Alasdair MacIntyre on how ethically lost we are

A young Mondrian in 1908 channels an old Monet but is really thinking “I wonder if a bunch of rectangles on canvas would sell? If it did it could solve a lot of problems, perhaps not for everyone, but certainly for me.”

On Having Survived the Academic Moral Philosophy of the 20th Century

I loved this recent essay of MacIntyre. But then, to paraphrase my favourite comedian Stewart Lee, I agreed the fuck out of it. I wrote about MacIntyre’s great book After Virtue in a recent newsletter.

I remember reading its opening pages in ANU Co-op bookshop when it first surfaced in 1981. They present a story in which science is destroyed by revolution and culture war. As they recover from this cataclysm people wander among the rubble finding artefacts from the old world from which they piece together what they take to be the science of the ‘ancients’. But it’s a jumble of artefacts and techniques. Noone really knows the big picture of what they’re doing because the traditions and practices by which things were connected up and related to each other are all fractured.

It struck me as a fantastic analogy for neoclassical economics. MacIntyre’s story is an allegory of what has happened to the West in throwing off a unified ethical system and, in his view ending up with a jumble of ethical artefacts all papered over by analytical philosophy which encourages ‘emotivism’ — the idea that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference.

Emotivism, for MacIntyre, departs from the classical and medieval traditions that ground ethics in a shared conception of the good life and the virtues necessary for human flourishing.

Anyway, after reading the essay I’ve extracted below, I think I described MacIntyre’s ideas slightly wrongly. For me the essence of his whole essay is the insistence that we understand ethics as something that is emergent from practical life, not abstract propositions. Here’s the money quote for me which you’ll find below.

We need to begin again and to do so by returning to the social context in which we learned the use of good and its cognates. What we first had to learn was how to make the distinctions between what we desire and the choiceworthy, and between what pleases those others whom we desire to please and the choiceworthy. We characteristically and generally learn—or fail to learn—to make these distinctions, as we emerge through and from the family into the life of a variety of practices: such practices as those of housework and farmwork, of learning Latin and geometry, of building houses and making furniture, of playing soccer and playing in string quartets. What we can learn only in and through such practices is what the standards of excellence are in each type of activity and how our desires and feelings must be disciplined and transformed and our choices guided by the standards of excellence in each type of activity if we are to achieve such excellence and through it the goods internal to each type of practice.

As I read this I also thought of Michael Polanyi who noticed that in every realm of life the things that can be made explicit are built on a tacit layer which is culturally learned from infancy. It seems to me that other ethical traditions presume that the action is in what can be made explicit and I think that’s completely wrong. Anyway, what would I know?

The other killer quote is this one which follows his elaboration of the perceived contradictions between Kantianism and Utilitarianism:

And it is in negotiating their way between such moments, both in private and in public life, that the characteristic skills of those who are socially and politically successful are exhibited. What we have then is a morality whose oscillations and contradictions show it to be in a state of disorder, but a kind of disorder that enables it to function well as the ideology of our present social, political, and economic order.

He doesn’t drive home the point in this essay, but he does in After Virtue, that the successful in the modern world are those who can inhabit the contradictions of our society — those who can participate with all seriousness in a strategic retreat that agrees that ‘honesty’ or ‘serving the Australian people’ is a core value and then returns to work on Monday to participate in some activity that is a complete travesty of these values — without batting an eye, indeed, without noticing. As he puts it devastatingly in After Virtue:

In any society which recognized only external goods, competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature… We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.

Over to Alasdair MacIntyre. I’ve edited from my own copy in which I’ve bolded some passages and added a comment or two in 1 which I’ve left in in case it’s of use to you.

How I Discovered That, by the Standards of Contemporary Academic Philosophy, Thomist Claims Must Be Problematic

From 1945 to 1949 I was an undergraduate student in classics at what was then Queen Mary College in the University of London, reading Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle with my teachers, while also, from 1947 onwards, occasionally attending lectures given by A. J. Ayer or Karl Popper, or by visiting speakers to Ayer’s seminar at University College, such as John Wisdom. Early on I had read Language, Truth and Logic, and Ayer’s student James Thomson introduced me to the Tractatus and to Tarski’s work on truth. Ayer and his students were exemplary in their clarity and rigor and in the philosophical excitement that their debates generated. And I became convinced that the test of any set of philosophical theses, including those defended by Thomists, was whether it could be vindicated. In and through such debates. Yet I also had to learn—and this took a little longer—that in the debates of academic philosophy in the twentieth century no set of theses is ever decisively vindicated.

