Episode 59: Alasdair MacIntyre on Moral Justifications

On Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), mostly ch. 3-7 and 14-17.

What justifies ethical claims? MacIntyre claims that no modern attempt to ground ethics has worked, and that's because we've abandoned Aristotle. We see facts and values as fundamentally different: the things science discovers vs. these weird things that have nothing to do with science. In Aristotle's teleological view, everything comes with built-in goals, so just as a plant will aim grow green and healthy, people have a definite kind of virtue towards which we do and should naturally strive. Though MacIntyre doesn't want to bring back Aristotle's biology, he does want to put the goal-directedness, i.e. the normativity, back into our conception of the facts of our lives.

His new take on virtue has two components: the excellence involved in any established practice, like physics, cooking, or playing guitar; and the need to live a coherent life story given your particular culture and commitments. You might have bought into the aim to be a great chess player, for instance, which requires not only intellectual virtue, but being social enough to keep the enterprise of chess in business (i.e. no murder when you lose). To get from great chess player to great person means integrating your various practices into one fulfilling life, and MacIntyre thinks that this effort is sufficient to give you objective moral standards, given your particular practices and, moreso, your cultural traditions. Unlike the existentialists, MacIntyre thinks that for an individual in a real situation, having moral standards is not a matter of some free choice or "leap," as if morality was nothing in itself that we humans are bound to. No, morality is real, and fully justified, for an individual embedded in his culture and commitments. Just like you can't, yourself, decide to win at chess by changing the rules, you can't "create values" as Nietzsche might recommend by denying or re-interpreting your duties as parent, neighbor, citizen, etc.

The regular four continue the discussion started in ep. 58, giving some of MacIntyre's dismissal of dozens of major figures in philosophy and trying our best to make sense of his proposals. Buy the book.

End song: "Indefensible," by Mark Lint, 1998.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:


  1. Rob says

    Terrific episode, guys. One of the best in a really long time. Perfect blend of name dropping and brief explanation of the ideas behind the person, ie teleology. I learned more from this episode than I have from nearly any other, while still being entertained. I laughed outloud at the comment about the north and slavery, and I hope you continue to rib who ever made it, (was it Mark or Seth…sounded like Mark, but you two have similar voices…), and how the burden of racism and slavery has still not lifted in this country, especially if you consider the deeply rooted culture of oppression the police state and health care system has wrought on black people over the past thirty years…we are not even close to having lived up to the burden of our atrocities, and continue to perform them. The civil rights movement simply made our evil, as a culture, far more covert.

    Today’s Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/2012/07/05/156292172/aids-in-black-america-a-public-health-crisis) interviews the maker of http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/endgame-aids-in-black-america/ documentary, and will easily give you a greater insight into how racism and the legacy of oppression is still running rampant, and in all northern states, but the whole country wide. Get educated on incarceration rates of black men as just a first step to seeing the problems in this country.

    One thing stuck deeply in my mind as far as the ideas in this episode; what is the relationship between tradition and history, vis a vie the social nature and value of practices? Is it more important to study history to find the most crucial practices, or to evaluate current popularity of a practice and study its tradition and the history of its tradition, or is this purely a personal choice of what am I best at and enjoy the most so I should adopt as a practice and then study the history of that practice and its tradition? Is there a way to evaluate one practice over another, and is that related to its possible social impact, and how should innate talent factor into one choosing a practice? (ie, if I’ve got more natural talent or derive more person enjoy from dance than say medicine, but enough potential in medicine to positively affect both its practice as tradition and it’s benefit to the flourishing of others, is it more ‘moral’ to be a doctor than a dancer?)

    Some of these methods of analysis may also get us out of the conundrum of philosophical reflection as the ideal practice, or it may clarify what is meant by philosophical reflection. Perhaps it is not the search for the moral life which is moral, but a philosophical reflection within one’s practice that allows one to have a deeper and most lasting effect upon the practice itself, and through the practice, a lasting positive effect on others. This still involves the question/search for what is the moral or good within my practice, and philosophy can then be taken as a practice, and one not suited to everyone, but does not hint that the good practice is philosophy, and therefore the good life is a Philosopher’s life, except as philosophical methods (ie, armchair reflection) are one of the superb tools for truly ferreting out the most virtuous path within the bounds of a practice.

