This book review of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre is part of our series of reviews of books touching on the abortion debate. For more information about this series, read our introductory article, “Why Is ERI Doing Book Reviews?”
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is one of the seminal books of 20th century philosophy. MacIntyre documents the history of modern (read here: Renaissance and later) philosophy as it relates to a pressing question: can we use dialogue to rationally convince others and reach moral agreement?
I think it should be obvious why we think it’s valuable to review this book, given that ERI’s whole point of existing is to dialogue about a contentious moral issue and train others to do the same. However, because After Virtue is so wide-ranging, covering large swaths of philosophical and literary history to sketch out the argument that a major break occurred at the point of the Enlightenment, I’m not going to review the entire book in depth. I will instead restrain myself to those parts most relevant to dialogue.
Moral Incommensurability: Are We Just Talking Past Each Other?
MacIntyre begins his argument from a recognition of the difficulty, even the seeming futility, of modern political-moral debates. “[T]he most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character…[t]here seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture” (6). He singles out abortion as an illustrative debate, one in which people can reason validly from conflicting premises without any way to judge the premises themselves (7).
Why can’t we reach an agreement on what should be a relatively basic matter of ethics, namely the inclusion of a certain class of human persons within the bounds of the protected community? MacIntyre’s assessment is sweeping: “the language and the appearances of morality persist even though the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed” (5). This fact, that we use the language of “rights” and “morality” when such language has been deprived of content, that we argue emotively using moral terms to express disapprobation and cajole conformity, he refers to as “moral incommensurability” (70).
MacIntyre makes the case that, since the Enlightenment (and, before that, the Protestant Reformation), humanity abandoned divine law as the basis of morality, but tried to keep the basic Christian moral scheme intact (62). He views the three main attempts—by Kant, Hume, and Kierkegaard—as failing for different reasons; in fact, he holds the prime virtue of each school of thought to be pointing out the failures of the other two (49–50). Their attempts to justify Christian ethics without appealing to divine law resulted in our current emotivist discourse, in which people use terms they can’t justify (like “ought”) to bully people into accepting their views.
The modern philosopher who takes on the most importance for MacIntyre, then, is Nietzsche. Nietzsche understands the above philosophers as trying to preserve divine law without God, a scheme doomed to fail. Accordingly, he constructs a philosophy that self-consciously rejects God and the heritage of Christian ethics (113–4).
The end result of the rejection of both divine and classical moral frameworks during the Enlightenment, then, is Nietzschean philosophy. Fortunately, MacIntyre argues that we need not become Nietzscheans. Instead, he questions a fundamental premise of the Enlightenment: were we really justified in abandoning the classical philosophical framework (118–20)?
Aristotle to the Rescue: Virtue in Classical Ethics
MacIntyre holds that the modern rejection of classical morality was groundless (256). He spends multiple chapters tracing the virtues as developed in classical thought, particularly in Greek epic poetry (of which Nietzsche claims to be the modern heir) and Aristotle’s writing. For MacIntyre, Aristotle is the classical thinker par excellence, so he uses Aristotle and classical ethics interchangeably.
One issue for MacIntyre, though, is that he can’t use Aristotle’s thought exactly as Aristotle presented it; he wants to avoid commitments to what he considers faulty aspects of Aristotle’s metaphysics and anthropology (such as his defense of slavery, his metaphysical biology, the degree to which his account presumes the Greek city-state as normative, etc.) (162). Much of the remaining book is spent giving a new account of what, exactly, is a virtue. Ultimately, he defines a virtue as “an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (191).
Virtues, then, are those things necessary in order to obtain the goods internal to an activity, the goods internal to man as man, and the goods internal to the community (182). These virtues are to be understood in the Aristotelian sense, and indeed map largely onto the Christian-appended Aristotelian virtues (prudence, magnanimity, charity, etc.) (177).
Issues in MacIntyre’s Account
MacIntyre would be the first to admit that, to cover so much ground in a single work, he had to merely sketch out some things and only gesture towards others, such that not everything is answered completely (264). Naturally, there are a few issues in a book as ambitious as After Virtue.
First, as you may notice, the account of the virtues doesn’t necessarily solve the question of moral incommensurability; just because we can give an account of the virtues within one political context doesn’t necessarily mean we can make those virtues intelligible to others in a different context. Why is this? Two political communities may have two opposed ideas of what constitutes the good of man and the good of the community, and they therefore disagree on what the virtues are and how they should be exercised. MacIntyre doesn’t provide any sort of referee in such cases, and he admits the possibility of this conflict and that it hews perilously close to moral relativism (277).
