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After Virtue

January 7, 2015

A Disquieting Suggestion

“Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; pans of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred.

Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

In such a culture men would use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ‘mass’, ‘specific gravity’, ‘atomic weight’ in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.

This imaginary possible world is very like one that some science fiction writers have constructed. We may describe it as a world in which the language of natural science, or parts of it at least, continues to be used but is in a grave state of disorder. We may notice that if in this imaginary world analytical philosophy were to flourish, it would never reveal the fact of this disorder. For the techniques of analytical philosophy are essentially descriptive and descriptive of the language of the present at that. The analytical philosopher would be able to elucidate the conceptual structures of what was taken to be scientific thinking and discourse in the imaginary world in precisely the way that he elucidates the conceptual structures of natural science as it is.

Nor again would phenomenology or existentialism be able to discern anything wrong. All the structures of intentionality would be what they are now. The task of supplying an epistemological basis for these false simulacra of natural science would not differ in phenomenological terms from the task as it is presently envisaged…

What is the point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious pseudo-scientists and real, genuine philosophy? The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have-very largely, if not entirely-lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, or morality.

But how could this be so? The impulse to reject the whole suggestion out of hand will certainly be very strong. Our capacity to use moral language, to be guided by moral reasoning, to define our transactions with others in moral terms is so central to our view of ourselves that even to envisage the possibility of our radical incapacity in these respects is to ask for a shift in our view of what we are and do which is going to be difficult to achieve. But we do already know two things about the hypothesis which are initially important for us if we are to achieve such a shift in viewpoint. One is that philosophical analysis will not help us. In the real world the dominant philosophies of the present, analytical or phenomenological, will be as powerless to detect the disorders of moral thought and practice as they were impotent before the disorders of science in the imaginary world. Yet the powerlessness of this kind of philosophy does not leave us quite resourceless. For a prerequisite for understanding the present disordered state of the imaginary world was to understand its history, a history that had to be written in three distinct stages. The first stage was that in which the natural sciences flourished, the second that in which they suffered catastrophe and the third that in which they were restored but in damaged and disordered form. Notice that this history, being one of decline and fall, is informed by standards…”

And, to summarise ahead, this history is an academic history, only a mere few centuries old. Academic history has its own standards, of which the following is said:

“History by now in our culture means academic history, and academic history is less than two centuries old. Suppose it were the case that the catastrophe of which my hypothesis speaks had occurred before, or largely before, the founding of academic history, so that the moral and other evaluative presuppositions of academic history derived from the forms of the disorder which it brought about. Suppose, that is, that the standpoint of academic history is such that from its value-neutral viewpoint moral disorder must remain largely invisible. All that the historian-and what is true of the historian is characteristically true also of the social scientist will be allowed to perceive by the canons and categories of his discipline will be one morality succeeding another: seventeenth-century Puritanism, eighteenth-century hedonism, the Victorian work-ethic and so on, but the very language of order and disorder will not be available to him. If this were to be so, it would at least explain why what I take to be the real world and its fate has remained unrecognized by the academic curriculum. For the forms of the academic curriculum would turn out to be among the symptoms of the disaster whose occurrence the curriculum does not acknowledge. Most academic history and sociology-the history of a Namier or a Hofstadter and the sociology of a Merton or a Lipset-are after all as far away from the historical standpoint of Hegel and Collingwood as most academic philosophy is from their philosophical perspective.

It may seem to many readers that as I have elaborated my initial hypothesis I have step by step deprived myself of very nearly all possible argumentative allies. But is not just this required by the hypothesis itself? For if the hypothesis is true, it will necessarily appear implausible, since one way of stating part of the hypothesis is precisely to assert that we are in a condition which almost nobody recognizes and which perhaps nobody at all can recognize fully. If my hypothesis appeared initially plausible. it would certainly be false. And at least if even to entertain this hypothesis puts me into an antagonistic stance. it is a very different antagonistic stance from that of, for example, modern radicalism. For the modern radical is as confident in the moral expression of his stances and consequently in the assertive uses of the rhetoric of morality as any conservative has ever been. Whatever else he denounces in our culture he is certain that it still possesses the moral resources which he requires in order to denounce it. Everything else may be, in his eyes, in disorder; but the language of morality is in order, just as it is. That he too may be being betrayed by the very language he uses is not a thought available to him. It is the aim of this book to make that thought available to radicals, liberals and conservatives alike.


That, dear readers is the fascinating introduction to Scottish philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s controversial and thought provoking book ‘After Virtue’. All emphasis in this article is mine.