    The above recapitulated for clarity, without having read the text, the point that MacIntyre was arguing was that if we could truly understand how practices impacted the evolution of human society and human nature over the course of history, we’d be able to understand what the most important practices of this moment are, even if they are not popular, such that it would be possible to lead a truly virtuous life by doing those practices and making contributions both to them and through them. (This leads to an interesting discussion of whether or not capitalism truly is a mechanism for finding the most meaningful/good/needed practices, and how well it works, and what it may need to balance out its faults.)

    I’d like to like to hear an episode about History itself, perhaps starting with selected readings from Herodotus and Plutarch, and dealing with the different in ideas of history as cyclical or linear, and either Michel Foucault, Isaiah Berlin (my personal favorite), or Marx/Hegel as the major reading. I get the feeling MacIntyre’s rhetorical use of history may be a bit more satisfying in a context of philosophy of history. That might also dovetail into something of a Logic versus Rhetoric podcast, pitted as a Analytic versus Continental podcast, which just explores some of the major texts which leads to this split between logic and rhetoric as styles of argument. Anyways…I always want more from you guys, on everything.

    Keep up the great work guys. I hope you become popular enough and supported enough that you can quit your jobs and do this full time if you’d like to.


  2. dmf says

    the key issue seems to be this question of what if anything “grounds” ethics and there it’s tempting to launch into Derrida on the metaphysics of presence but rather than racing down that rabbit hole a few other thoughts, one is that there is a bit of a Catholic/Protestant split between Mac and Kierkegaard and I’m not sure that SK’s faith leaping Abraham would be a moral exemplar for Mac, two is that Hubert Dreyfus has his own take on practice/expertise/phronesis that isn’t ruled by narrative tho he shares Mac’s love for the dramatic/heroic aspects of Greek thinking (his quality detector is something like Heidegger’s moods) and All Things Shining might make for an interesting podcast someday, lastly it would be worth checking out Rorty’s Kuhnian take on Davidson and metaphors:

  3. Vasili says

    I’m unfamiliar with MacIntyre but I’ll hazard a few comments anyway.

    It’s hard to not read him as a sort of cultural relativist with a romantic critique of the alienating effects of modern individualism (Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart as Toqueville said..)
    If ethics cannot be separated from social practices, there is no ground for ethics beyond culture.

    Where is the choice then? Practices do not exist in isolation from each other, but express shared cultural values in the greater social whole. Thus the choice between them (whether I want to dedicate myself to rockstardom or parenthood at the expense of the other) is not merely based on individual intuition, but reflects a shared system of values and one’s social position. The idea that we can just freely pick and choose social practices like shoppers in a supermarket choose toast, unencumbered by cultural considerations, is naively individualistic.
    Part of the problem is our inability to see past the modern ideology that sets individual (agency) against society (shackles of tradition). It is our nature as social beings seeing the world through our culture that allows us any agency to begin with. The language analogy might work here: though language limits what we can say about the world (what language game we play), it does not mechanically determine what we say at any given time. Yet I can be the most avant-garde of poets and still my expression becomes intelligible only in relation to shared social practices (in fact I can only be avant-garde in relation to them).

    Of course we can find contradictions and tensions between the practices and values of any given society. Thus, in the US liberty and equality are both paramount values, but in practice they often come into conflict. This seems to be at the root of the heated political conflict between Republicans and Democrats. You could argue that in order to live out a “coherent life story” you need to become aware of the conflicts between practices and values. Otherwise you are in danger of living according to double standards that obscure social and ethical problems. In this way philosopher’s life is the good life, the good cultural practice one should say, except that philosophers should deal with the actual historically embedded practices and value systems of their societies.

