After Virtue:: a critique of modernity from the inside

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Alasdair MacIntyre provides an exquisite account of the moral failings of modernity in After Virtue. His account is both exquisite and itself thoroughly modern. For what we find in After Virtue, is the brilliant commentary of one thinker standing back from the culture and providing an account of the whole. MacIntyre’s account of modernity’s moral self-destruction is thoroughly modern on account of the stance that he takes; for he stands at an uncommitted distance and offers the most objective account of our moral condition possible.

As valuable as MacIntyre’s account is, in the end it is hollow. This is not necessarily a bad thing. After Virtue is not an account of virtue itself, but an account of what is necessary for virtue to flourish. If an astute but morally perplexed individual came to After Virtue hoping to find moral guidance she would finally close MacIntyre’s book with a vastly clarified sense of the moral landscape around her, but she would also face a great choice. For MacIntyre’s book delivers its reader to the point at which she must identify with a particular tradition—chosen from the array of traditions (and pseudo-traditions) available. MacIntyre leaves readers at the front door of the moral supermarket, convinced that while a tradition is precisely what is needed, a tradition is precisely what MacIntyre’s account lacks. Apart from arguing for the unique coherence of a broadly Aristotelian understanding of ethics (and how many Aristotelians have you met lately?), MacIntyre’s account delimits the shape of tradition in general without ever mentioning tradition in particular.

To call the account hollow is not to argue that After Virtue is not worth reading. I mean to be descriptive, not dismissive. I would recommend MacIntyre’s lucid argument to any number of friends with the requisite basic grasp of philosophy. Rather it is only to say that MacIntyre’s account is not really complete until its reader identifies himself (and begins to work within) a tradition of the sort that MacIntyre describes broadly, but refrains from advocating specifically.

This sort of noncommittal pose is politically astute—it is precisely what catches modern ears and leaves them tingling. MacIntyre offers a stance from which to explain every other stance (and make sense of the incommensurable disagreements between them). The position at which MacIntyre leaves us is one that is tempting to occupy longer than would be healthy. Like Christ on the mountain, MacIntyre has shown us all the kingdoms of the earth—the temptation would be to rule them all from an uncommitted distance. Like the character of the “manager” he describes at length (74-78), MacIntyre really understands how ethics “works.” Unlike that manager, his understanding does not enable him to really “work” ethics until he joins himself to a community of like-minded folk inhabiting a living tradition—that is until he comes down off the mountain and takes up residency within one of the kingdoms below.

The “hollow”-ness of the account also explains the enthusiasm with which his account has been received by theologians, who already stand within a semblance of the tradition described. MacIntyre’s work can be read as a sort of ethical pre-apologetic, dropping people off on the sidewalk outside the church’s front door, where they can be invited inside. To read it as such is not at all to misuse the book. After Virtue can also be read as a framework within which to understand the ethics of a community whose lives are bound within the narrative tradition of the gospel, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, has put MacIntyre’s thought to service in precisely this way. Here, the book is the impetus for a restoration of the church’s virtues and a fuller account of Christian life as a whole. Reading After Virtue, Hauerwas’ work came to mind with regularity; it is not too difficult to hear his voice echoing MacIntyre’s.

In the next week or so, I hope (no promises) to offer a few comments on MacIntyre’s account of action and its relationship to a few other philosophers…

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Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

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