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Book Review: After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre

After Virtue (see more about it here), is a philosophy of ethics book by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre which is, arguably, one of the most important works in the genre in the twentieth century (you can read a good summary of it here).

I must admit that I am not a philosopher, and have only recently (and, I am ashamed to say, very belatedly), really delved into the subject.  So, as a result, some parts of this book were a little difficult for me to slog through. Difficult not because it is poorly written or hard to understand but, rather, because my own knowledge base is somewhat limited.  As a result, I had to read a few of the pages a few times just to ensure I knew what the argument was or to what it was referring.  Aside from that, though, the book is not written in such a way to make it inscrutable or so technically only professionals could really appreciate it.  It just takes a little work sometimes.

The primary thesis of the book is that the Enlightenment, and after that modernism and post-modernism, having jettisoned the traditional underpinning of Western Civilization (namely Christianity and, before that, Aristotelianism), and the teleological understanding of reality that goes with it, are simply philosophically incapable of providing an individual and/or society with a system of virtues (or ethics or morals) that is, or can be, anything other than something binding and convincing to the individual alone.  In other words, the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) have reduced virtues, ethics, and morals to simply personal preference, without any objective basis or general applicability.  In short, a system of virtues, if it is to have any meaning and applicability, must be based upon objectivity and truth, but the Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) rejects objectivity and truth and, therefore, handicaps itself from any ability to develop a system of virtues.  MacIntyre reviews a variety of Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) thinkers who have tried to develop a system of virtues and reveals each of them fundamentally in conflict with one another despite all claiming the same intellectual heritage in the Enlightenment.  MacIntyre presents this as hard evidence that the Enlightenment and its progeny simply cannot form the basis of any workable system of virtues as it betrays any effort to do so with its rejection of truth and objectivity.

Ultimately, MacIntyre incarnates the conflict between pre and post Enlightenment as a conflict between Aristotle and Neitzsche with Aristotle representing the traditional teleological approach to virtue and Neitzsche representing the logical conclusion of Enlightenment (and post-Enlightenment) philosophy as Neitzsche acknowledges and simply embraces the fact that developing a system of true and generally applicable virtues is impossible.

This book is an impressive indictment of our twenty-first century Western culture.  Despite all of the bloviation about morality and ethics one hears through the media and the community, MacIntyre demonstrates in stark relief that in doing so they reveal that the emperor truly has no clothes.  Instead, as our post-Enlightenment culture has no consistent philosophical or intellectual way of deriving and/or identifying virtue, it has survived using the borrowed capital of the prior Christian culture that preceded it by adopting its virtues for the present culture but attempting to find a post-Enlightenment rational for them.  The obvious intellectual problem is that post-Enlightenment thought simply cannot provide an intellectual basis for Christian virtue as the disconnect between the two is too great; they are too disparate.  Western culture was able to run on the fumes of Christian virtue within an Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment worldview while thinkers attempted to synthesize the two.  This attempt at synthesis has failed, which directly led to that failure coming to a head in the 1960s and, since then, Western culture has been in the process of deconstructing itself revealing the fundamental incompatibility of pre and post Enlightenment philosophy, and has laid the seeds for the constant cultural warfare being waged in Western civilization since then.  What concerns me, and MacIntyre too it seems, is that the cultural heritage we have received since the Enlightenment is inherently incapable of replacing what came before it in terms of developing a workable system of virtues, especially in the community and public life.  As a result, the foreseeable future will be marked by constant cultural conflict until the Neitzcheian Übermensch simply, by the force of his (or its) will and strength, exerts control over our society unless, of course, a more traditional view (e.g.: Christianity or at least Aristotelianism), can reassert itself in the culture.  May God have mercy on our culture!

If one has an interest in philosophy, ethics, or even mild cultural commentary, this is a phenomenal book, which is made all the better by the fact that it is highly respected and influential within and among intellectuals of all stripes and academia.


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