In two previous writeups I have discussed Alasdair MacIntyre's diagnosis of the state of modern liberal culture, and his historical argument as to why this has come about. In this writeup I consider MacIntyre's solution to the malaise of modernity. MacIntyre seeks to reconstruct a conception of the virtues which is loyal to the classical Aristotelian tradition, but not dependent on Aristotle's metaphysical biology. MacIntyre's project has three stages, and I will look at each one in turn. Finally, I give some tentative criticisms of MacIntyre's approach.
The concept of a practice
MacIntyre's reconstructive project begins with what he calls 'practices'. His definition is as follows:
By a 'practice' I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended (AV, 187).
There are, then, three criteria for some form of activity to be considered a practice: it has to be complex, it has to have internal goods, and it has to have standards of excellence. The examples MacIntyre gives of activities that qualify as practices are: chess, farming and football. Non-practices that he lists are tic-tac-toe, kicking a football, and planting turnips. These are not practices because they fail all three criteria. I will now look more closely at the crucially important criteria of internal goods and standards of excellence.
What does MacIntyre mean by 'internal goods'? Take MacIntyre's preferred example, that of chess. Now there are two classes of goods that one may gain by engaging in the practice of chess. If you are successful at chess, you may thereby gain money, fame, perhaps even power. These are external goods. They are in no way specific to chess; there are numerous ways besides chess through which one may gain money, fame and power. But there are some goods which are particular to chess. In playing chess, one gains a certain strategic imagination, some particular analytical skills, and a certain type of competitiveness. These goods may only be gained by playing chess. They are the internal goods of the practice of chess.
The other important bit in the definition is the concept of standards of excellence. There clearly are good and bad chess players. Discriminating between the two has nothing to do with personal preference. If, for instance, we happen to prefer to treat Kasparov as a bad chess player, we are simply making it clear that we know nothing about chess. The practice of chess implies certain objective standards of excellence. Note that these are not immutable. They evolve historically, and the practitioners themselves can engage in changing them. But this in no way detracts from the point that they do exist. The realm of practices, then, is one are where the claims of emotivism do not apply.
Practices and virtues
The definition of a virtue stems directly from the definition of a practice. A virtue, according to MacIntyre, 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 (AV, 191).
The virtues that MacIntyre identifies are justice, courage and honesty. He argues that to achieve the internal goods of any practice, these virtues must be exercised.
It is worth returning to the chess example. Why does one need justice in realizing the internal goods of chess? Well, one must give one's fellow practitioners what they deserve. If one treats certain chess players differently because of some personal characteristics, for instance, thereby not giving them their due or desert, one is treating them unjustly. This will hamper one's own ability to achieve the goods internal to the practice of chess. This is closely related to the virtue of honesty. When one first engages in the practice of chess, one must honestly acknowledge the standards of excellence embodied in the practice, and the fact of one's own inadequacy. One has to realize that great chess players have come before oneself, and that as a beginner, the only way to make progress is to acknowledge that one's current abilities are meagre. If one dishonestly flaunts one's self-superiority, there is no hope of ever getting anywhere in the practice. The virtue of courage is similarly important. Just as one has to acknowledge the initial superiority of others, one has to subject oneself to the criticism of the other practitioners. One has to have the courage to face the personal hardships that excelling in the practice will require.
The narrative unity of a life
MacIntyre notes that even if we grant the validity of his account of the virtues, this leaves a considerable problem: we have no way of making choices between practices. The practice of playing chess may well conflict with the practice of being a good parent or spouse, for instance. Different practices do not by themselves provide us with resources for ordering their conflicting claims within our lives. It seems then, that what we are left with is an emotivist situation after all: individuals must decide between the claims of different practices based on their personal preferences.
Because of this problem, the initial stage of the reconstructive process is inadequate. A second and third stage are necessary. In this section I discuss the second stage. This is MacIntyre's argument for conceiving of a human life as unity.
MacIntyre notes the importance of the narrative mode of explaining human actions. Thus, we understand human actions in terms of intentions. To use MacIntyre's example, we can explain a certain activity by saying that a man is 'gardening' or 'taking exercise' or 'pleasing his wife'. All of these answers imply histories. Thus, to answer 'pleasing his wife' is at the same time to situate the action in the history of that particular marriage, and in the larger history of the institution of marriage. The action only makes sense in the light of that history. MacIntyre makes important conclusions from these pretty common sense observations:
We identify a particular action only by invoking two kinds of context, implicitly if not explicitly. We place the agent's intentions, I have suggested, in causal and temporal order with reference to their role in his or her history; and we also place them with reference to their role in the history of the setting or settings to which they belong. In doing this, in determining what causal efficacy the agent's intentions had in one or more directions, and how his short-term intentions succeeded or failed to be constitutive of long-term intentions, we ourselves write a further part of these histories. Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions (AV, 208).
