Life of Alasdair Macintyre
Few dispute that Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most important philosophers of our time. That reputation, however, does him little good. It is as though, quite apart from the man, there exists a figure called Alasdair MacIntyre whose position you know whether or not you have read him—and whose name has become a specter that haunts all attempts to provide constructive moral and political responses to the challenge of modernity.
Alasdair MacIntyre has contributed to the diverse fields of social, moral and political philosophy. He is one of the leading proponents of a virtue ethical approach in moral philosophy, part of a wider attempt to recover an Aristotelian conception of both morality and politics. His return to ancient sources has been powered by a critical indictment of the modern moral predicament, which MacIntyre regards as theoretically confused and practically fragmented; only a return to a tradition which synthesizes Aristotelian and Augustinian themes will restore rationality and intelligibility to contemporary moral and political life. MacIntyre’s long career culminated in the trilogy of works After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. These works claim that contemporary moral and political philosophy analyses incoherent fragments of a Judaeo-Christian theistic ethic that has lost its point with the increasing secularization of modern culture, leading to practical fragmentation and theoretical incoherence. MacIntyre’s aim is to reconstruct a purpose and context for moral thought from the fragments of coherent moral life that survive only in marginal communities alienated from the main currents of the modern world.
From the beginning of his career, MacIntyre has pursued teleological practical reasoning, rather than utilitarian or deontological moral reasoning. The Project proposed in “Notes from the Moral Wilderness” is a teleological project. “Freedom and Revolution” and “Can Medicine Dispense with a Theological Perspective on Human Nature?” are likewise teleological. AV criticized Christian voluntarism and divine command theory because it rejected teleological practical reasoning and adopted an arbitrary, legal model of moral reasoning. AV criticized modernity for secularizing the arbitrary, legalistic moral reasoning of Christian voluntarism. The purpose of the constructive argument of the second half of AV is to renew teleological practical reasoning, but MacIntyre attempted to renew Aristotelian teleology while rejecting Aristotelian metaphysics (MacIntyre, Alasdair, 1988). The teleology of AV, like the teleology of MacIntyre’s broader project since “Notes from the Moral Wilderness,” was to be a social teleology, discovered through reflection on experience. The social teleology appeared to have two advantages. First, it forestalled a host of objections that MacIntyre was involved in an arbitrary, atavistic project to return, whole cloth, to the world view of Aristotle including his views on the subjugation of women and “natural slaves.” Second, in keeping with the insight of Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, it maintained the common condition of theorists and people as peers in the pursuit of the good life (John Martin Gilroy, 1992).
Given these points, if his ideas become widespread and are widely adopted, MacIntyre’s small communities, like St. Benedict’s monasteries, will preserve the practices, the virtues, and morality until such a time as they can re-emerge into the world. In the meantime they will be the best way of life for those who are fortunate and hard-working enough to be a part of them. And of course those who, like MacIntyre, practice philosophy in his tradition must continue to strengthen and develop the arguments found in the Aristotelian tradition as it has developed through Aquinas, and continue to draw attention to the flaws and weaknesses of liberal philosophy in the hope of persuading others to change their allegiances.
“Utilitarianism and the Presuppositions of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” in The Moral Dimensions of Public Policy Choice: Beyond the Market Paradigm, John Martin Gilroy and Maurice Wade, eds. Pittsburgh and London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. pp. 179-94.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Social Science Methodology as the Ideology of Bureaucratic Authority,” in Through the Looking Glass: Epistemology and the Conduct of Inquiry, Maria J. Falco, ed. (Washington: University Press of America, 1979) pp. 42-58.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.