After Virtue by Alisdaire MacIntyre: A Detailed Guide

By Justin Murphy,


A critique of modern moral discourse and a proposal to revive the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics.


After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre is a landmark work in moral philosophy that has had a profound impact on the field of virtue ethics. The book presents a critique of modern moral discourse and a proposal to revive the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics as an alternative.

MacIntyre argues that modern moral philosophy has failed to provide a coherent and rational justification for morality. He traces this failure to the rejection of Aristotelian teleology and the consequent loss of a unified conception of human nature and the good life.

MacIntyre argues that modern moral philosophy has failed to provide a coherent and rational justification for morality. He traces this failure to the rejection of Aristotelian teleology and the consequent loss of a unified conception of human nature and the good life.

At the heart of MacIntyre's argument is the claim that the language and practice of morality today are in a state of grave disorder. This disorder arises from the prevailing cultural power of an idiom in which ill-sorted conceptual fragments from various parts of our past are deployed together in private and public debates. These debates are notable for their seemingly unresolvable character and the apparent arbitrariness of each contending party's position.

Problem 1: The Rejection of Aristotelian Teleology Has Failed

MacIntyre argues that ever since the rejection of Aristotelian teleology during the Enlightenment, moral philosophers have attempted to provide alternative rational, secular accounts of morality. However, all these attempts have ultimately failed, a failure most clearly perceived by Nietzsche.

Problem 2: Nietzschean Overcoming Fails

Consequently, Nietzsche's radical proposal to reject the inherited moral tradition and construct a new morality based on the will to power gained a certain plausibility. However, MacIntyre contends that Nietzsche's stance is ultimately unconvincing, and the crucial moral opposition lies between liberal individualism and the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues.

Solution: The Virtues

The central thesis of After Virtue is that the Aristotelian tradition, with its emphasis on the virtues and the concept of the good life for human beings, can be rationally vindicated and provides a compelling alternative to the incoherence of modern moral discourse. MacIntyre argues that by reviving this tradition and situating the virtues within the context of practicesnarratives, and moral traditions, we can recover a coherent and rational account of morality.

The book's critique extends beyond moral philosophy to challenge the foundations of modern liberal individualism and its conceptions of justicerationality, and human agency. MacIntyre's argument has far-reaching implications for our understanding of politics, social institutions, and the very possibility of moral consensus in the modern world.

The Failure of the Enlightenment Project

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of providing a rational justification for morality ultimately failed. This failure had profound consequences for modern moral philosophy and discourse.

The Enlightenment thinkers, rejecting Aristotelian teleology and the metaphysical foundations of traditional morality, sought to construct a new, secular basis for ethics and virtue. However, according to MacIntyre, their attempts were ultimately unsuccessful.

The crux of the failure was that the Enlightenment philosophers inherited incoherent fragments of the older moral tradition, combined with incompatible modern inventions. This conceptual melange made developing a coherent rational justification for morality impossible.

At the heart of the problem was the loss of Aristotelian teleology—the notion that things have inherent natures and purposes or final causes toward which they aim. Without this metaphysical underpinning, morality lost its grounding in an objective account of human nature and the human telos or highest good.

The Enlightenment thinkers attempted various strategies to ground morality without teleology:

  • Utilitarians like Hume and Bentham tried to base ethics on human sentiments like approval/disapproval or pleasure/pain. But this reduced morality to mere expressions of subjective emotions.
  • Kantians appealed to reason and universal moral laws derived from rationality itself. But these universalist theories lacked substantive moral content beyond mere formal criteria.
  • Others invoked fictions like natural rights or the "greatest happiness" to provide a foundation. But these inevitably relied on ungrounded assumptions.
All these strategies, MacIntyre contends, represented desperate attempts to replace the older teleological structure. But severed from that traditional metaphysical context, they inevitably failed to provide morality with rational foundations.

The result was the fragmentation and disorder of modern moral discourse that MacIntyre diagnoses. With the loss of shared teleological ideas about human nature and ends, we are left only with fragmented concepts deployed in arbitrary and indeterminate ways.

Examine the key Enlightenment attempts to ground morality without teleology:

graph TB E[Enlightenment Project] --> H(Hume/Utilitarians
Sentiments/Emotions) E --> K(Kant
Reason/Universality) E --> F(Fictions
e.g. Rights, Utility) H --> F1[Reduced morality
to subjective emotions] K --> F2[Formal criteria
lacking substance] F --> F3[Ungrounded

Consider MacIntyre's diagnosis of the aftermath:

graph LR A[Aristotelian Teleology
Rejected] --> B[Enlightenment Failure] B --> C[Loss of Rational
Moral Foundations] C --> D[Fragmentation of
Moral Concepts] D --> E[Moral Discourse
in Disorder]

The Enlightenment project, by rejecting Aristotelian ideas about ethics and human nature, set in motion a trajectory that undermined the possibility of rationally grounding morality. The resultant conceptual disorder plagues modern moral philosophy and practice.

