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After Virtue
For Aristotle, moral philosophy is a study of practical reasoning,
and the excellences or virtues that Aristotle recommends in
the Nicomachean Ethics are the intellectual and moral excellences
that make a moral agent effective as an independent practical
reasoner. AV criticizes modern liberal individualism and scientific
determinism for separating practical reasoning from morality and
political life; it proposes instead a return to Aristotelian ethics and
i. Critical Argument of AV
The critical argument of AV, which makes up the first half of the
book, begins by examining the current condition of secular moral
and political discourse. MacIntyre finds contending parties
defending their decisions by appealing to abstract moral
principles, but he finds their appeals eclectic, inconsistent, and
incoherent. MacIntyre also finds that the contending parties have
little interest in the rational justification of the principles they use.
The language of moral philosophy has become a kind of moral
rhetoric to be used to manipulate others in defense of the arbitrary
choices of its users. What Stevenson had said incorrectly about
the meaning of moral judgments has come to be true of the use of
moral judgments. MacIntyre reinterprets “emotivism,”
Stevenson’s “false theory of meaning” as a “cogent theory of use,”
and he names the culture that uses moral rhetoric pragmatically
and syncretically “the culture of emotivism.”
MacIntyre traces the lineage of the culture of emotivism to the
secularized Protestant cultures of northern Europe (AV, p. 37).
These cultures had abandoned any connection between an agent’s
natural telos, personal desires, or pursuit of goods and that same
agent’s moral duties when they had adopted the divine command
moralities of fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth century Christian
moral theology. The secular moral philosophers of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries shared strong and extensive agreements
about the content of morality (AV, p. 51) and believed that their
moral philosophy could justify the demands of their morality
rationally, free from religious authority.
Modern moral philosophy had thus set for itself an incoherent
goal. It was to vindicate both the moral autonomy of the individual
and the objectivity, necessity, and categorical character of the
rules of morality (AV, p. 62). MacIntyre surveys the best efforts to
achieve the goals of modern moral philosophy but dismisses each
one as a moral fiction.
Given the failure of modern moral philosophy, MacIntyre turns to
an apparent alternative, the pragmatic expertise of professional
managers. Managers are expected to appeal to the facts to make
their decisions on the objective basis of effectiveness, and their
authority to do this is based on their knowledge of the social
sciences. An examination of the social sciences reveals, however,
that many of the facts to which managers appeal depend on
sociological theories that lack scientific status. Thus, the
predictions and demands of bureaucratic managers are no less
liable to ideological manipulation than the determinations of
modern moral philosophers.
If modern morality has been revealed to be “a theater of illusions,”
then we must reject it, and this rejection can take two forms.
Either we follow Nietzsche and defend the autonomy of the
individual against the arbitrary demands of conventional moral
reasoning, or we reject both moral autonomy and arbitrary
conventional moral reasoning to follow Aristotle and investigate
practical reason and the role of moral formation in preparing the
human agent to succeed as an independent practical reasoner.
The critical argument of AV raises serious questions about the
rational justification of modern moral philosophy, and it also
proposes an explanation for the rational failure of modern moral
philosophy: Modern moral philosophy separates moral reasoning
about duties and obligations from practical reasoning about ends
and practical deliberation about the means to one’s ends, and in
doing so it separates morality from practice. Kant separates moral
and practical reasoning explicitly in The Critique of Pure
Reason (Critique of Pure Reason, A800/B828–A819/B847) and
in The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (First Section,
pp. 393-405.); Mill makes the same separation
in Utilitarianism (chapter 2).
MacIntyre compares the separation of morality from practice or
the separation of moral reasoning from practical reasoning in
modern moral philosophy to the separation of morality from
practice in Polynesian taboo. The Polynesians had lost the
practical justifications for their well-established moral customs by
the time they first made contact with European explorers; so when
they told these visitors that certain practices were forbidden
because those practices were “taboo,” they were unable to explain
why these practices were forbidden or what, precisely, “taboo”
meant. Many Europeans also lost the practical justifications for
their moral norms as they approached modernity; for these
Europeans, claiming that certain practices are “immoral,” and
invoking Kant’s categorical imperative or Mill’s principle of utility
to explain why those practices are immoral, seems no more
adequate than the Polynesian appeal to taboo. The comparison
between modern morality and taboo is a recurring theme in
MacIntyre’s ethical work.
