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Philosophical Review

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre


Review by: Samuel Scheffler
The Philosophical Review, Vol. 92, No. 3 (Jul., 1983), pp. 443-447
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review
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BOOK REVIEWS
The Philosophical
Review,XCII, No. 3 (July 1983)
AFTER VIRTUE: A STUDY IN MORAL THEORY. By ALASDAIR MACINlYRE. Notre Dame, Indiana, Universityof Notre Dame Press, 1981. Pp.
ix, 252.
Contemporarymoral thought,according to Alasdair MacIntyre,is in
are thecharacdisarray.Debates and disagreements,he saysin AfterVirtue,
teristicmodes of'contemporarymoral discourse,and since the participants
in contemporarymoral debates typicallyput forthargumentswhich proceed fromrivaland incommensurablepremises,thesedebates go on interminablyand are in principleirresolvable.Moreover, the varietyand heterogeneityof the concepts employed in such debates, which some might
like to interpretas signs of'a healthypluralism,are signs instead thatour
moral categories amount to "an unharmonious melange of' ill-assorted
fragments"(p. 10). What we possess, MacIntyrebelieves, are simplybits
and pieces of a number of' quite disparate moral conceptions,each of'
whichonce flourishedin some set of'culturaland historicalcircumstances
more or less remote from our own, and none of which is generallyaccepted or even generallyremembered in its entiretytoday. Thus, according to MacIntyre,contemporarymoral thought is simply not coherent.
And farfromaddressing themselvesto thissituation,mostphilosophersin particularmostanalyticmoral philosophers-have failedeven to recognize it fully.Indeed, he suggests,most analyticmoral philosopherscould
not possiblyhave succeeded in fullyrecognizingit, since the situationin
question is the resultof a complex series of historicaldevelopments,and
since most such philosophers persist in thinkingthat the problems of
moral philosophycan be treatedahistorically,withthe language and concepts of contemporarymoralitytaken simplyas given.
In AfterVirtue,MacIntyreattemptsto accomplishthreemajor goals. The
firstis to provide a historicalaccount of those social and intellectualdevelopmentswhichhe takes to explain the supposed disorderof modern moral thought.The second is to presenta philosophicaldefense of'a broadly
Aristotelianconception of morality.And the thirdis to presentus withan
example of the kind of historicallyand sociologicallyinformedphilosophizing about moralitywhich MacIntyre regards as preferableto typical
analytictreatments.
The heart of'MacIntyre'sargumentis as follows.During the European
Middle Ages, the dominant moral conceptions were Aristotelian.Within
the Aristoteliantradition,a moral scheme has three main elements: a
conceptionof man as he happens to be, a conceptionof man as he could be
if'he realized his telos,and a set of ethical precepts which instructman
443

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about the virtueshe must cultivateand the vices he must shun if'he is to
move fromthe firststateto the second. This traditionrecognizesno factvalue distinction,forthe rightact in a givensituationis takento be the one
thata good man would choose, a good man is taken to be one who realizes
his telos,and thejudgment thata particularman has or has not realized his
telosis regarded as purelyfactual.Thus fromthe standpointof thistradition,the notion of moral truthis unproblematic.It becomes problematic,
however,if'one rejectsa teleologicalconceptionof'human nature. Thus it
was, according to MacIntyre,that the historicalrejection of' Aristotelian
teleologygave rise to whathe calls "theEnlightenmentprojectofjustifying
morality,"a projectwhichconsistedin attemptingto identifysome rational
basis for moralityonce the rejection of'Aristotelianmetaphysicshad undermined the traditionof moral functionalism.On MacIntyre'sview,the
three major contributors to this project were Hume, Kant, and
Kierkegaard. But, he argues, none of' them was able to carry out the
project successfully.Moreover, he maintains,the projecthad to fail,given
certainassumptionsshared by all of the contributorsto it about the form
thata justificationof moralitywould have to take. They all agreed thatthe
"keypremises"of'such a justification"would characterizesome featureor
featuresof' human nature; and the rules of' moralitywould then be explained and justified as being those rules which a being possessing just
such a human nature could be expected to accept" (p. 50). But the moral
preceptstheysought tojustifyin thiswaywere quite traditional,and those
precepts had originallybeen seen as indicatinghow untutored human
nature could be transformed,altered, enabled to realize its telos.Thus it
was hardly likelythat those precepts could be shown to be ones that untutoredhuman naturebyitselfwould accept,or thattheycould be justified
by appealing to featuresof untutoredhuman nature alone.
The disorder of contemporarymoral thought,according to Maclntyre,
is the resultof the breakdownof the Enlightenmentproject.The failureof'
that project leftthe modern world witha conception of the person as an
autonomous moral agent, no longer defined in termsof his role in any
natural or social order; but it also leftthe statusof moral precepts completelyunclear. And although subsequent attemptshave been made, by
utilitariansand by contemporaryneo-Kantians for example, to provide
some rationalbasis formorality,all such attemptshave failed,accordingto
MacIntyre.And so in our culture we hear talk of rights,of utility,and of
virtue,and much of thistalk purportsto be objective;but withthe moral
concepts in use so heterogeneous, and in the absence of' any consensus
about the justificationof moral claims,such claims have come increasingly
to seem like mere assertionsof individual will,and radicallydeflationary
accounts of moralityas a whole have come to seem increasinglycompel444

