Towards a Unity of the Virtues

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue seeks to raise virtue ethics out of the ashes of the enlightenment project by establishing a telos for understanding moral action. His central claim, developed late in the text, is that the virtues can be restored based on the cultivation of three interrelated tools: 1. practice, 2. a narrative account of a single human life, and situated within 3. a moral tradition.

As you could guess, MacIntyre rebels against the Kantian deontological tradition of moral philosophy that sought to identify reason-bound solutions to ethics. This tradition, he argues strips the desires away from moral action in the world. Since particular actions are always expressions of feelings, the passions move us to action, not reason. In a way, then he is Humean in that he believes that rule-bound systems sustain our moral decision making only because of our long-term interests, but they have no teleological basis for governing morality.

The virtues

Yet, vis-à-vis Kant, Hume constructed a dualistic conception of the ethics by pitting the passions with reason. Of course the project of founding a rational basis for morality had failed by the time of Hume. This failure also led to an increasing secularization of morality stripped from religion. This is also the very reason that philosophy became an obscure doctrine kept to elites, and a specialized reading public.

Both Kant and Kierkegaard’s ethics depend on what a rational maxim ought to be, and this is highly influenced by their own conservative moral surroundings. MacIntyre argues that both ethical systems fail, Kant’s reason based morality and Kierkegaard’s ethics based on choice. Kierkegaard could be seen as a continuation of Kant by incorporating the act of choice to do the work that reason could not do (44 – 47).

In an effort to resuscitate morality, MacIntyre incorporates emotivism. Emotivisim arises in the twentieth century, coming on the heels of the decline of utilitarianism and consequentialism. What emotivism argues is that morals which appeared to be taken as objective universals were in fact subjective wills. The very effort to create a sort of enlightenment project out of ethics rooted in reason ends up in a sort of fait accompli.

We want to become those we are – human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves.

Nietzsche then becomes the second major heir to MacIntyre’s emotivism next to the figure of Hume. Nietzsche absolves to let will replace reason and let us become autonomous moral agents. In America it was pragmatism that provided the means for the transition from utilitarianism to emotivism. It follows logically that the project of rational-based ethics a la Kant that sought to develop universal rules that apply to all rational beings. Attempts to provide the moral agent with an autonomous ground to set himself apart from the enlightenment project had become obsolete.

MacIntyre argues that the ethical reason-bound projects of Kant, Hume, Diderot, and Kierkegaard failed because of certain shared historical backgrounds (51). This view differs from a Foucauldian view that would argue that the failure of ethics is the result of a regime of truth that had become transferred by bourgeois morality into a power discourse. What MacIntyre Is seeking to situate is an argument that that the tradition of enlightenment ethical theory is also part and parcel of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where the telos of man is split between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the study of how man transfers from one state to the other, between the interstice of realization of a true essence. Ethics then must give account of telos, man’s nature, and how to reach our true end.

MacIntyre situates emotivism based on Kierkegaard’s four characters of modernity: the therapist, the aesthete (least likely to be the victim of modern fictions of morality – the easiest to unmask, but also the easiest to become cynical), and the bureaucrat, and the manager.

In MacIntyre’s system, there exists a tripartite sequence of ethics: human nature as it is, as it could be and the practical ethical framework to enable to it to realize what it could be. Unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, it will be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will pervade the moral life and that we will be unable to specify the context of virtues adequately. Is it possible then to view the whole of a human life as a unity?

Three concepts are central to the modern moral making philosophy of emotivism:

Rights – defined negatively, not by law or customs. Defined as rights ‘not to’ be interfered with. Yet there is a problem which is that every attempt to show that we have a basis for universal rights has failed – proven in social action. They purport to provide us with an objective criterion but they fail to do so.

Protest – protest has turned into a form of expression that seeks to over-throw the masks of contemporary moral discourses.

Unmasking – draws from Freud’s conception of the superego whereby it becomes a moral faculty of inherited traditions that regulates psychic agency.

Towards a Unity of the Virtues

To frame a telos for the virtues, MacIntyre provides some excellent background into medieval and contemporary, focusing on the legacy of Aristotle. Aristotle believed that the possession of honor is the closest that man can get to the good. Ronald Dworkin argues that the central doctrine of liberalism is that the thesis that questions of the good life for man or the ends of human life are to be regarded from the public standpoint as systematically unsettlable. On this then rules of morality are not to be settled based on some more fundamental conception of the good.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics seeks a good that is rooted in the polis but one that is also metaphysically set in biology. The virtues are the qualities that will enable man to achieve the good for which he calls eudemonia – or a general state of well being. Eudeomonia is a telos. Right action depends on “the correctness of the end of the purposive choice of which virtue is the cause.” The virtues must be conditioned and trained. A truly virtuous person acts on the true and rational basis of judgment. Yet there is very little mention of rules in the ethics.