MacIntyre’s critique of the separation of morality from practice
also draws on his criticism of determinist social science. Practice
involves free and deliberate human action, while morality
divorced from practice regulates only outward human behavior.
Determinist social scientists, notably Stalinists but also
behaviorists like W.V. Quine, viewed human behaviors as
determined responses to various kinds of causal factors, and
refused to examine the things people do in terms of “intentions,
purposes, and reasons for action” (Quine, quoted in AV, p. 83).
Instead, determinist social scientists sought “law-like
generalizations” about the connections of these causes to their
behavioral effects, which would enable them to predict human
behavior, and bring scientific understanding to the work of
organizational management (AV, pp. 88–91).

ii. The Constructive Argument of AV

In the second half of AV, MacIntyre explores the moral tradition
that examines human judgment, human weakness, and excellence
in human action. The constructive argument of the second half of
the book begins with traditional accounts of the excellences or
virtues of practical reasoning and practical rationality rather
than virtues of moral reasoning or morality. These traditional
accounts define virtue as arête, as excellence, and all of the
definitions offered in the second half of AV describe the excellence
of the human agent who judges well and acts effectively in pursuit
of desired ends. MacIntyre sifts these definitions and then gives
his own definition of virtue, as excellence in human agency, in
terms of practices, whole human lives, and traditions in chapters
14 and 15 of AV.
In the most often quoted sentence of AV, MacIntyre defines a
practice as (1) a complex social activity that (2) enables
participants to gain goods internal to the practice. (3) Participants
achieve excellence in practices by gaining the internal goods.
When participants achieve excellence, (4) the social
understandings of excellence in the practice, of the goods of the
practice, and of the possibility of achieving excellence in the
practice “are systematically extended” (AV, p. 187).
Practices, like chess, medicine, architecture, mechanical
engineering, football, or politics, offer their practitioners a variety
of goods both internal and external to these practices. The goods
internal to practices include forms of understanding or physical
abilities that can be acquired only by pursuing excellence in the
associated practice. Goods external to practices include wealth,
fame, prestige, and power; there are many ways to gain these
external goods. They can be earned or purchased, either honestly
or through deception; thus the pursuit of these external goods
may conflict with the pursuit of the goods internal to practices.
MacIntyre illustrates the conflict between the pursuits of internal
and external goods in the parable of the chess playing child. An
intelligent child is given the opportunity to win candy by learning
to play chess. As long as the child plays chess only to win candy, he
has every reason to cheat if by doing so he can win more candy. If
the child begins to desire and pursue the goods internal to chess,
however, cheating becomes irrational, because it is impossible to
gain the goods internal to chess or any other practice except
through an honest pursuit of excellence. Goods external to
practices may nevertheless remain tempting to the practitioner.
Practices are supported by institutions like chess clubs, hospitals,
universities, industrial corporations, sports leagues, and political
organizations. Practices exist in tension with these institutions,
since the institutions tend to be oriented to goods external to
practices. Universities, hospitals, and scholarly societies may
value prestige, profitability, or relations with political interest
groups above excellence in the practices they are said to support.
Personal desires and institutional pressures to pursue external
goods may threaten to derail practitioners’ pursuits of the goods
internal to practices. MacIntyre defines virtue initially as the
quality of character that enables an agent to overcome these
temptations: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the
possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve
those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which
effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (AV, p.
MacIntyre finds that this first level definition is inadequate to
describe an excellent human agent. It is not enough to be an
excellent navigator, physician, or builder; the excellent human
agent lives an excellent life. Excellence as a human agent cannot
be reduced to excellence in a particular practice (See AV, pp. 204–
205, and Ethics and Politics, pp. 196–7). MacIntyre therefore
adds a second level to his definition of virtue.
