main thesis is that our understanding of ethics and life has to be that way, because we have to understand ourselves and our interactions with others as parts of a developing, interlinked, enmeshed and developing narrative.

Virtues are those character traits that are necessary for individuals-in-communities to work together to a common goal, that will enable the good of man, understood itself as an evolving historical self understanding. This type of analysis requires teleological thinking - the idea that a person can only be understood by understanding the good of man, the aim of a life being that of having a coherent story to tell - which was the basis for the Aristotelian account of society and nature.

Where Aristotle failed was by applying telos to the physical sciences: explanations that stones fall to the ground because they want to be there, were put to an end by Newtonian mechanics. With that Newtonian insight and the massive success of the physical sciences that followed, started a process of questioning the philosophy that Saint Thomas Aquinas had integrated so well into Christian thought, itself underpinned by Jewish historical religion. The philosophers of the enlightenment attempted one after the other to replace telos and history with some form of Rational grounding where it was thought that reason in some sense gave us access to the divine point of view. But without the understanding of telos, MacIntyre argues, the project was bound to fail. Hume had to resort to intuition to ground a very specific moral outlook; Kant resorted to universalisable rules that would complement the laws of nature which could be used as criteria to evaluate actions viewed non historically; and Bentham and the other utilitarians up to this day tried to devise mathematical calculi of happiness, ignoring the issue that this cannot be measured. Historically minded philosophers such as Hegel still held onto a rationalistic conception of evolution of spirit, that fatally believed that history was deterministic, since science seemed to be. Since science did not make value judgments, neither did Marx, leading to the creation of some of the worst political systems of the 20th century - and that is not a major feat. Within the western tradition amoral bureaucracies gained ground, under the Weberian motto of utility, and slowly all understanding of the basis of right and wrong disappeared, as it did in the 1930ies when it was found reasonable in philosophical circles to hold a position that to say that something is good, is just to say "I like it, do so too", preparing us for the ravages of consumer culture.

Since the book was first published, the Soviet empire collapsed, and it might even be that the latest financial crisis is revealing some of the deep flaws in non critical implementations of capitalism. So the message seems just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago when the book first appeared.

The above review, needless to say does no justice to the depth of argumentation found in the book. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a much more detailed overview of MacIntyre's philosophy though it does not read nearly as well as "After Virtue" itself.


I'm having a hard time understanding the Internet Encyclopedia's summary of his opinion (and I have by no means read all of it), but assuming what I have picked up is roughly right, and what they say about him is true, I can't see how this makes a sensible ethical theory!

First, in it I find no mechanism for determining how best to act in a given situation, apart from that I should achieve certain "internal goods" of some "practice". So for example, if I am a torturer, I suppose I should really get into causing pain? Perhaps this doesn't count as a practice-- but then this idea seems to be parameterized by a prior theory of what is a practice: I would call that theory ethics.

Second, I find no reason why one should accept this theory over another, since it makes no reference to why these goods are good.

Still, it seems like I might agree with a lot of this stuff aesthetically, and reading it would certainly make me angry, so maybe I should for that reason!

Posted by Joseph Razavi on January 08, 2010 at 03:56 PM CET #

Hi Joseph, thanks for your very insightful comment. The best way to understand philosophy is to discuss it, explain it or attempt to apply it. So your question is helping me understand what "After Virtue" is saying.

First, in it I find no mechanism for determining how best to act in a given situation, apart from that I should achieve certain "internal goods" of some "practice". So for example, if I am a torturer, I suppose I should really get into causing pain? Perhaps this doesn't count as a practice-- but then this idea seems to be parameterized by a prior theory of what is a practice: I would call that theory ethics.

((minor aside: There is something interesting in your request for a "mechanism" to determine the good. The desire make human behavior scientific is revealed in this desire to find something lawlike to underpin morality. Mechanical thinking with it's notion of a necessary sequence of events falls into this category.))

On page 200 of the third edition, in the chapter on "The Nature of Virtues" MacIntyre considers the objection posed by the possibility of an Evil practice.

But perhaps it is worth winding back a little further to p191, where MacIntyre's first, partial definition of a virtue is:
" A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving such goods".

Goods which are internal to practices would be good such as winning a chess game, if playing chess, but not getting on TV because one has won at chess, which would be an external good. So once one plays chess then honesty is important in so far as it would not help one to cheat to win, as that would no longer count as playing the game.

It is worth quoting his definition of practice here too:
"By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended."

In a more complex undertaking with many more people participating, values such as justice, courage, truthfulness are important. One needs courage in a such an activity because unless people put aside their selfish interests, and risk harm to themselves, the global aim of the group will not be achievable. It is possible from this point to explain the importance of some of the most fundamental virtues.

MacIntyre then points out in response to the problem of evil practices that the fact that one requires the notion of a practice to define a virtue does not entail approval of all practices in all circumstances.
- One can appeal to the requirements of a virtue to criticise a practice (The requirement of justice to criticse torture, if that is a practice at all)
- In chapter 12 he morality of virtues requires a conception of moral law - which have to be met by practices (the practice of legal life in a state)

But you are correct, the definition then needs to be extended to put aside problems that confronted the ancient Greeks of incompatible practices and also possibly evil ones. For Aristotle this was done by asking what the good life for man is? It is within the further limits imposed by an answer to that question that issues of priority between incompatible demands of practices can be judged.

Perhaps some of this will not sound foundationalist enough. MacIntyre's response to that is that philosophy has given up its foundationalist program during the 20th century. There is no absolutely certain starting point, nothing that cannot be doubted, from which one has to start. What is important is general coherence between concepts and explanatory power. Practices are therefore evolving human activities, that may even change their aims over their history. Adaptibility to the circumstances is as important in our understanding of ethics as it is in science. At that level there is a connection between the humanities and the sciences.

Posted by Henry Story on January 09, 2010 at 05:42 AM CET #

It is clear that Virtues have made a big return into philosophical vocabulary since the publication of this book.

German speakers may for example be interested to see the recent Philosophical Quartet on the thema "Die Ruckkehr zur Tugend"

Posted by Henry Story on January 09, 2010 at 06:06 AM CET #

Thanks for this detailed reply, which certainly clarifies a lot of the matter for me.

You are right that my choice of the word "mechanism" (which I really didn't notice using at the time!) betrays something about my own way of thinking, which was another good reason, from my point of view, to ask that question.

I think the objection could have been better stated in terms of humanly usable means for guiding action-- which I think your clarification provides.

Perhaps, rather than strict foundations, what I was looking for are tethers to connect a suggested ethical theory to my day-to-day life.

But yes, when I saw that the word I had used was "mechanism" of all others-- every cog of my clockwork soul burst out laughing!

Posted by Joseph Razavi on January 09, 2010 at 08:34 AM CET #

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