Ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre, by Theme

[British, b.1929, Professor at Duke University, North Carolina.]

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1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 4. Early European Thought
In the Reformation, morality became unconditional but irrational, individually autonomous, and secular
     Full Idea: Three concepts about morality emerge from the Reformation period: that moral rules are unconditional demands that lack rational justification; that moral agents are sovereign in choices; and that secular powers have their own norms and justifications.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.10)
     A reaction: I get the impression that a rather frankness admission of the role of self-interest emerged at that time as well. It is only in the late seventeenth century that the possibility of a secular altruism begins to be investigated. But there's Shakespeare...
1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 5. Later European Thought
The Levellers and the Diggers mark a turning point in the history of morality
     Full Idea: The Levellers and the Diggers mark a turning point in the history of morality.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.11)
     A reaction: John Lilburne, the Leveller, 'Free-Born John', was the most important of them. They mainly fought for rights of religious conscience, but it quickly escalated into a demand for economic and social rights. It spread to France and the United States.
In the 17th-18th centuries morality offered a cure for egoism, through altruism
     Full Idea: It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth century that morality came generally to be understood as offering a solution to the problems posed by human egoism and that the content of morality came to be largely equated with altruism.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch.16)
     A reaction: It was the elevation of altruism that caused Nietzsche's rebellion. The sixteenth century certainly looks striking cynical to modern eyes. The development was an attempt to secularise Jesus. Altruism has a paradox: it needs victims.
1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 6. Twentieth Century Thought
Twentieth century social life is re-enacting eighteenth century philosophy
     Full Idea: Twentieth century social life turns out in key part to be the concrete and dramatic re-enactment of eighteenth-century philosophy.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: This suggest a two hundred year lag between the philosophy and its impact on the culture. One might note the Victorian insistence on 'duty' (e.g. in George Eliot), alongside Mill's view that the Kantian account of it didn't work (Idea 3768).
1. Philosophy / D. Nature of Philosophy / 7. Despair over Philosophy
Philosophy has been marginalised by its failure in the Enlightenment to replace religion
     Full Idea: The failure, in the Enlightenment, of philosophy to provide what religion could no longer furnish was an important cause of philosophy losing its central cultural role and becoming a marginal, narrowly academic subject.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 4)
     A reaction: A strange way of presenting the situation. Philosophy has never aspired to furnish beliefs for the masses. Plato offered them myths. The refutation of religion was difficult and complex. There is no returning from there to a new folk simplicity.
2. Reason / A. Nature of Reason / 9. Limits of Reason
Proof is a barren idea in philosophy, and the best philosophy never involves proof
     Full Idea: Arguments in philosophy rarely take the form of proofs; and the most successful arguments on topics central to philosophy never do. (The ideal of proof is a relatively barren one in philosophy).
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch.18)
     A reaction: He seems proud of this, but he must settle for something which is less than proof, which has to be vindicated to the mathematicians and scientists. I agree, though. Plato is the model, and the best philosophy builds a broad persuasive picture.
12. Knowledge Sources / D. Empiricism / 5. Empiricism Critique
To find empiricism and science in the same culture is surprising, as they are really incompatible
     Full Idea: There is something extraordinary in the coexistence of empiricism and natural science in the same culture, for they represent radically different and incompatible ways of approaching the world.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 7)
     A reaction: I would say that science is commitment to an ontology, and empiricism is a commitment to epistemology. It is a very nice point, given the usual assumption that science is an empirical activity. See Idea 7621. Strict empiricism distorts science.
13. Knowledge Criteria / E. Relativism / 4. Cultural relativism
Relativism can be seen as about the rationality of different cultural traditions
     Full Idea: MacIntyre formulates relativism in terms of rationality rather than truth or objectivity. Things are rational relative to some particular tradition, but not rational as such.
     From: report of Alasdair MacIntyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? [1988], p.352) by Martin Kusch - Knowledge by Agreement Ch.19
     A reaction: Personally I had always taken it to be about truth, and I expect any account of rationality to be founded on a notion of truth. There can clearly be cultural traditions of evidence, and possibly even of logic (though I doubt it).
14. Science / A. Basis of Science / 4. Prediction
Unpredictability doesn't entail inexplicability, and predictability doesn't entail explicability
     Full Idea: Just as unpredictability does not entail inexplicability, so predictability does not entail explicability.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: The second half is not quite as obvious as the first. The location of lightning strikes is an example of the first. He gives examples of the second, but they all seem to be very complex cases which might be explained, if only we knew enough.