The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions
which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the
goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the
relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the
harms, dangers, temptations, and distractions which we
encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing
self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good (AV, p. 219).
The excellent human agent has the moral qualities to seek what is
good and best both in practices and in life as a whole.
The second level definition is still inadequate, however, because it
does not take into account the individual’s response to the life and
legacy of her or his community. MacIntyre rejects individualism
and insists that we view human beings as members of
communities who bear specific debts and responsibilities because
of our social identities. The responsibilities one may inherit as a
member of a community include debts to one’s forbearers that one
can only repay to people in the present and future. These
responsibilities also include debts incurred by the unjust actions
of ones’ predecessors.
MacIntyre acknowledges that contemporary individualism insists
that “the self is detachable from its social and historical roles and
statuses” (AV, p. 221), but he illustrates his counterpoint point
with three national communities in which contemporary citizens
continue to bear the debts of their predecessors. The enslavement
and oppression of black Americans, the subjugation of Ireland,
and the genocide of the Jews in Europe remained quite relevant to
the responsibilities of citizens of the United States, England, and
Germany in 1981, as they still do today. Thus an American who
said “I never owned any slaves,” “the Englishman who says ‘I
never did any wrong to Ireland,’” or “the young German who
believes that being born after 1945 means that what Nazis did to
Jews has no moral relevance to his relationship to his Jewish
contemporaries” all exhibit a kind of intellectual and moral failure.
“I am born with a past, and to cut myself off from that past in the
individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships” (p.
221). For MacIntyre, there is no moral identity for the abstract
individual; “The self has to find its moral identity in and through
its membership in communities” (p. 221).
Since MacIntyre finds social identity necessary for the individual,
MacIntyre’s definition of the excellence or virtue of the human
agent needs a social dimension:
The virtues find their point and purpose not only in sustaining
those relationships necessary if the variety of goods internal to
practices are to be achieved and not only in sustaining the form of
an individual life in which that individual may seek out his or her
good as the good of his or her whole life, but also in sustaining
those traditions which provide both practices and individual lives
with their necessary historical context (AV, p. 223).
This third, social, level completes MacIntyre’s account of the
excellence of the human agent in AV.

iii. Aristotelian Critique of Modern Ethics and Politics

The remaining chapters of AV contrast MacIntyre’s Aristotelian
notion of the virtues as excellences of character from modern
notions of virtue as the quality of a person who obeys moral rules.
These chapters also lay out some of the practical implications of
MacIntyre’s Aristotelian project for contemporary ethics and
politics. The loss of teleology makes morality appear arbitrary (AV,
p. 236), separates moral reason from practical and political
reasoning (AV, p. 236), and removes the notion of what one
deserves from modern notions of justice (AV, p. 249). MacIntyre
concludes that “modern systematic politics . . . expresses in its
institutional forms a systematic rejection” of the Aristotelian
tradition of the virtues and therefore “has to be rejected” by those
who commit themselves to the tradition of the virtues (AV, p. 255).
In other words, those who approach moral and political
philosophy in terms of the development of the human agent and
the advancement of practical reasoning in the context of the life of
a community cannot succeed in their task if they compromise
their work by committing themselves to the arbitrary goals,
methods, and language of modern politics.
At the end of the argument of AV, MacIntyre returns to the
ultimatum of chapter 10, “Nietzsche or Aristotle.” Where
Nietzsche intended his work as a critique of modern morality,
Nietzsche in fact becomes the ultimate embodiment of the moral
isolation and arbitrariness of modern liberal individualism. This
fault remains invisible from a modern viewpoint, but when viewed
from the perspective of the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues, it
is quite clear (AV, pp. 258-259).
Since “goods, and with them the only grounds for the authority of
laws and virtues, can only be discovered by entering into those
relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is
a shared vision of and understanding of goods” (AV, p. 258), any
hope for the transformation and renewal of society depends on the
development and maintenance of such communities. Revolution
cannot be imposed (AV, p. 238), although it may be cultivated. To
wait “for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” is to
await a person who can unify communities that encourage moral
formation in judgment and action.