To excel as a contemporary academic philosopher is a matter of the quality of one’s analytic and argumentative skills, especially in their negative use to expose failures in the distinction-making of others or gaps in their arguments, together with an ability to summon up telling counter-examples. Conceptual inventiveness is also valued. Excellence in the exercise of these qualities is compatible with holding different and incompatible sets of beliefs about which of the various philosophical positions in contention in one’s own specialized area is to be regarded as true and rationally justified, including those positions in contention over how truth and rational justification are to be understood. Disagreement on fundamental issues is in practice taken to be the permanent condition of philosophy. The range of continuing disagreements is impressive: realists versus antirealists in respect of mathematical, moral, perceptual, and historical judgments; dualists versus materialists in the philosophy of mind; utilitarians versus Kantians versus virtue theorists in ethics; Fregeans versus direct reference theorists in the philosophy of language; and a great many more. Add to these a range of disagreements in religion and politics that, themselves non-philosophical, are closely related to philosophical disagreements: theists versus atheists, conservatives versus liberals versus libertarians versus Marxists. …

How I Discovered from Sartre and Ayer That Thomist Claims Are Problematic

Thomism had also become problematic for me for another reason. The Communist Party at Queen Mary College had introduced me to the texts of the Marxist canon, and I had become and to this day remain convinced of the truth and political relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism and of his historical insights …. To how much else of Marxism I was thereby committed I was unclear. … Since one thing on which Marxists and Thomists seemed to agree was that Marxism and Thomism were incompatible, I found myself confronting yet another set of question marks. Nonetheless it was on the basis of Marxist insights into the nature both of morality and of moral philosophy that I began to formulate another, more constructive kind of question.

Marx and Engels had argued that every morality is the morality of some particular social and economic order and that every moral philosophy articulates and makes explicit the judgments, arguments, and presuppositions of some particular morality, either in such a way as to defend both that morality and the social and economic order of which it is the expression, or in such a way as to undermine them. And my acknowledgment of the truth of this thesis was reinforced by my encounters with social anthropology, especially first with the work of Franz Steiner and later with that of Rodney Needham. I therefore asked: What is the distinctive morality of this social and economic order that I inhabit, and how does contemporary moral philosophy stand to that morality? And in pursuing an answer to this question I was guided not only by Marx and Engels but also by John Anderson, who had urged that, if we were to understand social institutions and relationships, we should ask not what function or purpose they serve but to what conflicts they give expression. This suggested that both the morality and the moral philosophy of the present age are best understood as milieus of conflict, sites of disagreement. But those disagreements find significantly different expression in the arenas of philosophical debate on the one hand and in those of everyday moral and political practice on the other.

In philosophical debate, utilitarianism and Kantianism are presented, with some rare and sophisticated exceptions, as incompatible and rival standpoints. To adhere to some version of one is to be at odds with every version of the other. But in many areas of the everyday life of modernity what we find instead is an oscillation between those two standpoints and a moral rhetoric designed to disguise that oscillation. So there are moments in which principles are laid down without qualification and moments in which exceptions to those principles are justified in the name of either the maximization of prosperity or the maintenance of public security. And it is in negotiating their way between such moments, both in private and in public life, that the characteristic skills of those who are socially and politically successful are exhibited. What we have then is a morality whose oscillations and contradictions show it to be in a state of disorder, but a kind of disorder that enables it to function well as the ideology of our present social, political, and economic order.