Medieval ethics began to incorporate Aristotle’s virtues into their conception of the human essence. This mixed with Christianity meant that the human was eligible of sin while simultaneously eligible to will the virtues. The determining factor is the will. To the Christian, the character of an individual may be a compound of vices and virtues and these dispositions will prompt the will. The true arena of morality is that of the will.

St. Thomas Aquains posited that the basis of ethics remains outside of the purview of God’s commandments, because we have to be able to rationally know what God wills for us to do. Because if we do possess such a standard the commandments of God would be redundant. The system of reason that dictates moral maxims must therefore be based upon practical reason because it is independent of experience.

This interiorization of the will incorporated Stoicism and the New Testament. What Stoicism did was to end any notion of a telos. There are no intermediate degrees. One either has it or one does not. Only the cultivation of such a will that can produce these things is unconditionally good.

The theological virtue of charity is one that Aristotle himself never recognized. The virtue expended in charity is forgiveness. Aristotle had no word for sin, or for repentance. Charity alters the conception of the good, for the community where the good is achieved has to be based on reconciliation.

There are three different kinds of virtue traditions:

1. Homer – a virtue is a quality that enables an individual to move towards a specifically human telos.
2. Aristotle and the New Testemant – a virtue is the quality that enables the human to move towards a supernatural or natural telos.
3. A virtue is what enables the human to achieve earthly success, Benjamin Franklin.

From this MacIntyre seeks to develop an overarching view of how the three tools he uses towards the latter part of the book. They include:

1. A practice, or any social practice to which goods that are internal to it are required.
2. The narrative account of a single human life. That is, virtues must account in the context of meaning for human life in a totality. Unless we have a theory of the meaning of human life then the virtues will lack the proper context whereby we can anchor their relation to the other virtues, practices, and tradition.
3. Virtues must be constituted in the framework of a moral tradition.

A virtue then can be defined as:

An acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve these goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods (P. 191).

2 thoughts on “Towards a Unity of the Virtues

  1. Hi there, Daniel,
    It’s been a long time since I contemplated the bust of MacIntyre (probably 1994 or so that I marked up the book, no pun intended). He provides some important critiques, and I think there is some important truth about the relationship between groups (family, tribe, nation) and their narratives (personal, group, cosmic) and morality. But in the end he always seems to me to become Greco-Christian supercessionist in his desire to overcome postmodern relativism.
    This is not surprising. Christianity as we know it in the West is an amalgam of Greco-Roman thought and mere vestiges of the Judaism of Jesus and his followers; it is, in other words, more Greek than Jewish, more Aristotle than Jesus (or even Paul). But that IS the narrative of Western Christianity. I’m personally more attracted to the original roots, to the Judaic root in its fullness, not in its assimilated diaspora form.
    And I find it impossible any more to speak of a human “nature,” or in the terms of all those other fixed ideas of Aristotle’s static philosophy, with unmoved movers and all the rest. That’s, I think, why MacIntyre in the end comes out a supercessionist for me. He winds up imposing (or opting for as somehow “best”) the Greco-Christian myth and its static categories.
    I much prefer Heraclitus, if we must go Greek, and then my bias is Darwin’s evolutionary narrative generating quite different groups (families, tribes), and the insights of “spiral dynamics,” and Whitehead’s insight (or notion) that we aren’t dealing with fixed “laws” so much as “habits” which have developed over millions of years (throw in a little Rorty here) and have been around so long that they feel like “laws” and feel like a “human nature.” But they’re just habits, not easy to shift, but possible to shift. And there is a natural development from primal family morality to extended family morality to tribal morality to inter-tribal morality to nation state morality, all of it seeming to generate an arc going in an ever-more universalist morality direction.
    I agree with MacIntyre that relativism is not and, in the interest of survival, can not be the final word. But let us start with the relativism as a natural evolutionary outcome, with the different natural developments that have led to different and often conflicting moralities, depending on where they arose and when. And then, let us ask in each different group if indeed there is this “arc” of development I’ve claimed. And then let us move forward via what you are doing especially — dialogue — move to an inter-relative morality and then a post-relative relative morality, moving toward a naturalistic universal morality. Let us praise MacIntyre’s critiques and some of his hints, but let us move beyond his supercessionist “solution.”

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