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Virtues Abandoned, Values Adrift

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982
After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. By Alasdair Maclntyre. Notre Dame. $15.95.

After Virtue is at once a brilliant, critical history of moral philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the present; an incisive condemnation of modern Western culture (including the Soviet Union) insofar as it has attempted to organize society and politics since the 18th century on intellectual and moral foundations dangerously inadequate for the task; a prophetic witness to even worse trouble ahead in the 20th century or beyond (if that is possible after such events as those at Verdun, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima); and a proposal for the recovery and restoration of certain lost truths concerning human nature and ethics that are required for a better world. The proposal, which is an extended and highly complicated argument for recapturing “a unitary core concept of the virtues” based upon Aristotelian principles, appears somewhat to beg the question; but the author, who has published a number of distinguished works on philosophy and religion and presently holds a chair at Wellesley College, promises a sequel volume that will explain further. It may be said, then, that After Virtue undertakes two main tasks: first, that of demonstrating the unprecedented decay of the very foundations of morality; and second, that of identifying and describing the nature of the “lost morality” that somehow for centuries succeeded in maintaining objective authority. The argument throughout encompasses an extraordinary range of reference. Maclntyre assumes almost without question that “the roots of some of the problems which now engage the specialized attention of academic philosophers and the roots of some of the problems central to our everyday practical lives are one and the same.” Philosophy mirrors life, or vice versa. While the book is therefore primarily about such figures as Kant and Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Mill, Hume and Sartre, and, above all, Aristotle, whom Maclntyre regards as the greatest of the ethicists, it is also implicitly about our most pressing and urgent moral dilemmas.

It is commonplace today and perhaps in every era to charge that standards of morality have declined. For a number of reasons, however, such judgments are notoriously difficult to prove. How, for example, can we distinguish true decline from mere change? While an observer may be assessing accurately the deterioration in a particular set of standards, other expressions of morality, unseen, may be in the process of revivifying. The problem in discussing morality and its history has always been one of meaning. Do we have a clear idea of what we are talking about when we refer to “morality,” and if we do can we convince others that our definition of morality is the correct one? It is possible, for example, that in the history of the West there always have been competing moralities, creating the exact problem of meaning I have referred to. Maclntyre is convinced, nevertheless, that in the modern age (roughly since 1700) something unprecedented occurred, namely a disastrous breakdown in the understanding of ethics, such that we have largely lost our very comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of what morality is. Subjectivist—or in current philosophical terminology, emotivist—thinking, mechanistic and social-scientistic concepts of man, and other comparable fallacies and delusions have become “embodied in our culture,” with the consequence not merely that “morality is not what it once was, but also and more importantly that what once was morality has to some large degree disappeared.”

Our alarming intellectual impoverishment in this area, according to Maclntyre, has cost us the means of arriving at any consensus on standards of conduct or of demonstrating the moral superiority of one course of action or way of life over another. Like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, because “the language and the appearances of morality persist,” we fail to recognize that we are seeing only shadows while “the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and then in part destroyed.” In the realm of ethics, our world is postapocalyptic, like that depicted by Russell Hoban in the novel, Riddley Walker, with the remnants of moral architecture persisting only as an “unharmonious melange of ill-assorted fragments” from the past that we have not the slightest idea of how to reassemble into a whole. After Virtue may be properly viewed as a prolegomenon to a reassembly manual.

Part of our problem, MacIntyre believes, is that we have come to accept as the necessary and timeless characteristics of moral judgments a set of assumptions that are in fact the result of specific historical forces in modern times and therefore reversible. We accept it as proven, for example, that “ought” cannot be derived from “is,” or more generally that it is impermissible to argue from facts to values. Values, we have convinced ourselves, rest only on personal choice, and the justification for them, we assume, must be purely subjective. Reason in this schema is useful primarily for devising means to ends, and rational demonstration is deemed irrelevant to the determination of values. We take it as final truth that there can be no rational justification for an objective morality and that the individual is sovereign in his moral authority. Under the impact of such beliefs, all of which MacIntyre shows are quite tenuous, it has become impossible to establish any hierarchy of values or to locate objective moral authority anywhere. Most important, we find ourselves unable to engage in serious debate about moral questions with the hope of bringing about constructive results, other than those obtained via emotional manipulation. Because we have made ourselves incapable of discussing ends in rational terms, the instrumental values of bureaucracy, such as efficiency, are given status as ends in themselves; social-science expertise, which falsely presents itself as value-neutral, is granted unwarranted authority; and personal identity and character are reduced to mere transient “roles” or so-called presentations of self. To take these and other similar changes lightly, to fail to see how destructive they have been to the quality of political life, for example, is to give in to a cynicism that is itself symptomatic of our deepest troubles.

