Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” Critiques Modern Moral Cargo Cult

What if all of our contemporary moral discourse were a kind of cargo cult in which we had picked up fragments of a long lost, once-coherent and -rational moral philosophy, and had proceeded forward with these fragments, not really knowing what we were doing, and had constructed a bunch of nonsense that didn’t work and could not work in principle?

Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue (), argues that this indeed is what happened, and this explains why our moral discourse is such a mess.

Why is it that when we argue with each other about moral issues — war and peace, liberty or equality, life or choice, family values or gay rights, what have you — we make our case in a form that seems to be one of logical, rational argument (“my point of view is true because…”), but the effect of what we say seems to be only like that of imperative statements (“Join me in supporting…”) or exclamations (“…is the bestest!”)? Why do pro-life folks and pro-choice folks (for instance) keep arguing with each other when there is no resolution to their argument?

MacIntyre believes that we are unconsciously reenacting forms of argument that once made sense, since people once did have a common ground of morality they could advance together from rationally, but that we have since lost this in a Tower of Babel-like catastrophe.

As a result, our moral arguments today are interminable because the values they express are essentially incommensurable. Though the claims of the emotivists are not universally and necessarily true, they happen to be true for contemporary moral philosophy: when people make moral arguments today they really are just making imperative statements or exclamations of (dis)approval while disguising these as rational arguments about facts.

Modern moral philosophy has adopted the idea that all moral systems must eventually descend on certain first principles that everyone must choose for themselves and for which there are no rational criteria for a correct choice: you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” as they say. As a result, the only way you can defend any results you derive from such a moral framework to someone else who does not share that framework is in a form that ultimately reduces to “my first principles are better than your first principles, nyaah nyaah.”

This means that all of this arguing is necessarily for nought. And modern moral philosophy has been absolutely unsuccessful in finding any way out of this predicament.

As a result, the emotivist explanation of moral argument is the dominant and most rational one, and so people who engage in moral arguments are essentially trying to manipulate others and at the same time to resist being manipulated, knowing on some level that there is no rational resolution, which leads to the perpetual histrionic impasse and jousting with talking-points that keeps the television news networks and political parties in business.

Although a number of modern philosophers have suggested that this is a necessary feature of moral philosophy — that there are no right answers in ethics or that the whole field of inquiry is some sort of an illusion — MacIntyre says that this state of affairs isn’t necessarily true but is really just the result of the catastrophe that shattered a once-coherent ethics.

Our current concept of “the moral” was invented in the 17th–19th centuries to cover “rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic.” The philosophical project of justifying these rules developed along with it. The classical world didn’t have this concept. The words we appropriated for it — moralis or etikos — meant something more like our word “character.” The failure of this philosophical project of justifying our received moral rules is “the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.”

MacIntyre works backwards through Kierkegaard, Kant, Diderot, and Hume, and says that they were unable to find a rational ground for morality in choice, in reason, or in passion and desire. Each was capable of decisively refuting some of these grounds, but each failed to show that their own best guess was capable of doing the job.

These philosophers had to fail because their project — to somehow derive morality from human nature — was incoherent and doomed.

The morality that these philosophers were trying to justify consisted of surviving remnants of morality from an earlier time. The ancestor of these morals were the virtues that Aristotle discussed in The Nicomachean Ethics, in which ethics is considered to be the science of how we govern our lives so as to best meet the ends of human living: the human telos.

This scheme was modified by the various monotheisms that became dominant, so as to make God the source of our telos, to make this telos other-worldly (the Kingdom of God), and to make what Aristotle would have called vice or error into “sin.” But still, even after this transformation, ethical statements remain explicitly statements of fact: X is good because X will help you manifest your telos and is God’s plan for you. Though the Christian philosophers thought that, since The Fall of Man, these facts were not available to us rationally, but only through the grace of God. Later, the rationalists followed suit, and said that our reason is insufficient to choose our ends but is only suitable to choose means towards ends which are chosen in some other way (that “is”/“ought” thing).

