Letter from the Editor Late Summer 2021: After Virtue

After Virtue

In 1981, a book was published by a well-regarded, but-until-then-not-terribly-famous philosopher. The book was called After Virtue; the author was Alasdair MacIntyre. The book sent shock waves throughout the academic community—shock waves that resonate even today. Some consider it the most influential book of philosophy published in the last fifty years.

In the succeeding years MacIntyre became the closest thing in the field of philosophy to a rock star—although admittedly the money was probably not nearly as good.

Why this book? What did MacIntyre say that was so revolutionary?

In fact, what MacIntyre said was not revolutionary at all, but quite conservative. What he did was articulate an older view of morality that had been buried under layer upon layer of modern ethical thinking.

What would it be like, he asked, if some worldwide catastrophe occurred—an environmental disaster or, let’s say, a virus—that resulted in a rebellion against science and in its ensuing destruction? Imagine all we had left was a portion of the periodic table, a few pieces of laboratory equipment, and a few random scientific terms, none of which we knew the use or the meaning because the system of scientific thought that gave them meaning had disappeared.

According to MacIntyre, this is precisely the state in which we find the language of morality today.

Having lost any central system of ethical thought that could arbitrate our disagreements about morality, the only standard by which we judge what is right is by what is right in our own eyes.

MacIntyre points out that around the seventeenth century, the beginning of what we now call the Enlightenment, Western thinkers largely abandoned traditional views of morality. They ended up in three identifiable camps: Philosophers such as the French thinker Diderot and the English philosopher David Hume tried to base their view of morality on sentiment; the philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to base moral thought on reason itself; and the Christian thinker Soren Kierkegaard tried to base it on the will.

Sentiment, reason, and free will. They all sound good. But none of these theories has succeeded in making sense of what it is to be good, and how to ensure our actions are right.

MacIntyre pointed out that the traditional system of ethics that had been abandoned during the Enlightenment as intellectually unfashionable is still there, and it still makes sense. He describes it in one of the most influential statements ever made by a modern philosopher, simple in its formulation, and sensible in its meaning:

Consider first the general form of the moral scheme …, which in a variety of diverse forms and with numerous rivals came for long periods to dominate the European Middle Ages from the twelfth century onwards, a scheme which included both classical and theistic elements. Its basic structure is that which Aristotle analysed in the Nicomachean Ethics. Within that teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter. [Emphasis added]

As Christians we know that this “essential nature” is the image of God in us. A right action is one through which, by means of God’s grace, we bring our souls back into compliance with the true image of God in us. And the chief means by which this is done, said MacIntyre, is by the telling of stories that extol virtuous behavior—heroic stories of Fortitude, Justice, and Love—stories which can only make sense in the context of a civilized community.

The Christian implications of what MacIntyre argues should be apparent and make sense of why, just several years after writing After Virtue, he became a Christian.

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