Review: After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Is Western civilization losing its morality?
Our philosophers appear incapable of achieving anything resembling a consensus on morals, and public debates on the issue are characterized more by righteous indignation than rational discourse. MacIntyre explains why this has happened, and he offers his ideas on what the future might hold in regard to Western morality.
THE OLD MORAL ORDER
Prior to the Enlightenment, the moral theorizing of Western civilization took place within a commonly understood framework erected on two foundations: Judeo-Christian theism and Aristotelian teleology. This first foundation prescribed a transcendent moral order that existed independent of whatever man may have thought about it; morality was a divine creation, not a human one. The second foundation (an idea of Aristotle which Thomas Aquinas imported to Western Christendom) dictated that all things had a definite end, goal, or purpose they are meant to fulfill. For example, the purpose of a watch is to tell time and the purpose of a knife is to cut. Man’s ultimate end was the fulfillment of the transcendent moral order through the use of his divinely endowed reason. Just as we might define a “good watch” by how well it keeps time, so a “good man” was defined by how well he morally reasoned and developed his virtues. This common framework of teleology and theism didn’t eliminate moral debate nor create total moral consensus, but it did provide a shared set of boundaries and standards for the disputations of moral philosophy (just as the U.S. Constitution ultimately does for legal affairs).
THE NEW MORAL ORDER
With the advent of the Enlightenment, Western man created all things anew, and he slowly abandoned these two historical groundings for morality. Natural science was unlocking incredible mysteries every day, and with each new discovery came an increasing suspicion of old ways and old thoughts. As scientists elucidated the hitherto unknown laws of nature, philosophers expounded and experimented with new “laws” of morality, ethics, and all other manner of social behavior. Teleology and theism were viewed as unnecessary constraints on the moral self, superfluous to its realization and fulfillment. If these two concepts weren’t the foundations of morality though, what was? It was to this question that Enlightenment philosophers turned, and the results were varied and conflicting.
Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism recast morality as minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure. David Hume proclaimed morality to be a derivative of passion. Immanuel Kant countered that it could only be found through proper reasoning and rule following, while Soren Kierkegaard saw the moral life as a “fundamental choice” that resided beyond both reason and emotion. More recently, Marxism has attempted to restore communitarian moral values, analytic philosophy has tried to distill morality into a calculable science, and the concept of natural rights has become the unquestioned underpinning for the morality of liberal individualism. Each of these schools (and many more) has been battling for moral supremacy for a century or longer.
Are these conflicts really any different from what our Medieval predecessors squabbled over? According to MacIntyre: yes.
The removal of the common framework of teleology and theism has made our current moral debates formally unresolvable.
With no common starting or endpoint concerning man’s nature and destiny, competing schools of moral philosophy are condemned to forever talk around and past one another. Since each school bases its reasoning on different foundations and first premises, they are necessarily incommensurable. No amount of discourse or logical deduction will produce agreement, regardless of the effort or open-mindedness of rival groups. This is simply an unavoidable fact of our post-Enlightenment situation that most moral and political philosophers refuse to recognize. For example, the word justice could mean numerous things: equality of outcome or equality of opportunity; non-interference in personal affairs or active manipulation of social issues; ignoring race and gender or weighing race and gender. The idea you think best describes justice depends on your more fundamental conceptions of what man is and how he should live.
THE FUTURE MORAL ORDER
MacIntyre sees two alternatives to our current plight of discord and what he views as the Enlightenment’s failed morality project. The first alternative is that we return to some variation of the Aristotelian conception of morality, and MacIntyre provides a vision for what such a return might look like. He argues that if the Enlightenment thinkers never had a sound reason for abandoning the teleological component of morality, then we shouldn’t be afraid to reinstitute it in some fashion (interestingly, his proposal is silent on the theistic component of pre-Enlightenment moral philosophy that he discusses earlier in the book).
The second alternative is that we succumb to the unsettling philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who, like MacIntyre, viewed the Enlightenment morality project as a failure – though for very different reasons. Despite their endless constructions and explications of new moral systems, Nietzsche recognized that his predecessors all failed to answer the real question underlying morality: what kind of a person am I to become? At least the Medieval scholastics, with their Christian philosophy (which Nietzsche despised), had an answer to this question. The Enlightenment thinkers were instead asking: how should I behave? For Nietzsche, this approach was superficial.
More importantly, Nietzsche saw that without a common framework to arbitrate between competing moral viewpoints, each school of morality devolved into a mask for the preferences of its advocates. Any claims to pure rationality or objectivity were fictitious since these concepts required shared standards that no longer existed.
Morality then was actually a matter of subjective will, and it would become the province and purview of those exceptional individuals bold enough to dictate it to the world.