The Incoherence of Modern Moral Discourse

MacIntyre argues that modern moral discourse is in a state of grave disorder, characterized by the use of ill-sorted conceptual fragments from various parts of our intellectual past. This results in unsettled controversies and an apparent arbitrariness in the positions taken by different parties.

The language and practice of morality today are riddled with competing and incompatible concepts, leading to interminable debates and a lack of rational justification.

Consider the following examples of moral debates:

Example 1: Just War

  1. A just war is one where the good achieved outweighs the evils, and there is a clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In modern war, this distinction cannot be made, so no modern war can be just. We should all be pacifists.
  2. To achieve peace, we must prepare for war by deterring aggressors. Build up armaments, make it clear war is possible, be prepared to go to the nuclear brink - otherwise, you will be defeated.
  3. Wars between great powers are destructive, but wars to liberate oppressed groups are a justified means to destroy exploitation and bring happiness.

Example 2: Abortion

  1. Each person has rights over their own body. Since the embryo is part of the mother's body, the mother has the right to decide on abortion.
  2. I cannot will that my mother should have aborted me, except if I was dead or damaged. To be consistent, I must deny others the right to life that I claim.
  3. Murder is taking innocent life. An embryo is an individual, so abortion is murder and should be prohibited.

In each case, the arguments invoke rival and incompatible moral premises that cannot be rationally adjudicated.

MacIntyre contends that the failure of the Enlightenment project to justify morality rationally gave rise to this conceptual melange in modern moral thought. The resulting debates lack a common basis for rational resolution.

The Loss of Teleology

The failure of the Enlightenment project to provide a rational, secular foundation for morality is closely tied to the rejection of Aristotelian teleology—the idea that things have intrinsic goals or purposes that define their proper functioning and guide ethical conduct.

Aristotle's ethics was grounded in a metaphysical biology that saw human beings as having a specific nature with an inherent telos or end towards which they are directed. The virtues were understood as those qualities that enable us to fulfill our natural purpose and achieve the highest human good of eudaimonia.

However, as the modern scientific understanding of nature advanced, Aristotle's biological framework was discredited. The notion of things having intrinsic purposes or final causes was abandoned in favor of a purely mechanistic view of nature governed by efficient causes. As MacIntyre explains:

The effect of the secular rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos. Since the whole point of ethics...was to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end, the abandonment of any notion of essential human nature and with it the abandonment of any notion of a telos leaves behind a moral scheme composed of two remaining elements whose relationship becomes quite unclear.

In other words, once the idea of humans having a natural end or purpose was discarded, the entire ethical framework built around achieving that end became incoherent. The moral injunctions and virtues that previously guided us towards our telos were left without justification.

MacIntyre argues that by rejecting Aristotelian teleology, the Enlightenment thinkers ended up with "incoherent fragments" - a set of moral rules deprived of their underlying rationale and an account of human nature stripped of any notion of an intrinsic purpose to guide ethical conduct.

This loss of teleology and the resulting incoherence paved the way for the eventual failure of the Enlightenment's quest to ground morality in a rational, secular foundation based on human nature. As MacIntyre contends, later attempts by philosophers like Hume, Kant and others to provide such a foundation were inevitably undermined by working with an impoverished conception of human nature shorn of Aristotelian purposiveness.

The rejection of Aristotelian teleology left a void at the heart of Enlightenment ethics that could not be adequately filled. This opened the path to the moral disorder and fragmentation that characterizes modernity according to MacIntyre's analysis in After Virtue. Reviving the idea of an intrinsic human telos is central to his project of rationally vindicating the Aristotelian tradition as an alternative to modern moral philosophy.

The Aristotelian Tradition of Virtue Ethics

MacIntyre argues that the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics provides a compelling alternative to the incoherent state of modern moral philosophy and discourse. This tradition offers a coherent account of the virtues that is grounded in social practices, the narrative unity of human life, and moral traditions themselves.

At the heart of this account is the idea that the virtues are not merely isolated character traits, but rather qualities that enable us to achieve the "internal goods" inherent to social practices. A practice, as defined by MacIntyre, is:

Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity.

