After Virtue & Relativism

macintyre


A brief review of MacIntyre’s seminal work on Virtue Ethics, After Virtue. This is part one of a two part analysis of MacIntyre’s overall theory of ethics.


There is no question that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a significant work in moral philosophy, if not the most significant moral work of the 20th century. While it certainly figures as a major contributor to the modern revival of aretaic ethics, its true value can only be assessed within the larger context of MacIntyre’s follow-up works, particularly Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. On its own, After Virtue presents an incomplete rendering of the virtues that not only falls short of the Aristotelian variety that MacIntyre professes to be offering,[1] but that additionally runs the risk of contributing to the very moral quagmire from which MacIntyre is attempting to deliver his readers.  Despite these concerns, After Virtue offers the aspiring Christian moral theorist an attractive alternative to the deontological approaches that have dominated Christian ethics for much of the church’s history.

There are two heroes in this book. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom MacIntyre views as a hero of sorts; not because he is right, but because he takes the moral discussion in the modern period to its logical end. Nietzsche properly discerned that the rise of emotivism had effectively undermined the Enlightenment project’s attempt to craft an objective science of ethics. If all assertions of morality are nothing more than mere expressions of will, then better for us simply to abandon all pretense of objectivity and embrace our autonomy. MacIntyre understands Nietzsche as saying,

. . . my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’[2]

Nietzsche1882

Nietzsche

In other words, there is no transcendent moral truths to which we can turn for guidance. What is good, is what the individual wills it to be. While Nietzsche is not responsible for morality devolving into utter subjectivity (MacIntyre places that responsibility on those who came before), he is responsible for justifying its acceptance. The result is the moral theorist’s complete inability to arbitrate between rival expressions of morality; moral discussion and debate is effectively halted.

Those thinking that Aristotle is the other hero in this book, better think again. That honor falls squarely upon MacIntyre himself. If Nietzsche is the King Kamehameha II of the European tradition because he awakened the world to the fiction of what morality had become,[3] then what are we to make of MacIntyre? In like fashion, MacIntyre stands as a Nietzschean type hero, conducting his own genealogy of moral theory and awakening the world to the moral morass of modernity.

What then the conjunction of philosophical and historical argument reveals is that either one must follow through the aspirations and the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis and the Nietzschean problematic or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have been commenced in the first place.[4]

We can either follow Nietzsche or follow MacIntyre as he takes us back to a theory of morality rooted in Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre plays the role of Nietzschean prophet, delineating the problems of modernity, and claiming to offer a solution far better than Nietzsche himself ever offered. What MacIntyre has done, as Richard Bernstein so ably points out, is to present us with a choice between morality and no morality.[5] The question is whether he has sufficiently convinced his readers why they should choose the former and not simply embrace the liberation that the latter promises. Even if MacIntyre is successful in exposing modernity as devoid of morality, and even if countless moralists are awakened to realize their present condition for what it is, what’s to stop them from simply declaring, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is no doubt that MacIntyre has laid out a substantial vision for moral theory, but why is it better than Nietzsche’s opposing vision? Why should we choose MacIntyre over Nietzsche?

The answer to this question hinges on one task. If MacIntyre is successful in presenting his readers with a teleology common to all of humanity, a shared telos such that it necessitates everyone embracing an objective catalog of core virtues, then I think they have no choice but to choose MacIntyre. To do otherwise would be to go contrary to nature and undermine the very idea of what it means to live in community. However, this is a big if. As it turns out, the most significant criticism of MacIntyre is that he has failed to do just that, instead leaving many to wonder if his account is more relativistic than objective. This charge of relativism is not entirely unjustified, and MacIntyre seems to have anticipated it. After reviewing various historical traditions related to the virtues, he finds incompatible lists and differences in rank order, acknowledging that it would be all too easy to draw the conclusion that no “single core conception” of the virtues can be found.[6]

Martha-Nussbaum-0308_033_bw-1200x800

Martha Nussbaum

MacIntyre attempts to avoid this conclusion by providing a three-tiered account of the virtues, placing them within the context of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives. But it is precisely here, with MacIntyre’s emphasis on goods and standards internal to practices, that the charge of relativism is introduced. Martha Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre’s approach as a clear turn toward relativism, in which “the only appropriate criteria of ethical goodness are local ones internal to the traditions and practices of each local society or group that has questions about the good.”[7] Part of this criticism is grounded in the fact that MacIntyre’s vision does not seem to rule out practices that adopt vices rather than virtues. Building upon MacIntyre’s own speculation about the possibility of evil practices, Bernstein raises the prospect of a practice aimed at international espionage which requires excelling at dishonesty in appropriate situations. He, too, claims that MacIntyre’s position is in danger of being relativistic “because there is no reason to believe that the ‘acquired human qualities’ required to excel in one practice are the same as, or even similar to, those required for other, incompatible practices.”[8] He rightly concludes that what seems to be missing is a clear objective standard to arbitrate between rival traditions and practices, the very task MacIntyre’s whole work hinges upon. To summarize this criticism in MacIntyre’s own words:

I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.[9]

aristotleThe fundamental problem with MacIntyre’s approach is his insistence on rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the human telos. If MacIntyre were truly harkening the reader back to a thoroughgoing Aristotelian approach to the virtues, then he would need to embrace an essentialist view of human beings that includes what it means to properly function and flourish as a person. Defending the notion of an objective teleology without grounding it firmly in human nature denies MacIntyre of the one feature that could tie all local traditions and practices together and provide them with an external referent by which to judge the value of conflicting virtues. This is a problem that MacIntyre seems to recognize and acknowledge in his prologue to the third addition of After Virtue.

. . . my attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms, in terms of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives, was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.[10]

It is only in MacIntyre’s later works that this deficiency is definitively addressed. In this sense, After Virtue is an incomplete work.

No one should interpret this to mean that After Virtue is an inconsequential contribution to moral discussion. While MacIntyre might have downplayed the need to provide a metaphysical and biological grounding of the good, he was correct in emphasizing its inherent social context. Our conception of the good cannot be articulated apart from what it means to live the good in community. This is a contribution that Christian moralists cannot afford to overlook. Virtue theory, properly grounded in an objective understanding of the human good, provides a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. Remaining fixed in a mindset that absolutizes all the individual commands and truths of scripture will take us down the path of developing curious theological schemes for arbitrating the conflicts that necessarily result.[11] In this sense, MacIntyre’s approach retains a degree of relativism, but it is a relativism we Christians should not be afraid to embrace. Applying moral values differently to different contexts does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. Even one of MacIntyre’s harshest critics acknowledges this. Nussbaum concludes, “The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context . . . It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context.”[12] Of course, the fundamental problem with extending relativism to all moral truth is that it prevents us from judging which application is appropriate, and which misses the mark. In the larger context of his writings on the virtues, no one should be charging MacIntyre with making this error.[13]


[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118. I am thinking here of MacIntyre’s own claim to be presenting something like that of Aristotle’s approach, as well as his rejection of Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the virtues which will be addressed more fully later in this review.

[2]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., 118.

[5]Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.

[6]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.

[7]Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.

[8]Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.

[9]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.

[10]Ibid., xi.

[11]I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.

[12]Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.

[13]J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455. In my opinion, the criticisms leveled by Craig and Moreland are a bit too harsh. They read MacIntyre as presenting the virtues as “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” On a simple reading of After Virtue, that seems a fair criticism. However, they most certainly have failed to take MacIntyre’s later works into consideration in making this assessment.

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  1. Pingback: Three Rival Versions & the Thomistic Solution | Wrestling with Truth

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