14. Science / B. Scientific Theories / 1. Scientific Theory
Social sciences discover no law-like generalisations, and tend to ignore counterexamples
     Full Idea: Social sciences have discovered no law-like generalisations whatsoever, ...and for the most part they adopt a very tolerant attitude to counter-examples.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: I suspect that this is as much to do with a narrow and rigid view of what 'science' is supposed to be, as a failure of the social sciences. Have such sciences explained anything? I suspect that they have explained a lot, often after the facts.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 2. Psuche
When Aristotle speaks of soul he means something like personality
     Full Idea: When Aristotle speaks of the soul we could very often retain his meaning by speaking of personality.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch. 7)
     A reaction: MacIntyre contrasts this strongly with Plato's dualist view. Famously Aristotle thinks the soul is the 'form' of the body, but this implies that he also includes the higher-level functions of the body. Soul is character?
16. Persons / E. Rejecting the Self / 3. Narrative Self
I can only make decisions if I see myself as part of a story
     Full Idea: I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], p.201), quoted by Michael J. Sandel - Justice: What's the right thing to do? 09
     A reaction: MacIntyre is a great champion of the narrative view of the Self. Does this mean that if you had total amnesia, but retained other faculties, you could make no decisions? Can you start a new story whenever you like?
18. Thought / B. Mechanics of Thought / 6. Artificial Thought / a. Artificial Intelligence
AI can't predict innovation, or consequences, or external relations, or external events
     Full Idea: AI machines have four types of unpredictability: they can't predict radical innovation or future maths proofs; they couldn't predict the outcome of their own decisions; their relations with other computers would be a game-theory tangle; and power failure.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: This isn't an assertion that they lack 'free will', just a very accurate observation of how the super new machines would face exactly the same problems that we ourselves face.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 1. Nature of Value / b. Fact and value
The value/fact logical gulf is misleading, because social facts involve values
     Full Idea: One reason why it is highly misleading to talk of a logical gulf between value and fact....is that we cannot characterize the social life of a tribe in their factual terms and escape their evaluations.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.10)
     A reaction: Personally I like the objection that facts about functions cannot avoid the value of good functions, but this is very good. It is much better than simply trying to find a specific counterexample, such as facts about promises. Values just are facts.
22. Metaethics / B. The Good / 2. Happiness / b. Eudaimonia
'Happiness' is a bad translation of 'eudaimonia', which includes both behaving and faring well
     Full Idea: The name 'eudaimonia' is badly but inevitably translated by 'happiness', badly because it includes both the notion of behaving well and the notion of faring well.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch. 7)
     A reaction: This seems to imply that it does not include the notion of feeling good. Aristotle, however, concludes that pleasure is part of eudaimonia. I take our 'happiness' to be an internal notion, while the Greek word is an external notion.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / c. Purpose of ethics
The good life for man is the life spent seeking the good life for man
     Full Idea: The good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch.15)
     A reaction: This contains a self-evident paradox - that success would be failure. The proposal suits philosophers more than it would suit the folk. Less seeking and more getting on with it seems good, if the activity is a 'flourishing' one.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 1. Nature of Ethics / d. Ethical theory
We still have the appearance and language of morality, but we no longer understand it
     Full Idea: We possess simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have - very largely, if not entirely - lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 1)
     A reaction: MacIntyre's famous (or notorious) assault on modern ethics. We obviously can't prove him wrong by spouting moral talk. Are we actually more wicked than our ancestors? There is, I think, a relativism problem in the 20th centurty, but that is different.
Unlike expressions of personal preference, evaluative expressions do not depend on context
     Full Idea: There are good reasons for distinguishing between expressions of personal preference and evaluative expressions, as the first depend on who utters them to whom, while the second are not dependent for reason-giving force on the context of utterance.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: The sceptics will simply say that in the second type of expression the speaker tries to adopt a tone of impersonal authority, but it is merely an unjustified attempt to elevate personal preferences. "Blue just IS the best colour".
