Virtue and After: MacIntyre's Solution to a Modern Dilemma

In his book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre discusses the problem of emotivism in our culture today. His solution to emotivism, which is individuals' inability to justify their beliefs, lies in the idea of a community. He claims that virtues are understood in the context of our practices, which include things like chess and architecture, and that our practices are understood in the context of our community, which could consist of our town, our region or our country, depending on the context. He believes that when we are aware of how our virtues are formed, then we become aware of our narrative unity, which is how the collection of our stories and experiences all fit together to lead toward an end. When we understand this, we can then strive toward the best possible unity, or our telos. Jerome Schneewind argues that since virtues are formed within the context of a community, MacIntyre's theory is no less relativistic than our current scenario, since there is still no objective way to determine whether a tradition is leading toward a "good" end, like peace and prosperity, or a "bad" one, like racial purity (through means of genocide). Charles Taylor argues that one incorporates the principle of goods which transcend specific practices, so that a more objective good is used as a goal, not just a good which is arbitrarily chosen by a specific tradition, and implemented by certain practices. If MacIntyre would allow for goods which transcend all practices, then he can avoid relativism, but he claims that to accept practice-based goods is to reject transcendent ones (MacIntyre, 1994: 287). MacIntyre's solution allows two traditions to engage in dialogue and for both to realize whether a particular practice is inferior or superior to the opposing tradition's rival practice. However, his argument is not successful because it does not allow one tradition to criticize another. The problem with this is obvious in cases where human rights are violated, such as instances of genocide, where it should be possible for one tradition to tell another that its practice is morally impermissible. I will demonstrate that MacIntyre actually allows for a good that transcends not only all practices, but all traditions, and it is to this good which traditions can appeal to when they engage in dialogue with one another, and judge whether the practice of another tradition is morally impermissible or not.

           I.                Contemporary Moral America

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah depicts an alarming view of American morality. His interviews with middle-aged, middle-class Americans reveal that they are generally unable to explain what they believe, much less why they believe it. For example, Brian Palmer is a business manager who got divorced as a result of the many hours he was putting into his job. His goal was to make a lot of money, no matter what the cost, until his wife left him. He began his life over again and is remarried now. He puts a lot more time and effort into his new family than he did into the old one. He knows that he is happier now and seems to believe that his new life is better than the old one, and yet he is unable to explain why that is. Bellah deduces that "his new goal—devotion to marriage and children—seems as arbitrary and unexamined as his earlier pursuit of material success" (Bellah, 1985: 6). Bellah goes on to explain that Brian apparently judges whether an action or lifestyle is "good" if it makes him happy, and that it was an inexplicable change in what brought him happiness that caused him to change his priorities. Bellah finds this to be an unstable and inconsistent way of defining beliefs, because they can change on a whim. He believes that people should be able to explain why their lifestyle is superior to other choices they make in a way that cannot change tomorrow. Otherwise, if we are all like Brian Palmer, we cannot know that our choices today are the right ones, since there is no standard to tell us if something is the right decision morally, or even what will make us happy.

            Brian is equally vague about what his "values" are. He believes that some things, like lying, stealing and killing are wrong, but cannot say why. He just knows that they are. While he believes the world would be a better place if everyone would follow his value system, he does not feel that he is in a position to declare any particular values as right or wrong universally. He just knows that his values are right for him, and it doesn't bother him that he cannot explain why.

             II.               MacIntyre's Initial Analysis

Alasdair MacIntyre defines this inability to define and explain one's belief system as emotivism, where a statement such as, "Abortion is wrong," really translates to "I believe abortion is wrong, and therefore you should, too." Statements gain meaning because a person chooses them, rather than the other way around. There are no universal values that can be appealed to; instead a person chooses her belief based on her "feeling" about it.

            A problem related to emotivism is the state of moral disagreement. The result of this state is a value debate where, for example, one side argues that abortion is morally acceptable because a woman has the right to make decisions concerning her own body, and the other side argues that it is wrong because a fetus is a person, and killing a person is murder, so abortion is murder. MacIntyre explains why this debate is problematic. He says that "the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against the other. For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds" (1981: 8). He is saying that while both sides give rational explications for having a certain set of beliefs, there is no coherent way to evaluate these sides with respect to the other because while they are both logical arguments, they make no claims that the other refutes, but instead claims which appeal to their own argument, not others. While the arguments are based on refuting facts and beliefs, they are unable to communicate because they are not appealing to the same moral standard, but to the moral standard of their side of the debate. Therefore, there is no way to explain which side has the more compelling argument. MacIntyre claims that this is further demonstrated by the pervasiveness of these arguments throughout American culture. It is clear that not only are arguments like the one above perpetually debated, but will have to be because there is no way to come to an agreement based on the current condition of moral disagreement in our individualistic culture. In today's individualistic understanding of morality and virtue, there is no way to resolve a morality debate, and therefore no way to determine what is morally acceptable and what is not.

