Alasdair MacIntyre: Virtue and Reason in Practice

MacIntyre argues that human beings "need the virtues.”[@macintyre1999dependent] What is a virtue? And what do we need them for? Can the virtuous person be irrational? And can virtuous traits be put in service to vicious ends? This chapter aims to address these questions and more by analyzing Alasdair MacIntyre's theory of virtue and practical rationality.[^1] MacIntyre (born 1929) has exercised wide influence.[^2]

Jack Weinstein observes that Macintyre did for ethics what John Rawls did for political philosophy. Rawls re-invigorated political philosophy, “inaugurating the dominance of late twentieth-century liberalism.”[@weinstein2003macintyre 38] MacIntyre helped to re-invigorate analytic ethical philosophy (especially the ascendancy of late twentieth-century virtue ethics) by freshly examining ethical concepts in light of history.[@weinstein2003macintyre chapter 4.]

Two of MacIntyre's recurring themes are history and tradition. For example, he argues that we can only responsibly use and evaluate practical concepts such as self, practice, telos, or virtue when we know our own history. Furthermore, we ourselves have a history and inhabit a tradition. We must know ourselves as inhabitants of a tradition with its own history.

These two themes have guided the construction of MacIntyre's virtue theory. Though MacIntyre is justly reputed as a critic,[@mcmylor2005alasdair] his most surprising and most lasting contributions have been his constructive theoretical solutions.

This chapter aims to summarize -- and critically discuss -- some of MacIntyre's ethical theory.

[^1]: MacIntyre's ethical theory is best presented in the “After Virtue Project”, which consists of four books: After Virtue (1984), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988); Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990); and Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

Chapter outline

This task is divided into four sections.

Section 1: Virtue. First, I shall present MacIntyre’s theory of virtue and practical rationality, drawing on his four primary virtue books. I shall present his definition of virtue and the six supporting concepts by which he defends his definition. Those concepts are: practice, self, telos, human nature, tradition-constituted rationality, and phronesis or practical wisdom. Together, these form a powerful theory that is useful and explains a wide range of ethical phenomena.

Section 2: Objections. Then, I shall present a battery of powerful objections to various aspects of MacIntyre's theory. He has received more excellent replies than can be mentioned in a short space; some must be left out. For instance, valid criticisms from postmodern and his fellow Thomistic philosophers I must sadly leave to one side. I shall focus on three clusters of objections from modern philosophers that seem to me the most potentially devastating. The first pertains to moral relativism and perspectivism. Is MacIntyre successful in defending the Aristotelian tradition of moral realism or just producing an anthropology of virtue? The second family of objections pertains to his concept of rationality as "tradition-constituted." Is his theory of rationality coherent and clear enough to be useful as a theory of virtues? Or is it also subject to the charge of relativism? The third family of objections pertains to teleology. In attempting to shoehorn teleology back into ethics, is MacIntyre accepting tenets from a discredited Aristotelian metaphysics of nature? If not, aren't some modern moralities teleological after all? If not, can't modern morality get along well enough without telos?

Section 3: Discussion. Then, I shall present and discuss answers to the three families of objections above. While I cannot promise to calm the legitimate worries of his critics, I argue that each of these three families of objections can be answered satisfactorily. Many of the worries about relativism are misunderstandings. MacIntyre can avoid a legitimate worry about conclusion that no theory of virtue is rationally superior to any other. Secondly, his notion of tradition-constituted rationality may cause frustration since it is open to interpretation (by philosophers from varying traditions) but this is not a mark against it; rather, the paradoxical notion tracks the paradoxical phenomena, especially the fact of both widespread moral disagreement and widespread moral agreement. Thirdly, MacIntyre's early notion of teleology is credible within our modern scientific context; it only requires is a recognition of "social teleology" which can be easily adduced by reflection on our actions and our lives. If some modern theories (such as Kantian deontology) are teleological, then they are in fundamental harmony with MacIntyre's theory. That said, consequentialisms are not properly teleological if they treat all relations between actions and consequences as contingent.

Section 4: Conclusion. Finally, I shall review the terrain covered. First, I shall close this chapter with a reflection on why some critics don't just disagree but are perplexed or frustrated by MacIntyre’s philosophical ethics.

Rational Virtue in Practice

Section Introduction

MacIntyre's concept of virtue is derived from (but not limited to) a careful study of the history of the concept within the broader western tradition.[^3] So we'll begin there. Then we shall see how he expands this definition in light of six supporting concepts: practice, self, telos, practical rationality, and phronesis or practical wisdom. Briefly, practices are social activities in which virtues are acquired and used; The self is what acquires virtues and vices; telos is necessary to define the contrast with the way we are now and the way we ought to be if we were fully "realized" or fulfilled as persons; practical rationality is the defining feature of humans as dependent animals; similiarly, phronesis or practical wisdom bears a special relationship to all the other virtues. In sum, this account of virtue and practical rationality powerfully captures the phenomena of human life, and so lends support to MacIntyre’s conviction that humans need the virtues.

[^3]: MacIntyre's philosophical methodology is exemplified in how he defines ‘virtue’. He begins with Homeric virtues (roughly, the performance of one’s social role) and works through the implicit or explicit definitions of virtue in Plato, Aristotle, the Greek tragic poets, the New Testament, Aquinas, Jane Austen, and Benjamin Franklin. While respecting the different definitions and examples, he creatively abstracts an account that unifies them all. His definition is historical but not restricted to history; it aims to be universal but does not pretend to be purely abstract. His concept of virtue is, rather, traditional. Furthermore, as we shall see, MacIntyre's view of 'tradition' is not conservative but progressive, not oriented toward the past but the future.

Virtue -- an initial definition

MacIntyre's initial definition of virtue is that virtues are “acquired human qualities that enable their possessor to achieve those goods which are internal to practices."[@macintyre1984after 191] This is perhaps a puzzling definition. What are "practices"? Practice is a key term of art; to misunderstand it would be to misunderstand MacIntyre. Also, he defines virtues with reference to goods "internal to" practices. What is the internal/external relation doing? The next section shall explain these term more fully. For now, a few further observations are in order to elucidate each piece of this initial definition.