Moral judgements now are anachronisms from a theistic age
     Full Idea: Moral judgements are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 5)
     A reaction: He is sort of right. Richard Taylor is less dramatic and more plausible on this (Ideas 5065, 5066, 5077). Big claims about 'duty' have become rather hollow, but the rights and wrongs of (e.g.) mistreating children don't seem to need theism.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / b. Rational ethics
The failure of Enlightenment attempts to justify morality will explain our own culture
     Full Idea: A central thesis of this book is that the breakdown of the project (of 1630 to 1850) of an independent rational justification of morality provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 4)
     A reaction: Possibly the most important question of our times is whether the Enlightenment failed. MacIntyre's claim is followed by an appeal for a return to Aristotelian/Thomist virtues. Continentals seem to have responded by sliding into relativism.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / c. Ethical intuitionism
Mention of 'intuition' in morality means something has gone wrong with the argument
     Full Idea: The introduction of the word 'intuition' by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 6)
     A reaction: For the alternative view, see Kripke (Idea 4948). If Kripke is right about logic, I don't see why the same view should have some force in morality. At the bottom of all morality is an intuition that life is worth the struggle. How do you prove that?
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / e. Human nature
When 'man' is thought of individually, apart from all roles, it ceases to be a functional concept
     Full Idea: It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that 'man' ceases to be a functional concept.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 5)
     A reaction: This is the one key idea at the heart of the revival of virtue ethics in modern times. It pinpoints what may be the single biggest disaster in intellectual history - the isolation of the individual. Yet it led to freedom, rights, and lots of good things.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / h. Expressivism
In trying to explain the type of approval involved, emotivists are either silent, or viciously circular
     Full Idea: In reply to the question of what kinds of approval are expressed by the feelings or attitudes of moral judgments, every version of emotivism either remains silent, or becomes viciously circular by identifying it as moral approval.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: There seems to be an underlying assumption that moral judgements are sharply separated from other judgements, of which I am not convinced. I approve of creating a beautiful mural for an old folks home free of charge, but it must be beautiful.
The expression of feeling in a sentence is in its use, not in its meaning
     Full Idea: Expression of feeling is not a function of the meaning of sentences, but of their use, as when a teacher shouts at a pupil "7 x 7 = 49!", where the expression of feeling or attitude has nothing whatsoever to do with its meaning.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: This point is what underlies the Frege-Geach problem for emotivism, and is a very telling point. Apart from in metaethics, no one has ever put forward a theory of meaning that says it is just emotion. ...Unless it concerns speakers' intentions?
Emotivism cannot explain the logical terms in moral discourse ('therefore', 'if..then')
     Full Idea: Analytical moral philosophers resist emotivism because moral reasoning does occur, but there can be logical linkages between various moral judgements of a kind that emotivism could not allow for ('therefore' and 'if...then' express no moral feelings).
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: This is the 'Frege-Geach Problem', nicely expressed, and is the key reason why emotivism seems unacceptable - it is a theory about language, but it just doesn't explain moral discourse sufficiently.
Nowadays most people are emotivists, and it is embodied in our culture
     Full Idea: To a large degree people now think, talk and act as if emotivism was true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: I suspect that it is moderately educated people who have swallowed emotivism, in the same way that they have swallowed relativism; it provides an excuse for neglectly the pursuit of beauty, goodness and truth, in favour of pleasure.
22. Metaethics / C. Ethics Foundations / 2. Source of Ethics / j. Ethics by convention
Sophists don't distinguish a person outside one social order from someone outside all order
     Full Idea: The sophist tradition failed to distinguish the difference between the concept of a man who stands outside and is able to question the conventions of some one given social order, and the concept of a man who stands outside social life as such.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch. 3)
     A reaction: A very nice distinction. Compare foreigners in Athens with Diogenes of Sinope, who renounced all cities. This is the germ of MacIntyre's view that morality is essentially dependent on some sort of social order. He is a reviver of virtue theory.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 1. Virtue Theory / a. Nature of virtue
Maybe we can only understand rules if we first understand the virtues
     Full Idea: Maybe we need to attend to the virtues first in the first place in order to understand the function and authority of rules.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 9)
     A reaction: I think MacIntyre's project is exactly right. Morality is about how humans should live their lives. A bunch of robots could implement a set of moral rules, or make contracts, or maximise one another's benefits. The idea of a human community comes first.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 1. Virtue Theory / d. Virtue theory critique
Virtue is secondary to a role-figure, defined within a culture
     Full Idea: MacIntyre argues that the concept of virtue is secondary to that of a role-figure, where the latter is always defined by some particular tradition and culture.