            But clearly, some things are right and others are wrong. Surely, almost everyone instinctively accepts the notion that rape is wrong in virtually all cases. But if rape really is morally impermissible, there must be a way to justify this judgment. MacIntyre argues that while in ancient philosophy morality could be explicated, that is, beliefs concerning moral judgments could be justified by appealing to a moral standard, it is only more recently that philosophy has begun to fall apart, and the justification of morality fail. By the eighteenth century philosophers had begun to notice this decline and began an active effort to "provide a rational vindication of morality" (MacIntyre 48).

                                                                               i. The Enlightenment Project

            Philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant strove to find the definition of virtue and explain why certain things are universally wrong or right. While the philosophers generally agreed on what could be described as a virtue and what sort of behavior was morally acceptable or forbidden, because of their different backgrounds, or traditions, they could not agree on a justification for their beliefs. And, as in the abortion example above, while they could all give coherent, logical accounts of arguments for particular beliefs, there was no way to evaluate which ones were superior. Therefore, it was impossible to determine which, if any, was correct. MacIntyre claims that the Enlightenment project could not meet its goal because of an "ineradicable discrepancy between their shared conception of moral rules and precepts on the one hand and what was shareddespite much larger divergencies—in their conception of human nature on the other" (MacIntyre, 1981: 50). According to MacIntyre, while they could agree on which moral rules they wanted, their justifications depended on their background, meaning that any attempt they made to provide an account of the morals they adopted, failed, because they could not agree on such an account.

            MacIntyre argues that philosophy can only be understood based on the historical context that each philosopher was writing. Basically, he claims that it is the case that philosophers used philosophy to explain the values and the culture of the world they lived in. Because they all came from different cultures and backgrounds, they were all arguing for different values with the same criterion, therefore demonstrating that the criterion, their way of arguing, must be flawed. They could not use philosophy to develop an objective language of morality because the same language defended several different codes of morality. There was a conflict between their moral values and their views of human nature. Thus, this was their outcome: the Enlightenment project ultimately failed to find a "rational vindication of morality," and not only that, but because the philosophers came from different traditions, and they based their moral justifications on those traditions, it had to fail.

                                                                                        ii. MacIntyre's Solution

            MacIntyre determines that this project of explaining moral rules had to fail, but he still believes that there is a way to justify them, namely in terms of a virtue. He defines virtue as follows: "A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods" (MacIntyre, 1981: 178). A practice is an idea, a set of rules and traditions behind an activity. MacIntyre's example on page 175 of After Virtue is that while planting turnips or throwing a football are not practices, farming and the game of football are. A good internal to a practice is a benefit that is achieved through playing the practice. For example, a good internal to football might be the skill to catch a football that was not quite thrown to you. If someone were to cheat, and catch the football after it has bounce, but no one knows, so it looks as though you managed to catch it, then you have deprived yourself of this good by not ascribing to the virtue of honesty. Therefore, what MacIntyre is saying is that acquiring virtue, and applying it to an exercise allows us to achieve a benefit that comes from participating in a practice.

            MacIntyre claims that the concept of a "practice" is not inconsistent with the idea that virtues seem to differ from culture to culture. Because virtue becomes meaningful through its role in different practices, and practices, such as attending church and voting in an election, vary from culture to culture, then so to must virtue. Consider his example of lying, where in some cultures it is never acceptable to lie, and in others lying is occasionally permissible (MacIntyre 1981: 180). He says that the most important thing is that all the cultures have a certain regard for the virtue of honesty, and that without it, one cannot even speak of lying as being right or wrong, but just a decision which is neither morally permissible or impermissible. Therefore, no matter what a tradition's policy on honesty or courage may be, as long as they have some regard for the virtue itself, they are able to communicate with other traditions about honesty or courage, even if they believe it is never wrong to lie, and that one should never face one's fears (MacIntyre, 1981: 179). Because they have a policy on what is morally permissible regarding that particular virtue, they can communicate about those beliefs with other traditions (MacIntyre, 1981: 180).

