We are cautious, we modern men. Our mistrust lies in wait for the enchantments and deceptions of the conscience that are involved in every strong faith, every unconditional Yes and No.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

There are few things better calculated to garner attention than the spectacle of conversion, be it secular or religious. Thus when Alasdair Maclntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory first appeared in 1981, it was not surprising that it should have caused a mild sensation, generating notice far beyond the purlieus of academic philosophy. Not only did the book present a bold thesis, suggesting as it did that the moral chaos of modern life might be overcome by rehabilitating certain aspects of Aristotle’s ethical teaching; it also appeared to represent a kind of conversion on the part of its author, the distinguished Glasgow-born philosopher and teacher. Previously best known for his combative, Marxist-inspired ruminations on liberalism, ideology, and religion, Maclntyre now said goodbye to all that-well, goodbye at least to his old militancy— and came to the “drastic” conclusion that Marxism was every bit as bankrupt as liberal individualism. One no longer found him arguing, as he did in Marxism and Christianity (revised edition, 1968), that Marxism is “the historical successor of Christianity” and the only philosophy “we have for reestablishing hope as a social virtue.” By the time he wrote After Virtue, Maclntyre had decided that Marxism and liberalism both embodied “the ethos of the distinctively modern and modernizing world, and nothing less than a rejection of a large part of that ethos will provide us with a rationally and morally defensible standpoint from which to judge and to act.”

One might object that nothing is more “modern” than the ambition to reject “a large part”—the larger the better, it sometimes seems—of the modern world. But it was obviously not that aspect of the modern ethos with which Maclntyre quarreled. For him, the great curse of modernity is liberal individualism; and one of the main problems with liberal individualism is that it deliberately forsakes any substantive notion of the good, thus robbing moral language— and moral life—of an intelligible foundation. Liberal moral theory tends to be cheerful, permissive, relativistic—and quite empty. By appealing to a putatively universal rationality, it seems less particularistic and less culture-bound than other views of morality; but it is also less helpful in resolving important moral dilemmas.

In other words, liberalism does not dwell on the question of man’s proper ends. Instead, it offers an institutional framework within which individuals cobble together what answers they can from an unedifying process of compromise and debate. It is “the mark of a liberal order,” Maclntyre remarks, “to refer its conflicts... to the verdicts of its legal system. The lawyers, not the philosophers, are the clergy of liberalism.” Doubtless having to choose between lawyers and philosophers to preside over the commonweal is akin to choosing between Scylla and Charybdis. But Maclntyre’s point is that liberalism’s lack of allegiance to any positive conception of the good renders it ill equipped to provide a satisfactory response to the basic question, “What should I do?”

For Maclntyre, this is a crippling lack, one that is not shared by other traditions— what we might call “traditional traditions” —of moral inquiry. In his search for an alternative to liberalism, Maclntyre came to believe that the “key question” is whether “Aristotle’s ethics, or something very like them, [can] after all be vindicated?” As he put it near the end of After Virtue, “the crucial moral opposition is between liberal individualism in some version or other and the Aristotelian tradition in some version or other.” Two things above all attracted Maclntyre to Aristotle’s ethics. In the first place, Aristotle began by proposing specific answers to the question of man’s moral good. And secondly, Aristotle’s conclusions about morals consciously resulted from his response to a particular tradition of moral reasoning, one inherited largely from the heroic culture of Homer and from Plato.

In both respects, Aristotle’s ethics are the obverse of the ethics of liberalism. Where Aristotle advocated the practice of particular virtues—courage, justice, temperance, and so on—to achieve a well-defined moral end, liberalism begins with wholly abstract principles or “rules” of reasoning (of which Kant’s categorical imperative is perhaps the purest example), and regards the content of particular virtues and moral ends as secondary and relative. And where Aristotle consciously reasoned from a specific cultural tradition, liberalism typically aspires to formulate abstract, universally valid principles of moral reasoning. In After Virtue, Maclntyre puts the case for Aristotle and against liberal individualism, ending with the haunting suggestion that “we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

