Morality’s muddled state of disorder

Jeroen Seynhaeve / View all { 18 } / Vertaal naar Nederlands

Western moral philosophers have for more than 2000 years developed all sorts of frameworks for morality, with the aim of capturing the origins, explanations and justifications for moral conduct in one coherent, comprehensive paradigm.

This took a dramatic turn around 1600 in Europe – the Age of Enlightenment – with on the one hand the explicit rejection of old mythical, communal and traditional narratives, and on the other hand a new, all-pervasive belief in universal, objective and rational principles as the only standards for knowledge and human (moral) behaviour. However, it is the gradual exposure of the failures and illusions of the Enlightenment project, culminating in Nietzsche, that has led to today’s most prominent moral paradigms: relativism, emotivism and nihilism. The question that is pertinent in contemporary moral theory is: “Where do we go from here?”

The question is not only pertinent, but necessary and urgent, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, because our contemporary moral framework is broken – in a muddled, grave state of disorder. After Virtue, one of three publications that form part of MacIntyre’s “Interminably Long History of Ethics” (Cogito, 1991:68), is an extended argument against the Enlightenment project and against Nietzsche’s destructive conclusions, in favour of a more comprehensive and coherent alternative. The main gist of the argument states that contemporary morality is in the state it is, because the Enlightenment and the inevitable collapse of its ideals have detached morality from its meaning-, purpose- and value-giving, historical and communal context. What we’re left with, are fragmented and incommensurable simulacra of moral precepts – without meaning and without purpose. The main gist of MacIntyre’s conclusion states that because the failed Enlightenment project has left morality in tatters, a more coherent and comprehensive alternative is needed, and can be found in the moral tradition of a time prior to and untainted by the Enlightenment – the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas. In what follows, I aim to set out and evaluate MacIntyre’s argument and conclusion by answering three questions: what is wrong with contemporary morality, why is contemporary morality in the muddled state it is, and how do we get out of the muddle?

1. What is wrong with contemporary morality?

MacIntyre finds reasons in empirical observations and rational arguments for claiming that the most prominent contemporary moral frameworks – in particular emotivism – fail miserably. Firstly, he observes that in academic circles as well as in popular media and conversation, the moral discourse is unable to ever come to a conclusive end. There is no common ground. There are no intersecting viewpoints between rival moral claims. Rival moral arguments are incommensurable and the debates interminable. Secondly, because rival moral arguments are derived from premises that are themselves not founded on rationality, but inevitably rooted in tradition and prejudice, it is impossible to ever arbitrate rationally between rival claims. But what is remarkable, is that moral agents dó claim objectivity and rationality in support of their own, and in opposition of others’ moral claims. So not only are rival claims incommensurable, adopting one claim necessitates the claimer to refer to the opposing claim as ‘unsound’ or ‘irrational’ (Fuller, 1998:32). This remarkable contradiction, or ‘masquerade’, may be evidence of the fact that we remember something about the historical importance and authority of morality, but clearly does not make sense in today’s emotivist moral discourse. Thirdly, contemporary moral enquiry and discourse ignore (or explicitly reject) the historical roots and context they inevitably and necessarily originate from. In doing so, they have been detached from the historical and communal context (tradition) they sprang from and derived meaning and purpose from.

As a result, we have ended up with a fragmented, purposeless and meaningless set of moral expressions, attitudes and feelings, which seem to be presented to the moral agent as random options to choose from and to approve or disapprove. But surely, this emotivist perspective cannot be satisfactory or true. Firstly, it fails to distinguish between the use of expressions of personal preference and moral expressions – expressions that may be similar in meaning but are very different in use and function. Secondly, its answer to why we express approval is circular – we express approval, because we feel approval (MacIntyre, 1981:15).

