After Virtue is a work of moral philosophy written some 30 years ago. However it is much more than a conventional discussion of moral philosophy – it is also a critique of the culture of capitalist modernity. This was widely recognised when the book first appeared for it was read as much by scholars in literature, history and the social sciences as by philosophers. But it was also read outside the university. MacIntyre himself has described getting letters and phone calls from members of communities that felt excluded from elite cultural discussion and felt this book spoke to them and for them.
What, then, does After Virtue attempt to achieve? MacIntyre originally wanted to write two books: one on the state of moral philosophy in the contemporary world and the other on the philosophy of social science. He discovered that each book needed the support of the other to make sense. The reasons are clear when we identify the three main aims of the book.
The first is an attempt to understand why it is so difficult to settle moral arguments in liberal modernity – that is, the experience of cultural relativism. Second, the book contains a critique of the whole edifice of managerialism and its social scientific claims to authority in our lives. And third, MacIntyre attempts to reinstate a practice-based Aristotelian virtue ethics as an alternative to the prescriptive rule-based morality of modernity.
After Virtue begins with a ‘disquieting suggestion’ that in modern liberal society, the basis for moral agreement has fragmented. It is not that we are confused over particular moral questions but rather we have lost the basis for understanding what a coherent moral argument is. How this has happened is complex but can be broadly understood as due to the cultural and institutional transformation of European society during the long transition from feudalism to capitalism that underpins the rise of modernity.
The key point is that our moral vocabulary was ripped from its social context and we are left only with the fragments of an originally meaningful moral scheme. We use the fragments in everyday life and act as if there still exists an overarching moral framework. In practice we have a marked tendency to appeal to different bits of the fragments depending on what we want; hence our difficulty.
The cultural and intellectual response to this situation is the emergence of so-called ‘emotivist ethics’, in which arguments about values are considered just statements of individual preference, so argument tends to become rhetoric. MacIntyre suggests that emotivism is not only a philosophical position but a widespread perspective within liberal culture.
It follows that moral judgments are now generally contrasted with factual judgments. About the latter we have independent criteria for reaching agreement but about moral judgments, if agreement is secured at all, it is by producing non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those we disagree with. In other words this is a culture of manipulation in which facts and values are supposed to be kept separate and that fits perfectly a society in which individual consumer preferences are taken to be sovereign.
It is in this context, MacIntyre suggests, that managerialism appears. Values or ‘preferences’ are put beyond argument and the focus is on finding the most ‘effective’ or ‘efficient’ means to an end. This is why MacIntyre’s criticism of the social sciences is important for he suggests positivist social science promised the manager the tools for accurate predictions that would ground his or her decision-making ability. However, the claims of the social sciences to accurately predict human behavior and hence control the social order have proved hollow. Instead what we have are dramatic or ritualised claims by managers to possess such powers, along with equally ritualised claims to the possession of predictive knowledge by their social scientific accomplices, notably certain kinds of economist.
The alternative to this liberal individualist order is to revive and extend the Aristotelian tradition of social thought. Here there is a strong emphasis on the practice‑based pursuit of the good of a particular activity, which in turn is to be set in the context of a wider set of goods we pursue throughout our lives. Central to this claim is not that everyone should go and read Aristotle but rather that when any of us are engaged in some practice, as varied as learning a musical instrument or organising a trade union, we are pursuing the good of that activity.
In so doing we are learning anew the virtues that we need to possess to pursue the good and it is these virtues that the Aristotelian tradition, right up to the present day, reflects and elaborates upon. If and when we become conscious of the wider significance of these activities, what helps and what hinders the pursuit of the good, we may be led to what is, in effect, a ‘revolutionary Aristotelianism’. That is to say a conscious rejection of the dominant institutions and culture of capitalist modernity and a vision of what a way of life might be that had gone beyond the market and the state. n
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally