Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.1

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)


….(T)he problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net. (p. 98)

Alasdair MacIntyre begins his signature work with a rather audacious proposition: that all of today’s culture has forgotten what morality is, and what moral language really means, and therefore no moral philosophy and no moral agreement is really possible. Once moral philosophy sought to describe the “good life” and those “virtues” (character traits) that are part of the good life. Over time, particularly since the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and culture as essential elements of human life, we have lost the shared sense of what a “good life” would be or how to obtain it. However, we have kept the moral language of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and justice and so on. We all use the same words, but rarely do we speak the same language. Much as an English speaker, seeing “sin” in a Latin sentence might think the Latin refers to wrongdoing (when in fact it is a conjunction meaning “if however”), two postmodern English speakers can use words like “good” or “rights” without realizing that they have different definitions for those terms. By the Twentieth Century, this sorry state of moral language had led to the rise of emotivism: the philosophical claim that all moral language is nothing more than an emotional declaration by the speaker, roughly translatable as “Hurrah for (x)!” or “I approve of (x), you should too!”


It is possible to argue with MacIntyre’s historical argument as applied to Western philosophy as a whole. However, it makes even more sense when applied to the United States of America, and the moral culture that arose here. This land was first settled by humans thousands of years ago, and many varied cultures arose. Most of these were destroyed with the arrival of Europeans, through a combination of disease and deliberate cultural genocide. Settlement of North America was not done in a cultural vacuum, but most of the new immigrants from England and elsewhere did not pay much attention to the spiritual or philosophical values of those they displaced. England itself, however, was not culturally homogenous. During the early settlement of the “New World,” England underwent a series of religious upheavals, and the American colonies were settled by disparate and at times hostile groups of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others. In addition, the New York area was originally settled by the Dutch, with their own values and moral traditions. During the various conflicts between English, French, Spanish and original nations, people from many different cultures came to be “Americans.” Thousands of Germans too came to be in the Thirteen Colonies, first as settlers and then as mercenaries fighting for the British Crown who simply never returned to their native lands. By the time the Constitution of the United States of America was written and ratified, there were many conflicting philosophies and theologies in the various states, as well as regional differences between the states. European nations generally had organic origins. They grew out of prehistoric tribes over thousands of years. The United States had a definite beginning and a definite social contract, in writing. It is, to put it simplistically, an artificial nation. We didn’t wake up one day and discover we had become one culture. We resolved to be a free people and to create a new culture together. As our original national motto put it, we are one made from many: E pluribus unum. And because of this, our Constitution is written largely as a way for those conflicting groups and conflicting values to compete peacefully and politically, rather than on the battlefield. Democracy is basically a way to have conflict while avoiding civil war.

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of trying to find a universal basis for morality apart from either Aristotelian notions of telos or religious notions of divine covenant and command led more or less inexorably to the rise of emotivism in the 20th Century. We still have the words for ethical thinking, but we have no settled definitions for those words. It is therefore impossible to really seek for “the good” even when we say we are doing so, and even when we think we are doing so. Instead, those words function merely as expressions of approval and as tools to manipulate others into approving of our values. Moral discussions don’t involve rational debate over how to achieve the best human life, but only a contest of wills as the contestants strive to maneuver one another to accepting his or her own preferences. It is for this reason, MacIntyre claims, that public discourse has become “shrill” and “interminable.” It is literally interminable, he says, because it is rationally impossible that any of our crucial debates should find a terminus. There is no agreed-upon standard of what an “end” should be. MacIntyre does not discuss the supposed decision-maker in our Lockean social contract: the will of the people. However, anyone can see that even “majority rule” settles nothing. Sometimes the majority is simply morally wrong, as it was when the majority of the nation approved of slavery. Sometimes the majority is right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. At times contending sides can agree on a framework and engage in something resembling rational debate. More often, however, this does not happen and is not even attempted. For every reasoned debate between two contestants of good will seeking to find a truth both could recognize, we have a dozen televised “panel discussions” of “pundits” and “spokespersons” trying to shout over each other, twisting one another’s words, claiming “facts” that seem to have no root in empirical reality while simultaneously ignoring “facts” that seem to contradict their settled views.

It is the interminability of public disagreement that leads to its shrillness. We know those “others” will never listen to “our” reasons and arguments, so we don’t even try. And often, on some level we know ourselves that our preferred values have no basis beyond our own chosen moral framework. How can I rationally argue that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, if I know that my only reasons are my emotional revulsion and my religion, neither of which you share? And if I cannot even appeal to the will of the majority, how can I continue to argue? Only by sheer volume, or rhetoric, or by political maneuvering.[1] While a rational argument is ostensibly an appeal to or search for truth, what we have instead is manipulation of others and a contest of wills.


To be continued…

[1] See “Kentucky Students Get Hard Lesson in Politics from Lawmakers,” ABC News, accessed March 19, 2015

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