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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
This is a review of the third edition of 2007. I originally read the second edition (1985) on the recommendation of one of my philosophy lecturers when I did my degree. The third edition has an additional prologue, but otherwise there are no changes; it is a reprint, page by page. I was always aware that it was an important book and so it was never thrown into a charity bag like many others. It has always sat on my shelf waiting to be re-read; and now I have had the chance with this new edition. The title of the book's opening chapter - `A Disquieting Suggestion' - immediately arouses intrigue and curiosity, especially when its first sentence asks us to "Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe."

Much of the first half of the volume is given over to elaborating MacIntyre's theory that the history of philosophy took a wrong turn with what he calls the `enlightenment experiment'. It is not until the fourteenth of the book's nineteen chapters that he finally starts to build the foundations of his own case, constructed on the support of the Aristotelian tradition. He declares liberal individualism to be at odds with this tradition, hence his argument's need for diversions into matters of `fact', `predictability', and `ideology'. The book's final paragraph contains warnings about "the new dark ages which are already upon us ... This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament."

It is simply not possible for me to give a full review of this book in the limited space available. My list of quotations from this book that I consider worthy of comment is much too long, and I feel I could write my own book commenting upon and refuting many of the propositions put forward. Although it is impossible to reduce the arguments in this book down to a concise soundbyte, in the prologue to this new edition he does provides some kind of summing-up by way of his critique of liberalism: (deep breath) "... the best type of human life, that in which the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed toward the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved."

MacIntyre uses big words such as `phenomenology' and `epistemological' that can be unwieldy for those new to philosophy, but do not let these put you off, for the gist of his important argument can still be readily followed. And his suggestions are not always convincing. One senses that, however interesting and controversial his argument, that there are holes, that retorts can be offered to some of his assertions. And beware the "of courses"! There are many assumptions made. Waters can be muddied. He often reveals himself as a conservative who laments the passing of `sure' values, and sometimes states the obvious - although his explorations can be highly insightful nevertheless.

The postscript to the second edition is included in this third. Here he restates his position in the areas of the relationships between (i) philosophy to history; (ii) the virtues and relativism; and (iii) moral philosophy to theology. MacIntyre is here eager to state that `After Virtue' should be seen as a work in progress, rather than a statement set in stone. But that MacIntyre rightfully matters in today's debate on ethics is clear from the many references to his work that often appear in newspaper articles on subjects as diverse as social housing and bonuses paid to bankers. Whilst I might disagree with some of his arguments and some of his conclusions, there is much here worthy of support. MacIntyre's is a valuable argument in a twenty-first century world where ethics can appear to have disappeared from the mainstream. That situation is one that is dangerous to us all and MacIntyre tries with vigour and candour and surprising propositions to remedy the disaster to which such a world leads.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on 20 December 2010
This is the kind of infuriating book that makes you wonder whether the author is on to something big, or whether he is simply a highly erudite purveyor of bunk. I suspect the former, but I can't rule out the latter either!

"After Virtue" is a sophisticated work of moral philosophy, historical criticism, and much else besides, and I readily admit that I haven't assimilated all its arguments.

At the same time, MacIntyre strikes the reader as a highly eclectic thinker, and this is what makes you wonder whether he has a point (everyone who rejects the current political scene en toto will bee seen as quaint or indeed eclectic - no matter whether he's right or wrong), or whether he is simply a confused intellectual stitching together what really can't be united. Indeed, one of the chapters of the book is titled "Nietzsche *or* Aristotle? Trotsky *and* St. Benedict". Benedict and...who? I also noticed that some of MacIntyre's followers call themselves revolutionary Aristotelians!

I don't think any review can give this book its due, so here I will only attempt the barest outline. MacIntyre is usually considered left-wing, and he does indeed criticize slavery, the subordination of women, and racism. He also has a soft spot for some Marxists, including Trotsky, whom he seems to regard as a closet critic of dogmatic Marxism. MacIntyre also rejects liberal capitalism, individualism and postmodernism. But in the name of what? After converting to Roman Catholicism, MacIntyre began to see the philosophy of Aristotle as a positive alternative, and some years after writing "After Virtue" he also embraced Thomism. He doesn't simply criticize postmodernity, but believes that the roots of our present-day intellectual confusion go back to the Enlightenment, and perhaps even further, to Protestantism, Jansenism and the thoughts of Machiavelli.

In MacIntyre's interpretation, Aristotelianism sees the moral virtues as connected to the social role of the individual as part of a broader community, a community which collectively strives towards the highest good for man. Man is seen as a creature with a telos, a purpose, and striving to fulfill this purpose is the very definition of being a "good man". This further means that one can derive an "ought" from an "is" through a rational analysis of man's telos. Thus, man is not an ostensibly free individual disconnected from his social roles and functions. There is no real identity for man apart from such roles and functions (the author attacks existentialism on this point, which claims the opposite). Nor is man a creature that can freely choose any goal whatever - or rather, he can so choose, but the consequences are the confusion, anomie and meaninglessness characteristic of our times. MacIntyre's communitarian or collectivist angle rules out liberal capitalism, and the idea that one can indeed derive an "ought" from an "is" collides head-long with most modern moral philosophers from Hume onwards.