What we have lost, most essentially, Maclntyre believes, is a teleological view of man, “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-telos,” a view that was integral to the Aristotelian ethics dominant everywhere in the West until the 17th century. “The whole point of ethics—both as a theoretical and a practical discipline” is to enable man to pass from his “present state,” which is necessarily untutored and incomplete, to his “true end,” an end based upon some conception of man as having “an essential nature and an essential purpose or function.” Remove the conception of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos, and we are left only with various views of imperfect human nature and a large and variegated legacy of unintegrated moral injunctions, virtues, duties, pieties, obligations, codes, and laws from both the Judaeo-Christian and the Classical past that are not connected to any clear purpose and seem to be an addendum to practical life rather than its heart. Since the moral virtues “were originally at home in a scheme in which their purpose was to correct, improve, and educate” human nature, and are now attached to nothing, they are simply available for use as interest may dictate. We cannot move from “is” to “ought” because we have no “is,” not because it is illogical to do so. Virtues acquire gripping urgency—which they had for centuries for millions of people in Western society—only in a teleological context such as the Aristotelian, which emphasized the conversion of potentiality into actuality. We do not have now even an acceptable vocabulary for discussing virtues in this sense.

Our calamitous present is the direct result of the failure, in Maclntyre’s view, of the Enlightenment attempt to provide foundations for morality independent of the Classical inheritance and Judaeo-Christian authority. The greatest figures, or those most representative of the competing schools of opinion—Hume the sentimentalist, Kant the rationalist, and Mill the utilitarian—by silently borrowing from the substance of the moral tradition that preceded them, all assume more than they prove and to a large extent cancel each other out, leaving us in chaos, although we may not yet realize it. Maclntyre is particularly acute in showing the inadequacy of the past 250 years of ethical theory. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche almost alone have continuing validity, not for their solutions but for their unanswerable exposure of the failure of “the Enlightenment project of justifying morality.” In Kierkegaard we are presented for the first time—long before it became a part of everyday discourse—with the choice not between good and evil but the choice of “whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil.”

True as all this may be, one is inclined to argue in response to Maclntyre that he is unduly unappreciative of the achievements of the naturalistic, secular, non-Classical ethics created since the 17th century. Despite its inconsistencies and notable failures, Enlightenment ethics has also been a bulwark of moral order and judgment in a world infinitely more complex than anything Aristotle envisaged. One might well question whether it is possible today to arrive at a consensus on the human telos. Maclntyre does not give sufficient attention to the reasons why Aristotle was rejected at the end of the 17th century, other than to assume that the philosopher’s obvious obsolescence in physics tainted his ethics as well. It is a curious fact that although Maclntyre writes with considerable sensitivity to the role of humanly uncontrollable historical forces—one of the finest discussions in the book concerns the necessary unpredictability of historical events—he appears to regard the repudiation of Aristotelianism in the pre-Enlightenment period as some sort of willful act or at best an intellectual misstep that could have and should have been avoided.

Furthermore, although this work is written with commendable precision, the reader is not always certain what kind of morality Maclntyre is talking about. If the private virtues, the virtues of strong character that the Greeks emphasized, are less than they once were, the social virtues, such as benevolence and compassion, first came into their own during the Enlightenment and have remained continuously strong since. Yet Maclntyre might well answer that it is exactly the failure of society to integrate such social virtues into a full theory of human moral improvement, which would, for example, keep mercy and justice in balance, that reveals our confusion.

Still, it seems unlikely that the Greek framework for moral philosophy, even with the Christian and Scholastic improvements upon it, will be the answer to our difficulties. Oddly, one of Maclntyre’s profoundest suggestions for an ethics suitable to our time—that we accept the painful truth that there is no one good life, but only “better or worse ways for individuals to live through the tragic confrontation of good with good”—does not seem Aristotelian at all. If it is true that the morally conscientious person in our era must live with this kind of ambivalence, summed up beautifully in Maclntyre’s own description of the tragic protagonist in the 20th century who cries, “whatever I do, I shall have left undone what I ought to have done,” then Aristotle can be of only peripheral help at best, despite Maclntyre’s effort at resuscitation. The acceptance of agonized moral perception and ambivalence, although not without Classical antecedents, is more reminiscent of 20th-century religious existentialism— for example, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” upon which modern man is inescapably crucified—than of anything Greek.

However that may be, the central question presented by this book is whether we dare to take the risk as boldly as Maclntyre has done of joining Nietzsche in proclaiming to the world the failure of the “Enlightenment project.” Is the game so far played out that there is no longer any point in pretending that the notion of human rights is anything more than an untenable fiction in the same class as “belief in witches and unicorns”? Are we ready to dismiss the utilitarian criterion for good—the greatest happiness for the greatest number—as intellectually unsustainable, and to admit that our vaunted liberal, pluralistic society, in which all interests regardless of intrinsic worth are given equal freedom to compete for power, is simply another name for moral chaos, or, worse, decadence? Wisely or unwisely, we cling to what we believe has until now, particularly in the United States, sustained our liberty, our humanity, our protection from the most revolting crimes. And we trust ours is a “good” society even though it can be demonstrated, as MacIntyre has superbly shown, that the term has lost most of its significance.

Yet there is also doubt. Perhaps the parallel to the “epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages” is apt, as Maclntyre urges. “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred,” Maclntyre writes, “when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.

What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. . . . For some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . 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.

A book so wise and learned as this, so rich in insights into our problems and their origins, deserves widespread attention from our society. Unfortunately, however, if Maclntyre is right, it is unlikely such attention will be forthcoming, except from those—one hopes the number is not too few— who have resisted the suicidal trivialization of ethics in the past century and have retained enough of the wisdom of the past, Aristotelian or other, to understand how vitally important to our well-being a balanced system of the virtues is.


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