            Another implication of this definition is that various cultures may have different standards for how to act out a particular virtue. Consider the virtue of honesty. Different cultures may have different understanding of what is appropriate with respect to honestly, but as long as they have an understanding of what honesty and lying are, they still have knowledge of the virtue (MacIntyre, 1981: 180). This is important when traditions enter into discussion of various practices. If they have practices which conflict with each other (such as the punishment of criminals), then it is possible to discuss the differences in these practices. There are also different ways in different traditions of prioritizing virtues. For example, if one of my friends asks me if she looks overweight, it does not really matter what the truth is, I am going to tell her what she wants to hear. In this case, the virtue of kindness overrules that of honesty, though in another culture the brutal truth may be morally considered more appropriate than a kind lie.

            Where there is virtue there may be vice, which means we can extrapolate why there is consistency among what qualities are virtues when so many virtues are violated. For example, most nations and communities believe that murder is wrong. They may disagree on what murder is, to the degree that some nations have a death penalty, believing that that is not murder, where other communities define any killing except for that of self defense as murder. Despite the variations on what is morally permissible as far as bringing about the death of another human being, there is still the standard that killing an innocent person is morally and socially impermissible. Thus, despite many variations of our acceptance of, and the many violations of these virtues, we still understand what they are, and to a surprising extent, accept the same ones. Men can be cowards only when there is courage and liars only when there is truth, and the fact that there are poker players who cheat only verifies the fact that there is a practice, since we speak of them violating it.

            MacIntyre distinguishes between a practice and an institution. While playing poker is a practice, a casino is an institution. The difference is that "institutions are characteristically and necessarily concerned with what I have called external goods" (1981: 181). An internal good is one which is internal to a specific practice. For example, if I reap internal goods for playing chess, then I have gained skills like strategy and foresight. External goods are goods external to the specific practice, like money and prestige for playing chess exceptionally well. These goods are not internal to the game of chess, yet they are still internal to a specific tradition. Without an institution, MacIntyre claims, no practice would exist for very long (1981: 181). To explain what keeps these institutions from avoiding more corruption than they already experience, he brings in the virtues. It's honesty, courage and justice which keep institutions straight.

                                                                                 iii. MacIntyre and Aristotle    

            MacIntyre is concerned about not duplicating Aristotle's ethics, because of some of the problems with it, such as the metaphysical biology discussion, and yet, it is clear that he respects the theory, and explicates in great detail how his account of virtue is different, yet similar to Aristotle's. MacIntyre believes his theory gives a stronger and more realistic account of human character, because the fact that people are flawed in various ways will not result in conflict in his theory. Because these are the main differences MacIntyre sees between his and Aristotle's theory, he feels that his theory is similar enough that it can be considered to be an Aristotelian view.

            MacIntyre holds a similar belief to Aristotle's of the telos, which can be defined as the end toward which a human life strives. He says, "Human beings, like the members of all other species, have a specific nature; and that nature is such that they have certain aims and goals, such that they move by nature towards a specific telos (MacIntyre 1981: 139). However, in Aristotle's version of the telos, that good is "defined by their specific nature" (1981: 139). Aristotle does not have a concept of a community striving for a telos, only individuals, which MacIntyre believes is an oversight which history shares with Aristotle (1981: 149). Therefore, it is key in MacIntyre's understanding of the telos is that each human life contributes to a community, and to fulfill that telos is to contribute to that community in the best possible way, and to help that community achieve its telos.

            Another way to look at the definition of the telos is to consider what a life without it would look like. MacIntyre provides just such a description. The first problem with such a life, he tells us, is that such a life would have too many conflicts and too much "arbitrariness." Without the telos to explicate the significance of our actions, all of our important decisions would suddenly become arbitrary (MacIntyre, 1981: 188). For example, without the telos to explain why one activity is more important than the other, it may appear to be a meaningless decision to choose between working on a Habitat for Humanity project and drinking beer.

