Wednesday, June 17, 2009

MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics

I've finally finished something I have been meaning to get around to for months. A night or two ago, I finished reading Alasdair MacIntyre's important book After Virtue. Within, MacIntyre sets out to vindicate a broadly Aristotelian tradition within ethics. Though he comes from a Catholic perspective, I think his perspective on ethics might not be unprofitable to Pagans.

In this post, I'm going to sketch out and more or less regurgitate what it is that MacIntyre means. I'll spend the next couple of posts analyzing what I see as strengths and weaknesses within the account of After Virtue, as well as laying out how I think his ideas might and might not apply to modern Pagans and Paganism.

Aristotelian ethics is the paradigmatic example of virtue ethics. Unlike popular modern ethical theories like utilitarianism, virtue ethics is not concerned primarily with particular actions, but with becoming the right kind of person--the kind of person who possesses the virtues. Not all systems of virtue ethics are Aristotelian, but the majority owe at least some great debt to the Philosopher. Though virtue ethical systems--at least, systems consciously conceived as virtue ethical--languished for most of the modern period, there has been a resurgence of interest in virtue ethics beginning in the late 1950's.

MacIntyre's notion of an Aristotelian ethic is fairly broad. He does not mean that such a system must be a commentary on Aristotle or a straightforward description of how to apply the Nicomachean Ethics. Rather, he means to indicate that there has been an ethical tradition beginning with Aristotle extending up through the medieval world that shares some basic characteristics established by its founder.

There are some serious theoretical considerations that must be dealt with before any attempt like MacIntyre's can get off the ground. The first is that Aristotelian ethics--indeed, all ethics, as MacIntyre argues, and I can't help agreeing--are dependent in large part for their character on the kind of social system in which they are embedded and find their expression. If we are to take this seriously, then it means that we cannot simply take a list of virtues from Aristotle and apply them to our world as Aristotle meant them to be applied to his own world. Furthermore, Aristotle's virtues are rendered sensible by a particular cosmology and a certain view of a teleological biology. No person raised in the modern world could hold to an Aristotelian cosmology or biology and remain intellectually honest.

But these concerns raise the larger question of how to identify virtues in the first place. What distinguishes a virtue from other character traits? Are they merely character traits thought to be desirable in a particular time and place? Could ruthlessness or greediness in business ventures ever be virtues, or are they always vices? MacIntyre merely sketches out the answers by identifying three traits he believes to be essential to a virtue:

Practice: For MacIntyre, virtues are intimately related to what he calls "practices." MacIntyre's definition of a "practice" is long and complex: "By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established coopreative human activity though which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended." (AV 187)

That is to say, a practice is a complex sort of cooperative activity that has "internal goods"--that is, there is something about it that makes it worthy of pursuing in itself--and puts into practice and extends wider ideas about excellence and goods. Chess is a practice. Checkers is not. A virtue, for MacIntyre, is a personal quality which enables one to attain those goods, and without which one cannot attain them.

A moment's consideration will reveal that the classical virtues become prerequisites for most practices. Justice, for instance, the virtue of rendering to each his due, of not cheating, is quite obviously necessary. A chess player will not attain the internal goods of chess if he constantly cheats in order to win; he will only attain external goods like praise for his victory.

Unity in Narrative: MacIntyre argues that the unity of one's life--the identification of one's present self with one's past and future selves--is not to be found in logical strict identity, but the unity of a character in a narrative. He argues that narrative is not something imposed upon human events by storytellers after the fact, but an integral part of human life as it is actually lived.

As a result, virtues cannot be seen merely as character qualities which allow for the attainment of the goods arising from practices, but as qualities which make a life seen as a whole, in the sweep of its narrative arc, wholesome or defective. The virtue of justice is not exhibited merely in fairly dealing with others within a practice or profession, but in all one's dealings. And what constitutes fair dealings depends on the intersections of the various narratives involved in those dealings, and which narratives one is attempting to play out. Any action one takes is not to be taken as the atomic unit of ethics, but only becomes intelligible--and thus ethically significant--within a broader narrative context.

Tradition: No life is lived alone. Our own narrative context is embedded within a much broader narrative, one that began long before our own births. This larger narrative sweep, with its inherited notions of various goods, and various notions of how to achieve them, MacIntyre calls a tradition. He locates himself within a broadly Aristotelian tradition, running from Aristotle himself through the Middle Ages up to such figures as Jane Austen. No tradition, he notes, is entirely monolithic, and indeed the conflicts and struggles within the tradition to define itself is an integral part of every tradition; without such struggle, there could be no life, no narrative. These traditions provide us with the apparatus we need to live a good life--though what that is can only be found within the tradition itself.

To qualify as a virtue, a personal quality or characteristic must pass each of these three steps: it must be necessary to achieve the inner goods of a practice or practices, it must be locatable within the narrative unity of individual lives, and it must have a place within the larger tradition.

I will deal with some of these ideas in my next few posts.


  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I can't wait to read some of your thoughts on the matter. (And, of course, it's really making me want to read MacIntyre himself... as if I don't have enough books in my to-be-read pile already!)

  2. Heh, my own list of books I need to read is as long as my arm. They need to stop printing books for a while so we can catch up.