So MacIntyre has come to the conclusion that all human activity must be understood in terms of narrative if it is to be intelligible. This has important implications on the level of the individual.
What MacIntyre advocates is the 'narrative self' as opposed to the emotivist self. The self is not some disembodied and abstract ideal as it is in much liberal theory, it is rather embedded in and partially constituted by its social setting. Thus, MacIntyre writes:
I am someone's son or daughter, someone else's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles (AV, 220).
So basically, to answer the question of what I as an individual should do, one must first know of which stories I am a part, and what my roles in those stories require. Hence, the conception of an individual's good is embedded in the histories in which the individual himself is embedded. The narrative unity of a life, then, is the unity of the narrative which is an individual life. MacIntyre writes: "To ask 'What is the good for me?' is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion." Only this way can my life as a whole be intelligible, and only thus does it constitute a unity.
Narrative unity and the virtues
How does the above account of the narrative unity of a life relate to the virtues? Here MacIntyre invokes the medieval notion of a quest. A life that is unified in MacIntyre's sense is essentially a quest for the good. Of course, such a quest to some extent presupposes an answer to the question of what the good is. MacIntyre writes:
Some conception of the good for man is required. Whence is such a conception to be drawn? Precisely from those questions which led us to attempt to transcend that limited conception of the virtues which is available in and through practices. It is in looking for a conception of the good which will enable us to order other goods ... It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood. A quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge (AV, 219).
So, MacIntyre's general conception of the good life for man is simply, and somewhat paradoxically, a quest for the good life for man. This general formulation is obviously circular, but ceases to be so in the final stage of MacIntyre's project, where the notion of a tradition is invoked. For now let us concentrate on how the virtues are related to such a quest.
At this stage of the argument the virtues are no longer simply qualities which enable one to realize the internal goods of practices. They are also those qualities which enable us to pursue our quest for the good. In order to seek the good, one must be just, honest and courageous. If we lack the virtues, we will be corrupted by particular circumstances, we will be intimidated by the obstacles we face, and we will be tempted by things which are irrelevant to or destructive of our quest for the good. The second stage of MacIntyre's reconstructive project is complete.
The final stage of MacIntyre's complex endeavour is the elucidation of the meaning and importance of his conception of tradition. MacIntyre's definition of the concept is as follows:
A living tradition ... is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations.
Clear examples of traditions would be religions or sciences. A religion has a certain set of basic dogmas, but it also involves an argument about the exact meaning of its dogmas and of the meaning of the faith as a whole. This argument can extend over centuries. Similarly, a science has a basic agreement on some matters, but it always involves disputations about the correct characterization of its subject matter.
Practices and individual lives are embedded within these larger wholes. MacIntyre writes:
... the history of a practice in our time is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer history of the tradition through which the practice in its present form was conveyed to us; the history of each of our own lives is generally and characteristically embedded in and made intelligible in terms of the larger and longer histories of a number of traditions (AV, 222).
It is not just that an individual is a part of different narratives and engages in different practices, through these he is also a part of traditions. And it is ultimately tradition which can give the necessary unity to a human life.
A tradition provides substance to the formal definition of the good life for man identified in the previous section. A religion, for instance, provides one with an overall definition of the good for man, and the good life therefore becomes a quest for achieving that good. This is the most important way in which MacIntyre's project is Aristotelian. As I noted in my writeup on the enlightenment project, the most fundamental feature of the Aristotelian moral scheme was its conception of man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos. Now that is the most important feature of MacIntyre's scheme as well, and it is provided by adherence to tradition. A life can therefore be properly unified and the virtues have their proper place only if one is part of a tradition.