Examples of practices include arts, sciences, games, and certain kinds of productive labor. What distinguishes a practice is that it has intrinsic goods or standards of excellence that are only achievable by participating in and mastering that practice. The virtues – qualities like courage, honesty, justice – are necessary for achieving these internal goods.

For instance, the virtue of honesty is required to make progress in the practice of scientific inquiry, where truthfulness about evidence and findings is essential. Without the virtue of honesty, one cannot fully participate in or reap the internal rewards of science as a practice.

In contrast to these internal goods are "external goods" like money, status, and power, which are contingently attached to practices. While the virtues are necessary for internal goods, they may in fact hinder the acquisition of external goods. This tension highlights the independence of the virtues from mere self-interest or utility.

MacIntyre contends that to understand the virtues properly, we must also understand how our individual lives have a narrative unity. Just as a story has a beginning, middle, and end with a unifying plot or theme, so too do our lives embody a certain narrative structure. The virtues find their meaning and point within the context of this overarching life narrative.

Moreover, the virtues and the goods we pursue through them are inherently rooted in specific moral traditions. MacIntyre argues that separating the virtues from their historical context in the great moral traditions of the past leads to incoherence. The virtues only make full sense when understood as part of an ongoing tradition of moral inquiry and debate.

So in summary, MacIntyre locates the meaning of the virtues at the intersection of three elements:

  1. Social practices with internal goods
  2. The narrative unity of an individual human life
  3. Moral traditions that enshrine and debate the virtues

By reviving this Aristotelian vision, MacIntyre aims to restore coherence and rationality to our contemporary moral thought and discourse, which has become fragmented and incoherent in its rejection of the classical tradition.

Practices, Narratives, and Traditions

According to MacIntyre, the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics cannot be properly understood without grasping three key notions: practicesnarratives, and traditions. These concepts provide the necessary background for making sense of the virtues and their role in human life.


practice is defined as:

Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.
Some examples of practices include arts, sciences, games, politics (in the Aristotelian sense), and the making and sustaining of family life.

The key aspects of a practice are:

  • It involves cooperative human activity established within a social setting.
  • It has its own internal goods and standards of excellence.
  • Engaging in the practice extends human powers and conceptions related to its ends and goods.

To acquire and exercise the virtues, we must participate in practices. The virtues are precisely those qualities that enable us to achieve the internal goods of practices. For instance, the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty are necessary for sustaining practices and achieving excellence within them.


MacIntyre argues that human actions and lives have a fundamentally narrative structure:

We all live out narratives in our lives and...we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out. The form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told - except in the case of fiction.

Our lives are not merely sequences of disconnected events but have a narrative unity and form, characterized by:

  • A beginning, middle, and prospective end
  • Setting within larger social contexts and narratives
  • Involving intentions, purposes, and committed roles

The virtues are intelligible only when situated within the narrative unity of a human life striving towards certain goods and purposes. Divorced from this narrative context, the virtues lose their meaning and justification.


Finally, MacIntyre emphasizes the role of traditions in shaping both practices and narratives:

What constitutes such traditions [in which the virtues are embodied]? The answer is that they are extended arguments, historically extended, socially embodied arguments, about the goods which constitute that tradition...

The virtues are always situated within larger traditions of moral inquiry and practice. A living tradition is not a static body of beliefs but "an historically extended, socially embodied argument" about the goods at its core.

To properly understand and exercise the virtues requires engaging with and contributing to a tradition's ongoing debate about its defining goods and purposes. The virtues are thus inseparable from the practices and narratives found within particular moral traditions.

The concepts of practicesnarratives, and traditions are interlocking notions that provide the necessary context for grasping the meaning and justification of the virtues according to the Aristotelian tradition revived by MacIntyre.

The Rationality of Traditions

Aristotle's account of the virtues rests on the idea that virtues and their role in human life can only be properly understood within the context of certain key concepts - practices, narratives, and traditions. We've already explored practices and narratives, but the third element - traditions - is equally crucial.

A tradition, in MacIntyre's view, is not just a set of habits or customs passed down over time. It is an "historically extended, socially embodied argument" about the goods and aims of human life.

The virtues only make full sense as part of this wider inquiry within a tradition. Different traditions may have competing conceptions of the virtues, rooted in different perspectives on what constitutes the best kind of human life.

But this doesn't mean all traditions are equally rational or defensible. MacIntyre argues that some traditions - like the Aristotelian one - can be vindicated through reason as offering a more coherent and compelling account.

To see why, we first need to understand that traditions are not static, but evolve through critical debates and disagreements internal to the tradition itself.

