After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre (3rd Ed)

Summary: More than 40 years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre gave us his version of why ethics and virtue are a problem in a post-enlightenment world. 

I am on a new quest in my reading. There are two parts to it. First, I am thinking about how to talk about and understand the idea of Christian discernment for individuals and groups in an age that mostly understands discernment as decision-making. Second, I am trying to understand the advocacy of virtue for Christians as a good in this life (not just the next) without turning it into an instrumental project. In other words, it is “easy” to encourage people to do something if they can see the positive result that will come about. Still, suppose they can only see the good because of how it positively impacts them. In that case, it becomes utilitarian or pragmatic, and virtues or moral stands will quickly melt away if the positive benefit is less clear.

This idea keeps coming up for me in the pragmatic advocacy of building relationships across boundaries. A typical example is that if you are a man, having cross-gender friendships will help you become a better man because you will have access to and learn from women who are not romantic partners and see that women can be fully human, not just a sexual object. While I think this is a real thing, and I would agree that this is a byproduct of cross-gender friendships, the instrumentalization of friendship means that the main focus becomes what you can get from the other person for your own sake, which inherently reduces the other to a benefit. Again, people with relationships across boundaries often gain insight into the role that boundary plays in the world, reducing the power of the boundary. However, the pragmatic argument is a problem because the expectation is for the good of the individual. When a relationship becomes more complex, as often happens at some point, the utilitarian will drop the relationship as not having independent value apart from what it can do to improve them as a person.

Christianity, in general, and virtue, in particular, are often presented similarly. If we are primarily drawn to Christianity because of what it can do to make us better people, it becomes a type of self-help project, not about the relationship with Jesus or the submission of our lives to Christ as Lord. People are drawn to faith for many reasons, but I worry about the ways that pragmatism and utilitarian presentations of faith will draw people for the wrong reasons that end up inoculating people against faith.

That lengthy introduction is partly why I picked up (the free audiobook) of this classic text on moral philosophy. I am not a philosopher. I do not have any skill or background to evaluate this more than 40-year-old book. I do think that the Wikipedia entry has a good summary. What I found helpful in a book that I did not fully understand (because quite a bit of it was referencing philosophers from history whom I did not know anything about) was the reframing of how others, over time, have thought about the grounding of virtue. I know that we cannot ever fully return to earlier ages and adopt a pre-enlightenment understanding of virtue. But giving language to how others across time and space have understood virtue gives clarity to how my current understanding of virtue has not been sufficiently explored. One of the lines in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes was that an idea “went without being said” because it was such a central part of the culture that no one needed it to be named. When we read across time, space, and culture, we can insert our ideas into other concepts because what went without being said is different. But good guides, like MacIntyre, who can point out those points when we need to name what was not being explicitly said, we can gain insights into the areas within our own culture that need to be named for the purpose of explicit exploration.

I don’t recommend that everyone go pick up After Virtue. But it was, for me, a free book to listen to. As an audiobook, I could dismiss areas that were over my head while getting some of the central ideas that were helpful background into thinking about the role of virtue in our current time and culture.

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