After Virtue

by May 29, 2013Books, Culture, Theology

This week I’ve been plowing through Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark 1981 book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.

MacIntyre’s destructive argument is very important, I think. His constructive argument I’m still reading through, but he’s given enough indication of where he’s going that I’m afraid I won’t be persuaded (more on that in a minute).

MacIntyre opens the book with an extended and very insightful illustration. He envisions a future in which a series of environmental disasters descends upon planet earth, and the public blames them on science.

Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing politlical movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. (1)

Time passes, and a counter-revolution develops. “Enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was…. All they possess are fragments.” (1) They know and even discuss terms like “mass” and “neutron,” and small children are taught to memorize the periodic table of the elements. But the overarching theories which made sense of the pieces are gone.

This is the world we live in. Except, MacIntyre says, it’s not science that has been lynched and (only partly) brought back to life; it’s morality.

We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. (2)

Now this may seem incredible—how could it be that such a catastrophe has happened in the West, and yet we’re all ignorant of it? Even in his illustration (based on a memorable book, A Canticle for Leibowitz) the cataclysm was known and remembered by all. MacIntyre replies that it has happened gradually and has been noticed only by a few. And the academic discipline which should be describing the catastrophe and cataloging its causes and effects—history—has been so formed by the catastrophe that it is blind to it. Categories of “order” and “disorder” are not available to historiography; the lenses necessary to spot them are missing. So they’ve become invisible.

The Enlightenment project to establish a new basis for moral judgment has failed, MacIntyre says. And it was major Enlightenment figures themselves who wrote the own epitaph for their own project. They did so by mutually condemning each other’s proposed bases for such judgments. Kant’s rational basis was firmly rejected by Hume, who posited a basis in the passions. Kierkegaard rejected them both. and posited a radical choice at the foundation of moral judgment. Bentham and Mill’s own utilitarian tradition faltered as fairly obvious critiques of their philosophy proved too powerful even for its committed disciples. All Enlightenment options have failed, and so we’re left with moral terminology we can’t justify.

Throughout the book so far, MacIntyre has been hinting at his proposed solution, the recovery of an Aristotelian conception of ethics. Christian (and Islamic) ethics added to the Aristotelian conception, he says, but they more or less kept it intact. That ethics did three things:

  1. It described man as he is.
  2. It described man as he could be were he to fulfill the purposes of his nature. This gave man a telos, a goal.
  3. It prescribed, as a logical consequence, the moral choices necessary to move from where man is to his telos.

Modernity and the Enlightenment denied that an empirical description of man, the only kind of description that counts, yields any sort of perspicuous (generally agreed-upon) telos. And without such a goal, the morals it takes to reach that goal have no framework in which to fit. So we retain moral terminology but have dropped the framework in which that terminology made sense. We talk about “right” and “wrong,” “virtue” and “vice,” but we lack any foundation to give these terms stability.

I’m reading the rest of the book now to find out how MacIntyre thinks it is that Aristotle’s telos can be justified in a way that Westerners in large numbers might adopt it. I personally don’t see why and ancient Greek philospoher’s conception won’t just be counted as one viable option among the many. Only a God of control, authority, and presence can tell us what to do in ways we can’t argue with.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”

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