Pluralist, liberal thinkers see nothing wrong with this state of affairs. Affording equal authority to emotivist moral claims is a necessary defence against the dangers of monism – dangers that threaten the very essence of the human condition: liberty (Berlin, 1969). But in emphasising the autonomy of the liberal individual, retorts MacIntyre, pluralism denies the role that factors outside of individuals play in shaping them and their values. It has no coherent starting point or end point, and can therefore never produce coherent results (Fuller, 1998:18). It cannot distinguish between providing a forum for “an ordered dialogue of intersecting viewpoints” on the one hand, or for “an unharmonious melange of ill-assorted fragments” (MacIntyre, 1981:12) on the other, because “our pluralist culture possesses no method of weighing, no rational criterion for deciding between claims” (MacIntyre, 1981:285). If we want a coherent, comprehensive moral discourse, we need a coherent and comprehensive moral framework. Pluralism is unable to provide this framework.

MacIntyre is not the first to see problems with the Enlightenment project. Even Enlightened thinkers like David Hume and Immanual Kant had already exposed some of the shortcomings and failures of Enlightenment ideals of rationality and individual autonomy with their introduction of concepts like custom, habit, consensus and an inaccessible ‘noumenal’ world. What we know may be compelling for all humans, but may be partly based on shared custom or habit, or it may tell us only half of what is true – the other ‘noumenal’ half we know nothing about. Rational frameworks for morality – like deontology and utilitarianism – don’t provide answers, claims MacIntyre. All they do is recycle and reconcile traditional moral concepts with modern concepts of rationality and individuality, and in doing so redefine the problems in incommensurable and interminable questions (Fuller, 1998:16,23). But it was Nietzsche that most consistently revealed the failures and illusions of the Enlightenment project. However, Nietzsche stopped halfway. After destroying the “Superstition of Modernity” (MacIntyre, 1990:170), he left morality in the muddled, grave state of disorder we find it in today. MacIntyre agrees with Nietzsche’s method of genealogically unpicking and revealing the origins, history and errors of human (moral) thought, and agrees with Nietzsche in as far as he has exposed the errors of the Enlightenment project, but disagrees with Nietzsche’s conclusion that therefore one perspective can never be more valid than any other perspective. We do have a way to conclusively arbitrate between (moral) perspectives, says MacIntyre, but in order to do this, we need a coherent and comprehensive framework from which these perspectives derive an overall meaning and purpose.

2. Why is contemporary morality in the muddled state it is?

Morality does not exist in a vacuum – it exists against the background of a broad context from which it derives its meaning and function. The study of this context is important, because not only does it describe and explain morality, but it also provides its justification – the ‘ought’ in morality. History and community play a crucial role in this context, claims MacIntyre. Contemporary morality is the culmination of a long history of human thought in general, and of moral enquiry in particular, in which MacIntyre distinguishes three separate moral paradigms: the traditional, teleological narratives of Aristotle as interpreted by Saint Thomas Aquinas (“Tradition”), the objective, universal, scientific rationality and individualism of the Enlightenment (“Encyclopaedia”) and Nietzsche’s exposure of the failures and illusions of the Enlightenment project (“Genealogy”). Even though MacIntyre only coined these terms later, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry – a publication that appeared nine years after the first publication of After Virtue – they are central in MacIntyre’s overall project and I deem it useful to use them in the following chapters of my review of After Virtue.

Pivotal in MacIntyre’s analysis is his claim that a fundamental mistake was made in Encyclopaedia – which was exposed, but left unresolved, in Genealogy: the claim that “ … on questions of standards, criteria, and method all rational persons can resolve their disagreements” (MacIntyre, 1990:170). In other words, Encyclopaedic thinkers believed that universal answers could be found to moral (and all other) questions in universal, rational principles. To understand the impact of this claim on morality, it is useful to look at Encyclopaedia’s central paradigm, and MacIntyre’s arguments against it, in more detail.