Yet although I had come to recognize this as a result of reflecting on the Marxist critique of morality, I had also had to acknowledge that within the communist movement there was to be found much the same oscillation between quasi-Kantian attitudes and a consequentialism that parodied utilitarianism, and this not only in the brutal and corrupting ethics of Stalinism but also in the ethics of Stalinism’s Marxist critics. Marxism as a form of practice too often suffered from the same lack of moral resources as the social order that it aspired to replace, and this unsurprisingly, since it had been generated from within that social order. It was with the rise of the New Left in Britain, after the suppression of the Hungarian Rising of 1956, that the question of whether and how this defect in Marxist theory and practice could be remedied became urgent. But what were the resources needed to remedy it? I was able to answer this question only by considering further not only the issues posed by Kantianism and utilitarianism but also those raised by the disagreements between Thomists on the one hand and Ayer and Sartre on the other, concerning the nature and status of reasons for action. And to make progress with either of these sets of issues I had to look in a different direction, and my narrative has to move backwards in time.

Two Lines of Thought About the Meaning and Use of Good

Two opposed lines of thought about the meaning of the word good and its cognates had been developed in English-speaking philosophy since the 1930s. One of these finds its first formulation in Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic in 1936. To call something good or bad is to express one’s feelings for or against it. To evaluate is to approve or disapprove. … To say of something that it is good is both to commend it and to urge those whom one is addressing to do so as well. …

Viewed in the light cast by Ayer and Stevenson, intuitionist moral philosophers turn out to be under the illusion that they are asserting moral truths when they are in fact doing no more than expressing their own individual feelings and attitudes. They suffer from a lack of self-knowledge. The problem was that this mistake by some English moral philosophers seemed to have its roots in the general moral culture of their time and place. For while, so far as I could judge, Ayer, Stevenson, and other expressivists had provided a compelling account of the characteristic uses to which moral judgments were now put in a particular culture, they had taken themselves to have provided an adequate account of the meaning of moral and evaluative sentences as such, whatever the culture. Yet the meaning of those sentences was such that they at least appeared to give expression to some impersonal standard of judgment to which appeal was being made. Meaning and use had, so it seemed, come apart, something on which the current philosophy of language shed no light. How might this have happened? …

This second line of thought began by taking seriously J. L. Austin’s injunction to begin with lexicography, to accumulate a wide range of different types of examples of the relevant expressions. Those who do so find themselves also following Aristotle—and this is no accident. Austin’s habits of thought were in several ways Aristotelian and certainly so in recognizing the multiplicity and the heterogeneity of our uses of good, better, bad, worse, and their cognates. We speak of bad kings and good jam, of a good day at the races and a bad holiday in Casablanca, of a good time to go on a spree and a bad way to do it, of someone’s being good at tennis or good for nothing. … Austin himself took there to be an irreducible and inescapable heterogeneity here. But Aristotle had identified a unity underlying that heterogeneity, and the clue to that unity was supplied by Peter Geach. In 1956 Geach had pointed out that good and bad are noun-dependent or noun-phrase-dependent adjectives and that well and badly are correspondingly verb-dependent adverbs. What it is for an X to be good depends upon what an X is, so the criteria of goodness in a king are very different from those of goodness in jam. And what it is to X well depends upon what X-ing is, so the criteria by which someone who plays tennis is judged to have played well or badly are not the same as those by which someone who shoes horses is judged to do so well or badly. And so we take a first step toward answering the question: What makes these various uses of good more than puns?

Here we need to bear in mind the distinction between attributive and predicative uses of good, as W. D. Ross originally formulated it, together with Geach’s thesis that good is essentially attributive, that to be good is always to be a good someone or something, and that predicative uses of good can be translated into attributive uses. We speak of “good parents” but also of “good burglars,” of “the best athlete in the games” but also of “the best forger still at work.” It matters therefore that we can always ask, “Is it good for someone to be a good parent?” and “Is it good for someone to be a good burglar?” and what we learned from Geach is that to ask these questions is to ask, “Is a good parent a good human being?” and “Is a good burglar a good human being?,” questions that can be answered only by first answering the question “What is it to be a good human being?”