A major reason for the malaise of modernity is the fact that its most prominent ideology, liberalism, has defined itself in opposition to all traditions. To be sure, traditions and the virtues still live on in certain communities, for instance many Orthodox Jews or Catholic Christians would be traditional in MacIntyre's sense. But the modern mainstream, represented by liberal individualism is after virtue since it has renounced allegiance to all traditions. Therefore, the virtues cannot have a proper place in the lives of liberal individuals. Furthermore, the liberal individual's life cannot be unified in MacIntyre's sense. An individualist life is nothing but a life spent trying to satisfy whatever desires one happens to have. From MacIntyre's standpoint, a life lived according to liberal individualism is most certainly not a good life.
MacIntyre's argument is very complex, and it is controversial at a number of points. I will here summarize some important criticisms. Firstly, MacIntyre's conception of a practice raises the possibility of an evil practice. Whilst MacIntyre acknowledges that people might think some practices are evil, he doesn't seem to think this is the case, and his answer to the problem is short and inadequate. Torture is a good example of an evil practice. It certainly is complex, it has standards of excellence (the extraction of knowledge), and perhaps it even has internal goods that can only be realized through the practice of torture. It is by no means inconceivable that there are individuals who can gain certain internal goods only through the practice of torture. And it is equally clear that, at least according to our conventional moral sentiments, torture is an evil practice. MacIntyre does not have an answer to this point.
A further point about practices has been raised by the feminist critique presented by Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey. Individuals do not engage in practices on equal terms. This may be fairly innocuous, as in the case of chess. Obviously those who are naturally disposed to playing chess will have a greater degree of power in the practice than those who are not. The case is innocuous since the fact that I am not good at chess need not have any impact on my life overall: I can do something else. But what if the practice is almost all-pervasive? Frazer and Lacey use heterosexuality as an example of a practice. Now it is obvious that this practice affects virtually everyone. And individuals do not engage in it on equal terms. A very basic feminist analysis will reveal that heterosexuality is to a large extent defined on men's terms. Hence, in exercising the virtues in the practice of heterosexuality both men and women are using them to perpetuate a practice that is skewed against women. MacIntyre's account is too naive; it ignores the importance of power relations and politics in practices.
Furthermore, to me at least the concept of a tradition seems way too vague. It does much of the work in MacIntyre's theory, yet he has very little to say about it (though he does have a lot to say about particular traditions). First of all, how do we distinguish one tradition from another? For instance, is my tradition Protestantism or Lutheranism or Nordic Lutheranism or Finnish Lutheranism? Or is it perhaps Western European Christianity or the whole of Christianity or even the Judeao-Christian tradition? One has to answer these questions if the conception of tradition is to have any practical applicability, and MacIntyre provides no resources for answering them. Secondly, human beings are members of numerous traditions. As MacIntyre notes, we inhabit a number of social roles. All of these embody different traditions. What, then, is the overriding tradition which provides ultimate unity to a life? Is it one's religion or one's nationality or something else? It is clear that the claims of religious faith and nationalism can clash. How can we decide between them? Surely on MacIntyre's terms, such a choice is impossible. MacIntyre's conception of a tradition aspires to be normative, in the sense that if we properly understand our place within a tradition, this will have force in our moral deliberations. But MacIntyre's account seems to collapse into nothing but a relatively obvious acknowledgement of the fact that traditions shape our identity in important ways - an important insight in itself, but one from which we can derive no normative consequences.
MacIntyre's argument is complex, and understanding it is not helped by his style of writing. MacIntyre clearly has an immense knowledge of numerous subjects, but this sometimes hampers one's understanding of his argument since he seems to be compelled to offer insights on every point he touches on, regardless of whether it has relevance for his overall thesis. My attempt here has been to present the main components of MacIntyre's argument. If my account has been confusing at some points, I hope this is at least understandable given the nature of the subject matter.
It should be clear that MacIntyre does not have much hope for liberal individualism. Since it entails the rejection of traditions, it also entails the rejection of any hope for leading a good life in his sense. What MacIntyre hopes for is the rediscovery of traditions, and the withering away of liberalism. This cannot be achieved on the level of the modern state, however. It is only possible on a much lower and more local level of social interaction. After Virtue ends with the hope that one day there may come another Saint Benedict, patron saint of small communities.
Frazer, E. and Lacey, Nicola (1994) 'MacIntyre, Feminism and the Concept of Practice' in Horton, J. and Mendus, S. (eds.) After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre
(Cambridge, Polity Press), pp. 265-282.
MacIntyre, A. (1985) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
Matravers, M. (2006) Seminars on After Virtue
(York, University of York).
Mendus, S. (2006) Lectures on After Virtue
(York, University of York).