The Enlightenment’s ideals of universal rationality and individual autonomy have abruptly detached our thinking from its immediate, contingent space and time context. This central tenet of the Enlightenment was widely explored by Anthony Giddens in The Consequences of Modernity (Giddens, 1990), and his terminology is useful in this explanation. Referring to said detachment as the “reflexivity of modernity” Giddens claims that this has resulted in a general refusal to accept tradition in itself as sufficient justification for a practice or belief. Only (rational) knowledge can do so. Where time and space were linked in the present and the local in pre-modernity, they become abstract concepts in modernity: what people think, and how they think and interact, is driven not by their present context and circumstances, but by ‘disembedded’ influences detached from the present and the local – across indefinite spans of time-space (Giddens, 1990:21,36).

It is precisely this way of ‘detached’ thinking that has pervaded moral enquiry since the Enlightenment, states MacIntyre. However, in its claims to universality and objectivity, the Encyclopaedic mode of moral enquiry has detached morality from its historical and communal tradition, and in doing so, detached morality from the very context that gives meaning, purpose and value to our moral practices. In searching for and believing in the possibility of universal rationality, we have separated fact from value. The modern scientific method may enable us to describe in great detail the facts of human nature and the world, but is unable to evaluate human values, meaning or purpose. By declaring tradition the enemy that needed to be exposed and rejected, Encyclopaedia has rejected the normative context necessary to make evaluative judgements. Bare facts are without value, and anything goes. Stating an “is” can never be turned into an “ought” in the absence of an overarching, meaning- and value-giving context.

Encyclopaedia replaced the teleological worldview by the factual, rational, inductive scientific method, and thereby separated morality from its meaning- and purpose-giving context. In doing so, we lost an essential component of the threefold scheme that makes up all moral theories: man-as-he- happens to be (human nature), man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-purpose (human telos) and the moral precepts which enable him to get from the former to the latter (MacIntyre, 1981:63). But in principally rejecting the concept of a human telos and the teleological framework from which it derives its meaning and function, “… the whole project of morality becomes Unintelligible” (MacIntyre, 1981:66). Without a human telos, there are no values, without values there is no framework for morality, and without a framework for morality, moral precepts are meaningless. “Questions of ends are questions of values, and on values reason is silent” (MacIntyre, 1981:30).

3. How do we get out of the muddle?

MacIntyre presents our way out of the moral muddle as a radical either/or: either we accept Genealogy’s conclusion, and embrace relativism, emotivism and/or nihilism, or we refuse to accept its uncomfortable, unsatisfactory conclusion and go out and search for a moral framework that is able to provide a more coherent and comprehensive alternative. MacIntyre’s answer is unequivocal, and argues that “…the rational case (…) can be made for a tradition in which the Aristotelian moral and political texts are canonical” (MacIntyre, 1981:289).

Why tradition? Because it is an illusion to think that we can reason outside of the context of a historical and communal tradition. History and community constitute the context within which we think and act morally. When it comes to morality, there are no bare facts – there are no rational, universal principles outside of the tradition(s) they originate from. Unreasoned prejudice and tradition, the very enemies of the Enlightenment, inevitably sneak in through the back door of our ill-founded belief in objective, rational thinking (Fuller, 1998:17).

Why the Aristotelian/Thomist Tradition? Because this is the most coherent and comprehensive moral framework we can find, “…the unifying framework within which our understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of our shared environment progresses is one in which that understanding, by tracing the sequences of final, formal, efficient, and material causality, always refers us back to a unified first cause from which flows all that is good and all that is true in what we encounter” (MacIntyre, 1990:141).

