on 3 April 2001
It is now almost 20 years since MacIntyre wrote this powerful critique of modern attempts to find a plausible basis for morality. Its influence,whether acknowledged or not, has increased steadily since that time. It is reflected in the "communitarian" philosophies which, since the demise of the socialist bloc, have provided the most telling and coherent critiques of market religiosity availble. In the first chapters Kantian, Utilitarian and Emotivist moral theories are examined and found wanting. They are seen to be vulnerable to Nietzsche's devastating appeal for honesty in admitting the will to power. The Enlightenment Project with its rejection of traditional morality has failed and all we are left with is the what remnants of the traditional system can sustain us. MacIntyre then proceeds to argue for the continued validity of the Aristotlean attempt to ground moral thinking in the virtues, those qualities which develop in us as we seek a vision of the good, striving in collaboration with others towards ends which disclose themselves more fully as we pursue them. MacIntyre, in rejecting absolutist accounts of morality is often accused of relativism. "After Virtue" written in a pelucid English and rooted in practical concerns, shows how far this misconception is from the truth. If you want to understand about our moral plight and be given some conceptual tools to deliver you and others from it, buy and read this book.
on 13 August 2014
Let me first acknowledge Mark O'Neill's useful review of the 2013 Bloomsbury edition of this book. Professor Alasdair MacIntyre must be amused at the fact of a Bloomsbury Revelation whose meanings can only be understood by acts of intuition. My Duckworth second edition contains some typos, but no aridity.
Reading 'After Virtue' reminded me of a recent memorial service for the father of a family friend, who'd died having developed dementia. Recalling his father's mental deterioration, the son said 'He could still hold a long discussion with me about philosophy, but he hadn't a clue who I was'.
This 1981 book by MacIntyre depicts contemporary moral debates and disagreements as shrill, emotive, interminable, weighing incommensurables, characterised by assertion and counter-assertion, and arguments within ourselves. Fragments, eclectic mélange. Sounds demented?
MacIntyre looks back past the philosophy of the Enlightenment to root his teleological view of man and the good in the thinking of Aristotle, and latterly that of Thomas Aquinas. In doing this, he makes a lot of sense. MacIntyre is a Roman Catholic. In a talk filmed at Notre Dame University he's equally sceptical of government and markets, liberals and conservatives (public intellectuals and advertising executives).
For a flavour of this fine man's thinking and disposition, that and several other talks can be found by searching the internet.
Having known his work since his socialist youth, I was fascinated to see how he developed his thesis: that moral philosophy has lost its moorings and indeed bearings, making it effectively a set of monologues with only apparently the same language in fact 'belonging' to different things[moral systems] in the same way or the same things in different ways. He Begins with a Thought Experiment that has us imagine that moral discourse is actually a residue of a moral universe in fragments, a forgotten intellectual apocalypse. He sees various moralities as sharing the same vocabulary but not the same referents: thus he demonstrates how different notions of the Right can be seen as like the result of a detachment from original context, of a sort of disaster. A radical recasting of The Moral is therefore required. Looking at and finding wanting the various moralities on offer, a chapter title gives the alternatives starkly: Nietzsche or Aristotle. Then after a rigorous, uncompromising critique, MacIntyre shows how we must choose either a form of (neo) Aristotelianism or surrender to the radical subjectivism of the German. Not an easy book to read, self-evidently important; well worth at least two readings and one of the few books of modern philosophy that I reread frequently.