McIntyre goes onto elaborate (I cut the full introductory chapter heavily) that the reason few have recognised this state of affairs is because “the catastrophe will have to have been of such a kind that it was not and has not been – except perhaps by a very few – recognized as a catastrophe. We shall have to look not for a few brief striking events whose character is incontestably clear, but for a much longer, more complex and less easily identified process and probably one which by its very nature is open to rival interpretation.”

In essence McIntyre goes on a fascinating historical and philosophical discourse, arguing that ‘the Enlightenment project was doomed to failure’. Why is this the case? McIntyre argues that all the philosophers from the Enlightenment onwards, dozens of system builders like Marx, Kant, Hegel and others, were using an incoherent language of morality. McIntyre argues that these philosophers fail “because of shared characteristics deriving from their highly specific historical background”. That background was the Enlightenment’s abandonment of Aristotelianism, and in particular the Aristotelian concept of teleology – that is, an account of a given end or purpose. Ancient and medieval ethics, argues MacIntyre, relied wholly on the teleological idea that human life had a proper end or character, and that human beings could not reach this natural end without preparation. We will examine this idea closely in our examination of ecclesiastical history later this month (which McIntyre somewhat ignores), wherein religion provides teleology

McIntyre continues, arguing that renaissance science rejected Aristotle’s teleological physics as an incorrect and unnecessary account, which led Renaissance philosophy to make a similar rejection in the realm of ethics. But shorn of teleology, ethics as a body of knowledge was expurgated of its central content, and only remained as, essentially, a vocabulary list with few definitions and no context. With such an incomplete framework on which to base their moral understanding, the philosophers of the Enlightenment and their successors were doomed from the beginning.

McIntyre goes on to give accounts of contemporary moral debate (the examples are relevant even though published in 1981). He states that modern debates seem indeterminable, with there being “no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture”. Or, as I have thought many times to myself, we, as a society, don’t even know what we want to achieve; we don’t even have clear values. We lack a shared moral and social fabric. This – and here I and not McIntyre am arguing – has occurred gradually over time. There was the breakdown of the Papacy in the 15th century as we will address, the rejection of Aristotelianism, the Enlightenment (discussed below) , the rejection of the traditional honour system, waves of immigration and globalisation in the 20th century which promoted tolerance, there was postmodernism, nihilism, existentialism… in short, an age of complete tolerance and multiculturalism can carry the danger that a shared social thread gets shredded.

Let us take, for instance, McIntyre’s humourous discussion of just war arguments:

“(a) A just war is one in which the good to be achieved outweighs the evils involved in waging the war and in which a clear distinction can be made between combatants – whose lives are at stake – and innocent noncombatants. But in a modern war calculation of future escalation is never reliable and no practically applicable distinction between combatants and noncombatants can be made. Therefore no modern war can be a just war and we all now ought to be pacifists.

(b) If you wish for peace, prepare for war. The only way to achieve peace is to deter potential aggressors. Therefore you must build up your armaments and make it clear that going to war on any particular scale is not necessarily ruled out by your policies. An inescapable part of making this clear is being prepared both to fight limited wars and to go not only to, but beyond, the nuclear brink on certain types of occasion. Otherwise you will not avoid war and you will be defeated.

(c) Wars between the Great Powers are purely destructive; but wars waged to liberate oppressed groups, especially in the Third World, are a necessary and therefore justified means for destroying the exploitative domination which stands between mankind and happiness.”

What McIntyre argues, correctly, is that these and other arguments are incommensurable arguments. These arguments are perfectly logically valid, or can be made so. The problem arises when we get back to the evaluative concept / framework or presupposition being used. How do we weigh justice and innocence against security and survival, as the first two arguments stress respectively? We can’t. As McIntyre says

From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.

One of the reasons McIntyre gives for the development of this shrill tone is that the Enlightenment placed moral agency in the hands of the individual. (This, I note, is a step forward from the devolution of the papacy, whereby morality shifted from the Church to humanists, or people. I also note the role of the Reformation in provoking this shift.) By placing moral agency with the individual, morality became inherently subjective. This subjectivity destroyed the telos formerly in place in ethics, and this continues today. We have no idea what is ethically justified, what is right, and no shared end goal in society ethically.

