[Caveat – this review may not do the subject justice, but I didn’t really notice how good a read it was until I was well into it, by which point not only did I not have any notes, but I was committed to read on to a conclusion. So from memory … is the summary (in the bullets) any good ?]
[Post Note – Matt Kundert, in this (2008) post and the comment thread below, has turned-up as a McIntyre reference in my wider “Systems Thinking” context thanks to a (2023) post by Ben Taylor linking to an earlier (1977) piece pre-dating “After Virtue” (1981) by Al McIntyre and reviewed by Matt. And re-reading this post now in 2023, I see a wonderful irony in my use of the word “governance” in my implicitly cybernetic (psyberton-ic) context before I had made the connection explicit. What goes around comes around. ]
I’ve had a copy of Alastair MacIntyre’s (1981, 2nd Ed 1984) “After Virtue” tucked away on a bookshelf for some time. I vaguely remembered I’d bought it on the recommendation of Rev Sam, but no recollection of why it came to be tucked-away unread. [I since discover it’s Sam’s most important read ever – after being turned onto things philosophical by ZMM, like myself, and away from “scientism”, as I already was before I read ZMM, “After Virtue” turned Sam to Christianity and theology. Wow. Matt too claims MacIntyre and After Virtue as an important route to understanding the Greeks.]
So, my atheistic reading of “After Virtue”:
Firstly, it is a read that requires some effort – it is in large part a scholarly review of the history of philosophy on the subject of morals & ethics – the virtues, from the pre-Socratics forward. That might make him a mere “philosophologist” in Pirsigian terms, if it weren’t that MacIntyre were clearly working towards his own agenda. The difficulty of the scholarly subject matter is compounded by MacIntyre’s somewhat pompous and knowing, even supercilious, style … I regularly got the impression of dense passages concluded with intellectually-smart-ass summaries and even dismissals (pot & kettle here maybe ?). Anyway, with your wits about you, the effort seems worth it.
As a reformed Marxist, he shows great fondness for Nietzsche and Marx, but ultimately these moderns too are flawed when it comes to virtue. In fact although MacIntyre does develop his after virtue agenda, it is clearly just a start to be further developed in his later writings.
In essence he is describing the interminable debate on the best or right ontology of “the virtues” and their relation to the ontology / epistemology of existence generally. That is, not only has the history of that debate been interminable, it is in practice never going to be complete and consistent, and therefore doomed to remain unintelligible, without a missing ingredient. [Ref Tom’s dissertation ?]
Nietzsche showed that as currently understood, all existing bases of morals were flawed, and his creative destruction was to sweep them all away. As I do, MacIntyre believes Nietzsche himself did not really provide a satisfactory alternative. MacIntyre uses his study of the Greeks to show that most interpretations of Aristotle which concluded that he too was flawed (haven’t we all ?), threw out too much of the Aristotelian baby with the bathwater.
Much of the history of the debate over the virtues is described – differences between doing the right thing for the right reasons, failing to do the right thing but for the right reasons, doing the apparently right thing but for the wrong reasons, internal and external goods, and so on. The game theory of needing to predict human behaviour in order to decide one’s own best behaviour – and all the Machiavellian twists that evolve from that. Reviewing all the Greek schools of thought, mediaeval, renaissance, post-enlightenment and modern schools – the index of references is a who’s who: Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, you name ’em.
Sticking in my mind Jane Austen and T E Lawrence. The latter a special interest of mine, the former still largely a source of ignorance to me unfortunately.
The T E Lawrence reference is simply of ironic value to me. In fact MacIntyre mentions TEL only in the context of the wickedness (or otherwise) of sado-masochism – whereas to me the TEL subject is that “it” – life, the universe and everything – “is (not) written” – the irony will become clear in the summary of MacIntyre’s thesis later.
Jane Austen ? A large part of the interminable historical debate on the virtues has been the relationships between them – whether it is possible to hold one virtue and not another – whether there really are virtues or simply virtue. Much of the discussion of the Greeks and other earlier commentators hinges on how imprecisely the linguistic translation of various words for various virtues can be unambiguous anyway. Where’s Wittgenstein when you need him ? MacIntyre draws heavily on the work of Jane Austen to illustrate the complexities of recognizing individual virtues in the lives of people who either are or are not virtuous, and either are or are not free to choose the right actions in their situations.
To cut a long story about which philosophers got what right and wrong, about rights and wrongs, I would summarize MacIntyre’s thesis as follows: So after virtues we get to virtue, and if even virtue is indeterminate, what after virtue … ?
- All decision-making, expressed as well as in action & behaviour, of (human) individuals and institutions, is done with intention and in context.
- In order for that decision-making rationale to be intelligible, to the participants and witnesses, they must be expressed as part of a greater “narrative”. A narrative with a beginning, a history, a middle, a now, a future, and an end. And that’s an end in every sense, place and time yes, but also in terms of telos, purpose and meaning towards that end.
- So, we are all writing our local narratives, rationalizing our thoughts, intents and actions, in the context of that greater narrative, consistent with the telos (or not).
- That greater narrative is provide by a mythological tradition within a culture. Clearly therefore different cultures will maintain and evolve different such narratives, even though they will share common features of being such a necessary telos. The grand narrative – the tradition of moral virtue – is cultural.
- Good governance, of collections of individuals in societies and institutions is really based on that moral tradition of virtue. The rules of politics and institutional law are simply pragmatic issues of effectiveness and efficiency.
- The grand narrative is “written” by the tradition, to provide the context within which individual local narratives may then be written, with or without levels of creativity and freedom, but the local narratives are not themselves pre-written in the tradition.
- Those individual narratives are indeed written by the participants, but the individuals cannot choose their narrative completely independently of the the tradition and still be intelligible.
It is clear that MacIntyre’s thesis is leading to the Christian tradition – he concludes that what we are really waiting for is “another St. Benedict” to lead us out of the “predicament of our times”. Never been convinced of those “of our times” perspectives, but no matter – ’twas ever thus. Clearly the Christian thesis is developed in his later work, so the argument is incomplete here as to which cultural tradition – but the argument so far is well made. I would guess his argument is going to be that the best mythological tradition for you is the one that is already most developed in your culture – they can’t simply be written on a blank slate.
We need a cultural tradition that provides a telos – a purpose and meaning to life. No amount of logic, objectivity, science or rationality can define the narrative mythological content of that tradition. It is simply written. Even a scientist has to take that on “faith”.
[For me this is entirely consistent with the fact that the acceptance of any metaphysics depends on some ineffable core – not amenable to independent objective rationale of any kind. It is also consistent with my fascination for the teleological aspects of the more serious views of anthropic principles.]