Second, MacIntyre diagnoses a problem at the outset—total moral incommensurability—but he doesn’t offer a positive solution. Instead, he offers up a somewhat dark comparison: perhaps we ought to be cultivating virtue apart from modern society so that the virtues can survive the collapse of society, much as Benedict of Nursia did in the waning days of the Roman Empire through the creation of secluded monasteries (263). This passage, at the end of the book, serves as the touchstone for Rod Dreher’s attempt to propose a distinctly Christian version of the idea (the “Benedict Option”), but, as someone trying to convince pro-choice people to change their minds about abortion, it doesn’t give me much hope. We can’t afford to abandon the pro-life struggle, but After Virtue gives little hope for success in dialogue beyond one person imposing their will on another.
The Abolition of Man as Counter and Corrective
The entire time I was reading After Virtue, I was waiting for MacIntyre to reference C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. After all, it was published only a few decades prior, and it too addressed a world marked by the rejection of classical or “traditional” ethics.
Nor am I the only person who makes a mental connection between the two books. Michael Ward, a noted scholar of Lewis, traces an intellectual history from Lewis in The Abolition of Man to G.E.M. Anscombe in “Modern Moral Philosophy” to MacIntyre in After Virtue. I find it uncontroversial to accept an intentional, if silent, relationship among these works. Lewis and Anscombe knew one another through the Oxford Socratic Club, quite famously sparring over the “non-rationality” of naturalism as described in Lewis’ Miracles. And MacIntyre seems to be expanding on the arguments in Anscombe’s article.
What is most notable about MacIntyre’s relationship to The Abolition of Man, however, is that he declines to reference it. In fact, the only time Lewis is mentioned in After Virtue is as a witness to Jane Austen’s particularly Christian idea of the virtues (185, 240)! I appreciate Austen more than most, but The Abolition of Man is clearly the go-to citation here, not Pride and Prejudice.
Lewis’ account of natural law significantly undermines the extent of possible moral incommensurability argued for by MacIntyre. For Lewis, all true morality is connected to the natural law, and therefore anything which is not a mere innovation is recognizable as a part of that whole.
The most interesting thing for our purposes here, perhaps, is actually the appendix to The Abolition of Man. There, Lewis gives examples of moral principles which he considers to be bound up in the natural law as they have been articulated by representatives of vastly different religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions over time. The threat to MacIntyre’s account should be clear: if there are moral principles which transcend all cultures, then a) virtue cannot merely be internal to a particular political-cultural setting, and b) there seems to be, even in a culture such as ours, some accepted notion of objective right to which we can appeal.
Even if MacIntyre chose to avoid citing Lewis because it would undercut his narrative, we can supplement his arguments with Lewis as a corrective. We can reasonably conclude that moral incommensurability is a real threat, but that ethical dialogue is still possible to the extent that people (often in common sense rather than chosen philosophy) hold onto the classical morality considered to be bound up in ideas of natural law. With the objective morality of natural law as a backstop, we need not worry about descending into moral relativism.
Crucially, even if MacIntyre’s assessment of the way forward—tactical retreat and cultivation of virtues in a “Benedict option”—is largely correct, the fact that there are at least some limited points of ethical agreement which remain allows us to continue to fight for ethical truth in a society which has largely abandoned a belief in objective morality.
In summary: MacIntyre’s strongest point, like the philosophers he detracts, might be articulating the problems with everyone else’s philosophy. He does that with clarity and force. He then moves to recover a particular version of classical ethics, a virtue ethics which has been highly influential in the decades since the publication of After Virtue. His decision to point back to pre-Enlightenment thought, even as he is clearly influenced by modern and postmodern thinkers, opens the possibility that we can recover something we shouldn’t have discarded in the first place.
MacIntyre casts doubt on our ability to actually convince people through rational arguments because we lack a shared moral framework. Following Lews, I counter that natural law provides an inescapable framework, one which is implicitly accepted in part by nearly all people. We may be unable to reach substantial moral agreement because people increasingly reject more aspects of the natural law (and therefore we have less in common), but we can still dialogue within areas like unwarranted killing, about which there is nearly universal commitment to moral principles. That is to say, it’s still possible to convince people about abortion using reason. Accordingly, while conversations about abortion will remain difficult absent a substantial moral consensus, they are not hopeless.
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