It is at this point that this line of thought has sometimes been thought to encounter insuperable difficulties. That there are criteria independent of our choices, feelings, and attitudes governing our applications of “good parent,” “good burglar,” or for that matter “good boxer” or “good violinist,” is difficult to deny. For in each area, drawing on Aristotle’s thesis that to be a good X is to excel in the activities characteristic of an X, we can say what it is to exhibit such excellence as parent, as burglar, as boxer, as violinist. But, many have urged, any analogy between goodness as attributed to these and goodness as attributed to human beings breaks down. There is, they argue, no set of activities characteristic of a human being, as there are activities characteristic of parents, burglars, boxers, and violinists. Hence it was to be argued by Hampshire and by Berlin, following Austin, that there is no such thing as the good life for human beings, no such thing as the human good.

To this it can be replied that there are indeed many different ways of leading a good human life, but that there are at least four sets of goods that are characteristically needed by every human individual if she or he is to flourish. First, without adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter, physical exercise, education, and opportunity to work no one is likely to be able to develop his or her powers—physical, intellectual, moral, aesthetic—adequately. Second, everyone benefits from affectionate support by, well-designed instruction from, and critical interaction with family, friends, and colleagues. Third, without an institutional framework that provides stability and security over time a variety of forms of association, exchange, and long-term planning are impossible. And fourth, if an individual is to become and sustain her- or himself as an independent rational agent, she or he needs powers of practical rationality, of self-knowledge, of communication, and of inquiry and understanding. Lives that are significantly defective in any one of these respects are judged worse, that is, less choiceworthy, than lives that are not. These goods are goods without which excellence in activity is often impossible, and so the key to our various uses of good with regard to them is a shared conception of excellence in activity, of what it is to live virtuously.

Thus on any version of this line of thought—and there are different versions of it, for example, Philippa Foot’s naturalism and Iris Murdoch’s Platonism—there are standards independent of our feelings, attitudes, and choices by which we may judge whether this or that is choiceworthy, whether this or that is good to choose, to do, to be, to have, to feel. And every version is in conflict with the view that our evaluative uses of good, unless in a linguistically degenerated culture, are no more than expressions of or determined by our feelings, attitudes, and choices.

This radical disagreement concerning how our uses of good are to be construed is of course closely related to the disagreement that I identified earlier concerning the nature of reasons for actions, one in which Thomists were at odds with Ayer and Sartre. What it means to say that, in giving a reason for doing this rather than that, we are identifying some good that will be achieved by doing this rather than that depends on whether we understand good in expressivist or in other terms. Only if our uses of good are governed by standards independent of our feelings, attitudes, and choices can something like the Thomistic account of reasons for action be justified. So how are the issues between these two incompatible and antagonistic lines of thought to be resolved?

How at the Level of Theory the Debate Between the Protagonists of These Two Lines of Thought Is Interminable and Inconclusive

Someone disposed to find credible the account of the condition of academic philosophy that I advanced earlier would, without knowing any of the facts about the subsequent debates concerning the use of good, predict that neither side would be able to provide conclusive arguments for its own view and against the other, except by its own standards. And so it turned out. For this disagreement was integrated into the longer and continuing quarrel between self-styled moral realists and self-styled moral antirealists, a disagreement in which the contending parties have enriched the statements of their rival positions by drawing on discussions of realism and antirealism in other areas. And, just as in those other areas, the debates between moral realists and moral antirealists have had no decisive outcome. …

The philosophical interest resides in the detail of the arguments. But what emerges from that often-instructive detail is the large fact that, given the shared understanding of moral thought and practice presupposed by the two contending parties, and given their philosophical methods, neither party has the resources to defeat the other.

This is true more generally. Expressivists, whether followers of Alan Gibbard or Simon Blackburn or the earlier emotivist writers, have been able without notable difficulty to accommodate somehow or other every objection advanced against them. And a variety of anti-expressivists have been able equally easily to fend off the objections advanced against them. Each remains deeply convinced of the errors of the other. Both would regard it as intolerably frivolous to suggest that one should choose one’s side by flipping a coin. But how then is one to decide?

