Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue is one of the most thorough-going critiques of liberal democratic culture there is. If MacIntyre's thesis is correct, then the last three hundred years of Western moral and political philosophy from the Enlightenment onwards has been a mistake. Furthermore, if MacIntyre is right, then modern liberal democracies are essentially devoid of morality. In this writeup, I discuss MacIntyre's main thesis - the 'disquieting suggestion'.
After Virtue begins with a dramatic analogy. MacIntyre asks us to imagine a world wherein natural science experiences a tremendous crisis. Scientists are blamed for environmental disasters, and the public at large turns against them. An anti-science political party gets into power, and abolishes the practice and teaching of science. Later, however, a pro-science movement emerges, and attempts to pick up the pieces. But all that remains is fragments. People do have debates about various bits of scientific theories, but these debates are essentially pointless. The debates cannot be resolved rationally, since the proper context for scientific enquiry has been lost.
The above sketch is an analogy with the state of morality in modern societies. MacIntyre's disquieting suggestion is that morality in Western liberal societies has gone through exactly such a crisis. Moral language is still used, but it has lost its meaning, since the proper context for morality has been lost.
Modern moral debate
MacIntyre admits that his suggestion seems wildly implausible. It does not correspond with the way we understand morality. Indeed, MacIntyre concedes that we continue to use moral language as though it made sense. We do feel we say something meaningful when asserting 'murder is wrong' or 'the death penalty is unjust.' But MacIntyre argues that our moral language betrays us.
Consider modern moral debates, on issues such as abortion, nuclear deterrence, or the justification of making war in certain circumstances. Both the proponents of the woman's right to choose and pro-life groups present their arguments in terms of morality. Pro-abortion groups, then, argue that the woman has an inviolable right to choose what to do with her own body; banning abortion would be an illegitimate violation of this right. Anti-abortionists retort that human life is sacred and inviolable, that the fetus is a distinct human individual, and that the killing of the fetus is thus a violation of that individual's fundamental right to live. MacIntyre notes that on both sides of the debate, the conclusions are logical. They follow from the premises. But once the debate reaches the basic premises, it necessarily ends. It is no longer debate, but merely the assertion of different, incommensurable points of view. Because the basic premises are incommensurable, the debate is necessarily interminable.
This observation is MacIntyre's most important piece of evidence for the crisis in modern morality that he diagnoses. Moral debates in modern liberal democracies, especially the United States, which is divided by the culture wars, is interminable. Even though we can always argue back to our basic premises, there is nothing left to do when we reach them. What we are left with is the assertion of personal preference. In the end, debates about abortion or nuclear deterrence or just war in modern societies boil down to the assertion of individual preferences. One believes war is justified in some instances because one prefers the basic premises which lead to this conclusion; conversely, pacifism stems from preferring an opposed set of premises.
What, then, is left of morality? According to MacIntyre, virtually nothing. Morality becomes nothing but the assertion of individual whims, and this is no morality at all. Moral language is still used, however, because fragments remain from earlier periods of history when morality did have a proper context. But we no longer use the language of morality to express moral claims at all, but merely our preferences.
MacIntyre anticipates one obvious objection to the above account: the reason why moral debate in modern societies is only a matter of personal preference and hence interminable is that all moral debate throughout history has been, and always will be a matter of preference. Morality as such is nothing but the expression of individual preferences. 'Murder is wrong' means nothing more than 'I don't like murder' or 'Boo for murder!' And the same is true of all sentences expressing moral claims, in all societies, all cultures, and all periods of history.
The theory outlined above is called emotivism, and has been defended by philosophers such as Stevenson and Ayer. MacIntyre argues that emotivism is philosophically indefensible. His argument is partly historical, partly purely philosophical. The philosophical argument is not important. Let it suffice to say that MacIntyre dismisses emotivism as a general theory about the meaning of moral utterances. Those interested to pursue this should turn to After Virtue, and to the numerous discussions of emotivism in the philosophical literature.
The historical argument is important. MacIntyre argues that emotivism as a philosophy arose in a very particular historical context - the University of Cambridge, roughly between 1903 and 1939. Before emotivism, the dominant moral theory at Cambridge was the intuitionism of G.E. Moore. According to Moore's Principia Ethica, 'good' is a simple, indefinable quality, analogous to a colour. To discern more clearly the colour of some object, superior perception must be applied; in the same way, to know whether something is good or not, it must be observed by someone with a superior moral sense. This had the obvious consequence that moral debate in the circle inspired by Moore descended into nothing but assertion of individual will. It is, of course, impossible to demonstrate that someone has a superior moral sense to another. So, in debates in the Cambridge circle, this was 'demonstrated' by use of rhetorical eloquence or force of will.
The theory of emotivism was a reaction to the state of moral debate in Cambridge in the first part of the twentieth century. The emotivists correctly perceived that moral debate in Cambridge was nothing but the assertion of personal preference. They invalidly universalized this observation into the assertion that any and all moral debate is of this character. As we have seen, MacIntyre dismisses emotivism as a philosophy. But, emotivism is true of the use to which moral language is put in certain historical contexts. The crux of the disquieting suggestion is that what was true of Cambridge in the early twentieth century is true of liberal democratic culture in general. The Cambridge example is important also because it helps us understand MacIntyre's historical argument as to why modern societies are in this predicament, an argument focusing on the failure of the enlightenment project.