Aristotle’s ethics has this structure: 1) Human beings are untutored; 2) Human beings have a telos; 3) Ethics is the tutelage necessary for human beings to achieve their telos. Enlightenment philosophers abandoned the idea that there was such a thing as a telos for human beings, and in so doing, lost the only way of making ethical statements statements of fact. To Aristotle, an ethical statement was true if the ethical rule it described did in fact help people achieve their telos. Without reference to a telos, ethical statements don’t mean anything at all.

So instead, enlightenment thinkers, who were okay with #1 (humans are untutored) and #3 (moral precepts are designed to correct human nature) stuck themselves with the impossible task of deriving #3 from #1. (Myself, I’m not sure this is quite as impossible as MacIntyre makes it out to be. If I remember correctly, Aristotle didn’t start out with #2 as a premise, but derived it logically from his understanding of human nature, that is, from the same place he gets #1. But in any case, MacIntyre says that the enlightenment thinkers did not want to saddle people with a telos, so perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not it is derivable.)

The insistence that you cannot get an “ought” from an “is” that so perplexed the moral philosophers is, MacIntyre insists, a bugbear that results from this same undeclared premise: that humans have no telos, no function, no purpose. For things with purposes, “is” may very well imply “ought.” This is a watch; ergo it ought to tell the correct time. A good watch tells the correct time; a bad watch is slow or fast or right only twice a day. Good or bad for watches is embedded in the very concept of watch. Similarly, if a person has a telos, he or she may be more or less successful in meeting it, and his or her actions will be more or less good, more or less ethical in Aristotelian terms, to the extent that they assist in this attempt. And what these actions are is a factual inquiry: is implies ought.

We still make our moral arguments and moral statements as if they had the form of falsifiable statements of fact, but we’ve lost the ability to articulate what makes them factual or falsifiable. To try to fill in the gap, we’ve had to resort to a bunch of fictions. For example, to replace teleology we have “utility”; to replace God’s revealed laws, we have the categorical imperative or “inalienable human rights” (or we continue to refer to God’s revealed laws but only in a way that makes them indistinguishable from the other merely emotive utterances of modern ethics). These things are all just phantasmagorical placeholders that are designed to fill in the inconvenient and embarrassing gaps in moral theory, but that have no more real existence than do things like phlogiston or the luminiferous aether, which once served similar purposes in physics to the purposes “rights” and “utility” serve in modern ethical theories.

But still we continue to argue as though one of these gambits had succeeded (though if we bother to investigate, we discover that none of them really have). And yet we suspect that all of our moral discourse is a machiavellian struggle to manipulate and deceive each other. Our moral claims are incommensurable because they have incompatible, largely fictional bases, and so there is no reality or appeal to reality with which we can adjudicate moral disputes.

This leads to petulant protest, a modern form of moral discourse, which is used because rational argument has no hope of succeeding. The other dominant variety of moral discourse today is unmasking, in which foes discover each others’ moral pronouncements to be sham façades that mask selfish and arbitrary desires (hey, what do you know, Senator So-and-so is a hypocrite!). This amounts to a parlor game, since everybody’s ethics have become incoherent and full of internal contradictions.

Along with such fictional devices as “right” and “utility,” the modern age has created “effectiveness” as a fetish in moral argument. Effectiveness is central to the character of the bureaucratic manager, who uses the myth of managerial expertise to manipulate those being managed and to justify the managers’ power. Like appeals to God, right, or utility, appeals to managerial expertise disguise the ultimately expressive or imperative nature of the utterance. The idea of managerial expertise implies a domain of real knowledge about social structures and their inputs and outputs of which the manager has specialized and true knowledge. This turns out to be a false claim. The basis for managerial, bureaucratically-controlled societies (like ours) is that the managers are thought to be value-neutral or value-independent, and actually effective at assigning means to ends (though neither is really true).

The enlightenment also led to “fact”-based natural science and empiricism in general. As part of this, the Aristotelian notion of ethics was split into two distinct philosophical disciplines: ethics (“what is good?”) and will (“how do intentions become actions?”). Whereas in the Aristotelian view, explanations of human actions only make sense in reference to a hierarchy of goods and to the telos, in the mechanistic worldview, human action must be explained independently of any goods, intentions, purposes, reasons, or telos. The social sciences of which managers are presumed to be experts are those in which the human subjects are seen in this manner.