Nietzsche represents the abandonment of the quest for a rational, secular morality. Instead, he opens the door to our “postmodern” culture in which right and wrong are simply a matter of preference and perspective.(1) While MacIntyre decries this approach, he also views it as the inevitable outcome of moral theorizing when we unbind it from teleology or some other organizing principle.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
1. MacIntyre’s analysis of the advent and consequences of the Enlightenment is excellent. However, his approach to our potential moral futures suffers from a critical flaw, as he insists on keeping that portion of the discussion entirely secular – a move which betrays his fundamental misreading of both Nietzsche and the direction of Western morality. Nietzsche’s true insight was that morality is necessarily a derivative of metaphysics. His real accusation against his philosophic predecessors was that they were trying to be Christian without Christianity. For example, Christian metaphysics says that all men are inherently valuable because they are created in the divine image. They are also beholden by divine law to certain conduct toward one another. Under such a paradigm, concepts like group altruism (Marxism), the greatest good for the greatest number (Utilitarianism), the reformulation of the Golden Rule into the Categorical Imperative (Kant), and the idea of natural rights (Locke) can all be justified in various ways. However, if you shift to some version of secular metaphysics, not only do these concepts downgrade to the assertions of mere mortals, they potentially become antithetical to the entire secular order.
Writing in the shadow of Darwin, Nietzsche recognized that, for secular metaphysics, the brute fact of reality was “survival of the fittest” in a godless world. If so, then all human lives were neither inherently valuable nor equal. Instead of caring for the sick and the weak, humankind should be focused on the growth and evolution of the healthy and the strong. Caring for the sick and the weak might actually be immoral since it would help propagate the lower portion of the species. Nietzsche believed his predecessors lacked the nerve to admit and follow through on this logic. Instead, the Enlightenment put Western civilization into an intellectual halfway house by banishing Christian metaphysics while simultaneously retaining forms of Christian morality. According to Nietzsche, if his philosophy’s harshness offends a secular mind, it’s because that mind has yet to escape from the Enlightenment’s bankrupt moral logic: it is still defining “good” according to supposedly anachronistic Christian standards it thinks it has outgrown. Present-day secularists may write about how to “be good without God,” but at the heart of their thinking, you will always find the presupposition that all human life is inherently valuable and worth protecting. In Western culture, these concepts are of distinctly Christian origin, regardless of how poorly some ostensible Christians may have enacted them throughout history.
2. While MacIntyre shows how chaotic and interminable academic debates in moral philosophy may be, the operative moral code in popular Western culture has become clear: do what you want so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. The first part of this formula (do what you want) is derived from Nietzsche: morality is the creation of the subjective will. However, the second part (don’t hurt anyone) finds its earliest Enlightenment roots in Jonathan Locke: every person has natural, inalienable rights. Now, Nietzsche and Locke were about as far apart from each other on the philosophy scale as you can get – the former was a 19th-century German existentialist and atheist; the latter a 17th-century British empiricist and Christian. The fact that our popular moral code is an amalgamation of these two men’s thoughts should cause us some concern over its coherence and durability.
If we accept Nietzsche’s premise that morality is derived from metaphysics, then we readily see that our current moral code relies upon two opposed metaphysical visions of reality. Nietzsche’s “do what you want” comes from his secular metaphysics in which humankind is just one more accidental creation in a mechanistic universe; there is no God, so man must take his place. Similarly, Locke’s “don’t hurt anyone” ultimately comes from his Judeo-Christian metaphysics in which men are divinely created and under divine obligation to one another. This two-part formulation is exactly the kind of hybrid morality Nietzsche thought untenable. Plenty of secular regimes in the 20th century had no qualms with sacrificing the don’t hurt anyone part of this code when it interfered with the do what you want part.(2) To suggest that secularism might undermine natural rights may sound reactionary, but it may also be true.(3)
If we want to know where Western morality is heading, we need to follow the battle between secular and religious metaphysics. At first glance, secularism certainly seems to be winning the day, as it has increasingly dominated Western academics since the 17th century and popular Western culture since the 20th. Is it intractable, though? Secularism can mean the removal of religiosity from the public sphere, or it can mean the diminution of religious belief in people’s personal lives. The former is fairly easy to measure; the latter is not. Indeed, this second form of secularism has mostly been observed in the socioeconomic elite of technologically advanced Western societies – hardly a statistically significant portion of humankind. Moreover, there is nothing about either form of secularism that makes them intractable. After exploring the morality of Nietzsche and the rationalists that Nietzsche decries (such as Bentham and Kant), a man might find all these moralities just one more form of shifting sand and return to the Catholicism of his youth. All of this is to simply say that Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead” is not immune to the Christian proclamation that “He is risen.”
(1) The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once observed that the problem with men wasn’t that they needed something to worship; it was that they needed something to worship together. Deep down, we all desire a certain level of moral consensus with the people around us, yet the moral fragmentation and subjectivity of postmodernism has made this increasingly difficult. You and your neighbor may live on the same street, but, morally and metaphysically speaking, you may each live in a different universe.
(2) The typical counter argument here is that plenty of religious (Christian) regimes in Western civilization have been guilty of similar abuses. This may be accurate, but it also misses the point. The issue we are concerned with is the relationship of morals to metaphysics. The violation of natural rights is clearly condemnable within the Christian paradigm, whereas its condemnation within a secular paradigm is strictly preferential.
(3) It is interesting that, when penning the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (a deist at best) explicitly stated that men’s inalienable rights were “endowed by their Creator.” A little over a decade later, the French authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man would make no such reference to the origin of men’s rights. Within five years of the document’s adoption, the French revolutionary government would execute tens of thousands of its citizens.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.