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ling. Indeed, MacIntyre argues, given the failure of the Enlightenment
project,the onlyalternativeto acceptinga Nietzscheandiagnosisof moralityis to tryto show thatthe repudiationof the Aristotelianmoral tradition
was a mistakein the firstplace. In the end, of course, MacIntyrebelieves
thatthatcan be shown; he argues at some lengththatthe traditionof the
virtuesremains defensibleeven if we reject Aristotle'sown metaphysical
biology,and that it representsmankind's best hope for the future.
This summary,obviously,providesonlythe barestsketchof MacIntyre's
centralargument.In AfterVirtue,the presentationof thatargumentin all
itscomplexityand detail constitutesthe core of a livelyand learned discussion whichcuts across conventionaldisciplinaryboundaries and addresses
a wide range of topics not standardlyincluded nowadaysunder the heading of "moral philosophy." While the quality of the discussion of these
topicsseems to me uneven, and although I have serious reservationsabout
the book's centralargument,thereis no doubt in mymind thatAfterVirtue
is a significantand provocativebook which deserves to be read and contemplatedwithcare and attention.Its account of the conditionof contemporarymoral thoughtis disturbingbut hard to dismiss;its account of the
virtuesis intriguingand highlysuggestive;and the case it makes for the
relevance of historicalconsiderationsto argumentsin moral philosophy
should serve as an antidote to the methodologicalcomplacencyof some
excessivelyahistoricalanalyticphilosophers. In the space that remains,I
will indicate brieflythe major reservationsI do neverthelesshave about
MacIntyre'scentral line of discussion.
First,MacIntyre'sactual argumentsagainst the views defended by the
contributorsto "the Enlightenmentproject" and theirsuccessorstend to
be hastyand on occasion somewhathackneyed. Kant's moral philosophy,
forexample, is dismissedin a page and a third(pp. 44-45) on thebasis of a
fewstockarguments.The contemporarymoral philosophersmostindebted to Kant are all dismissed on the strengthof a criticismof one sentence
fromAlan Gewirth'sbook, Reasonand Morality.And some stillmore sweeping verdictsare delivered witheven less directbacking,as forexample in
the remarkthat "to the presentday Kierkegaard,Kant and Hume do not
lack ingenious, academic disciples in the debate between whom the continuingpower onlyof the negativeargumentsof each traditionagainstthe
otheris the mostsignificantfeature"(p. 48). I don't see thatreaders should
be any more impressedby thissortof thingthan MacIntyrehimselfwould
be by a page and a thirdof stockcriticismsof Aristotleor a dismissalof all
contemporaryaccountsof virtues,includinghis own,whichwas based on a
criticismof one sentence fromthe writingof, say, Peter Geach.
Second, MacIntyre's account of the virtues,although very interesting
indeed, seems to me not fullysatisfactoryas it stands. That account pro445