MacIntyre rejects the idea that a philosophical tradition simply hands down a set of fixed doctrines from authorities in the past. Rather, a living tradition "embodies continuities of conflict" as it grapples with new problems and challenges over time.

This means that evaluating a tradition is not just a matter of examining its foundational texts, but understanding it as an ongoing dialectic. The hallmark of a strong tradition is its ability to advance through honest debate, correcting its mistakes while preserving its core insights.

As an example, we can look at how Medieval thinkers like Aquinas engaged critically with Aristotle's writings while still treating them as central texts within their tradition. Their debates and amendments didn't undermine the Aristotelian tradition, but allowed it to evolve rationally in response to new contexts like Christianity.

Traditions that stagnate or discourage such critical reappraisal, on the other hand, are in danger of degenerating or being discarded. The Aristotelian tradition survived precisely because of its commitment to "progress through internal criticism and invention."

So from MacIntyre's perspective, evaluating a moral tradition is not just about its historical pedigree, but its capacity for reasoned development. A tradition's coherence and sustainability depend on whether it can provide the "resources for an adequate critique" of its own beliefs through rational debate.

This highlights how MacIntyre sees moral inquiry as an intrinsically historical, social and tradition-constituted enterprise - not just the application of individual reason. At the same time, this socially-embedded rationality is what allows some moral traditions to be vindicated over others through philosophical argument.

MacIntyre contends that the Aristotelian tradition, with its emphasis on practices, narratives and virtues, offers superior conceptual resources for making sense of moral life compared to its modern liberal and individualist rivals. By sustaining a more convincing debate over the centuries, the Aristotelian tradition demonstrates its greater rationality.

The implication is that renewing moral thought requires not just individual philosophical brilliance, but immersing ourselves once again in a sustainable moral tradition - flawed yet self-correcting - that can do justice to the complexities of ethics and human life. For MacIntyre, the Aristotelian tradition represents our best avenue for reviving that kind of rationally grounded moral inquiry.

Justice and Modern Liberal Individualism

In the previous section, we discussed how the Aristotelian tradition grounds the virtues in social practices, the narrative unity of human lives, and moral traditions. MacIntyre argues that this coherent account stands in stark contrast to modern liberal individualist theories of justice, which rely on deeply problematic concepts.

Modern liberal theories of justice cannot provide a rational basis for judgments about justice and desert. Their core concepts lack coherence and are incompatible with the Aristotelian tradition.

To illustrate this, MacIntyre focuses on two influential contemporary philosophers who exemplify the liberal individualist approach - John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Their theories are analyzed to reveal the deficiencies of liberal individualism more broadly.

The Central Dispute

MacIntyre contends that mainstream debates around distributive justice founder on an irresolvable conflict between two competing conceptions of justice:

  1. Justice as Entitlement (Nozick): Justice consists in respecting individuals' legitimate entitlements acquired through just initial acquisition and voluntary transfer.
  2. Justice as Fair Distribution (Rawls): Justice requires arranging the distribution of economic benefits and burdens to maximize the position of the least advantaged.
graph TB A[Justice] B[Entitlement] C[Fair Distribution] A-->B A-->C B-->|Nozick|D[Respect Legitimate
Private Entitlements] C-->|Rawls|E[Maximize Position
of Least Advantaged]

The conflict between these two views, according to MacIntyre, is deep and rationally interminable within the liberal framework. Each side advances principles that are not merely different, but fundamentally incommensurable with those of the other side.

There is no rational way to weigh the primacy of entitlement against the demands of fair distribution - these are based on entirely different justificatory grounds that liberal theory cannot reconcile. As MacIntyre puts it:

Confronted by a given piece of property or resource, A [the entitlement view] will be apt to claim that it is justly his because he owns it...; B [the distributive view] will be apt to claim that it justly ought to be someone else's, because they need it much more... Our pluralist culture possesses no method of weighing, no rational criterion for deciding between claims based on legitimate entitlement against claims based on need.

This deep conflict is exemplified by Nozick and Rawls' competing principles, which MacIntyre argues faithfully mirror the divide in ordinary moral debates around distributive justice. So their philosophical accounts reproduce at the theoretical level the very same rational interminability found in everyday political discourse.

The Critique of Rawls and Nozick

MacIntyre argues that the influential liberal theories of justice put forth by John Rawls and Robert Nozick exemplify the problems and incoherence of modern moral philosophy. While Rawls and Nozick offer differing principles for distributive justice, their accounts share fundamental flaws that stem from the individualistic premises of liberal thought.

Both Rawls and Nozick aim to provide rational principles to which contending parties with conflicting interests can appeal. Their approaches articulate key elements of the opposing views in the debate between characters 'A' and 'B' in the opening example.

Rawls's Theory of Justice

Rawls attempts to derive principles of justice from the hypothetical situation of agents behind a "veil of ignorance" - where individuals do not know their place in society, talents, or conception of the good. He argues that rational agents in this "original position" would choose:

  1. The Equal Liberty Principle: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive total system of basic liberties compatible with a similar system for all.
  2. The Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities are permissible only if they are arranged so that they are both: a. Reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage (the greatest benefit of the least advantaged) b. Attached to positions and offices open to all

Rawls contends that rational, self-interested individuals operating behind the veil of ignorance would agree to these principles, prioritizing basic liberties and allowing inequalities only if they benefit the least well-off.

Nozick's Entitlement Theory

In contrast, Nozick grounds justice in individual rights and legitimate private holdings. He argues that a distribution is just if "everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution." Holdings are legitimate if acquired through:

  1. Just Initial Acquisition: Appropriating unowned resources through labor.
  2. Just Transfer: Voluntarily transferring legitimately held resources.

Nozick opposes patterned principles of distributive justice like Rawls's, as they would involve redistributing legitimately held private property without the owners' consent - violating their rights.

MacIntyre contends that while Rawls and Nozick present their theories as providing objective, rational grounds for justice, they in fact exhibit the very contradictions and incompatibilities that plague modern moral discourse.

Rawls premises justice on a principle of equality respecting basic needs, while Nozick grounds justice in equality of entitlement respecting individual rights. As MacIntyre argues:

Rawls's position is logically incompatible with Nozick's in a way parallel to that in which B's [the character prioritizing needs] is incompatible with A's [prioritizing entitlement], but also that Rawls's position is incommensurable with Nozick's in a way similarly parallel.

Their principles and premises cannot be rationally weighed against each other from some neutral standpoint. They are rooted in fundamentally different conceptions of justice.

MacIntyre highlights that both theories exclude the crucial Aristotelian notion of desert—the idea that justice tracks merit and one's genuine contributions to the community's common purposes. By adopting an individualistic stance where society is merely an association of strangers pursuing private interests, Rawls and Nozick lack the metaphysical grounding to make judgments of desert coherent.

Ultimately, MacIntyre sees their dispute as emblematic of the failure of modern moral philosophy rooted in liberal individualism. Rather than providing rational resolutions, Rawls and Nozick exhibit the very contradictions that undermine modern moral discourse, reflecting incommensurate premises that cannot be adjudicated from a neutral standpoint.

MacIntyre contends that Rawls and Nozick exemplify the liberal tradition's inability to ground moral philosophy in a coherent, rational framework - in contrast to the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues. Their dispute demonstrates the contradictions of modern individualistic justice and its detachment from notions of desert tied to a shared conception of the human good within communities.

The Loss of Desert

One of the major shortcomings of modern liberal theories of justice, as critiqued by MacIntyre, is their inability to account for the notion of desert or deservedness. Both John Rawls and Robert Nozick, despite their differences, fail to incorporate desert as a principle of justice in their theories.

According to MacIntyre, the concept of desert is intimately tied to the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics and the idea of individuals contributing to the common good of a community. Within this framework, justice is understood as giving each person what they deserve based on their virtues and their contributions to the shared pursuit of goods internal to practices.

The notion of desert is at home only in the context of a community whose primary bond is a shared understanding of the good for man and the good of that community. Individuals identify their primary interests with reference to those goods.

However, in the modern liberal individualist view, society is seen as merely an arena where individuals pursue their own private interests and desires. As MacIntyre argues, "For the modern individualist a community is simply an arena in which individuals each pursue their own self-chosen conception of the good life." In such a conception, there is no basis for judging what someone deserves based on their virtues or contributions to the common good.

Both Rawls and Nozick derive principles of justice from hypothetical situations involving rational individuals behind a "veil of ignorance" (Rawls) or based on premises about individual rights (Nozick). But in neither case is there room for desert based on an individual's positive qualities or negative vices in relation to the good of the community.

Rawls explicitly argues that notions of desert cannot ground principles of justice, since we cannot know what anyone deserves until the rules of justice are already formulated. Nozick's scheme of justice based on entitlements similarly precludes basing justice on desert, as it is solely concerned with legitimate acquisition and transfer of holdings.