                                                                                                 iv. Defining Virtue

            One way in which this explanation given by MacIntyre seems unsatisfactory is that if virtues are simply defined as something to help someone reap the good within a practice, it is not clear how virtues dictate which practice to follow. For example, MacIntyre claims that a painter can be too absorbed in his painting, and neglect his family. Within a family, different members have different roles that vary between cultures, and to be a good father in one tradition would be to act the same as a bad father in another. In some traditions, the father's role is to provide for his family, but not to interact with his children, but the ideal father from that tradition would be a terrible one in modern America. But if there is the virtue of concentration which helps the painter in his practice of painting, and a virtue of concern which helps him in his practice of his role in his family, what dictates which practice is more important? The telos explains which is the more important. The individual has answered the question, "What is my purpose in living," and lives the answer by choosing certain practices, such as the cases of Joe Smith and Pablo Picasso. Suppose there were a person named Joe Smith who was a better painter than Picasso, but since he chose to spend time and money on his family, we've never heard of him. Picasso's telos was to be the painter he became, but Joe's was to raise a family. Each answered the question, but it is important to understand how they each answered it.

            Virtues gain meaning in the context of specific practices, though virtues exist in more than one practice, and more than one virtue aids the existence of practices. But they are much more than that. MacIntyre writes:

The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good… and which will furnish us with increasing self knowledge and knowledge of the good. (1981: 204)

Virtues also help us to achieve goods that are external to specific practices, but still in the context of a tradition.

            Not only do virtues develop based on their roles in supporting practices, but virtues become meaningful through the stories of individual lives. MacIntyre explains that an action only makes sense in its narrative context, such as his case of the young man who informs a stranger of the Latin word for duck. There are several explanations that would cause this utterance to make sense, and any one of them would explain the man's action. Thus, "the act of utterance become[s] intelligible by finding its place in a narrative" (MacIntyre, 210: 1984). Just as an action gains meaning by being placed in a narrative, so do individual lives. Mahatma Gandhi's life had meaning because he lived in India under the British Empire. If he were alive today in America, his struggle for independence from British imperialism would cease to have meaning, and his passive resistance methods would no longer seem revolutionary, but mad. We can only understand his goals and successes and failures in the context of his tradition. MacIntyre writes that "to be the subject of a narrative that runs from one's birth to one's death is… to be accountable for the actions and experiences which compose a narratable life" (MacIntyre, 1984: 217). He is saying that more than rendering intelligibility to our lives, our participation in a narrative unity also gives an explanation to our experiences, allowing for the justification of our actions. And not only are we accountable for our actions, but others can give us our account, since our narratives overlap in various ways, depending on what practices we are each in (MacIntyre, 1982: 218). Concerning the role of unity in morality, and the telos, MacIntyre says:

To ask, 'What is the good for me?' is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask 'What is the good for man?' is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common. But now it is important to emphasize that it is the systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word which provide the moral life with its unity. The unity of the human life is the unity of a narrative quest. (MacIntyre, 1984: 218)

Every life has a narrative made up of the stories and practices we participate in. The unity of a life is the collection of those stories and practices. In order to best live out the unity, MacIntyre believes that we ask the question, "What is the good for me?" By doing this we are enquiring after our telos. Furthermore, the good for man is the collection of the good for each individual. In this case, the sum of the parts equals the whole. When you live out the best possible narrative unity, you have fulfilled the quest as best as possible. In order to begin the quest, one must have an idea of telos, an understanding of the good of man is necessary. MacIntyre writes:

It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods, for a conception of the good which will enable us to extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the virtues, for a conception of the good which will enable us to understand the place of integrity and constancy in life, that we initially define the kind of life which is a quest for the good. (MacIntyre, 1984: 219)

He is saying that it is in the search for the best unity that we find the best unity. It is this search for the good that allows us to live the best possible life, and it is only in understanding our telos that we can live the best life. MacIntyre explains that some people who complain, sometimes before attempting or committing suicide, that their life is meaningless are actually saying that their narrative unity has ceased to make sense to them and that, in their perception at least, their life no longer moves toward a telos, or good (MacIntyre, 1984: 217). Therefore, almost everyone has a concept of their own narrative unity, but it is only with a concept of the good can a person strive for the best possible unity.

               III.              Critiques of MacIntyre

Two philosophers who offer critiques of MacIntyre's theory proposed in After Virtue are Jerome Schneewind and Charles Taylor. While Taylor is a communitarian like MacIntyre, Schneewind is more objectivist. Their positions reflect their philosophy.