During the Enlightenment, according to MacIntyre, the Aristotelian notion of a telos was dispensed with, creating a contradictory moral philosophy where the private strivings of each individual were dualistically opposed to a non-teleological morality no longer based in human nature, but coming from outside in the form of abstract, general rules. Even later, philosophers like G.E. Moore claimed that "the good" cannot be defined at all and is graspable only by a nebulous intuition, and this eventually opened the door to dispensing with any moral language or knowledge whatsoever. Modern philosophers who hark back to Hume or Kant can't solve the problem either, since their systems still lack the teleological link between the individual as he is and the moral rules as they ought to be. The only alternatives to our present sorry state are Nietzsche or Aristotle. Either boldly embrace the void and the Übermensch, or restore the classical and medieval understanding of the virtues and teleology.

Are you with me so far? ;-)

The book also contains a criticism of bureaucratic managers, social planners, and social scientists. Here and there, the author also takes on Marxism (despite a nostalgic residue of Marxism in his own worldview). MacIntyre believes that the social sciences cannot predict human behaviour, that humans are by nature unpredictable, and that all bureaucratic planning will therefore inevitably fail. He also emphasizes the role of intentions and ideas in history, thus criticizing the Marxist notion that purely material factors are decisive in history. Of course, this idea exists even outside Marxist circles. Still, there is something uncannily "Marxist" about his book. When MacIntyre describes the Aristotelian position, he says that man should expand his creative and productive powers, this being part of the human telos. But isn't this simply a Marxist notion projected onto Aristotle, who rather saw the contemplative life of the philosopher as the highest goal of man?

Since I haven't read MacIntyre's later works, which are elaborations of "After Virtue", I cannot really offer a meaningful criticism of his book. Still, what needs to be elaborated includes the exact meaning of the virtues (what exactly is "justice" anyway?), their rational or empirical derivation (how do we know that MacIntyre's definitions of "justice" are true?), and a more elaborate political line (what on earth could "Trotsky and St. Benedict" possibly mean?). Also, it will be interesting to see how MacIntyre squares Neo-Darwinism with the notion of human teleology. Finally, if human behavior is unpredictable, how can we know what the objective human purpose actually is?

Naturally, I have ordered several of the author's later works...

In the meantime, I will give this book five stars, not necessarily because I agree with all of it, but because of it's level of interest and erudition. A mad genius? Or just mad? The jury is still out.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 November 2010
By no means an easy read, but a book which repays careful thought and study. Unusually for a modern philosopher, MacIntyre writes interestingly about ethics - how shall we live our lives? - and does so in a way that makes you feel, when you close the book, that you have learnt a number of useful things from it. In particular, he gives a clear and cogent explanation of why modern political discourse is so fragmentary and so incoherent, because most arguments begin from "incommensurable" moral notions - ie notions where there is not even any agreement between the parties on what the arguments are about. MacIntyre is not the first writer to address this issue, but he does through a careful historical argument which explains convincingly where we are, and why.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The book is rightly famous, and well written although I found it tended to wander a bit at times.
McIntyre's thesis is that the Enlightenment project has gone badly wrong - there is no way of producing a consitent ethical framework with the tools it provides. Essentially his point is that ethics cannot be grounded in individualism but must be embedded in society and practice. He believes that rejecting Aristotle's ethics was a mistake.

He's very convincing about the failure of individualism and I think his point that morality has to be grounded in a community as correct. He's less sure on how we would apply Aristotelian ethics given the society we have now, how would we move from one to another where would we judge what the set of virtues is, who would be the authority and how would disputes be settled?

On the way he made me re-appraise both Nietzsche and Jane Austen, quite impressive but I didn't buy his whole argument.
For students chapter 12 (last half) is essential and the last chapter gives a handy guide to the whole book.

Worth the (considerable) effort!
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on 26 August 2010
An excellent re statement and revision of moral framework which focuses on the Aristotelean "good life" and how our growth as individuals and in communities and groups takes us towards personal worth. A life of rules and systems and of the the moral abrogation of Rawlinsian liberalism is replaced by judgement and learning. MacIntyre writes extremely compact and intense prose; it is difficult and thought provoking and challenging 10-20 pages at once is quite enough for a sitting. A rewarding and useful framework for debate for anyone whose communitarian ideal emphasises the responsibilities of citizens, families and communities.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 6 January 2008
Excellent. This work systematically destroys the pretentions of the new normative ethics. Post enlightenment the ethical structures of society have been continually undermined. Macintyre asks the question Nietzsche or Aristotle? We cannot flinch, we must be either ethical or anti-ethical. A work of incredible relevance and of incredible brilliance.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 11 November 2009
After Virtue, poses all the important questions on what we really mean by morality and virtue. Are our senses of right and wrong, consistent/universal or personal? Should they be and can they be? What did the ancient make of it and can goodness escape the emotional subjectivism and be rational?
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on 4 August 2015
Excellent analysis of present-day morality in the word and pointers towards positive solutions offered
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2010
This book is fantastic. Don't know how anyone can knock it. The style of writing for a philosopher is incredibly clear and still manages to express very complex ideas. This book was written in the 1980s and brought into the anglosaxon world important philosophical themes that had been pervasive for some time in German and French philosophy. Amongst these the idea that man is a 'story-telling animal' and that life is 'a narrative'. I think the whole book is excellent but in terms of innovation I would recommend reading chs 14 onwards.
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on 18 September 2014
excellent product, excellent service
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