By banishing desert from their theories, Rawls and Nozick exemplify the modern loss of this crucial concept that was central to ancient and medieval conceptions of justice. This loss, according to MacIntyre, is part of the larger incoherence of modern moral philosophy that has severed its connection to the Aristotelian tradition.

The concept of desert is closely tied to virtues and their role in contributing to the good of a community based on a shared telos. Eliminating desert from theories of justice is emblematic of modernity's loss of this ethical framework.

Conclusions and Controversies

MacIntyre's argument in After Virtue has been both influential and controversial. His central claim - that the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics represents a more coherent and compelling moral philosophy than modern moral theories - has sparked debates across various fields. In this section, we will examine some of the key conclusions and controversies surrounding MacIntyre's work.

The Failure of the Enlightenment Project

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project to provide a rational, secular justification for morality has ultimately failed. He contends that attempts by philosophers like Hume, Kant, and Mill to ground morality in reason, utility, or other non-teleological foundations have proven inadequate. The rejection of Aristotelian teleology and the classical tradition of virtue ethics has left modern moral discourse fragmented and incoherent.

MacIntyre's critique of the Enlightenment project has been influential, but it has also faced criticism. Some argue that his portrayal of the Enlightenment thinkers is overly simplistic or that he overlooks other potential foundations for morality.

The Aristotelian Alternative

As an alternative to modern moral theories, MacIntyre advocates reviving the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics. He argues that virtues like courage, justice, and temperance can only be fully understood within the context of practices, narratives, and traditions. MacIntyre contends that the Aristotelian approach, which grounds morality in the pursuit of human flourishing (eudaimonia), offers a more coherent and defensible moral framework.

However, MacIntyre's interpretation and application of Aristotle's thought have been subject to criticism. Some argue that his reading of Aristotle is selective or that he overstates the coherence and rationality of the Aristotelian tradition. Others question whether the Aristotelian approach can be successfully adapted to modern societies.

MacIntyre's advocacy of the Aristotelian tradition has been influential in reviving interest in virtue ethics, but it has also faced challenges from other moral philosophers who defend alternative approaches or interpretations of Aristotle.

The Critique of Liberal Individualism

A central target of MacIntyre's critique is liberal individualism, a dominant strand of modern moral and political thought. He argues that liberal individualist theories of justice, exemplified by the works of Rawls and Nozick, rely on incoherent concepts and fail to account for the importance of desert and deservedness in moral judgments.

MacIntyre's critique of liberal individualism has sparked debates about the nature of justice, the role of individual rights, and the relationship between individuals and communities. Some defend liberal individualism as a necessary foundation for modern pluralistic societies, while others argue that MacIntyre's critique exposes fundamental flaws in liberal thought.

MacIntyre's critique of liberal individualism has been influential in reigniting debates about the nature of justice and the foundations of political philosophy, but it has also faced pushback from defenders of liberal individualism and alternative theories of justice.

MacIntyre's work in After Virtue has been widely discussed and debated, with implications reaching beyond moral philosophy into fields like political theory, sociology, and anthropology. While his argument for reviving the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics has been influential, it has also faced challenges and criticisms from various perspectives. The controversies surrounding MacIntyre's work highlight the ongoing debates and unresolved tensions within moral philosophy and related disciplines.

Nietzsche or Aristotle?

In Chapter 9, I posed a stark question: Nietzsche or Aristotle? The argument that led to the posing of this question had two central premises:

1. The language—and therefore also, to a large degree, the practice—of morality today is in a state of grave disorder. This disorder arises from the prevailing cultural power of an idiom in which ill-assorted conceptual fragments from various parts of our past are deployed together in private and public debates. These debates are notable chiefly for the unsettlable character of the controversies carried on and the apparent arbitrariness of each of the contending parties.

2. Ever since belief in Aristotelian teleology was discredited, moral philosophers have attempted to provide some alternative rational, secular account of the nature and status of morality. However, all these attempts, as varied and impressive as they have been, have failed—a failure perceived most clearly by Nietzsche. Consequently, Nietzsche's negative proposal to raze to the ground the structures of inherited moral belief and argument had, despite its desperate and grandiose quality, a certain plausibility—unless, of course, the initial rejection of the moral tradition to which Aristotle's teaching about the virtues is central turned out to have been misconceived and mistaken.
Unless the tradition of virtue ethics centered on Aristotle could be rationally vindicated, Nietzsche's stance would have a terrible plausibility.

Not that, even so, it would be easy in the contemporary world to be an intelligent Nietzschean. The stock characters acknowledged in the dramas of modern social life embody all too well the concepts and modes of moral beliefs and arguments that an Aristotelian and a Nietzschean would have to agree in rejecting.