How It Is Only at the Level of Practice That We Can Become Aristotelians

We need to begin again and to do so by returning to the social context in which we learned the use of good and its cognates. What we first had to learn was how to make the distinctions between what we desire and the choiceworthy, and between what pleases those others whom we desire to please and the choiceworthy. We characteristically and generally learn—or fail to learn—to make these distinctions, as we emerge through and from the family into the life of a variety of practices: such practices as those of housework and farmwork, of learning Latin and geometry, of building houses and making furniture, of playing soccer and playing in string quartets. What we can learn only in and through such practices is what the standards of excellence are in each type of activity and how our desires and feelings must be disciplined and transformed and our choices guided by the standards of excellence in each type of activity if we are to achieve such excellence and through it the goods internal to each type of practice.  2

So long as our desires have not been disciplined and transformed in the relevant ways, our uses of good and of cognate expressions will tend to be what expressivist moral philosophers have taken them to be, and our choices will give expression to our feelings and attitudes. … So everything turns upon what we have been able to learn from the kind of practices in which we have engaged and on the nature of the particular moral culture or cultures in which we have participated. Understood in this light the philosophical quarrel between the two lines of thought that I sketched rests on a misunderstanding. It is not that we have two rival philosophical representations of one and the same subject matter but that we have two different subject matters, two different types of moral culture, an older one whose objectivist idioms and judgments are grossly misrepresented by expressivism, and one whose moral vocabulary exhibits just that blending of non-expressivist meanings and expressivist uses that had forced itself on my attention a good deal earlier, a blending characteristic of the dominant moral culture of advanced modernity.

Consider now some further aspects of a practice-based understanding of goods, virtues, and rules. The identification of a variety of types of goods poses the question: What place should we give to each type of good in our lives? And it is no accident that this question is framed in terms of “we” and “our,” rather than “I” and “mine.” For this is a question that I can only hope to ask and answer with good reason if I ask and answer it in the company of trusted but critical others, others to whom I recognize that I am bound by certain unconditional commitments—commitments not to harm the innocent, to be truthful, to keep our promises, commitments that allow us to reason together without the distortions that arise from fears of force and fraud—and this for at least two reasons. First, it is only in and through such interaction with trusted but critical others that our practical reasoning is tested, so that our evaluations become less one-sided and partial and less liable to distortion by our not always conscious hopes and fears. Second, it is only insofar as we direct ourselves toward common goods, the common goods of family, neighborhood, school, clinic, workplace, and political community, that we are able to achieve our individual goods. 3

We learn what place in our individual and common lives to give to each of a variety of goods, that is, only through a discipline of learning, during which we discover what we have hitherto cared for too much and what too little and, as we correct our inclinations, discover also that our judgments are informed by an at first inchoate but gradually more and more determinate conception of a final good, of an end, one in the light of which every other good finds its due place, an end indeed final but not remote, one to which here and now our actions turn out to be increasingly directed as we learn to give no more and no less than their due to other goods.

This discovery of a directedness in ourselves toward a final end is initially a discovery of what is presupposed by our practice, as it issues in a transformation of ourselves through the development of habits of feeling, thought, choice, and action that are the virtues, habits without which—even if in partial and imperfect forms—we are unable to move toward being fully rational agents.

To have become such an Aristotelian is to have found good reasons for rejecting both utilitarianism and Kantianism. What renders any form of consequentialism unacceptable is the discovery of the place that relationships structured by unconditional commitments must have in any life directed toward the achievement of common goods, commitments, it turns out, to the exceptionless, if sometimes complex, precepts of the natural law. What makes Kantian ethics unacceptable is not only that our regard for those precepts depends upon their enabling us to achieve our common goods but also that the Kantian conception of practical rationality is inadequate in just those respects in which it differs from Aristotelian phronēsis or Thomistic prudentia. Note, however, that these grounds for asserting that there are conclusive reasons for rejecting both utilitarian and Kantian ethics are Aristotelian grounds. Take away the Aristotelian premises from which this assertion is derived and it will cease to convince. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it lacks force precisely for those against whom it is directed, utilitarians and Kantians.

It is therefore of some importance that in arriving at a certain kind of Aristotelian standpoint I was not taking up one more theoretical position within the ongoing debates of contemporary moral philosophy. It is because I have been thought to have done just this that I have been unjustly accused of being one of the protagonists of so-called virtue ethics, something that the genuine protagonists of virtue ethics are happy to join me in denying.

