This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Click here to view part one.
We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.
Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.
How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.
If After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.
So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality. The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged. So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.
It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response. This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.
At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.” But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.
The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.
Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,
The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.
Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos. De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.
But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity. But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.
I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.
Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.
Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.
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, 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.’
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, 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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.” 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.
The 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.
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. 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.” 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.
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.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.
Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.
Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.
Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.
I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.
Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.
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.