iv. Criticism of AV
MacIntyre’s Aristotelian approach to ethics as a study of human
action distinguishes him from post-Kantian moral philosophers
who approach ethics as a means of determining the demands of
objective, impersonal, universal morality. This modern approach
may be described as moral epistemology. Modern moral
philosophy pretends to free the individual to determine for her- or
himself what she or he must do in a given situation, irrespective of
her or his own desires; it pretends to give knowledge of universal
moral laws. MacIntyre rejects modern ethical theories as
deceptive and self-deceiving masks for conventional morality and
for arbitrary interventions against traditions. For MacIntyre, the
freedom of self-determination is the freedom to recognize and
pursue one’s good, and moral philosophy liberates the agent, in
part, by helping the human agent to desire what is good and best,
and to choose what is good and best.
MacIntyre’s ethics of human action also distinguishes his later
Thomistic work from the efforts of some twentieth-century
neo-Thomists to craft a moral epistemology out of Thomas
Aquinas’s metaphysics and natural law. AV argues that an
Aristotelian ethics of virtue may remain possible, without
appealing to Aristotle’s metaphysics of nature. This claim remains
controversial for two different, but closely related reasons.
Many of those who rejected MacIntyre’s turn to Aristotle define
“virtue” primarily along moral lines, as obedience to law or
adherence to some kind of natural norm. For these critics,
“virtuous” appears synonymous with “morally correct;” their
resistance to MacIntyre’s appeal to virtue stems from their
difficulties either with what they take to be the shortcomings of
MacIntyre’s account of moral correctness or with the notion of
moral correctness altogether. Thus one group of critics rejects
MacIntyre’s Aristotelianism because they hold that any
Aristotelian account of the virtues must first account for the truth
about virtue in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, which
MacIntyre had dismissed in AV as “metaphysical biology” (AV, pp.
162, 179). Aristotelian metaphysicians, particularly Thomists who
define virtue in terms of the perfection of nature, rejected
MacIntyre’s contention that an adequate Aristotelian account of
virtue as excellence in practical reasoning and human action need
not appeal to Aristotelian metaphysics. Another group of critics,
including materialists, dismissed MacIntyre’s attempt to recover
an Aristotelian account of the virtues because they took those
virtues to presuppose an indefensible metaphysical doctrine of
A few years after the publication of AV, MacIntyre became a
Thomist and accepted that the teleology of human action flowed
from a metaphysical foundation in the nature of the human
person (WJWR, ch. 10; AV, 3rd ed., p. xi). Nonetheless, MacIntyre
has the main points of his ethics and politics of human action have
remained the same. MacIntyre continues to argue toward an
Aristotelian account of practical reasoning through the
investigation of practice. Even though he has accepted Thomistic
metaphysics, he seldom argues from metaphysical premises, and
when pressed to explain the metaphysical foundations of his
ethics, he has demurred. MacIntyre continues to argue from the
experience of practical reasoning to the demands of moral
education. MacIntyre’s work in WJWR, DRA, The Tasks of
Philosophy, Ethics and Politics, and God, Philosophy,
University continue to exemplify the phenomenological approach
to moral education that MacIntyre took in After Virtue.
Contemporary scholars have defended MacIntyre’s
unconventional Aristotelianism by challenging the conventions
that MacIntyre is said to violate. Christopher Stephen Lutz
examined some of the reasons for rejecting “Aristotle’s
metaphysical biology” and assessed the compatibility of
MacIntyre’s philosophy with that of Thomas Aquinas in Tradition
in the Ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre (2004, pp. 133-140). Kelvin
Knight took a broader approach in Aristotelian Philosophy:
Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre (2007). Knight
examined the ethics and politics of human action found in
Aristotle and traced the development of that project through
medieval and modern thought to MacIntyre. Knight distinguishes
Aristotle’s ethics of human action from his metaphysics and shows
how it is possible for MacIntyre to retrieve Aristotle’s ethics of
human action without first defending Aristotle’s metaphysical
account of nature.