Central in MacIntyre’s argument in favour of the Aristotelian/Thomist Tradition, is a detailed analysis of virtue and the link between virtue and truth, starting from the Ancient Greeks and culminating in the medieval contribution. “MacIntyre’s fundamental point [is that] any conception of the virtues (…) necessarily makes a claim to truth – to truth about what we really are, what are our ends, and what is the essential moral character of the universe in which we live” (Bernstein, 1986:10). MacIntyre builds his argument from the role virtues play in individual practices, and how these practices and virtues relate to a single, unified human life, to a communally and historically shared moral tradition that provides the evaluative context for judging individual practices. Before Aristotle, virtue was a quality that enabled someone to do exactly as what was expected and required from people in a particular, well-defined social role. But with Aristotle, a new notion of virtue was introduced – the notion that virtues are not attached to particular social roles, but to everyone, equally. “It is the telos of man as a species which determines what human qualities are virtues” (MacIntyre, 1981:214). Essential in this definition of virtue, however, is that this is not merely a means to an end – whereby the means can be seen separately from the end. The good life (the end) is to be found internally, within the exercise of the virtues (the means). It is this account of virtue – shared by Aristotle, the New Testament and Aquinas (MacIntyre, 1981:216) that MacIntyre further develops in his argument. He does so, by analysing virtues as the internal goods of practices. A practice is a form of social human activity through which goods internal to that practice are realised by cultivating virtues specific and necessary for this practice (MacIntyre, 1981:218). Virtues then are those human qualities that are necessary for us to cultivate in order to excel in a practice and achieve the internal goods specific for this practice.

But how do we rank and evaluate all these disparate human practices? How do we judge “the good for me” against “the good for everyone”? A practice does not exist in a void, but is defined by a context of standards of excellence and authoritative rules that have historically and within a community of practitioners been established as the best standards and rules so far. A practice therefore implies and requires a relationship between the people that participate in it and share the purposes and standards that make up the practice (MacIntyre, 1981:223). A practice is not only defined by its particular internal goods (that would make practices arbitrary and partial, and could include clearly evil practices), but also by a transcending telos which constitutes the good of a whole, unified human life, and which is held against a broader context of a moral tradition, which is embedded in every individual. In other words, because every individual is defined by the historical and communal tradition he or she forms part of, this tradition sets the standards for judging “the good for me”. Individual flourishing is essentially connected with communal flourishing – the completion of the individual essence as part of the greater good. Virtue in the individual then becomes “… nothing more or less than allowing the public good to provide the standard for individual behaviour. The virtues are those dispositions which uphold that overriding allegiance” (MacIntyre, 1981:275). MacIntyre’s suggested framework for morality is therefore not driven by rational justifications, expressed in universal principles, but rather by the question “What sort of people do we want to become?”

4. Evaluation

There is a reason why Encyclopaedia took place, and why it transitioned into Genealogy. Encyclopaedia needed to happen, in reaction to and as a remedy for the blatant falsities and injustices that were based on traditional, pre-Enlightenment myths. The insights Encyclopaedia and Genealogy have given us, are crucial in our progressive understanding of the world and of the human experience in it. I therefore contest MacIntyre’s statement that “For if Aristotle’s position in ethics and politics – or something very like it – could be sustained, the whole Nietzschean enterprise would be pointless” (MacIntyre, 1981:136). Encyclopaedia and Genealogy were far from pointless – they were necessary and inevitable, intrinsically driven by and necessarily resulting from consistent human thought. They are undeniable, too. The rational insights as well as the need for modesty they have contributed to human knowledge (and indeed morality) can not and should not be undone, just because we are not comfortable with the (moral) uncertainties they result in. One shouldn’t ignore or reject the questions because one doesn’t like the answers.

Of course, MacIntyre acknowledges the insights from Encyclopaedia and Genealogy. After all, his very own philosophical project relies on rational argument, and he explicitly agrees with Nietzsche’s method and exposition of the problems of the Enlightenment project. However MacIntyre does not contest rationality as such, but contests the universal claims of rationality, outside of the context of a historical and communal tradition. It is an error to assume that facts can be observed outside of the context of a historical and communal tradition. Rationality, for MacIntyre, can only make sense in relation to a ‘living tradition’ (MacIntyre, 1981:257).