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ceeds in stages; the virtuesare provisionallycharacterizedwithreference
to the notion of a practice,and this provisionalaccount is then modified
and supplementedat laterstages. I have reservationsabout boththe provisional and the supplemented accounts. According to the provisionalaccount,virtuesare said to be those human qualities necessaryto achieve the
goods internalto practices,where 'practice' is understood in a somewhat
special sense, and a good is internalto a given practicejust in case it is a
good thatcan only be achieved by engaging in thatpracticeor one of the
same specifickind. Although MacIntyre denies that it followsfrom this
account that great chess playerscannot be vicious, I am not entirelyconvinced thathe is entitledto deny it,and in any case he does seem happy to
say somethingthatstrikesme as hardlymore plausible,namelythata great
chess player who is vicious cannot achieve any of the internalgoods of'
chess. And when, in order to supplement this provisionalaccount of the
virtues,MacIntyre introduces his conception of' the human telos,a "telos
whichtranscendsthe limitedgoods of practicesbyconstitutingthe good of'
a whole human life"(p. 189), new difficulties
emerge. For whatMacIntyre
says is that "the good life for man is the lifespent in seeking forthe good
life for man" (p. 204), and this formulationraises more questions than it
answers.What is to count as seeking?Is thereanythingfora person who is
seekingthe good lifeto find,apart fromthe activityof seekingitself?If so,
thenwhydoesn't the good lifeconsistin attainingthatthing,ratherthan in
seekingit? If not,then whyexactlyis seekingsuch a thingso good? And so
on. I do not mean to claim thatthesequestionscannot be answered,or that
MacIntyre'saccount of the virtuescannot possiblybe on the righttrack.
What I do want to suggest,however,is thatconsiderable furtherdevelopment and clarificationwould be required at certaincrucial points before
thataccount could carryconviction.
Finally, it is an importantclaim of' MacIntyre's book that any moral
philosophy"characteristically
presupposes a sociology"(p. 22); he defends
the claim by arguing that "every moral philosophy offersexplicitlyor
implicitlyat least a partial conceptual analysis of' the relationshipof an
agent to his or her reasons, motives,intentionsand actions,and in so doing
generallypresupposes some claim thatthese concepts are embodied or at
leastcan be in the real social world" (p. 22). And he emphasizes repeatedly
thatchanges in moral thoughtgo hand in hand withchangingconceptions
of the self and changing formsof social and politicalorganization.Thus
one would expect thatMacIntyre,in urginga returnto the traditionof the
virtues,would not limithimselfto presentingargumentsintendedto demonstratethe appeal of that traditionon an abstractlevel, but would also
providesome kind of'detailed social theorywhichwould make the embodiment of that traditionin the real contemporaryworld seem sociallyand
446

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politicallyfeasible. For if, as Maclntyre says, the modern self is not the
Aristotelianself but is ratherthe "emotivistself" (p. 30), and if "modern
politicsitselfexpresses in its institutionalformsa systematicrejection"(p.
237) of the traditionof the virtues,then surelysomethingmore than a few
good philosophicalargumentswould be needed to effecta transitionto the
kind of'world in which thattraditionmightonce again flourish.Yet, surprisingly,here of all places Maclntyrehas littleto offer:"What mattersat
this stage is the constructionof local formsof communitywithinwhich
civilityand the intellectualand moral lifecan be sustainedthroughthe new
dark ages which are already upon us. And if'the traditionof the virtues
was able to survivethe horrorsof the last dark ages, we are not entirely
withoutgrounds forhope" (p. 245). But ifwe have learned the lessonsthat
Maclntyrehimselfhas tried to teach us, we can hardlyshare in a spiritof'
hope whichis grounded in circumstancesso farremoved fromthe specific
social and politicalrealitiesof'our own time.And ifwe take thoselessonsat
all seriously,we cannot help but wonder about the adequacy of the sociology presupposed by Maclntyre'sown moral philosophy.
SAMUEL SCHEFFLER

University
of California,Berkeley

The Philosophical
Review,XCII, No. 3 (July 1983)
INTERESTS AND RIGHTS: THE CASE AGAINST ANIMALS. By R. G.
FREY. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980. Pp. xi, 176.
In recent years a small but influentialgroup of philosophers has defended the view thatthe logic of at least some of our mostplausible moral
theoriesrequires the inclusionof at least some nonhuman animals within
the moral domain, and that this inclusion in turn requires reformof' at
least some of our most common practicesregardinganimals (such as eating theirflesh). The moral theoriesinvoked in theirargumentshave typicallybeen some formof rightstheoryor some versionof utilitarianism.
In
eithercase a crucial premisein these argumentshas been thatat leastsome
animals (those that are conscious or sentient)have interests.In virtueof'
their having intereststhe practices in question (depending on how the
argumentis continued) eitherviolate theirrightsor show a disregardfor
theirwelfare. In either case theyare morallyindefensible.
As its subtitleadvertises,Raymond Frey'sbook is a self-consciousreaction against this zoophile trend. While Frey thinksthat animals can be
wronged, and also that some of our current practices wrong them, he
447

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