                                                  i. Schneewind: A Non-Communitarian's Critique

            Jerome B. Schneewind claims that there are several problems with MacIntyre's virtue-centered theory of morality though only one is truly formidable. MacIntyre's explanation of virtues' relationship to a tradition is problematic, because it could implicate a scenario where virtues result from arbitrary decisions on how to conduct a practice (1982: 661). If virtues are the result of actions which aid a practice, and practices are things that make up a tradition, then what is it that prevents practices from being determined arbitrarily? He writes that "All that MacIntyre can insist on with respect to the common good is that people work together to secure it" (Schneewind 1982: 661). Basically, traditions function to pursue a common good, but that common good could be anything from world domination to racial purity to peace and prosperity. That is, on MacIntyre's view there is no universal purpose for a tradition, it is simply whatever a tradition decides to pursue. Furthermore, on this view, there is nothing to determine what makes a practice meaningful, since practices are what make up a tradition, and help further the tradition in its pursuit of this good. And, if the only role for a virtue is to promote the success of a particular practice, then MacIntyre's system, in which virtues are justified based on their role in a particular practice, is really no different from emotivism in that in emotivism, virtues have developed arbitrarily based on an individual person's whim.

            One answer to this problem, provided by MacIntyre, is that our lives have a narrative unity, and that "both our identities as individual persons and our continuing responsibility for our past actions…can be explained only in terms of the narrative unity of our lives" (Schneewind, 1982: 656). The narrative unity of a life describes how the life is lived, and how certain practices were used to achieve one's telos. MacIntyre believes that this narrative unity helps to eliminate the possible relativistic aspects of virtues gaining meaning from these practices because the narrative unity implies a telos. If there is a telos, then there is an end to which a human life appeals, and to which the practices then also appeal. But this end only has meaning in the context of the good to which the life appeals. How is this good defined? If each end is determined by each person, as Schneewind suggests (1982: 659), then the result is the same relativistic one that exists today, where a purpose (and the decision that strives toward that purpose) are determined and given meaning arbitrarily by each individual. In that case, MacIntyre's theory could only lead us to be what we are today: emotivist.

            Schneewind concludes that MacIntyre has not provided a real answer to our problems. He says that he has not demonstrated anything about the common good except that "people work together to achieve it" (Schneewind, 1982: 661), and since we have no new explanation of what the common good, we are just as lost as we were when we began this debate.

                                                                                  ii. Response to Schneewind

            MacIntyre would probably agree that each life automatically has its own unfinished narrative unity. But it is not as arbitrary as Schneewind makes it out to be. It is not for an individual's own sake that decisions are made, but the sake of a tradition, ultimately. Our current state of affairs is the result of individualism, and people making decisions based on emotivist instinct, whereas the picture that MacIntyre depicts is a communitarian world where people live to best serve their community, and live to a certain telos. It is not clear that following the philosophy of MacIntyre would result in the emotivist and individualistic state of affairs that America encounters now, which is what Schneewind predicts. What remains to be seen is whether each community is governed by an objective law, or if each tradition has its own independent moral codes, and if so, what the implications of such a system would be.

                                            iii. Charles Taylor: A Fellow Communitarian's Critique

            Like MacIntyre, Charles Taylor has a communitarian, rather than individualistic philosophy. As a result, his critique of MacIntyre is more subtle than many, yet has the capacity to be more threatening, since he sympathizes with so many aspects of MacIntyre's argument.      

            One of the most significant criticisms that Taylor makes has to do with MacIntyre's limitations on virtue. MacIntyre believes that virtues evolve from practices, and that these goods are only understood and achieved through specific practices. In his criticism of the Enlightenment project, he rejects the principle of disengaged reason, where philosophers try to separate morality from any given context as much as possible. MacIntyre found that it was this pursuit of disengaged morality that led to the degradation of virtue, and that virtues and goods should only be understood in the context of specific practices and traditions. While Taylor agrees with MacIntyre that appealing exclusively to disengaged thought is impossible, because it is practical reasoning which tells us the basic things in life, such as affirming my own existence, and my faith in God, whereas disengaged thought will only explicate truths of a more scientific nature, such as the color of my hair and the temperature at which water boils. Appealing only to disengage thought is not possible. However, he disagrees with MacIntyre in that he argues that allowing for disengaged thought is compatible with goods specific to certain practices (Taylor, 1994: 36). He claims that, "When one understands practical reason aright, one can see that the goods about which one reasons in its context-related way include transcendent ones" (Taylor, 1994: 36). So, we reason about transcendent goods from the context of our tradition. To Taylor, transcendent goods and context-related goods are related to one another, in that "these goods transcend all our practices, such that we are capable of transforming or even repudiating some of [context-related goods] in their name" (Taylor, 1994: 35). The transcendent goods can not only interact with the local ones, but are more powerful than they are. His example is that the prophets of Israel were able to tell their people that their behavior needed radical change, and that their holocausts were wrong. They appealed to a transcendent good, being in God's favor, to reform a practice which was context-based. The prophets appealed to the transcendent good to reform some local practices of the people. Today, Taylor claims on page 35, modern philosophy does not have a clear concept of transcendent goods.