    You could argue that to become better aware of our own cultural premises and the contradictions within, we need to go further and compare our culture to others. As Tim Ingold put it “anthropology is philosophy with people in it”.

  4. Wayne Schroeder says

    Vasili, thanks for your interesting responses to a likewise very competent podcast on MacIntyre. I’m always stretched by dmf’s laconic responses. Don’t think I’ve seen a good analysis of ethics yet, so still hoping. Yes, the grounding of ethics is a challenge, but the definition itself is overarching. It helps to clarify that ethics is 1) not limited to only innate, emotive, cognitive, behavioral, scientific, cultural, or spiritual, etc.; 2) not fully defined by either innate, emotive, cognitive, behavioral, scientific, cultural, or spiritual, etc. However, I suspect that there will be no good answer until ALL aspects are adequately integrated by the grounding principle which will be intuitively (due to its broad constitution) as well as reasonably “obvious.”

  5. qapla says

    I have some serious objections to many of her ideas, but I think she also has some really good points that many people are unaware of or dismissive of (partly because of her choice of terms/wording).
    The article has a couple points that lean toward libertarianism which can be debated/objected to, but as I said above it has some really good points.

    “A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” Ayn Rand

    Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society


  6. says

    Thanks for finding a non-crazy, non-bitter Christian to represent a thoughtful conservative critique of modernity and modern philosophy. I agree with the above commenter that it was one of your best episodes ever, on many levels!

    • dmf says

      it would be interesting to see what if anything separates a kind of secular effort like this of Mac from folks like Merold Westphal, Ricoeur, and Hauerwas.
      Does anyone know a good book on the history of natural law in philosophy?

  7. Vasili says

    Question to philosophers: does MacIntyre’s notion of teleology echo in any way Heidegger’s or later Wittgenstein’s emphasis on practical goal-orientedness.

    • dmf says

      Heidegger built directly off of Aristotle, after Luther, and Wittgenstein also has a kind of Catholic background at work in his thinking, so yes some resonances with the value of knowing how to live beyond mere ‘animal’ coping.

      • Vasili says

        I was thinking of Heidegger’s notion that human existence (Dasein) and “being-in-the-world” is always rooted in a specific life-world, and that mostly things are present, not as objects of abstract contemplation, but as “ready-to-hand”, i.e. things reveal themselves in practical engagement with the world. Wittgenstein also tackled language as a form of practical action between people, rather than as a system for representing truths which correspond to an external objective reality.
        Heidegger was also reacting against the alienating effects of modern individualism and mass culture, and MacIntyre inherited similar critique of authentic versus inauthentic being from Marx.

          • Vasili says

            As I understand it, for MacIntyre moral justification is sociologically grounded, we are always born into a society and a language that exist before us and provide the context in which we act. I’ve read some suggestion that there is a metaphysical element here, but I’m unsure what that would entail.

            I don’t know Heidegger’s ethics very well. It usually gets mixed up with him being a Nazi. There’s an early emphasis on authentic individual free choice (very existentialist) that is coupled with authenticity of collective destiny (can you hear the goose stepping?). Maybe we can see in Heidegger the conflict between holism and individualism that transformed itself into fascism. Any Heideggerian’s out there who can elaborate on H’s ethics?

          • dmf says

            ah, but Mac doesn’t want to reduce it to sociology as he, like Heidegger, is trying to provide more than “mere” anthropology and this is what separates him from say Rorty and co. But what would this more be if not something God-like?

  8. Vasili says

    @ dmf:
    Well, that would be the metaphysical bit, I’m probably just trying my darnest not to notice it. Heidegger certainly has a metaphysical aspect, but it probably has to do with the conditions of being in general (as opposed to specific historical being). So what is the metaphysical non-relativist non-constructivist bit in MacIntyre?
    What I’ve picked up (and dislike) is his emphasis on rationality and moral progress towards some vague unified telos.
    I just read an article by Kelvin Knight who argues that MacIntyre has moved towards metaphysical Aristotelian naturalism, which breaks from his former line of thought where “practice and use (of e.g. language or money) constitute the irreducible and unquestionable ground of human action.” (Human nature makes a glorious comeback.)
    Knight also has an article comparing Macintyre and Heidegger (and Marx).

