After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside

Alasdair MacIntyre provides an exquisite account of the moral failings of modernity in After Virtue. His account is both exquisite and itself thoroughly modern. For what we find in After Virtue, is the brilliant commentary of one thinker standing back from the culture and providing an account of the whole. MacIntyre’s account of modernity’s moral self-destruction is thoroughly modern on account of the stance that he takes; for he stands at an uncommitted distance and offers the most objective account of our moral condition possible.

As valuable as MacIntyre’s account is, in the end it is hollow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After Virtue is not an account of virtue itself, but an account of what is necessary for virtue to flourish. If an astute but morally perplexed individual came to After Virtue hoping to find moral guidance she would finally close MacIntyre’s book with a vastly clarified sense of the moral landscape around her, but she would also face a great choice. For MacIntyre’s book delivers its reader to the point at which she must identify with a particular tradition—chosen from the array of traditions (and pseudo-traditions) available. MacIntyre leaves readers at the front door of the moral supermarket, convinced that while a tradition is precisely what is needed, a tradition is precisely what MacIntyre’s account lacks. Apart from arguing for the unique coherence of a broadly Aristotelian understanding of ethics (and how many Aristotelians have you met lately?), MacIntyre’s account delimits the shape of tradition in general without ever mentioning tradition in particular.

To call the account hollow is not to argue that After Virtue is not worth reading. I mean to be descriptive, not dismissive. I would recommend MacIntyre’s lucid argument to any number of friends with the requisite basic grasp of philosophy. Rather it is only to say that MacIntyre’s account is not really complete until its reader identifies himself (and begins to work within) a tradition of the sort that MacIntyre describes broadly, but refrains from advocating specifically.

This sort of noncommittal pose is politically astute—it is precisely what catches modern ears and leaves them tingling. MacIntyre offers a stance from which to explain every other stance (and make sense of the incommensurable disagreements between them). The position at which MacIntyre leaves us is one that is tempting to occupy longer than would be healthy. Like Christ on the mountain, MacIntyre has shown us all the kingdoms of the earth—the temptation would be to rule them all from an uncommitted distance. Like the character of the “manager” he describes at length (74-78), MacIntyre really understands how ethics “works.” Unlike that manager, his understanding does not enable him to really “work” ethics until he joins himself to a community of like-minded folk inhabiting a living tradition—that is until he comes down off the mountain and takes up residency within one of the kingdoms below.

The “hollow”-ness of the account also explains the enthusiasm with which his account has been received by theologians, who already stand within a semblance of the tradition described. MacIntyre’s work can be read as a sort of ethical pre-apologetic, dropping people off on the sidewalk outside the church’s front door, where they can be invited inside. To read it as such is not at all to misuse the book. After Virtue can also be read as a framework within which to understand the ethics of a community whose lives are bound within the narrative tradition of the gospel, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, has put MacIntyre’s thought to service in precisely this way. Here, the book is the impetus for a restoration of the church’s virtues and a fuller account of Christian life as a whole. Reading After Virtue, Hauerwas’ work came to mind with regularity; it is not too difficult to hear his voice echoing MacIntyre’s.

In the next week or so, I hope (no promises) to offer a few comments on MacIntyre’s account of action and its relationship to a few other philosophers…

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Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

11 Replies to “After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside”

  1. Hey Eric, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. It has been highly recommended to me by my friend Adam. I hope to pick it up later this year. Also on my list (and somewhat related I believe) are Ethics as Grammar by Brad Kallenberg and Love, Law, Language by Herbert McCabe. We’ll see if I get around to them. I am currently immensely enjoying Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist.

  2. I agree with your assessment that MacIntyre never really closes the deal, but I would have to disagree that After Virtue is exquisite by any measure. Whatever good he would hope to offer toward the restoration of virtue in our western culture is, sadly, lost in translation. The work is widely circuitous; a laborious volume with paragraph-long sentences and elliptical references.
    Nevertheless, I really like his presentation of virtue as a community possession. I think this is largely absent in our self-absorbed society.
    Thank you for posting and inviting comments.

  3. Jay,

    Thanks for your comment! I wish that more people left their thoughts on these “older” posts…

    Aside from your distaste for MacIntyre’s writing style, where do you think that his argument goes off the rails and fails to “close the deal”?

    It does seem to me that the basic outline of his argument is essentially correct and it seems that you agree:

    Nevertheless, I really like his presentation of virtue as a community possession. I think this is largely absent in our self-absorbed society.

    But doesn’t the community holding an account of virtue(s) in common necessarily rest on a tradition which provides explanatory context for virtuous actions?

    MacIntyre’s argument only comes up short, to my mind, when he fails to argue for a particular tradition—or to put it differently—when he fails to be sufficiently theological in his ethical thinking.

    What do you think?

  4. It doesn’t seem that, for MacIntyre, the point is to argue for a specific tradition such as Christianity, Marxism, et cetera. Rather, I read him to argue for the revitalization of “tradition” as such. Then, the traditions are left to engage in moral discourse, not disjointed individuals spouting shrill assertions. After Virtue is largely about how to have better arguments, something MacIntyre thinks the revitalization of tradition is crucial to.

    Obviously, MacIntyre thinks Catholic Christianity is the best tradition, but he doesn’t argue for it. He just thinks no other tradition can compete with it, so why bother.

    1. John,

      Thanks for stopping by. I think that you’re right—but I still think that it’s more than a touch ironic that a book that emphasizes the importance of participating vigorously in a particular tradition, actually argues for tradition in general.

      Of course MacIntyre does end up thinking that Aristotelian-Thomist-Catholicism is the best tradition to inhabit (though not so strongly in After Virtue), but if it’s just “tradition” that’s important, aren’t we still basically accepting a situation in which individuals weigh the relative merits of a range of options and then pick the one that looks best to them—whether they do so in a shrill manner or not?

      The point I was making just that the book already bears its own antithesis between the lines.

  5. Eric,

    It is ironic. But, I think, MacIntyre seems to hope that discourse or the war of persuasions is so dominated by a particular tradition as to leave little choice for the individual to choose which tradition to submit to.

    1. I think you’re right, but strangely enough given chapter titles like “Nietzsche or Aristotle”, that starts to sound like truth ends up being defined by the ber-community—that group whose tradition is robust enough to be convincing (one way or another) to everyone else.

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