But what then is it to adopt this kind of Aristotelian standpoint? There are at least three aspects to such a change of view. First, it enables one from a standpoint outside academic moral philosophy, that of an older tradition of moral practice, to understand why such moral philosophy was condemned to become what it has become, a scene of theoretical disputes between fruitlessly contending rival parties.

Second, it is to adopt a standpoint that enables individuals, by situating themselves within such a mode of social practice, to make intelligible features of the narratives of their own lives and of the lives of others that will otherwise remain opaque, confused, disguised, or trivialized. A basic Aristotelian thesis is that only insofar as we understand our individual and common lives as potentially directed toward the achievement of goods and of the good through the exercise of the virtues are we able to identify the various types of frustration, misunderstanding, and failure by which our lives are marked.

Third, just as Aristotelian moral and political theory provides us with resources for interpreting and redirecting our practical lives, so too our practical experience provides us with reasons for criticizing and sometimes rejecting some of Aristotle’s own concepts, theses, and arguments. We learn to identify that in Aristotle which derives from the limitations and prejudices of Athenian and Macedonian elites. …

How from the Standpoint of Aristotelian Practice Contemporary Academic Moral Philosophy Appears Defective as a Mode of Inquiry

The conception of moral philosophy at which I had thus arrived put me at odds not only with the standpoint dominant in contemporary moral philosophy but also with the established analytic understanding of how philosophical inquiry should proceed. For on the view that I have found myself compelled to take, contemporary academic moral philosophy turns out to be seriously defective as a form of rational inquiry. How so?

First, the study of moral philosophy has become divorced from the study of morality or rather of moralities and by so doing has distanced itself from practice. We do not expect serious work in the philosophy of physics from students who have never studied physics or on the philosophy of law from students who have never studied law. But there is not even a hint of a suggestion that courses in social and cultural anthropology and in certain areas of sociology and psychology should be a prerequisite for graduate work in moral philosophy. … A second necessary condition is a prior and continuing engagement with a variety of practices and a reflective grasp of what is involved in such engagement. … A third respect in which academic moral philosophy fails as a discipline of inquiry is a result of the extraordinary pressure exerted to sustain the status quo. What is the penalty that threatens academics who do not conform to the established norms? It is that their writing will go unpublished and disregarded.

An inescapable conclusion emerges. In moral philosophy, as in other areas of philosophy, much of what is written must go unpublished and much of what is published must go unread. What function then is served by this cruel academic treadmill? Its function is to inculcate the currently established conception of the tasks of moral philosophy and of its past history. It is to make certain that the young recognize whose arguments are to be taken seriously and whose disdained, when and about what to make jokes, and at whom and with whom it is permissible to sneer or condescend. It is to shape minds so that they are open to some ideas and closed to others. Academic moral philosophy is a conformist discipline, and habituation in writing what is well designed to secure the approval of those with established academic power is one principal means of producing and reinforcing that conformism.


Two salient thoughts emerge from this narrative. The first concerns the importance for the moral philosopher of living on the margins, intellectually as well as politically, a necessary condition for being able to see things as they are. The two standpoints without which I would have been unable to understand either modern morality or twentieth-century moral philosophy are those of Thomism and of Marxism, and I therefore owe a large and unpayable debt of gratitude to those who sustained and enriched those marginal movements of thought in the inhospitable intellectual climate of capitalist modernity. … One way to make it highly improbable that you will enjoy outstanding academic success is to enter contemporary debates in moral philosophy as either a Thomist or a Marxist.

A second thought, perhaps in tension with the first, concerns the importance for the moral philosopher of nonetheless learning as much as she or he can from those at the academic center, those who have made definitive contributions to the ongoing debates of academic moral philosophy. For interestingly it is often they who supply the resources that one needs if one is to free oneself from the limitations of their standpoint. If one is to evaluate both the achievements and the defects of twentieth-century academic moral philosophy, it needs to be understood both from within and from a standpoint that is at once external and radically critical. It is such a standpoint that I have tried to define.

Read the full essay here


  1. square brackets[]
  2. The undecidable foundations. Polanyi’s tacit foundations.[]
  3. This is what I call the ‘ground truthing’ element. Without others helping craft our own self-evaluation we can’t escape solipsism.[]
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