                                                                            iv. MacIntyre's Response to Taylor

            MacIntyre states in his response that he and Taylor clearly disagree on the existence of transcendent goods. He says:

Taylor asserts that we need to recognize both the goods acknowledged within a practice-based and generally Aristotelian view of the world and goods such as those involved in the ideal of disengaged reason. He correctly ascribes to me the belief that recognition of the former set of goods excludes recognition of the latter. (MacIntyre, 1994:287)

MacIntyre is arguing that it is not possible to reconcile practice-based goods with transcendent ones, and that it is not compatible to recognize both. MacIntyre does believe that there are goods that are external to specific practices, such as money and power, and that virtues not only help people achieve the goods that are internal to practices, but also gain the "goods of a whole human life and the goods of those types of communities in and through which the goods of individual lives are characteristically achieved" (MacIntyre, 1994: 288). However, MacIntyre's understanding of these goods is that they are integrated with context-based goods, and never independent (1994: 288).

            Because Taylor is so adamant about the acceptance of both kinds of goods, and MacIntyre is so clear about nonexistence about one of those kinds of goods, it is not possible to reconcile these beliefs. But if we accept MacIntyre's description of goods as only existing within certain traditions, even if they aren't exclusive to practices, then is it possible for different traditions to engage in dialogue? Or does MacIntyre have to accept the existence of transcendental goods?

                IV.              Is MacIntyre Fighting Relativism with Relativism?

The main problem with emotivism is that there is no way to evaluate someone else's beliefs, and thus demonstrate that one belief is correct, or more so than another, at least. According to emotivism, beliefs gain value when we choose them, though from an Aristotelian perspective we ought to choose them because they are arguably sound.

            In MacIntyre's system, a virtue gains meaning as it is understood through a narrative unity of life, and the narrative unity of a life is only understood in the context of its narrative tradition. As a result, we can only understand a virtue in the context of the tradition it is contained in. Robert Wachbroit pinpoints this as the reason that MacIntyre's theory is relativistic (Wachbroit, 1981: 576). He claims that because virtue is only understood within a specific tradition, then it is relative to that tradition, and there is no way to evaluate whether any practice within another tradition is "morally correct." The need to evaluate other tradition's practices is clear when I consider the case of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

            It is arguable that from the position of the American tradition that FGM is morally impermissible. It causes a great deal of pain, is often dangerous, sometimes life threatening, and often done without the patient's consent. Inflicting pain and possible mortal danger on an innocent (unconsenting) person is usually considered wrong, but if I am never to be in a position where I can criticize this practice because I am not a member of that tradition, then how is it possible to critically evaluate the moral status of this practice? Is this only for the members of that tradition to do? This seems unlikely when one reflects on the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust consisted of the systematic murder of millions of people, which is outrageous enough for most people to think that if they were to have knowledge of such a monstrosity, that they would be in a position to determine that it is morally impermissible, regardless of which tradition it is taking place in. MacIntyre suggests that the solution is to engage in dialogue with the offending tradition about the practices of their tradition and wait for them to acknowledge that ours are stronger. But counting on this seems risky, and it also seems to counteract common sense not to allow our tradition to criticize theirs, but only to speak with them, so that they may recognize their tradition's flaws. MacIntyre's theory is not adequate unless a tradition is in a position to judge another tradition from an objective standpoint. Otherwise, there is no way to criticize traditions like Nazi Germany and practices like FGM other than hope they realize the error of their ways.

                                                                                     i. MacIntyre's Response

            MacIntyre responds that traditions are able to communicate to a greater degree that Wachbroit imagines. He first explains that rival traditions are able to recognize when they are opposed to each other. In order to be so aware, they must know that they are dealing with the same issue, but disagree on its moral status. And one tradition is able to observe another, to note what its practices are. MacIntyre also claims that it is possible for one tradition to realize that another tradition has a better response to a particular moral dilemma, and to change its response accordingly, such as in the following illustration.