As it happens, Maclntyre later came to find the original St. Benedict more persuasive than he here implies. In the opening pages of his new book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,[1] the latter-day Marxist turned Aristotelian declares himself “an Augustinian Christian.” But the broad appeal of After Virtue lay less in any proposed saviors than in the extremity of its diagnosis. Beginning with the “disquieting suggestion” that the language of morality today is in a state of “grave disorder,” that it consists of little more than half-understood fragments salvaged from a disrupted tradition, Maclntyre charged that “we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” Though we are mostly unaware of this moral poverty, we are nonetheless “all already in a state so disastrous that there are no large remedies for it.” Hence Maclntyre concludes by recommending his version of counter-cultural withdrawal. “What matters at this stage,” he writes, “is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and the moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”

As Maclntyre was quick to acknowledge, many of his dour pronouncements in After Virtue deliberately echo Nietzsche. The foundation of moral discourse has been shattered (“God is dead”); culture has lost its moorings; values have become increasingly arbitrary and pointless; the optimistic ideals of liberalism have shown themselves to be hypocritical fictions—all this repeated Nietzsche’s analysis of the nihilistic bent of modern culture. But Maclntyre departed from Nietzsche in his judgment about how we should respond to the fragmentation of traditional values. Nietzsche preached a species of heroic individualism, epitomized by his doctrine of “self-overcoming,” the Übermensch, and his vision of an ethic “beyond good and evil.” Maclntyre, on the contrary, advocated a return to community and resuscitation of the virtues as understood by Aristotle.

Moreover, Maclntyre regarded Nietzsche as a late, largely unwitting representative of the very culture that he, Nietzsche, criticized so perspicaciously: the rootless culture born of the Enlightenment with its suspicion of tradition and its faith in a putatively universal moral reasoning. Maclntyre argues that one can discern “grounds for the authority of laws and virtues” only “by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods.” “To isolate oneself from [such] communities,” he maintains, “will be to debar oneself from finding any good outside oneself.” It follows that in Maclntyre’s view Nietzsche’s ideal of the completely autonomous, asocial individualist represents an extreme form of liberalism, not an alternative. If Aristotle is the presiding deity of After Virtue, Nietzsche turns out to be something closer to its resident nemesis. As Maclntyre put it in the title of one of his central chapters, the real choice is: Nietzsche or Aristotle?

Despite its sometimes aggressive polemic, however, the argument of After Virtue is essentially incomplete. Maclntyre himself stressed that his brief for Aristotle required a systematic account of moral reasoning if his case was to be persuasive, and that this account was left “unstated” in After Virtue. The book thus ends with a promissory note. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? is his attempt to make good on that promise. The bulk of the book—fifteen out of twenty chapters—is devoted to a detailed examination of three distinct traditions of rational inquiry and moral reasoning: the Greek tradition that culminated in Aristotle, the Augustinian Christian tradition from its Biblical origins through Aquinas, and the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment that culminated in the skepticism of David Hume. Of course, as Maclntyre is quick to point out, this is hardly the whole story. The Islamic tradition, the Chinese and Indian traditions, the Jewish tradition: these and other major traditions of moral reasoning are left out of account here, as is the history of the Enlightenment tradition in Kant, Hegel, and their heirs.

