In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre published the book that would make him famous (in the small world of professional philosophy): After Virtue. I read it soon after it was published, and it was way over my head. The book promoted the importance of history of philosophy, Greek philosophy in particular, and virtue ethics. Indeed, I believe it was a major stimulus to the revival of virtue ethics in analytic philosophy that took place soon thereafter. I recall it having the status of an “it book.” Still, the book’s main argument was abstract and somewhat obscure, so that although I was eager to be persuaded, I was left feeling that I mainly just didn’t understand it very well. I also figured it was my fault, because I didn’t know enough to comprehend the historical argument.
I still have my original copy of After Virtue, full of my marginal comments and handwritten notes shoved between the pages. But I haven’t reviewed any of it now. Instead, this post is stimulated by my happening upon a brief passage at the end of MacIntyre’s discussion of Joseph Butler in his 1966 book, A Short History of Ethics. This passage presents what seems to me a précis of the argument of After Virtue. It may be that this is not fair. To the extent that it isn’t, then obviously the comments and criticisms I make here will be inapplicable to the argument of After Virtue. That’s all right: the argument given in A Short History of Ethics is interesting in itself and worth commenting on. That will be my task in what follows.
After a brief description of Butler’s moral philosophy, MacIntyre states that what was valuable in Butler was his revival of the Greek notion of deriving moral conclusions from premises about our nature as rational animals. However, he claims, Butler was defective in failing to provide any justification for his construing our nature in the way he does. And this defect, he says, has two roots: “Butler’s theology and his individualism.” The theology is a problem because it provides a literal deus ex machina in the form of divine retribution to close any gaps between our nature and the needed moral imperatives. Individualism is a problem because it treats our nature as independent of our societal embedding. Whereas Plato’s and Aristotle’s accounts of human nature presupposed a certain social framework that enabled them to draw appropriate moral conclusions from our nature, Butler fails to do this. MacIntyre then declares, “Indeed, the comparison with Plato and Aristotle suggests a general diagnosis of the difficulties of eighteenth-century English moral philosophy.” And he proceeds to spell out this “general diagnosis” in the following long paragraph:
Traditional European society inherited from the Greeks and from Christianity a moral vocabulary in which to judge an action good was to judge it to be the action of a good man, and to judge a man good was to judge him as manifesting dispositions (virtues) which enabled him to play a certain kind of role in a certain kind of social life. The acceptance of this kind of social life as the norm by which actions are judged is not something asserted within the moral system. It is the presupposition of there being moral judgments at all. Actual social life did in fact always diverge widely from the norms; but not so widely that it could not be seen as an imperfect reflection of the norms. But that breakup of the traditional forms of social life which was produced by the rise of individualism, begotten partly by Protestantism and capitalism, made the reality of social life so divergent from the norms implied in the traditional vocabulary that all the links between duty and happiness were gradually broken. The consequence was a redefinition of the moral terms. Happiness is no longer defined in terms of satisfactions which are understood in the light of the criteria governing a form of social life; it is defined in terms of individual psychology. Since such a psychology does not yet exist, it has to be invented. Hence the whole apparatus of appetites, passions, inclinations, principles, which is found in every eighteenth-century moral philosopher. Yet in spite of all this psychological construction, happiness remains a difficult key term for moral philosophy, if only because all too often what would in an obvious sense make us happy is what in an obvious sense we ought not to do. Consequently there is an instability in the history of the moral argument, exhibited in an oscillation between attempts to define morality in terms of consequences leading to happiness and attempts to define morality in terms that have nothing to do with consequences or happiness at all. So long as theology survives as a socially influential force it can be called in to connect virtue with happiness in a world other than this. But theology itself became more and more the victim of its environment.
The basic idea of MacIntyre’s argument seems to be this. In Greek ethics, as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle, human beings were not regarded as social atoms, but as essentially playing certain roles in “a certain kind of social life.” Therefore, since in general anything that has a certain role will be good, qua having that role, just in case it plays that role well, a good human being will necessarily be one that, among other things, plays his social role well. Thus, what we might call prosocial virtues become closely tied to a person’s individual good, and indeed inextricably linked to his well-being and happiness. And this linkage—between prosocial virtue and individual good and happiness—obtained in the past in “traditional European society,” but it was broken by the new individualistic organization of society that emerged in the modern era (i.e., somewhere around the turn of the seventeenth century), driven by the emergence of Protestantism and capitalism. And this is why the essential moral problem of modernity, clearly evident from its inception in figures such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, but really to be perceived in all modern thinkers (sc., Butler), is to justify the prosocial virtues to people who do not perceive their identity to essentially include having any particular social role—quite rightly, given the new individualistic social order.