     From: report of Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981]) by Daniel Statman - Introduction to Virtue Ethics 3
     A reaction: MacIntyre is much more of a relativist than Aristotle. There must be some attempt to deal with the problem of a rotten culture which throws up a corrupt role-model. We need a concept of a good culture and of individual flourishing.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / e. Character
Characters are the masks worn by moral philosophies
     Full Idea: Characters are the masks worn by moral philosophies.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 3)
     A reaction: This may be presenting character in an excessively moral way. Being lively, for example, is a very distinctive trait of character, but hardly moral. This tells us why philosophers are interested in character, but not why other people are.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / h. Right feelings
If morality just is emotion, there are no external criteria for judging emotions
     Full Idea: If there is nothing to judgements of virtue and vice except the expression of feelings of approval and disapproval, there can be no criteria external to those feelings by appeal to which we may pass judgement upon them.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch.16)
     A reaction: The idea that there can be right and wrong feelings may be the key idea in virtue theory. See Idea 5217. A good person would be ashamed to have a bad feeling. Some emotional responses are intrinsically wicked, apart from actions.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 3. Virtues / c. Justice
'Dikaiosune' is justice, but also fairness and personal integrity
     Full Idea: The Greek 'dikaiosune' is inadequately translated as 'justice', but also as any other word; it combines the notion of fairness in externals with that of personal integrity in a way that no English word does.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch. 1)
     A reaction: 'Dikaiosune' is said to be the main topic of Plato's 'Republic'. Plato seems to have meant it to cover whatever makes a good character. Justice in behaviour presumably flows from internal justice of character (which is, roughly, inner harmony).
23. Ethics / D. Deontological Ethics / 2. Duty
My duties depend on my identity, which depends on my social relations
     Full Idea: I cannot answer the question 'What ought I to do?' until I have answered the question 'Who am I?', and any answer to this question will specify my place in a nexus of social relationships.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.13)
     A reaction: This is the beginning of the modern critique of deontological ethics coming from revived virtue theory. As it stands, MacIntyre's idea sounds contractual, but I think he intends it in a more organic way. I am a fan.
23. Ethics / E. Utilitarianism / 1. Utilitarianism
Since Moore thinks the right action produces the most good, he is a utilitarian
     Full Idea: Moore takes it that to call an action right is simply to say that of the available alternative actions it is the one which does or did as a matter of fact produce the most good. Moore is thus a utilitarian.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 2)
     A reaction: Far be it from me to disagree with MacIntyre on this, but I would have thought that this made him a consequentialist, rather than a utilitarian. Moore doesn't remotely think that pure pleasure or happiness is the good. He's closer to Rashdall (Idea 6673).
25. Society / A. State of Nature / 2. Natural Values / a. Natural freedom
I am naturally free if I am not tied to anyone by a contract
     Full Idea: The essence of the claim to natural rights is that no one has a right against me unless he can cite some contract, my consent to it, and his performance of his obligations under it.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.11)
     A reaction: This has become the foundation of western democracy, and the rebellious teenager's charter. Children have not consented to a contract with their parents. Close and loving relationships cease to be contractual.
25. Society / A. State of Nature / 2. Natural Values / c. Natural rights
There are no natural or human rights, and belief in them is nonsense
     Full Idea: There are no natural or human rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 6)
     A reaction: His point is that the notion of 'rights' only arises out of a community. However, while you might criticise an individual for absurdly asserting all sorts of dubious rights, no one could criticise them if they asserted the right to defend their own life.
25. Society / C. Social Justice / 4. Legal Rights / a. Basis of rights
Fans of natural rights or laws can't agree on what the actual rights or laws are
     Full Idea: It is notorious that adherents of theories about natural rights or natural laws offer lists of rights or laws which differ in substance from each other.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch.17)
     A reaction: There seems to have been a consensus early on that self-defence was a natural right, but divergence presumably occurs when you get bolder and more complex. There is a lot of divergence over which is Shakespeare's best play.
28. God / A. Divine Nature / 4. Divine Contradictions
If God is omniscient, he confronts no as yet unmade decisions, so decisions are impossible
     Full Idea: Omniscience excludes the making of decisions. If God knows everything that will occur, he confronts no as yet unmade decisions.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory [1981], Ch. 8)
     A reaction: [He cites Aquinas on this] I find it very difficult to see how anyone could read the Bible (see Idea 8008) while keeping this point continually in mind, without seeing the whole book as a piece of blatant anthropomorphism.
29. Religion / B. Monotheistic Religion / 5. Bible
The Bible is a story about God in which humans are incidental characters
     Full Idea: The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters.
     From: Alasdair MacIntyre (A Short History of Ethics [1967], Ch. 9)
     A reaction: Very illuminating. He creates man, is betrayed by man, drowns him and starts again, sends a redeemer who gets murdered, and finally enlightens a small band who continue the uphill struggle to promote God's way. What next?