Maclntyre’s rich historical exposition displays all the erudition and philosophical subtlety that his readers have come to expect from his work. And as always, he is nothing if not clear about his likes and dislikes. Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas come in for praise, while Hume, long one of Maclntyre’s villains, is repeatedly upbraided for his moral shallowness, lack of “candor,” and baneful influence. Perhaps the most impressive of Maclntyre’s historical chapters is “Overcoming a Conflict of Traditions,” in which he recounts Aquinas’s heroic integration of Aristotle and Augustine. Those acquainted with Maclntyre’s work will note that Aquinas is treated with greater sympathy and depth in these pages than he was in After Virtue. In part, this is no doubt due to Maclntyre’s recent conversion to Catholic Christianity. Given his emphasis on the importance of close-knit and like-minded communities for the propagation of traditions, it seems appropriate that Maclntyre’s new faith should also find him moving from Vanderbilt University, where he has taught for the past several years, to the University of Notre Dame, where he begins teaching next year.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? starts by iterating some of the main complaints voiced in After Virtue. Once again, the theme of liberal modernity’s moral paralysis sounds through Maclntyre’s pages. Many of us, he writes—and the burden of the argument makes one realize that he means most of us—are not “educated into... a coherent way of thinking and judging, but one constructed out of an amalgam of social and cultural fragments” of promiscuous origin. His chief enemy here is the “post-Enlightenment” man who finds himself bound by no tradition, recognizing no overall scheme of belief beyond “pragmatic necessity,” regarding tradition as “a series of falsifying masquerades,” and speaking “the internationalized languages of modernity, the languages of everywhere and nowhere.” For such deracinated—but typically modern— men, entering into any tradition appears to be an arbitrary act of will, rationally unjustified: “beliefs, allegiances to conceptions of justice, and the use of particular modes of reasoning about action will appear to [such persons] as disguises assumed by arbitrary will to further its projects, to empower itself.”

Of course, the dominance of liberal individualism does not mean that other, older voices go entirely unheard. As Maclntyre notes, most of us in fact live “betwixt and between”: our sense of moral reasoning is fashioned in important ways by the dominant liberal individualist ethos but also draws sustenance from “a variety of tradition-generated resources of thought and action, transmitted from a variety of familial, religious, educational, and other social and cultural sources.” This may seem like a saving grace, but for Maclntyre the problem is that this “type of self,” which “moves from sphere to sphere, compartmentalizing its attitudes,” has “too many half-convictions and too few settled coherent convictions, too many partly formed alternatives and too few opportunities to evaluate them systematically.”

There are moments when Maclntyre’s polemic seems directed not so much at liberalism per se as at various extreme manifestations of the liberal spirit—at libertarian-ism, for example, which Allan Bloom once aptly summed up as “the right-wing form of the Left, in favor of everybody’s living as he pleases.” But it soon becomes clear that Maclntyre’s critique of liberalism is not confined to such extreme manifestations. Again and again, he attacks liberalism’s conception of an abstract “ideal rationality” that transcends social and historical context. Where traditional accounts of moral reasoning acknowledge that the “fundamental debate is between competing and conflicting understandings of rationality,” liberalism “presupposes the fiction of shared, even if unformulable, universal standards of rationality.” In the second edition of After Virtue (1984), Maclntyre had observed that “morality which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere.” In Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, this theme is repeated and developed in detail. There is, writes Maclntyre, “no neutral mode of stating the problems, let alone the solutions” of morality. The concept of rational justification “is essentially historical. To justify is to narrate how the argument has gone so far ... . [I]ndeed, since there are a diversity of traditions of enquiry, with histories, there are, so it will turn out, rationalities rather than rationality, just as it will turn out that there are justices rather than justice.”

Maclntyre’s main point is that we can only decide among competing moral claims from within a particular tradition, not from some ideal vantage point “outside.” Any abstract digest or inventory of arguments cannot help being misleading. “Yet it is just such abstraction,” Maclntyre writes, “which is enforced in the public forums of enquiry and debate in modern liberal culture, thus for the most part effectively precluding the voices of tradition outside liberalism from being heard.” It is liberalism’s fundamental blindness to the claims of tradition—more than any particular belief or lack of belief— that exiles it from a living appreciation of moral reasoning. As Maclntyre observes in his chapter on Aquinas:

Modern nontheological readers of Aquinas . . . may be apt to suppose that their difficulties in coming to terms with Aquinas' relationship to tradition is a result of their alienation from his theology. In fact I suspect that it is characteristically the other way around. It is rather because the concept of tradition is so little at home in modern culture—and when it does seem to appear, it is usually in the bastardized form given to it by modern political conservatism—that they find it difficult to come to terms with Aquinas’ metaphysical theology.

