MacIntyre on moral debate in the post-virtue world

Photograph: Sean O’Connor (licensing details).

Alasdair MacIntyre has long been one of those people I’ve heard of but never read anything by or about. However, it’s become apparent recently (particularly after reading this summary of his political philosophy) that I’m going to have to rectify this.

MacIntyre’s best-known work is his 1981 book After Virtue, to which MacIntyre himself helpfully provides a summary in his short essay The Claims of After Virtue (PDF). The whole essay is well worth reading, but I wanted to pick out some points MacIntyre makes that seem particularly relevant to the current state of moral and political debate.

The first claim which MacIntyre identifies from After Virtue is this:

It is a distinctive feature of the social and cultural order that we inhabit that disagreements over central moral issues are peculiarly unsettlable.

Debates over issues such as “abortion and euthanasia”, “distributive justice and property rights”, “war and peace” (and today we could no doubt add same-sex marriage) “degenerate into confrontations of assertion and counter-assertion”, because those on each side of the debate “invoke incommensurable forms of moral assertion against each other”:

So, for example, in debates over abortion conceptions of individual property rights which were originally at home in the social philosophies of Adam Smith and Locke are used to defend a pregnant woman’s rights to do what she will with her own body, conceptions of what justice requires in the treatment of innocent life whose original context was the medieval understanding of what biblical divine law prescribes are advanced to forbid the doing of harm to a human foetus and utilitarian views are deployed against both.

As a result, debates on abortion and other moral issues “generally become no more than expressions of attitude and feeling”, a condition to which MacIntyre applies the label “emotivism”.

In addition, many of the moral concepts we employ today have the appearance of a “rational determinateness” which “they do not in fact possess”. MacIntyre identifies the concepts of “human rights” and “utility” or “welfare” as examples: I suspect we could also include “equality” in that list. Appeal to them “appears to make an objectively reason-supported claim”, but this is not in fact the case, and such concepts “can be put to the service of a variety of rival and antagonistic purposes”.

Half an hour spent on Twitter or “below the line” on a newspaper comments thread will confirm what MacIntyre is saying here. So what has led us into this mess? Ultimately, MacIntyre blames the abandonment of Aristotelian ethics, in particular its understanding of the virtues. The virtues are those qualities which enable the individual human life to have an ultimate purpose (or telos), and which are “required to sustain ongoing social traditions in good order”. MacIntyre argues that:

although the rejection of Aristotelian ethics and politics … in and after the later middle ages is intelligible, it has never yet been shown to be warranted. … I therefore conclude that Aristotle is vindicated against Nietzsche and moreover that only a history of ethical theory and practice written from an Aristotelian rather than a Nietzschean standpoint enables us to comprehend the nature of the moral condition of modernity.

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