            Suppose that Tradition A has a practice that Tradition B finds morally unacceptable, while Tradition B believes that Tradition A's practice is different from their own, and B would prefer to be patriotic to its own ways. Each side's disapproval can only be attributed to disagreement, not on any objective understanding that either tradition is wrong, since there is no such thing, even if the issue that they disagree on is genocide. So they engage in dialogue, Tradition A notices that Tradition B does, in fact, have a point, and that their method of approaching the situation is a superior one. It is then Tradition A's response to change its practice, and follow Tradition B's example. MacIntyre writes that, "Traditions do on occasion founder, that is, by their own standards of flourishing and foundering, and an encounter with a rival tradition may in this way pride good reasons either for attempting to reconstitute one's tradition in some radical way or for deserting it" (MacIntyre, 1984: 277). Here, MacIntyre makes it clear that it is up to each individual tradition to determine whether they are successful, including how their practices fare. In the case of Tradition A, it is up to it to determine if a particular practice helps the tradition flourish, or if Tradition B's idea is better. Once they determine the superiority of Tradition B's position, they must decide whether to revise their tradition or abandon it.

            MacIntyre believes that this demonstrates that it is possible to compare one tradition with another, and that Wachbroit's claim that it is not possible to compare one tradition to another, and to find a moral deficit in one or more practices in that tradition, fails.

                 ii. MacIntyre's response implies a universal logical standard: Consistency

            MacIntyre allows for one tradition to observe another, and upon such examination, find inadequacies with its own tradition. But how does this help in a case like Nazi Germany, or FMG? On what grounds can tradition B enter into a dialogue with Tradition A to cause it to question its practices? It seems clear that there are places in the world where there are immoral practices occur and where human rights are violated by the state every day. The initial problem seems to be that MacIntyre's theory does not allow any tradition to objectively criticize another tradition—while it allows a tradition to realize that it is superior to another, it never allows for that tradition to tell the inferior one that it is wrong. He makes this point extremely clear when he says both, "It will thus sometimes at least be possible for adherents of each tradition to understand and to evaluate—by their own standards—the characterizations for their positions advanced by their rivals" (MacIntyre, AV 1984 276) and "Traditions do on occasion founder, that is, by their own standards of flourishing and foundering, and an encounter with a rival tradition may in this way provide good reasons either for attempting to reconstitute one's tradition in some radical way or for deserting it" (MacIntyre, 1984: 277). MacIntyre only allows for each tradition to evaluate itself, and the purpose of dialogue is to allow one tradition to learn from another, not to criticize competing traditions. It is clear from both the language and the statements, that evaluating another tradition is limited to comparing one's own tradition to another, using one's own tradition's measuring stick. MacIntyre has provided a method for improving one's own tradition by that tradition's standards, but little more.

            MacIntyre might respond by saying that it is possible for one tradition to criticize another, though this would still be limited by using the second tradition's own standards. It is possible to reason with them in such a way that they will have to recognize their shortcoming by seeing that a certain practice is inconsistent with the overall virtues of their tradition. Tradition B could question Tradition A about its overall moral practices and beliefs until Tradition A is forced to recognize that a particular practice is inconsistent with its overall moral tradition. But this suggests that Tradition B is appealing to a universal principle of logic: consistency. Thus, MacIntyre is implicitly appealing to a logical principle that transcends particular traditions.

                                                                                              iii. More implications

            Charles Taylor argues from a communitarian perspective that MacIntyre's argument is more objective than universalists perceive. That is, universalists have criticized the relativistic aspect of MacIntyre's argument, but Taylor, a fellow communitarian, believes that there are some objective elements in the argument that allow the theory to appeal to everyone, even universalists. He believes that it is this objective aspect of MacIntyre's theory that makes it work.

            Taylor claims that some goods transcend all practices. Is it possible that the only way to achieve these goods would be with virtues derived from practices within a certain tradition? Then how is it any guarantee that every tradition will have developed virtues that are capable of attaining these goods? If practices vary from tradition to tradition, then the virtues will vary as well. Thus, if the virtues are exclusive to specific practices, and therefore, traditions, then there is no guarantee that every tradition will have the virtues necessary to achieving these transcendent goods. These goods must be achieved by having certain virtues that also supercede individual practices.

            In his response to Taylor, MacIntyre says, "Taylor asserts that we need to recognize both the goods acknowledged within a practice-based and generally Aristotelian view of the world and goods such as those involved in the ideal of disengaged reason. He correctly ascribes to me the belief that the recognition of the former set of goods excludes recognition of the latter" (MacIntyre, 1994: 287). MacIntyre specifically states that the existence of goods that are internal to tradition excludes those that are transcendent among all traditions. It is possible, however, that MacIntyre does ascribe to some transcendent goods, even if he is not willing to admit it, and even may be forced to in order for his theory to even work.  