In this sense, Maclntyre may be said to hold that moral reasoning is essentially parochial. There are no a priori answers to life’s fundamental moral questions. “How ought we to decide among the claims of rival and incompatible accounts of justice competing for our moral, social, and political allegiance?” Maclntyre asks. His preliminary answer is: “that will depend on who you are and how you understand yourself.” It follows that in his attempt “to say both what makes it rational to act in one way rather than another and what makes it rational to advance and defend one conception of practical rationality rather than another,” he will not simply propose another abstract, universal moral scheme. And it also follows that, when all is said and done, the corrosive sense of arbitrariness that modernity breeds can be defeated “only, it seems, by a change amounting to a conversion.” Because liberalism presupposes a standard of moral reasoning that cannot in principle be met by any particular tradition, no argument for tradition will by itself be persuasive. Only a radical transformation of one’s point of view—amounting, as Maclntyre observes, to a conversion—will allow “this alienated type of self” to understand, let alone embrace, the claims of a particular moral tradition. Hence only some such “conversion” will be able to defeat the threats of relativism and moral emptiness with which liberal modernity confronts us.

Now there is much to admire in Maclntyre’s unflinching indictment of liberal modernity. His sensitivity to what we might call the historical embeddedness of moral traditions and his critique of the relativistic and often aggressively superficial ethic of Enlightenment liberalism make Whose Justice? Which Rationality? a valuable contribution to our understanding of the moral fabric of modernity. Similarly, his distance from many of the reigning pieties of contemporary academic and journalistic wisdom leads to refreshingly independent judgments. What other academic moralist these days would dare to describe The New York Times as “that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment”? Such lucidity and accuracy are rare.

But it is hardly surprising that Whose Justice? Which Rationality? has failed to attract the level of interest that After Virtue enjoyed. For one thing, though billed as a sequel to that book, the present volume is itself a prolegomenon of sorts, more a methodological than a substantive investigation. At one point, Maclntyre complains that in modern academic philosophy “gradually less and less importance has been attached to arriving at substantive conclusions and more and more to continuing the debate for its own sake.” Perhaps so. But this only increases one’s dismay when after some four hundred pages of detailed historical and philosophical argument, Maclntyre tells us that he has arrived at a point where “we have to begin speaking as protagonists of one contending party or fall silent” and then alludes casually to the possibility of an “emerging Thomistic conclusion.” In other words, at the end of his book he has come to the point where he can finally begin. The fact that Maclntyre has really been speaking as a protagonist all along—mostly, to be sure, in the guise of being an antagonist of modern liberalism—does not provide much consolation to readers who might have hoped for more substantial, more constructive insights from this long book. Then, too, there is the matter of the book’s style. While After Virtue had its longueurs, it was written with a directness, vigor, and urgency generally lacking in its sequel. I believe Maclntyre is correct in claiming that “the conception of philosophy as essentially a semi technical, quasi-scientific, autonomous enquiry to be conducted by professionalized specialists is in the end barren”; but I am not sure his investigations in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? entirely avoid the “semitechnical” opacities that darken so much academic writing these days. Indeed, while one applauds Maclntyre’s announced ambition “to address both academic philosophers and the lay reader,” one wonders what sort of “lay reader” he has in mind here. Clauses and distinctions multiply in these pages, word order strains, long-winded formulations like “tradition-constituted and tradition-constitutive rationality” abound, making the book a stylistic disaster. Not infrequently, one finds oneself parsing Maclntyre’s sentences instead of reading them.

Nor is it always clear that they do parse. “How we do in fact answer these latter questions [about practical rationality],” Maclntyre writes, “will depend in key part upon what the language is we share with those together with whom we ask them questions and to what point the history of our own linguistic community has brought us.” Would anyone care to diagram this sentence? Or consider Maclntyre’s explanation of how we can tell if a given text is well translated: “When someone, a text from whose first first language has been translated into his or her second first language, agrees that were he or she to translate the resultant text back into his or her first language what would then in turn result would be substantially the same as the original text, we have what is perhaps the strongest single test by which to judge a translation.” This cannot be described as inviting prose.