The idea of a person’s sense of his identity giving rise to values and reasons for him is familiar and plausible. For example, if one is a soldier, then insofar as being a soldier is an important part of his self-identification, he will have reason to cultivate courage, self-discipline, and respect for military authority and its rules (which just happen to approximate three of the four cardinal virtues of ancient Greece), as well as other attributes such as strength and endurance. This is an instance of what Christine Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity calls a “practical identity.” Other examples could be woman, lover, parent, Quaker, chess Grandmaster, Arabic speaker, and connoisseur.
Practical identities of these kinds no doubt supply us with many or most of our values and reasons for action. Korsgaard goes so far as to say that, “It is necessary to have some conception of your practical identity, for without it you cannot have reasons to act” (120). However, the question for MacIntyre’s thesis is whether it is realistic to think of one’s practical identity giving rise to prosocial virtues in the way the thesis requires. The element of practical identity that MacIntyre is talking about must descend from one’s societal role; it must not be one that a person can opt out of easily (or at all); and it must provide strong reasons promoting the prosocial virtues (by which I mean basically respect for others and their property, truthfulness, and concern for the common good). But of the examples of practical identity listed above, most are personal and discretionary, and none except soldier has any strong link to prosocial virtues.
So, what are these societal roles—“a certain kind of role in a certain kind of social life”—that provided reasons to cultivate the prosocial virtues in the world of Plato and Aristotle but that were wrecked with the rise of individualism and capitalism, thus leaving moral philosophy helpless and adrift? I have mentioned the role of soldier already, and military service was obligatory in ancient Greece. But, to the extent it was obligatory, it was also part-time (with some famous exceptions). And it is hard to see the strong link from being a soldier to justice in general (e.g., respect for property, truthfulness in one’s public statements, probity in business) that is mainly what MacIntyre needs to establish. What else? What was, say, Socrates’s “certain kind of role”—not available to us today—that enjoined him to cultivate prosocial virtues? I am at a loss to think what MacIntyre could name. The Athens of that time was in fact reasonably free of rigid and constraining social roles—for free men, anyway, which are the people MacIntyre is talking about.
When I think of societies that do have strong, identity– and value–determining societal roles, what comes to mind are feudal societies and caste systems. Is this what MacIntyre is complaining about having been disrupted by individualism and capitalism? I can see how such societies inculcate the virtues of loyalty and respect for authority, but not justice in the broader sense.
It seems to me that when a society is not individualistic, what that means for the most part is not so much that people’s practical identities are determined by formal societal roles, such as their place in a hierarchy, as that their practical identities are determined by personal relationships, especially family relationships. In non-individualistic societies, what matter are clan membership, bloodlines, inheritance, ancestors, and filial relationships (brother, cousin, mother, son, etc.). Thus, whereas in individualistic societies, a person’s practical identity and self-image revolve around their profession, personal qualities, skills, and aspirations, in non-individualistic societies it is much more closely linked to a person’s embedding in a network of family and clan relationships.
But to the extent that this is true, it is not particularly good for the promotion of prosocial virtues, at least not if these are supposed to be applied impartially, without regard to personal and family relationships. If your place in a network of personal relationships is the core of your practical identity, then your values and reasons for action will revolve around protecting and strengthening those relationships, those personal ties to particular people, and this is bound to be at odds with impersonal rules and procedures that disregard personal ties. As an obvious example, think of nepotism. Nepotism is regarded as a bad thing in our individualistic culture, but in a non-individualistic culture it is mere common sense and arguably a virtue. It reinforces family ties, and after all in a society where how people treat you depends on your relationship with them, there is little reason to trust strangers. The same goes for “cronyism”—a feature not a bug in a non-individualistic culture.
This point—that individualistic cultures promote impartial procedures, trust, fairness, and honesty in relations with strangers, and non-individualistic cultures don’t—may or may not seem obvious. I have only hinted at it here. For a detailed defense of it, see Joseph Henrich’s recent book, The WEIRDest People in the World, especially chapters 1, 9, 10, and 11. The book is long and detailed and very worthwhile, in my view. It presents a grand theory of “how the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous” based mainly on Henrich’s work in anthropology. (Useful reviews of the book are here and here, if you want to get an idea of what he has to say.) Also, Francis Fukuyama made a similar point in his 1995 book Trust, although he doesn’t emphasize it to the same degree as Henrich.
To return to MacIntyre, again I should acknowledge that I might not have his argument exactly right, especially as regards After Virtue. Also, I am by no means opposed to the idea that having a certain functional role to play in one’s society encourages one to develop the prosocial virtues. I have in fact advocated just this repeatedly on this blog (see here for a start). But the idea that this encouragement depends on one’s society having “a certain kind of social life” that is non-individualistic gets the reasoning backwards. It is precisely in an individualistic society that trustworthiness, to take one example, will usually not be motivated by friendship or family loyalty or authoritarian force and therefore must depend on virtue and honor. Ironically in light of MacIntyre’s notion, the very existence of an individualist society depends on a heightened development of the prosocial virtues among the society’s members. This is what we should conclude logically and what we find empirically.