            MacIntyre says in After Virtue:

I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately. (MacIntyre, 1981: 189)

MacIntyre makes it clear here that he does subscribe to a certain objectivity of morality. There is no understanding virtues without appealing to the telos of an entire human life. It may seem that MacIntyre is only speaking of the narrative unity of one human life, which fits neatly into one particular tradition until one considers what he says about the good of a human life in another book written nine years later:

The philosophical theorist has to enquire: What is the good specific to human beings? Each individual has to enquire: What is my good as a human being? And while no true answer can be given by the philosophical theorist which is not somehow or other translatable into true answers that can be given to their practical questions by ordinary human individuals, no true answers can be given to their questions by such individuals which do not presuppose some particular type of answer to the philosopher's question. (MacIntyre, 1990: 128)

MacIntyre says that to ask about the telos of a human life is to also ask about the telos of human beings as a whole, from all traditions. MacIntyre has stated that to understand virtue, one must appeal to the narrative unity of a life, and it is not possible to understand the narrative unity of a life with answering the question about what is the "good specific to human beings." This presupposition by MacIntyre supposes that there is, in fact, a transcendent good that appeals to all human beings, regardless of tradition. Not only does this statement presuppose that a such a good exists, but that MacIntyre acknowledges its existence, and its relationship to the good of an individual human life. He elaborates further on this relationship in a passage from After Virtue which I quoted earlier:

It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods, for a conception of the good which will enable us to extend our understanding of the purpose and content of the virtues, for a conception of the good which will enable us to understand the place of integrity and constancy in life, that we initially define the kind of life which is a quest for the good. (MacIntyre, 1984: 219)

It is through searching for an understanding of the good that we can find our best narrative unity. Furthermore, it would seem from this passage that it is a conception of this good that will lend coherency to tradition's quest for the good.

            MacIntyre claims in his response to Taylor in his "Partial Response to My Critics," that an existence of goods internal to traditions excludes the existence of transcendent goods, but in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry he makes he clear that there are both goods specific to a human life and goods specific to all human lives, transcending specific traditions, and it is not possible to consider one without the other. Therefore, there seems to be a problem of internal consistency with regards to a telos. The resolution of this inconsistency is found in the conclusion that while MacIntyre does not want to admit to appealing to a transcendent good, it is clear not only that he must, but that he does, through the statements he has made in various sources. Therefore, though he does not admit to it, MacIntyre actually presupposes the existence of a transcendent good.

              V.               Concluding Remarks

MacIntyre's communitarian theory of morality offers a justification for morality where we have none today. Furthermore, if people acknowledge the way virtues are formed, through practices and tradition, they can begin to form a rational theory of morality, and justify their beliefs. However, this theory is only meaningful with an understanding of a transcendent good. Without this transcendent good, there is no way to determine if the practices in another tradition are immoral, which is problematic because there are practices in other traditions that are so, such as genocide and FGM. MacIntyre's theory about virtues being fit into the narrative unity of life is accurate, and is an answer to some of our problems as an emotivist culture, because it provides a way of defining virtue and explaining how it is established while allowing for it to differ from culture to culture. Where he is not successful is where he maintains that this way of understanding virtue works to the exclusivity of goods and virtues which transcend culture. Contrary to what MacIntyre claims, it is not incompatible with his theory to maintain that transcendent goods exist with the practice-based ones. It is with this marriage of virtues that we can understand what virtues are and see how each tradition aims for the transcendent good, and then determine whether another tradition is on a path to attain it.


Bellah, Robert, et al. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. London: Duckworth, 1981.

---. After Virtue. London: Duckworth, 1984.

---. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

---. "A Partial Response to My Critics," in After MacIntyre, ed. John Horton. Cornwall: Polity Press, 1994.

Schneewind, Jerome. "Virtue, Narrative and Community: MacIntyre and Morality." The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 11: November, 1982, 653-663.

Taylor, Charles. "Justice After Virtue," in After MacIntyre, ed. John Horton. Cornwall: Polity Press, 1994.

Wachbroit, Robert. "A Genealogy of Virtues," in Yale Law Journal, Vol. 92, No. 564: January, 1983.