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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A mad genius?, 20 Dec 2010
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This review is from: After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Paperback)
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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Initial post: 13 Jun 2011 20:45:54 BDT
Nick says:
Excellent review!
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