On Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue

I just finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. I have to say that I found much of his analysis well conceived and argued. I’m also quite sympathetic to virtue ethics of a certain sort, so I approached the text with a favorable mindset. However, there were a few major concerns I had:

1.) MacIntyre’s explanation for why the West moved past Aristotelian virtue ethics – a combination of its increasing individualism and its growing need for rational justification – seems overly one-sided. MacIntyre seems to diagnose the departure from virtue thinking as only bad. But is that the case? It seems to me that such reasons could include the rise of notions of equality and human rights, which didn’t always fit neatly into ancient wisdom traditions that tended to preserve social roles that were unfavorable for many, along with an increase in the cosmopolitan experience (the cross-community encounter). I just don’t see MacIntyre giving enough credence to the good reasons the European Enlightenment moved beyond Aristotelian virtue ethics.

2.) MacIntyre’s assertion that morality and ethics can only be properly understood internally within historical, local communities implies a few problematic notions:

  • First, that our membership or citizenship is really only ever to one local community. Our identities and community memberships are not so neatly delineated. As many post-colonial thinkers have helpfully revealed, many people (if not all) now occupy several hyphenated spaces/identities.
  • Second, that clearly defined communities even exist at all. The planet has ‘shrunk’ considerably, and the continual cross-pollination and hybridity of communities – along with their traditions – is an undeniable fact.
  • Third, that no clear answer is given for how one ought to act ethically across or between communities.

3.) This one may be a stretch, but it seems to me that MacIntyre’s approach seems to promote communal rigidity and sameness. This isn’t because his ethics builds intentional animosity toward otherness, but rather because it is so firmly rooted in distinctly communal history, wisdom, and tradition which can only therefore be fully coherent internally. Insofar as this might be true, such an approach is structurally inhospitable to difference. I’ll have to explore this more later…

I was left with a lingering question: is virtue ethics appropriate for a globalized, cosmopolitan world filled with people of trans-communal memberships and hybrid identities? It seems to me that MacIntyre’s version is not, or at least not obviously so.


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