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Review

Reviewed Work(s): After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre


Review by: William E. Connolly
Source: Political Theory, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May, 1982), pp. 315-319
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/190582
Accessed: 03-09-2018 02:24 UTC

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Political Theory

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BOOKS IN REVIEW

A FTER VIR TUE h ' A lasdair MacInt ire. Notre Dame: Universit ' of
Notre Dami1e Press, 1981. P. 252. $15.95.

Consider, Maclntrye suggests, a future society which has lost touch


with the sciences of today. It retains textual fragments and miscellane-
ous monuments which allow its members to glimpse the majesty of the
old days. But since the connections among theories, modes of justifica-
tion, experiments, and technical applications have been broken at crucial
junctures, the participants can make little sense of the world they have
lost. The old sciences enter their lives as an incoherent jumble of
doctrines and practices.
This hypothetical future with respect to science describes the actual
condition of contemporary moral discourse. Our morality is a collection
of fragments from disparate eras. And we moderns take this melange to
represent the essential character of morality itself. When contemporary
philosophers elucidate the conceptual structure of moral discourse they
uncover heterogeneous standards which cannot be molded into a uni-
fied whole, and they conclude, in one way or another, that "emotivism"
-in Maclntyre's broad sense of this term-represents the only rational
position in ethics.
We must come to see this modern predicament, Maclntyre urges, as a
condition which is both particular to our age and susceptible to trans-
cendence. For if modernity persists without virtue-without a shared
conception of natural human excellences, of a good we promote in
common, of practices which allow expression of these excellences while
fostering the good, and of character traits (virtues) which mesh with the
natural ends, the practices and the common good-then it will be
governed increasingly by austere modes of bureaucratic control. Web-
er's iron cage will envelope us and the sporadic eruptions of violence
which accompany these impositions will provide new occasions for
drawing the bars together more tightly. "ln our culture we know of no
organized movement towards power which is not bureaucratic and
managerial in mode and we know of no justifications for authority
which are not Weberian in form."

315

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316 POLITICAL THEORY / MAY 1982

Modernity, stripped to its essentials, faces a choice between the


cultivation of Aristotelian virtue and the celebration of Nietzschean
will. Each of the other alternatives, including liberal individualism,
Marxism, and Weber with a human face, collapses under pressure from
these opposing poles. Maclntyre, not too surprisingly, decides to go after
virtue. If modernity is to curtail its twin tendencies toward arbitrary
order and nihilistic resistance it must fit a premodern morality into its
frame, and "if a premodern view of morals and politics is to be vindi-
cated against modernity, it will be in something like Aristotelian terms
or not at all."
Critics will insist that the plausibility of the case for Aristotle rests
entirely on the case against the Nietzschean alternative and that the
fundamental weakness of this text is its insistence on the reduction of
historic options to these two extremes. Certainly there is something to
this reaction. Surely any conception of the good life appropriate to
modernity must contain more diversity, contestability, and uncertainty
than Aristotle is ready to entertain, and Maclntyre does try to find space
in his doctrine of virtue for contestability. Equally importantly, Macln-
tyre presents a challenging case for the thesis that we are now being pulled
toward these opposing poles. His thesis contains the understanding, I
think, that liberalism and Marxism have presupposed a set of virtues
which many proponents of these doctrines do not (with notable excep-
tions unexplored by Maclntyre) fully recognize. There is, for instance a
version of liberal theory today which pretends that liberal freedoms,
rights, and justice can flourish with a minimum of public virtue. But
there is no liberal practice unless the life of the society contains a large
measure of virtue. Similarly, Marxist practice requires virtue among the
vanguard now and the entire populace later. If there are processes which
tend to dissolve virtue in modernity, if there are common understand-
ings which drain virtue from modern practices, then liberalism and
radicalism will be washed away too. They flourish during virtue, not
after it.
Maclntyre at his best is fascinating and instructive, and he is at his
best in elucidating the failure of the enlightenment, criticizing the law-
like mode of social science (which does not coalesce with the idea of
virtue), exhibiting the variable forms of virtue in the ancient, medieval,
and early modern periods, and (although this theme is too briefly
pursued) striving to infuse a Sophoclean sense of tragedy into Aristote-
lian virtue. But when he turns to a conception of virtue appropriate to
modernity he tends, perhaps because he is so disturbed by the Nietz-

