Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue offers a devastating though ultimately unconvincing diagnosis of the state of modern society. The argument is predominantly historical, and the crux of it is his account of the failure of the enlightenment project of justifying morality. He argues that the philosophers of the enlightenment attempted to ground morality in human nature, rejecting all teleology. However, the morality that the philosophers ascribed to was conventional, Christian and bourgeois, and the only way to make it fit with their conception of human nature was a conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos. Because such a conception was rejected, the project had to fail.
Morality before the enlightenment
MacIntyre argues that the dominant moral scheme in Europe before the enlightenment was the tradition begun by Aristotle and modified by medieval Christian philosophers such as Aquinas. This moral scheme is fundamentally teleological. It has a three part structure: man-as-he-happens-to-be, the precepts of ethics, and man-as-he-would-be-if-he-realized-his-telos. The precepts of ethics let man move from his actual state towards realizing his telos, his purpose.
The concept of telos is crucially important. MacIntyre illustrates it by way of analogy. If we have a knife that is sharp and cuts well, we can say that it is a good knife. It fulfils its purpose. Conversely, if the knife is blunt, and it is hard to cut with it, it follows that it is a bad knife. Telos simply means purpose in this sense. Now, in the Aristotelian scheme, man has a telos. Thus by examining a man's actions, we can say whether he is a good man or a bad man, depending on whether in his actions he is realizing his purpose as a human being.
In this tradition there is an obvious connection between factual and normative statements. In the case of the knife, we move directly from factual statements (i.e., that it is sharp or blunt) to normative statements (i.e. that it is good or bad). The same applies to man. From factual statements about a man's actions we can move directly to normative statements about him being a good or bad man. The 'no ought from is' distinction is a later idea, first propounded in the enlightenment.
The enlightenment project
By the seventeenth century and certainly by the eighteenth, the Aristotelian moral scheme was in crisis. The advances of natural science meant that the metaphysical biology on which Aristotle's original theories rested was in disrepute. Science also increased scepticism about Christianity, which had perpetuated a modified version of Aristotelianism. What the philosophers of the enlightenment project attempted to do was to ground morality in human nature, using reason alone, without any reference to Aristotelian teleology or Christian dogma.
David Hume was one of the pre-eminent thinkers of the enlightenment. He attempted to ground morality in the 'passions.' Hume held that our feelings, or passions, rather than reason motivated us to action. Furthermore, individual moral judgements are expression of individual feelings. But we still invoke general moral principles in justifying actions. Hume's project was then to show that the gap between the two could be bridged. Hume's argument is that following the precepts of conventional morality is in our long-term interests. But this raises the question why we should act according to morality in specific instances where a breach of the moral code is in our interests and has no further ill consequences. Hume tries to bridge the gap by invoking 'sympathy.' MacIntyre asserts that sympathy is merely a philosophical fiction, and Hume's project impossible. It could not possibly succeed.
Immanuel Kant's attempt to provide a rational grounding for morality was equally problematic. Whereas Hume believed morality was based in the passions, for Kant it was founded in pure reason. Kant rejects happiness or the commandments of God as standards for morality. Instead, he takes two basic premises for granted: the precepts of morality are the same for all rational beings, and they are binding on all rational beings regardless of their ability to carry them out. The search for a rational grounding of morality becomes the search for a rational test to discriminate between maxims which are genuine expressions of the moral law and those that are not. The test is as follows: can a maxim be validly universalized so that it could and should be held by all rational beings? Maxims which pass this test are categorical imperatives - universal moral laws.
MacIntyre makes a standard criticism of Kant. There are many bad maxims which can be universally maximized. For instance, whilst Kant thinks that the maxim 'always keep your promises' is a categorical imperative, MacIntyre asserts that the maxim 'keep all promises except one' is also a universalizable maxim. Of Kant's other formulation of the categorical imperative, 'act so that you treat others always as ends in themselves, never merely as means,' MacIntyre says that it is equally liable to the criticism. The maxim 'treat everyone except me as means' is equally universalizable. Hence, MacIntyre holds that Kant's moral philosophy fails - it cannot achieve its goal of rationally grounding morality.
The results of the failure of thinkers such as Hume and Kant can be seen in the philosophy of Kierkegaard. In his Enten/Eller Kierkegaard posits a radical choice between an aesthetic and ethical world view. This is not a moral choice, it is rather a choice of whether to live by the precepts of morality. Because of the nature of the choice, no rational reasons can be given for making it either way. The ultimate premises of morality have become the subject of personal preference. Of course, Kierkegaard still ascribes to a very conventional Christian morality, and thus thinks we should choose to live according to ethics. But the choice situation is such that its very nature precludes us from giving rational reasons for our choice; any argument for accepting the ethical world view presupposes it.
With Kierkegaard's choice the failure of the enlightenment project is complete. Kierkegaard saw that the rational grounding of morality that Hume and Kant attempted had been unsuccessful, and the whole project was impossible. The only possibility that is left is an irrational choice. In the realm of philosophy, Kierkegaard marks the point where the catastrophe that overtook modern morality is first evident. Morality has become emotivist.
The inevitability of failure
MacIntyre argues that the enlightenment project had to fail. This is due to two elements. Firstly, all the philosophers of the enlightenment ascribed to a very conventional, Christian and bourgeois morality. Furthermore, their conception of human nature-as-it-is was quite negative. Human nature as such was not disposed towards acting morally, hence the necessity of rules of morality. These are the two elements that the enlightenment thinkers inherited from the older, Aristotelian and Thomistic tradition. But as we have seen, they rejected the third element - teleology. Therein lies the mistake of the enlightenment.
MacIntyre argues that the only way to fit together conventional morality and the facts of human nature as it is is a conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-purpose. By themselves, the two elements that the philosophers of the enlightenment were left with were irreconcilable. What the enlightenment project attempted to do, then, was to create a new grounding for morality by using only two elements of the old scheme. However, the element they left out was absolutely essential to the whole. They could not hope to succeed.
MacIntyre's argument is quite unconventional. It is basically that because the rejection of Aristotelian science led to the questioning of teleology and the secularization of society led to the questioning of Christian faith, the philosophers of the enlightenment tried to ground their conception of morality in nothing but the facts of human nature as they understood it. But the morality they held, conventional Christian morality, was not compatible with that human nature, and could only be made so by using teleology. Hence, their project had to fail and did. The consequence was that we, the heirs of the enlightenment, who live in modern liberal democratic societies, have no rationally grounded morality available. Morality in our societies is nothing but the assertion of individual preference, something I discuss in more detail in my writeup on MacIntyre's disquieting suggestion. I intend to treat MacIntyre's remedies for the malaise of modern society in later writeups.
As I said in my writeup on MacIntyre's main thesis, I don't find MacIntyre convincing. The argument is made by discussing a few philosophers, but the treatment remains sketchy and selective. Counter-enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau remain neglected. And as Robert Wokler points out, absolutely central figures of the enlightenment such as Montesquieu and Smith are practically ignored. Even Voltaire gets no mention! The whole methodology is questionable, since sweeping conclusions about intellectual and social history are made by examining a handful of thinkers. The whole enterprise can be brought under serious doubt by challenging MacIntyre's interpretation of the philosophers. And as I have argued, such a challenge would certainly be possible.
MacIntyre, A. (1985) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
Matravers, M. (2006) Seminars on After Virtue
(York, University of York).
Mendus, S. (2006) Lectures on After Virtue
(York, University of York).
Wokler, R. (1994) 'Projecting the Enlightenment' in Horton, J. and Mendus, S. (eds.) After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre
(Cambridge, Polity Press).