Macintyre’s main argument in favour of Aristotelianism/Thomism is based on that Tradition’s internal coherence and comprehensiveness. But the claim that only a coherent and comprehensive tradition can provide a valid, true ethical framework is susceptible to the criticisms of coherentism. No argument exists in thin air, no matter how coherent the air. Every argument starts from one or more foundational premises – it has to start somewhere. In justifying his argument for Tradition by means of its internal coherence and comprehensiveness only, MacIntyre ignores to argue the foundational premise that tacitly precedes his argument. Wasn’t this precisely the reason he claimed for the incommensurability of contemporary rival moral claims: the lack of a rationally argued premise. But the coherence of an argument cannot in itself be sufficient justification for our (moral) actions. After all, our argument may be “ … extensive and coherent and interlocking, but all completely wrong” (Blackburn, 1999). Aristotle’s metaphysical biology is a case in point. Surely, an ethical theory that is built on a fundamentally false metaphysical premise, cannot be deemed coherent and comprehensive. No matter how consistently the theory is argued from fundamental premises, if the premises turn out to be false, the theory must be rejected. In addition, how do we choose between equally coherent systems? Darwinism, Buddhism, Islam – to only name a few – are all coherent and comprehensive theories with long historical traditions that could easily hold their ground when compared to Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Apart from stating that Aristotle and Aquinas happen to be embedded in our Western tradition, and should therefore define our moral framework, MacIntyre does not provide an objective method to rationally arbitrate between these various options.

But even if MacIntyre would find reasons to choose the Aristotelian/Thomist Tradition above any other, there are internal problems with it too. There is “something troubling about MacIntyre’s historical sketch of the virtues” (Bernstein, 1986:9). On the one hand he claims that the tradition of virtue is unified and coherent, culminating in the “richly detailed account of the moral life” of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ virtues, and makes this claim a pillar of his argument in favour of virtue ethics. On the other hand he presents the tradition of virtues in After Virtue as a history of radically different, incompatible conceptions of virtue, which are themselves deeply embedded in radically different human practices and theories of human nature, human telos and the world. Bernstein makes the point that perhaps this lands MacIntyre in exactly the muddled state he so wishes to get out of, because he does not provide a rational standard to evaluate and adjudicate between different versions of virtue and between the practices and theories the virtues are derived from. If the truth of virtue ethics depends on the truth of the human and world view that virtues are derived from, then we need a way to conclusively determine the truth of the latter before we can say something about the truth of the former. MacIntyre fails to do this: he fails to rationally convince that the Aristotelian/Thomist human and world view is more compelling than any other view.


5. Conclusion

MacIntyre’s analysis of the history of morality and identification of the errors of Enlightened and contemporary morality are insightful, illuminating and by and large uncontroversial. But his way out of the modern moral muddle – his unequivocal call for the return to the Aristotelian/Thomist Tradition – requires further analysis. MacIntyre admirably, perhaps in a dim concession to pluralists, acknowledges this need for further analysis: in the “hostilities” between Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and Tradition “… neither argument nor conflict is yet terminated. These are struggles in progress …” (MacIntyre, 1990:215). But perhaps it is precisely because MacIntyre presents the disagreements as “either/or”, “hostilities” and “conflicts” that he is unable to acknowledge Rorty’s suggestion: that the answer lies not in one, but in the “ … fusion of (…) the best elements in Tradition, Encyclopaedia, and Genealogy (Fuller, 1998:41).

Reference list
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* Bernstein, R.J. (1986). Nietzsche or Aristotle?: Reflections on Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue. in
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* Cogito (Summer 1991) An Interview with Alasdair MacIntyre, p. 68, Available at: [Accessed on 13
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* Fuller, M. (1998). Making Sense of MacIntyre. London : Routledge (2018 ed.)
* Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge : Polity Press (2020 ed.)
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* MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue. London : Bloomsbury Publishing (2019 ed.)
* MacIntyre, A. (1990). Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy and
Tradition. Indiana : University of Notre Dame (2012 ed.)