The deeper problem with Maclntyre’s analysis stems from his thoroughgoing hostility toward the modern liberal spirit in combination with a tendency to romanticize traditional modes of moral reasoning. Together, they sometimes weaken his criticisms and rob his argument of plausibility. While discussing the plight of higher education in an age hostile to tradition, for example, Maclntyre observes (ruefully, one can’t help thinking) that the abolition of religious tests was at “the foundation of the liberal university.” No doubt he is correct that requiring such tests for university appointments and matriculation assured “a certain degree of uniformity of belief in the way in which the curriculum was organized, presented, and developed through enquiry.” And he is also correct that when religious tests were abolished universities were not suddenly transformed into institutions in which “contending and alternative points of view of rival traditions of enquiry could be systematically elaborated and evaluated.” The ambition to make faculty appointments solely on the basis of “scholarly competence” without regard to “considerations of belief and allegiance” has not been without its costs. Indeed, the left-liberal, relativistic sensibility now reigning in our schools and universities could hardly be more deeply entrenched, thanks in part to that ambition. But this is not to say, as Maclntyre suggests, that universities were somehow more given to entertaining rival points of view or debate about fundamental issues in the days before religious tests were abolished.

In fact, Maclntyre’s remarks on the ills of higher education in the humanities can be said to epitomize both the strengths and the weaknesses of his position. He is right that the dominance of relativism in the universities has done “most harm... to the humanities, within which the loss of the contexts provided by traditions of enquiry increasingly has deprived those teaching the humanities of standards in the light of which some texts might be vindicated as more important than others and some types of theory as more cogent than others.” Today, he observes, a student typically “emerges from a liberal education with a set of skills, a set of preferences, and little else, someone whose education has been as much a process of deprivation as enrichment.”

It is difficult to disagree. But Maclntyre then goes on to castigate the so-called Great Books programs for having a smorgasbord, un-historical approach to education, an approach in which “a student moves in rapid succession through Homer, one play of Sophocles, two dialogues of Plato, Virgil, Augustine, the Inferno, Machiavelli, Hamlet, and as much else as is possible if one is to reach Sartre by the end of the semester.” What this provides, he charges, is not an introduction to the culture of past traditions but “a tour through what is in effect a museum of texts.” For the same reason, he dismisses as intellectually bogus the notion of “Western values” propagated by “self-proclaimed contemporary conservatives, such as William J. Bennett,” who in Maclntyre’s view merely represents “one more stage in modernity’s cultural deformation of our relationship to the past.”

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider this handful of Maclntyre’s displeasures. There is no doubt that the kind of Humanities 101 survey courses that he ridicules tend to be superficial and to slight historical context. But what is the alternative? Would he prefer that students remained entirely innocent of the Western literary and philosophical heritage? Of course one might wish that students spend an entire semester each on Homer, Virgil, Plato, Dante, and so on, reading all of the works in the original language. But is that ever going to happen with more than the smallest number of students? Moreover, might it not be that those humanities survey courses in fact serve more to introduce than to complete a student’s education, inaugurating those with the talent and disposition into the riches of the tradition?

One might raise a similar objection to Maclntyre’s obiter dictum about Secretary of Education William Bennett. No one would suggest that Secretary Bennett’s writings on education supply the last word on this formidably complex subject. But that is hardly the point. We live, alas, in an imperfect world, and when we come to the kinds of issues that Maclntyre raises so passionately, our concern must be not only with abstract philosophical sophistication but also with practical consequences. To quote one of Maclntyre’s former heroes: What is to be done? That is the real question. Given the state of our schools and universities— given, that is to say, the very cultural fragmentation and loss of rootedness in tradition that Maclntyre bewails—are not William Bennett’s proposals for educational reform and a “Great Books” approach to education steps in the right direction? They are indeed, and one cannot help noting that, for all his hostility to Secretary Bennett et alia, Maclntyre himself has failed to provide alternative proposals to improve higher education in our culture.