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BOOKS IN REVIEW 317

schean alternative, to slide around barriers to his theory. Nietzsche is the


adversary to be defeated, but Nietzsche's voice is not heard clearly. The
dangers in Nietzsche's affirmative doctrine are dramatized, but MacIn-
tyre's own constructions are not inoculated against potential Nietz-
schean deconstructions. A couple of points are particularly pertinent
here.
First, virtue requires a good the participants share in common, which
they can vindicate rationally and specify closely enough to guide practi-
cal judgment in a variety of concrete circumstances. Without this shared
conception of the good life no society could achieve voluntary agree-
ment on the virtues to be encouraged and the modes of conduct to be
tolerated, discouraged, and prohibited. But what is the common good
appropriate to our age? MacIntyre sees the need for a formulation but
then leaves us at a level of abstraction which legalists and rationalists
may find satisfactory but no theorist of virtue could applaud. We are left
in fact roughly where Nietzsche says the theorist of virtue must be in the
modern age: Any concrete articulation will represent either a forceful
imposition by some on the will of others or it will be scrambled by a de-
construction which exposes the antinomies it artificially binds together.
Every abstract defense of virtue acknowledges in its failure to achieve
specificity its inability to evade the trap set by Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the
correct adversary for Maclntyre because they both discern the empti-
ness inside formal theories of ethics, and because Nietzsche contends
that the attempt to install virtue in the modern world necessarily fosters
"passive nihilism." The adversary has not been met and defeated, though,
until a viable doctrine of the common good has been articulated and
vindicated.
Second, we need, says Maclntyre, something like Aristotle's concep-
tion of a "'telos which transcends the limited good of practices by
constituting the good of a whole human life, . . . a human life conceived
as a unity." Unless a theory of excellence for the self can be vindicated,
the attempt to foster the virtue needed by a particular set of practices will
be experienced by many as an arbitrary imposition of limits on the self,
and a "certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life."
The need is clear enough, but Maclntyre then suggests that it can be
filled without drawing on the discredited, teleological biology advanced
by Aristotle. How? We are essentially enmbodied selves, and the body
must be incorporated into any theory of the virtuous self. The Aristote-
lian philosophy of purpose in nature (thus of purpose inscribed in the
body) allows its proponents to claim that some socially constituted

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318 POLITICAL THEORY / MAY 1982

virtues express the natural ends toward which human beings tend. W
would be at one with ourselves in expressing those virtues. But Macln-
tyre, trying to formulate a vision of the good life without this conception
of natural human ends, is forced to pitch his formulation at a very high
level of abstraction. The good life for "man" as such includes the virtues
of integrity and constancy; it is additionally "the life spent in seeking the
good life for man and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those
which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good
life for men is."
A Nietzschean would object not only to the abstract character of this
statement-it assumes the appearance of those abstract universals
which Nietzsche and MacIntyre both condemn as empty--but would
also charge that because telos has been drained from the modern
conception of nature, any effort to mold the self into a coherent, inte-
grated, virtuous self must be seen as the imposition of an artificial unity
upon an accidental phenomenon. And, as the contemporary Nietz-
schean Michel Foucault insists, the struggle to keep tiliS artificial produc-
tion intact will entail the denial, confinement, and treatment of "the
other" which does not fit into its frame. The modern theorist of virtue
becomes, on this reading, the unwitting agent of the bureaucratic, "disci-
plinary" society he condemns. And the bifurcated structure of the con-
temporary human sciences expresses (still on this reading) the gap
between the mode of explanation available to modernity to explain
bodily processes and the mode it requires to interpret action or deter-
mine responsibility.
I am not saying that the Nietzschean must triumph in this debate. I
am saying both that the response becomes treacherous after Aristote-
lian telos and Hegelian Geist have been lost and that Maclntyre has not
pursued this part of his assignment very far in the text submitted to us.
Until the gap between the modern conception of the body and its
conception of the subject has been reduced, the Nietzschean will have
space to deconstruct any theory of a "telos... constituting the good" of
the embodied human self.
If one combines these two central objections to Maclntyre's theory
one can hear the message inside the words of Zarathustra: "It is a
distinction to have many virtues, but a hard lot; and many have gone
into the desert and taken their lives because they had wearied of being
the battle and the battlefield of the virtues." The disturbance created by
this message is exacerbated when we consult Maclntyre's own conclu-
sion, formulated in the last paragraph of the text, that modernity is

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BOOKS IN REVIEW 319

sinking into a new dark age. Because modernity is now inhospitable to


virtue and barbaric without it MacIntyre urges us to follow the example
of men and women of good will at the onset of an earlier period of
darkness; we must construct "local forms of community within which
civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the
new dark ages which are already upon us."
I do not know whether the horizon of modernity is as dark as
Maclntyre portrays it, although surely it has passed high noon. But it
does seem clear that Maclntyre's vision of local forms of community
and civility will be impossible to sustain this time around if we are indeed
on the horizon of a new dark age. Embattled by the battle of the virtues,
Maclntyre has been driven into the desert, although one suspects he will
return one day. And After Virtue, pursuing the spirit of Aristotle, is
haunted by the presence of Nietzsche. Only those floating in a capsule of
theory sealed from the more ominous currents of modernity will take
comfort in this result.

-William E. Connoll/
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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