The enlightenment project
The enlightenment is conventionally lauded as the period which gave us ideals such as 'liberty, equality, fraternity' and 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' The enlightenment is seen as a liberation from the stifling grip of centuries of tradition. MacIntyre disagrees. The enlightenment was a mistake.
MacIntyre takes issue specifically with what he calls the 'enlightenment project of justifying morality.' MacIntyre argues that the philosophers of the enlightenment - he uses Hume, Kant and Diderot as representative examples - attempted to rationally ground morality in a conception of human nature, whilst doing away with any Aristotelian teleology. The Aristotelian tradition in its classical and Thomistic variants based moral enquiry in a belief in an essential telos, or purpose for man. The role of morality was to let man advance from the way he actually is towards realizing this purpose. Moral claims were thus ultimately grounded in a conception of teleology.
Now the philosophers of the enlightenment attempted to do away with all teleology. Because natural science had discredited Aristotelian teleology in the realms of biology and physics, the enlightenment thinkers believed they could ignore it in moral theory as well. What they were left with was, on the one hand a certain Christian, bourgeois morality which they wanted to justify, and on the other hand a certain understanding of human nature as it is. MacIntyre argues that the rejection of teleology made the equation impossible, since by themselves, the two remaining elements were incompatible. The enlightenment project could not succeed, and it didn't.
Because the secularization of society has led to the rejection of a morality based on theology, and the enlightenment project failed in its attempt to provide a rational grounding for morality without reference to teleology, what we are left with are the fragments of the theological and teleological schemes, but these lack any proper context in the modern world. As we saw, people in modern liberal democracies still have moral debates about abortion or nuclear deterrence, but they lack any rational way of making sense of morality. The rival premises of moral debate derive from the fragments of the older scheme. But because of the rejection of theology and teleology, there is no overall framework for morality. For moral debate to make sense, a society must have a set of shared basic principles, but our societies lack them. The failure of the enlightenment project led to the triumph of emotivism in modern culture - and conversely, to the decline of morality.
What are we to make of all this? MacIntyre's claims are extremely radical, and they encompass hundreds of years of philosophy. Claims of this magnitude do not tend to go uncriticized in philosophy, and MacIntyre has certainly received his share of critical attention. I will not attempt any refutation or vindication here, but will merely point out where I think the weaknesses of MacIntyre's disquieting suggestion lie.
Firstly, MacIntyre's history is presented purely in terms of philosophy. The failure of modernity is essentially the failure of the philosophy that preceded it. Even if we grant MacIntyre's assertion that in the culture of the enlightenment philosophy had a much more central role than in modernity, this is an extraordinary claim to make. Surely the emotivism of modern culture (assuming it is emotivist) stems to a large part from the socioeconomic conditions of modern liberal democracies. It is curious that MacIntyre has no place whatsoever for economic or sociological analysis, given that he once used to be a Marxist. To me at least it seems implausible that the predicament of modern morality is to be primarily understood in the light of the history of philosophy.
Secondly, surely the decline of Christianity is the truly significant event, with the rejection of Aristotelianism secondary? I think Nietzsche is much closer to the mark. Surely the emotivism of modernity is a consequence of widespread scepticism in the most fundamental belief that people in the West held for centuries. Because God is dead, it seems that nothing is left of Christian morality but incoherent fragments, which we can adhere to out of personal preference. Furthermore, perhaps the decline of Christianity has led to scepticism about any moral scheme. Maybe the failure of the enlightenment project lies not in the philosophical failure of its arguments, but rather in the fact that people are too sceptical to accept its conclusions in the modern world.
Thirdly, because MacIntyre's argument is presented in terms of the history of philosophy, his interpretations of philosophers are crucially important for the validity of his conclusions. But MacIntyre makes some obvious mistakes. The clearest is the case of Kant, who is presented as a typical enlightenment thinker who rejects teleology. In fact, Kant does espouse a teleological doctrine, expressed most clearly in his writings on universal history. Furthermore, Kant has a conception of the telos for an individual. If MacIntyre's characterization of such a central figure as Kant is faulty, what hope of plausibility does his overall argument have?
I personally do not find MacIntyre convincing. I intend to do further writeups on some of the other central themes of After Virtue, in which I will offer more criticism. But I would certainly recommend After Virtue to anyone interested in moral philosophy, or the state of modern society. Even if one is not convinced by the arguments, it is worth engaging with a text that is radically different from the approach taken by mainstream liberal theorists.
MacIntyre, A. (1985) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
Horton, J. and Mendus, S. (1994) After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre
(Cambridge, Polity Press).
Matravers, M. (2006) Seminars on After Virtue (York, University of York).
Mendus, S. (2006) Lectures on After Virtue (York, University of York).