This leads to a viewpoint from which it comes to appear as if the people being manipulated by the practitioners of the social/managerial sciences do not have any intention or purpose or telos of their own worth respecting, but the same is implicitly not the case for the manipulators and social scientists themselves, who must have intentions and purposes for their actions to make any sense at all.

Social science (which includes economics) does not actually succeed, MacIntyre says, at deriving laws with predictive power. Its “generalizations” are in no way scientific, but merely are dressed up like science. This is because human affairs are systematically unpredictable, for several reasons: It is impossible in principle to predict the effects of the sorts of radically new conceptual innovations that occur in human history. People cannot confidently predict even their own actions. Chance trivialities can have large effects (what we would today call “the butterfly effect”). Game-theory-like situations map poorly to real-life situations, and even so, they imply a necessary level of deceptiveness and recursive counter-plotting that makes real-world scientific observation and prediction difficult. (For example, during the Vietnam war, war-theorists working for the United States government cleverly created simulations and projections for victory using the best data they had at their disposal — data that was being systematically falsified by other elements of the same government who were using their own game-theory-ish reasons for using deceit in the service of victory.)

That said, there are some predictabilities in human behavior: There are some, sometimes unconscious but justifiable, expectations of each others’ behavior that allow us to engage in such social actions as scheduling and coordination. There are statistical regularities in human action. Certain regularities of nature place constraints on human possibility. Certain regularities of social life also have predictive power (for instance, if your parents have more money, you will probably have more educational opportunity).

People simultaneously want to make the world predictable (to assist in the success of their plans) and to make themselves unpredictable (to preserve their freedom). For this reason, all we really should expect from social scientists are “usually”s. Managerial pretensions to expertise (and thereby to the power and money that come with positions like President of the United States or Chief Executive Officer) are based on exaggerated and unfounded claims for the theoretical precision and accuracy of the social sciences. When somebody claims to be doing something because of managerial expertise, you can be sure they are really just disguising their own desire or arbitrary preference, just the same as if they claimed to be fulfilling the will of god, maximizing utility, or respecting inalienable human rights.

Nonetheless, the contemporary vision of the world is bureaucratically Weberian — Max Weber mixed with Erving Goffman. Goffman’s sociological point of view presupposes morals to be false or at least irrelevant. It is honor, or the regard of others, that takes its place as a motivator.

MacIntyre says that modern society found itself in much the same position as that of the Pacific islanders who had a set of taboos they were unable to explain to the missionaries and explorers who visited them. Whatever reasons had originally led to the establishment of the taboos had long since vanished, and so all they could do when asked to explain their odd customs was to say, “but to do otherwise would be taboo.” MacIntyre says that Kamehameha Ⅱ was able to abolish the taboo system abruptly and by fiat precisely because it had no foundation underneath it anymore.

(I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s recollection of Nazi Germany as a time and place where “…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”)

MacIntyre says that for those of us who have inherited the Western moral tradition, Nietzsche was our Kamehameha. Nietzsche thought he was abolishing morality in general, but in fact, MacIntyre says, he was only pointing out the futility of the enlightenment project of providing a rational justification for the fragmentary remnants of classical ethics — our taboos.

If the classical ethical philosopher asked “what sort of person am I to become, and how?” the modern ethical philosopher asked “what taboos must I follow, and why?” It was a doomed project, because the taboos had become dislodged from their original justifications, and the whole framework in which those justifications made sense had been abandoned as part of the enlightenment. To a modern philosopher like John Rawls, for instance, the virtues are nothing but tendencies to obey the taboos, with the taboos being somehow more fundamental than the virtues.

What’s the alternative? In the background of our struggles with moral philosophy and in the virtues we sympathize with but don’t understand enough to be able to justify, there is the ghost of an earlier and more coherent ethical system. We may be able to retrace our steps and recover it.

The characteristics of “heroic” societies are revealed in the myths of antiquity — not necessarily because these myths represent the realities of the times they depict, but because the cultures that used and conveyed those myths defined their own cultures in relation to them. In these societies, everyone had a role and a purpose just by virtue of being born into a particular station in a particular society with relations to particular people. Nobody is defined by their “hidden depths” or their inner lives, but by their actions relative to their roles; a person is what a person does. Morality and social structure are the same thing; there isn’t even a concept of morality as distinct from, independent of, or superior to the particular social structure. You can’t “step outside” your society and judge its moral system in comparison to some other system. Life is a story that ends, tragically and in defeat, with death. A story like a saga isn’t just incidentally a story about a life, but is a representation of a life that is already understood to have the form of a story. Virtue is what enables you to fulfill the role you have and to conduct yourself in your story. Contra Nietzsche, the hero does not assert his arbitrary will, but accepts his role as being a real thing worthy of respect; the self is not self-created but is an incarnation or enacting of a socially-defined role.

This heroic background is refined by the Greeks in several ways, as by the fifth century B.C. it is possible to disagree about what is just (to Homer, justice was equivalent to what is in harmony with the prevailing order; later, you could ask the question “is what is in harmony with the prevailing order also just?”). The tragedians (Sophocles in particular) focus on what happens when the moral system fails to cohere, producing contradictions. A person has two contradictory ethical obligations that cannot be reconciled and the tragedy that results is just that there is no right way to proceed (for instance: my obligation arising from my role as a sister and my obligation arising from my role as the subject of a king come into conflict). The sophists insist that virtues are relative, and the right way to proceed is whatever gets you what you’re after. Plato, and later Aristotle, hope to show that the virtues don’t actually conflict and aren’t as flimsy as the sophists would have it.

From here, MacIntyre gives a recap of The Nicomachean Ethics, which, if you’ve been paying attention around here for the past few months, you shouldn’t need. He says that this ethics tightly links moral virtue and practical intelligence, such that in the Aristotelian view, there is no place for actors like a fool whose heart is in the right place or a bureaucratic manager who is efficient at matching means to ends without care for what the ends are.

But there are problems with trying to bring Aristotle’s ethics into the modern era. For one thing, Aristotle’s ethics requires a telos for human beings, but his idea of this telos was based on his now-ridiculous-seeming “metaphysical biology.” Also, if Aristotle’s virtues were closely tied to his particular society and to the roles available in it (as we have learned such virtues must be), how can these be relevant to us in our very different society today? Furthermore, Aristotle views human life as perfectible — he thinks we can ultimately remove the conflicts from it (these conflicts are flaws); MacIntyre thinks it’s more likely that conflicts are more basic, and, like the tragedians concluded, are unavoidable and, well, tragic.

In the Middle-Ages, a fragmentary Aristotelian scheme of virtues was rediscovered, but interpreted through a filter of Christianity — one which was itself influenced by the stoic notion of virtue as a singular thing, detached from telos. In this view, morally-right acting is solely a matter of will, and the results of the action and whatever virtues contribute to the action are incidental. There is also an emphasis on the divine law, which is universal (not embedded in the polis or in some particular society). Secular law had by this time lost any plausible connection to morality — it was no longer an expression of the desires of the polis, but the imposition of an empire.

By the 17th–18th centuries, virtues had lost their coherence altogether, and had come to be understood as a variety of altruism that we call upon to subdue our natural egoism in order to get along with each other. This would have made no sense to Aristotle, who thought of the virtues as being motivated by self-love and as being at the same time inherently supportive of friendship and community. Virtues also became mere inclinations to conform to moral laws, and, finally, got reduced from virtues to virtue, as in the stoic viewpoint.

The last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues in Western culture was, MacIntyre says, Jane Austen, who did this by recreating something akin to the Greek city-state in a fictional upper-class family milieu.

Healthy, undecayed accounts of virtue have three things in common: a concept of practice, an idea of the narrative order of human life, and a moral tradition that develops out of these.

By “practice,” MacIntyre means some sort of occupation or activity that is deliberate and well-defined and traditional at least to the extent where it can involve internal goods — that is, rewards that exist only within the practice itself and not in terms of what the practice enables you to gain outside of it. For example, if you play chess well, the reward you get is the internal good of having played a good chess game; if you are playing in order to win a trophy, you are playing for the external good of the trophy, not the internal good of playing well.

External goods are more zero-sum, more the objects of competition. Internal goods are more about personal excellence; when we succeed in attaining internal goods, this tends not to detract from the good of those around us but to enhance them. MacIntyre says that a virtue is that which enables us to achieve internal goods.

Practices are embodied in traditions that are kept alive by institutions. But institutions are themselves focused on external goods. It is the virtues that keep practices from being corrupted by their institutions (particularly the virtues of justice, courage, and truthfulness). This doesn’t mean that all practices are good. Nor does it mean that any practice and associated set of virtues is as good as any other (for that would lead us back to the same problem as our current catastrophe). When you see that life has a telos and therefore there is a practice of life, you see that life itself has its virtues — you can extrapolate from your idea of the internal rewards of a practice to the idea of The Good in life as a whole. In this way the idea of a practice and the understanding of the narrative nature of human life lead to the development of a coherent moral tradition.

The modern view of life makes this difficult. Life is divided into stages and further into roles (“work-life” and “home-life” for instance), and we are encouraged to view behaviors atomistically rather than seeing our lives as unified and ourselves as engaged in large-scale narratives.

But human activity is intelligible and our actions are within a narrative context of history and goals. An action isn’t just part of a narrative but is part of many narratives from many points of view. These narratives are unpredictable (what happens next?) but that doesn’t mean they lack telos or that the telos is merely retrospectively assigned. The only way I can answer the question “what am I to do?” is if I can answer the question “what stories am I a part of?”

The way I read this is that when you ask yourself whether or not you are behaving ethically right, you are trying to justify yourself. You justify yourself by accounting for your behavior, that is to say, telling its story, putting it in a narrative context complete with its telos. By doing this you create a context in which the virtues will shine forth as the sort of excellences of character that advance you to your telos.

MacIntyre says that the quest is a form of narrative in which the character of the protagonist and his telos become more sharply defined over time. You start off with a vague idea of The Good, and your experiences over the course of the quest make it clearer what The Good must be. The virtues are what equip us for success in the quest.

But your narrative, whatever it is, doesn’t start from a blank slate. You start in a social context that may equip you with obligations, debts, and expectations of various sorts right from the get-go. You cannot define yourself independently of these, though you have the choice of defining yourself either in agreement with or in rebellion against any of it. We are all protagonists of the tragic variety, in that we will inevitably encounter irreconcilable ethical obligations. That said, though we cannot solve the dilemmas we encounter, we can navigate them more or less skillfully.

The concept of virtue MacIntyre has described was destroyed, he says, by the cult of bureaucratic individualism that emerged from the enlightenment. Employees, for example, do not typically engage in a practice associated with internal goods (they are motivated by salary or other external goods); the typical modern person is not a practitioner but a spectator/consumer, engaged in what MacIntyre calls “institutional acquisitiveness” or “aesthetic consumption” (consumerism, I think they call it these days).

Today, people in our culture are unable to weigh conflicting claims of justice because they are inherently incommensurable. John Rawls and Robert Nozick, for example, represent sophisticated philosophical justifications of something akin to popular quasi-socialist liberal and property-rights libertarian perspectives, respectively. MacIntyre notes that even if you accept either or both of their arguments as valid, this resolves nothing, since it is their premises that are incompatible.

(Interestingly, neither Rawls nor Nozick relies on the concept of desert, which is central in the popular versions of justice they are trying to provide philosophical support for. MacIntyre says that this is because desert requires a preexisting social context in order to make sense, and the thought experiments that Rawls and Nozick rely on assume atomistic individuals without preexisting communities or agreements on what is good. The popular notion of desert, MacIntyre says, is yet another remnant of premodern justice that shines through the cracks left after the catastrophe.)

Because there is no common ground on which disagreements about justice and morality can be argued, “modern politics is civil war carried on by other means” — nothing but power masked by rhetoric. But this is not because Nietzsche has disproved morality. He successfully defeated the various enlightenment projects of justifying morality, but he left the Aristotelian ethical framework unscathed.

The virtue tradition implies a rejection of the primacy of market values, the cult of bureaucratic individualism, and acquisitiveness. It indicts the modern political order (perhaps government in the abstract can be justified, but no existing government can).

What to do about it? Our task in this post-catastrophe world, MacIntyre says, is to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”