The pursuit of the good

Peter McMylor considers Alasdair MacIntyre's classic After Virtue: a study in moral theory, first published in 1981

September 13, 2011
5 min read

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

Peter McMylor


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