  9. Vasili says

    Another article with largely the same point:
    [MacIntyre offered] “a reformulation of Aristotelian virtue ethics in which participation in a tradition plays a role analogous to that played by Aristotle’s metaphysical biology […] While its general structure and content presents itself as undoubtedly Aristotelian, one of its most striking features is MacIntyre’s resort to sociology that was to replace Aristotle’s metaphysics. However, MacIntyre gradually mitigated and eventually completely abandoned his original hostility to Aristotle’s metaphysical framework for ethics”

    Yet, to me the article fails to show how MacIntyre is incompatible with anti-metaphysical cultural relativism, or sociological reductionism if you will, beyond the very general notions of the universal goal-orientedness of humans who construct coherent life-worlds for themselves, with which no social scientist would have a quarrel:
    “Here MacIntyre and Aristotle follow the same procedure. Each gives human being a specific nature, distinguished by action with logos, and then derives their understanding of the human telos from it. For Aristotle it is the activity in accordance with ethical or intellectual virtue; for MacIntyre it is a life unified by enacted narrative”

    This is the furthest from relativism it got, but it’s not very much:
    “MacIntyre states there explicitly that “although there is indeed good reason to repudiate important elements in Aristotle’s biology, I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible” (MacIntyre 1999, x). This is an extremely significant conclusion and it is equally “significant that in this book, the concept of tradition plays almost no role, in contrast to each of his other major works following After Virtue”” (p. 112)

    If anyone can shed light on this I’d be very grateful.

  10. Duncan Pugh says

    Why not bring back Aristotle’s Biology? There was a good programme on the BBC called ‘Aristotle’s Lagoon’ which provides a good introduction to his Biology and teleology … It’s also interesting to consider MacIntyre’s Hegelian background and the fact that Hegel said he was the first person since Aristotle to deal with the soul in the way he does in ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ … then read ‘De Anima’ … I think there is a lot of potential in neo-Aristotelianism.

    • Vasili says

      I am not sure I see how Hegel would fit into this, so I’ll just explain my own view of the matter, which, alas, may not be very satisfactory from a philosophical point of view.

      The reason I am suspicious of Aristotle’s biology making a comeback in this context, is that it would seem to dovetail neatly with a kind of biological reductionism which I oppose.

      While Aristotle was no evolutionist (as the documentary points out) his teleological theory could be modified to articulate such views. Since MacIntyre is essentially talking about culture, the introduction of biological grounding could lead one to look at evolutionary psychology or similar materialistically oriented theories to explain cultural evolution and ultimately the diversity of social institutions and moral values. Socio-cultural anthropologists who espouse cultural relativism have largely been at odds with these kinds of theories for over 100 years. I do not deny biology, but I also think that it underdetermines our cultural behaviour, and thus serves as a poor explanatory ground. The real danger here is naturalizing a specific ethnocentric notion of human nature as something universal. This is especially dangerous when we are dealing with ethics that inform global politics, justify specific economic doctrines etc.

      Biological and psychological explanations tend to be much easier to popularize then social and cultural ones. For one they jive with our individualism and materialism. They are also easily explained on a surface level. The idea, for example, of natural selection is seemingly easy to extend to culture. Just look at the popularization of the term “meme.” Or all the biological metaphors we use to describe cultural discourses like “viral marketing.” When we get into things like sex and gender roles, it gratifies us to see our cultural intuitions affirmed and justified by hard science.

      Now, I thankfully don’t think MacIntyre went there despite his evocation of biology. His “universals” still seem like the sort of empty categories Clifford Geertz deflated in “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” (1973).

      (For a critique of ev. psych. see for example Susan McKinnon’s “Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology”)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *