This book is a modern classic, first appearing in 1981 and now in its third edition with a new prologue by the author. In the prologue, Alasdair MacIntyre reaffirms the book’s argument and also addresses several of the main criticisms others have leveled at it in over two decades.
The book’s central thesis is well-known. MacIntyre argues that the moral debates in modernity are not only exhausting for being shrill, but for being inherently interminable. They will go on forever so long as the moral languages being employed continue to float free from the traditions that gave rise to them.
After the traditions (after virtue, that is), what we have leftover is partial fragments of lost traditions that nevertheless parade themselves as universals. They partly do so on account that their very ability to survive at all in a modern, pluralistic culture, where there are obviously so many differing voices, depends on their ability to convince us that they float above all of that. The problem is that the conflicts of pluralism have wanted to get in on this game, hence the frenetic rush to appropriate universals within opposing viewpoints. This gives the appearance of competing universals—an incoherent concept, to be sure, and one that MacIntyre exploits with elegance in order to show how much this whole thing is a sham disguised only by the Enlightenment’s rejection of the very traditions that produced the moral languages we continue to speak. The shrillness comes from the mistaken belief that an impersonal, moral standard exists when, in fact, arguments are only expressive of one’s feelings dressed up in imposing vocabulary.
One common objection to this thesis is to ask whether these debates are really interminable in principle or whether they just take a long time. After all, some modern debates (like the question of slavery) surely took longer than they might have, but still reached a conclusion. In this respect, MacIntyre is usually taken to be undemocratic. He does not dismiss democracy in principle, but doubts whether the modern societies we think of as democratic can actually function that way. The problem is that our societies lack a common telos, shared conceptions of human flourishing and community, around which our social and political lives (and hence moral debates about how to live) will find their coherence. But MacIntyre does not write off the people of our time. Instead, he is taking issue with the fact that no conception of the common good can be granted legitimacy in public discourse, not only as an empirical reality, but also to the extent that liberal political discourse is premised on its own neutrality with respect to such conceptions.
Still, he must defend himself against the accusation that this makes him a conservative. Conservative politics tends to be capitalist market politics, against which MacIntyre reasserts his commitment to Marxist critique. The best hope lies beyond conservative and liberal commitments with what MacIntyre unsentimentally refers to as “plain persons,” ordinary people seeking the good of their communities in disregard of the powerful political and economic forces that, by their very design, are inimical to that good.
MacIntyre is now a Thomist and now reflects on the difference this makes to his thought. He says that in some respects he finds Aquinas to be a better Aristotelian than Aristotle. In After Virtue, MacIntyre had tried to give an account of the virtues derived from Aristotle without depending on Aristotle’s outmoded metaphysical biology. But looking back, he sees this attempt as inadequate and directs readers to his subsequent writings. In After Virtue, he relied on a purely social account of the capacity and development of human virtue as an alternative to Aristotle whereas now he sees that he needed the metaphysical grounding Aquinas employed.
MacIntyre’s account in After Virtue and other writings has been both celebrated and denounced for being relativistic. In either case, however, he argues that this is inaccurate. He does not proffer a diagnosis and critique of our modern situation in terms that he supposes any thinking person will accept. To do so would only put him with the company he wants to dismiss, namely, the modern moral theorists (Kant, utilitarians, contractarians) and those who build societies around them. Instead, his critique and diagnosis is Aristotelian—Aristotle is part of the critique, not just part of the solution. MacIntyre cannot be a relativist because, even though he is committed to the social and historical location of all intellectual inquiry, he nevertheless believes that some traditions of inquiry are better than others and that this can be shown through a process (sometimes long) of engagement between traditions and without appeal to a mediating, neutral third party. After Virtue, therefore, is itself meant to be a contribution to a conversation in which Aristotle defeats his modern rivals.
If MacIntyre’s admittedly bleak diagnosis of our times is not accepted, the rivalry it sparked surely has some benefit for the interface between competing traditions. And where it is accepted, it will also be because those who accept it have not given up on our capacity, despite everything else, to be virtuous.