There is another feature of Maclntyre’s argument that bears special attention. I believe it was William Blake who observed that an honest man may often change his opinions but never his principles. In his long journey from Marxism to Aristotelianism to Catholicism, Maclntyre has naturally had occasion to change many of his opinions. But his principles would seem to have remained largely unaltered. Already in Against the Self-Images of the Age, Maclntyre’s 1971 collection of essays, we find him criticizing the ideal of a universal, culturally disembodied moral reasoning, insisting instead that rationality is “an inescapable sociological category,” unintelligible without reference to a particular cultural and historical situation.

Even more striking is the deep suspicion of liberalism and the modern liberal state that is patent throughout Maclntyre’s writings. Indeed, an avowed animus toward the ethos and principles of modern liberalism is something of a constant in his work, providing an important continuity between Marxism and his later, “conservative,” writings. True, near the end of Against the Self-images of the Age Maclntyre professes respect for the quintessentially liberal values of “toleration and of freedom of expression.” But he then complains that “liberalism by itself is essentially negative and incomplete,” explaining in one revealing passage that the precepts of liberalism “set before us no ends to pursue, no ideal or vision to confer significance upon our political action. They never tell us what to do” (my emphasis).

This is no doubt correct. But is it necessarily such a bad thing? Liberalism’s lack of a substantive notion of the good—its inability to “tell us what to do”—undoubtedly places great moral demands upon the individual. But it may also free him from the yoke of traditions that have outlived his belief or allegiance—allowing him, for example, to move from being a skeptical Marxist to being an ardent Aristotelian to being a professing Catholic according to the dictates of his judgment. And it should also be noted that the consequences of liberalism are by no means always as gloomy as Maclntyre’s analysis would lead us to believe. If liberalism is philosophically problematic, it has nonetheless proven to be extraordinarily productive politically. Indeed, among the chief political fruits of liberalism has been the modern, democratic state. This includes, of course, the United States, that bastion of “post-Enlightenment” men and women who, for all their rootlessness, enjoy—as Maclntyre, having chosen to live in their midst, must know—an unparalleled measure of political and social freedom.

Reflecting on Maclntyre’s inquiry in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? often brought to mind a passage from Hermann Broch’s great philosophical novel The Sleepwalkers (1932). In a series of interwoven sections entitled “The Disintegration of Values,” Broch notes that in the modern age values are “no longer determined by a central authority.” Like Maclntyre, Broch points out that one result of this situation is that values that were once integrated into a coherent whole begin to splinter into separate, autonomous spheres, each with its own claims and goals: “war is war, Van pour Part, in politics there’s no room for compunction, business is business—all these signify the same thing, all these appertain to the same aggressive and radical spirit.” But unlike Maclntyre, Broch stresses that the disintegration of values confronts individuals not only with a critical loss but also with a powerful temptation: the temptation to evade the reality and consequences of disintegration. Broch writes:

One cannot escape from [the] brutal and aggressive logic that exhibits itself in all the values and non-values of our age .... [Y]et a man who shrinks from knowledge, that is to say, a romantic, a man who must have a bounded world . . . and who seeks in the past the completeness he longs for[,] has good reason for turning to the Middle Ages.

From the perspective afforded by Broch’s meditations, Alasdair Maclntyre appears to be something of a romantic—a severe, Thomistic sort of romantic, admittedly, but nevertheless someone quite different from the “conservative” his recent conversions to traditional moral doctrines have led many (even, perhaps, Maclntyre himself) to assume. In recoiling from the fragmentation of values that characterizes modernity, Maclntyre has presented less an alternative to the depredations of liberal individualism than an escape from its challenges. For better or worse, we modern men are cautious, as Nietzsche said; we hesitate before bestowing unconditional Yeas or Nays because we see in such professions the possibility of enchantment and deception as well as salvation. Maclntyre’s professions have made him a stern and often insightful critic of liberal modernity. But they have also prevented him from doing justice to its achievements.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 1, on page 64
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/1988/9/looking-after-virtue

Popular Right Now