Step 1

The bureaucratic manager, the consuming aesthete, the therapist, the protester, and their numerous kindred occupy almost all the available, culturally recognizable roles. The notions of the expertise of the few and the moral agency of everyone are the presuppositions of the dramas that those characters enact.

Step 2

To cry out that the emperor has no clothes on was at least to pick on one man only to the amusement of everyone else. To declare that almost everyone is dressed in rags is much less likely to be popular. But the Nietzschean would at least have the consolation of being unpopularly in the right—unless, that is, the rejection of the Aristotelian tradition turned out to have been mistaken.

The Aristotelian tradition has occupied two distinct places in my argument:

  1. I have suggested that a great part of modern morality is intelligible only as a set of fragmented survivals from that tradition. Indeed, the inability of modern moral philosophers to carry through their projects of analysis and justification is closely connected to the fact that the concepts with which they work are a combination of fragmented survivals and implausible modern inventions.
  2. In addition to this, the rejection of the Aristotelian tradition was a rejection of a quite distinctive kind of morality in which rules, so predominant in modern conceptions of morality, find their place in a larger scheme in which the virtues have the central place. Hence, the cogency of Nietzsche's rejection and refutation of modern moralities of rules, whether utilitarian or Kantian, does not necessarily extend to the earlier Aristotelian tradition.

It is one of my most important contentions that against that tradition, the Nietzschean polemic is completely unsuccessful. The grounds for saying this can be set out in two different ways:

  1. Nietzsche Wins by Default: As I suggested in Chapter 9, Nietzsche succeeds if all those whom he takes on as antagonists fail. Others may have to succeed by virtue of the rational power of their positive arguments, but if Nietzsche wins, he wins by default. He does not win. I have sketched in Chapters 14 and 15 the rational case that can be made for a tradition in which the Aristotelian moral and political texts are canonical. For Nietzsche or the Nietzscheans to succeed, that case would have to be rebutted.
  2. The Incoherence of Nietzsche's 'Great Man': Why does Nietzsche's portrait of the 'great man,' the Übermensch, never find any objective good with authority over him in the social world? The answer lies in Nietzsche's characterization:
"A great man—a man whom nature has constructed and invented in the grand style—what is he? ... If he cannot lead, he goes alone; then it can happen that he may snarl at some things he meets on the way ... he wants no 'sympathetic' heart, but servants, tools; in his intercourse with men he is always intent on making something out of them. He knows he is incommunicable: he finds it tasteless to be familiar; and when one thinks he is, he usually is not. When not speaking to himself, he wears a mask. He rather lies than tells the truth: it requires more spirit and will. There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal."

This characterization is rooted in Nietzsche's contention that European morality since ancient Greece has been a series of disguises for the will to power, and that the claim to objectivity for such morality cannot be rationally sustained. Because of this, the 'great man' cannot enter into relationships mediated by appeal to shared standards, virtues, or goods. He is his own sole authority, and his relationships to others are exercises of that authority.

"However, if the account of the virtues I have defended can be sustained, it is the isolation and self-absorption of the 'great man' that thrust upon him the burden of being his own self-sufficient moral authority. If the good has to be understood in terms of practices, narrative unity, and moral traditions, then goods—and the authority of laws and virtues—can only be discovered by entering into communities with a shared vision of goods. To cut oneself off from such shared activities is to deprive oneself of finding any objective good."

Hence, we must conclude not only that Nietzsche does not win the argument by default against the Aristotelian tradition but also, and perhaps more importantly, that it is from the perspective of that tradition that we can best understand the mistakes at the heart of the Nietzschean position.

The attractiveness of Nietzsche's position lay in its apparent honesty. When setting out the case for an amended emotivism, it appeared to be a consequence of accepting emotivism's truth that an honest person would no longer want to use most of the language of past morality because of its misleading character. Nietzsche was the only major philosopher who did not flinch from this conclusion.

However, it is now clear that the price to be paid for this 'liberation' is entanglement in another set of mistakes. The concept of the Nietzschean 'great man' is a pseudo-concept, representing individualism's final attempt to escape its consequences. The Nietzschean stance turns out not to be an alternative to the conceptual scheme of liberal individualist modernity but rather one more representative moment in its internal unfolding.

So it was right to see Nietzsche as, in some sense, the ultimate antagonist of the Aristotelian tradition. But it now turns out that, in the end, the Nietzschean stance is only one more facet of that very moral culture of which Nietzsche took himself to be an implacable critic. It is, therefore, after all, the case that the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some version or other and the Aristotelian tradition in some version or other.