So here people attempt to prove the validity of their philosophy or criterion. Yet reconciling utilitarianism, the Catgeorical Imperative and other ethical systems (as I once did, of a sorts) is a somewhat useless exercise. As a philosophy major who is a friend of mind put it to me:

The problem is that people go into philosophy expecting it to replicate the hard sciences. And to be sure there are philosophical doctrines compatible with the principles which modern science regulates itself by. But those ones are boring and you shouldn’t bother yourself with them. Proving stuff is pretty much way overrated. Much lame philosophy has been written around trying to prove syllogystically *why* we shouldn’t kill each other or why we it’s better to push the fat guy. But beyond either reinforcing our own moral principles or fancying hypothetical situations that will never happen and will never be used as inputs in our personal moral calculus’, they don’t mean much… philosophy is best and most insightful when it treats the reader like an actual person. Philosophy is best when instead of proving things you already believe or bellying in the pits of intellectual masturbation it draws connection, incites synapses- when instead of trying to build a tower of knowledge it allows itself to have fun simply observing the towers we’ve already built

I will touch on this theme of getting so caught up in argument that actually doing good is forgotten when discussing the Church. For now though, the point is that its in the practical application of virtues, and not philosophical pondering that good comes about.

This is related to virtue ethics, of which McIntyre was crucial in reviving. If I may use thw Wikipedia summary, because it is accurate:

MacIntyre seeks to find an alternative to Nietzsche’s philosophy and eventually concludes that only classic Aristotelian thought can hope to save Western humanity. While Nietzsche seems to include the Aristotelian ethics and politics in his attack on the “degenerate disguises of the will to power,”[2]MacIntyre claims that this cannot be done due to important differences between the structure and assumptions of Aristotelian and post-Enlightenment philosophy. These include

  • Aristotle’s assumption that man is as-he-happens-to-be and that this is distinct from man-as-he-should-be. The Enlightenment, on the other hand, offers no metaphysical framework whatsoever in place of teleology.
  • Aristotle’s claim that rules are based on virtues, which are derived from an understanding of the telos. The Enlightenment reversed this and predicated virtues on an understanding of subjective (but purported to be universal) principles.
  • Aristotle’s assertion that virtue and morality are integral parts of society, as an understanding of the telos must be social and not individual. In the Enlightenment, however, societies lost their moral authorityand the individual became the fundamental interpreter of moral questions.”

I bolded that sentence for a very specific reason. The notion of a purpose of goal gives less leeway for the individual. The modern doctrine is to ‘chase your dreams’, ‘do what you want’. The very language of our times, be it the ‘I’ in iPod, iPad, the ‘my’ in myRTA or myGov, or the ever present and ever depressing to see statement “join the conversation; make your voice heard”, all represent an individualism singular to our times, shorn of the destruction of traditional ties, and the Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions, with the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen merely one of many examples. The point is that virtue is linked with those outside of ourselves. The concept of ‘virtue’, it is true, did expand to include frugality, industry and more in the Victorian Age – virtues of the individual – yet it does not change that we cannot be altruistic to ourself, inspiring to our common man if we do not see him. We cannot be just if there is no-one to be just to, kind if there is no kindness to mete out, or magnanimous if there is nothing to give.

We cannot be virtuous, for the most part, unless we care for our fellow man. Unless we are social.

That is me, and not McIntyre speaking. I find it ridiculous to speak of morality without relation to the community.


When I began reading After Virtue, on the recommendation of a writer I pay note to, I realised that the recommendation was spot on. I began reading After Virtue on Boxing Day in 2014. It was fascinating. Now, I freely admit that much of my ‘reading’ was of summaries on the Internet, for McIntyre’s argument draws on a philosophical depth and rigour that I lack the knowledge to follow without secondary material. I didn’t end up ‘reading’ the entire book once it became mired in philosophical discourse for this reason. I also admit that McIntyre often veers off course in his discourse, yet there are sections of prose, such as that introduction, which are truly sublime and thought provoking.

Looking back, McIntyre speaks of a ‘catastrophe’. I would not use that word, for even if we live in a world where the very notion of virtue and morality are obscured in a deep fog, our age is still one of great positivity, wherein violence is at historical lows, and social progress has occurred. But I would say that the fog is a perpetual irritation to us, and can often lead us to fall over, and trip.

I would say that we trip often. With the tower of virtue and morality having crumbled to dust, a beacon lost, we have a modern charge to create the meaning in our own lives, a la Sartre’s existentialism. This is a great charge, which we often are not ready to bear. We lose heart and despair that life is meaningless. Or perhaps we indulge in hedonism, pursuing a mistaken course. Or perhaps we fritter our life away in search of utter trivialities, tinkering as Rome – our life – fades to dust. Hedonism, triviality, nihilism. These are all modern afflictions borne of a loss of telos.

They are us tripping over, and hurting ourselves. Sometimes very badly.

Whether you agree with McIntyre’s central thesis or not, I think its hard to deny how fascinating a view it is, and how much it can explain. At the very least, it is worth exploring virtue and the Church further to evaluate McIntyre’s view and other subjects.

That’s where we turn to next.


From → Foundations

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  1. Virtue and the Church Today | The Holistic Thinker

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