Responding to Relativism and Perspectivism

MacIntyre argues that the modern ideas of moral relativism and perspectivism, which hold that moral truths are relative to cultures or individual perspectives, cannot withstand scrutiny once we understand morality in light of the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics.

Moral relativism and perspectivism suggest that there are no objective moral truths, only relative moral views based on culture or individual standpoint. However, MacIntyre contends that these positions fail to account for the rational superiority of virtue ethics rooted in objective traditions.

The argument against relativism stems from MacIntyre's insistence on the importance of moral traditions. As discussed in the section on practices, narratives, and traditions, morality is fundamentally tied to the narratives and social contexts that give rise to and sustain moral concepts like the virtues.

Step 1

Traditions are not simply relative constructs, but embody real achievements of understanding through a coherent, evolving debate. As MacIntyre puts it:

"When a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose."

Step 2

Thus, some traditions can lay better claim to truth and rationality than others based on the substantive quality of their internal disputes and development over time.

The perspectival critique, which suggests morality is purely subjective based on individual viewpoints, is undermined by MacIntyre's emphasis on the fundamentally social nature of moral inquiry. Morality is not simply a matter of individual preference, but arises from the collective debates and practices within traditions over centuries.

For example, consider the virtue of justice. Modern individualist thinkers tend to analyze justice solely from an individual's perspective - either as securing individual entitlements (Nozick) or meeting individual needs (Rawls). But from an Aristotelian view, Justice is inherently tied to one's social roles, the particular community, and the broader ethical tradition that conceptualizes justice. It cannot be reduced to individual perspectives alone.

In essence, MacIntyre argues that morality - and particularly a morality of virtues - is necessarily rational and objective by being grounded in collective, multi-generational traditions of ethical inquiry and practice. Claims of pure relativism or subjectivism simply fail to adequately account for this socially-embedded, historically-evolving dimension of ethics.

The Political and Social Implications

MacIntyre's critique of liberal individualism and modernity has radical implications for politics and society. His argument suggests that the modern liberal state and its political institutions lack genuine moral foundations and cannot provide a basis for moral consensus or resolve deep moral conflicts.

The key point is that modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical or socialist, must be rejected from the standpoint of the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues. Modern politics expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of this tradition.

The Crisis of Modern Politics

According to MacIntyre, modern politics is fundamentally a form of "civil war carried on by other means." The lack of genuine moral consensus in our society means that political debates and institutions cannot be grounded in shared moral principles. Instead, they reflect the conflicts and power struggles between different social groups and their rival moral visions.

The controversies over justice and liberal theories exemplified by Rawls and Nozick reveal an inability to settle such conflicts through rational debate. MacIntyre argues that we lack shared criteria for weighing claims based on entitlement, need, equality, or other competing principles. Political resolutions, like the Bakke case, involve pragmatic compromises rather than principled moral reasoning.

The Demise of Patriotism

A consequence of this moral crisis is the demise of patriotism as a virtue. In a society lacking a coherent moral community, the nature of political obligation becomes unclear. Loyalty to one's country becomes detached from obedience to the government, which often fails to represent the moral ideals of its citizens.

Patriotism was a virtue founded on attachment to a political and moral community. But when government no longer represents that community, patriotism loses its meaning and force.

MacIntyre contends that the modern state is not a form of political community justifying patriotism and allegiance based on moral ideals. Rather, it is "a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus."

Towards New Forms of Community

Since modernity has failed to provide a coherent moral and political order, MacIntyre argues that we must turn away from trying to "shore up" modern political systems. Instead, the key task is "the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained."

MacIntyre suggests that just as the monastic movements provided social stability during the decline of Rome, we need new institutions to uphold moral traditions amidst the "new dark ages" of modernity's moral disorder.

These new forms of community would be based on the Aristotelian tradition and its conception of the virtues. By recovering an Aristotelian understanding of practices, narratives and moral traditions, MacIntyre hopes morality can be rebuilt from the ground up, apart from liberal individualism.

MacIntyre leaves open what precise shape these communities would take, but sees them as an alternative to working within or justifying the modern nation-state and its liberal political vision.

Read more about MacIntyre's positive vision in the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics section.

In essence, MacIntyre calls for a radical rethinking of social and political life based on rejecting liberal modernity and reviving an older tradition of virtue-based moral inquiry and practice. His critique has deeply unsettling implications for conventional politics and liberal democracy.

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