MacIntyre, Alasdair (1929–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2020, from

Article Summary

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.

This project draws on both philosophy and history. MacIntyre argues that the philosophical justification of rival positions in both theoretical and practical contexts involves narrative explanation. Such narratives set out how competing traditions of inquiry develop from, and are opposed to, each other. A theory is demonstrably superior to another if it explains both the successes and the failures of the previous theory. This form of justification requires an evaluatively engaged historical inquiry, whether applied to scientific theories or moral views.

Underpinning this methodology is MacIntyre’s view of rationality and agreement. Rational agreement or disagreement is only possible in the context of a fixed framework of inquiry sharing paradigm uses of concepts and rational procedures. This kind of framework is socially and historically embedded in traditions of inquiry. Thus within or across traditions that can re-interpret each other’s terms, rational disagreement is possible. When this is not so, there is interminable disagreement, a failure of rationality, and ‘incommensurability’.

MacIntyre’s methodology sets the stage for his distinctive history of moral philosophy in the West. Moral life was once rational and unified, in the ancient Greek polis, as described in the ethical and political works of Aristotle. This was guaranteed by the relation Aristotle envisaged between his account of human beings as they are, the set of prescriptions directing them as to how to realize their essential nature, and the ideal of human excellence that would be the result (see Aristotle). The discrediting of Aristotle’s teleological metaphysics led to the loss of a sense that a human life had a unified purpose which could ground the value of that life. Thus all subsequent moral philosophy in the West is in MacIntyre’s view a fruitless search for a means to connect the original elements of Aristotle’s tripartite schema, once the idea of the purpose of an individual life has been lost.

This analysis culminates in MacIntyre’s apocalyptic account of the contemporary moral situation, which he views as in complete intellectual disorder. The reasons for this disorder are threefold. First, some traditions of thought are just incoherent: they fail to achieve the internal integrity and coherence required in MacIntyre’s account of inquiry. Second, even if forms of inquiry are coherent, conflicts among them are pointless since without a matrix of commensurability disagreement across traditions is in principle irresoluble. Third, the contemporary world fails to recognize the intellectual authority of the Neo-Augustinian Catholicism MacIntyre views as uniquely privileged in its relation to other traditions. MacIntyre criticizes contemporary liberalism for vainly aspiring to this role of adjudicating disputes within moral and political culture from a privileged standpoint. Liberalism attempts to regulate this disagreement in the name of higher ideals or privileged procedures, but in MacIntyre’s view liberalism has no such intellectual authority over other traditions.

MacIntyre proposes that we resurrect Aristotelian ethics in the modern world. The key element is a new account of the overall purpose of a human life, which permits the restoration of an ethic of virtue, and the cultivation of appropriate forms of community. Politically, MacIntyre is a utopian, seeking the development of small communities analogous to the ancient polis, united by a common conception of the good life.

MacIntyre’s project has met with a mixed reception in contemporary philosophy; his sharply critical tone, particularly directed against liberalism, has met with robust criticism in its turn. The first line of criticism challenges the methodological underpinnings of MacIntyre’s account: it is argued that MacIntyre has no principled way of distinguishing between the disagreement to which he assigns a positive role within moral traditions and the ‘incommensurable’ disagreement between traditions he criticizes. In response to this charge MacIntyre has developed a distinctive account of the relation between translation and interpretation, arguing that partial failures of translatability across languages illustrate the type of incommensurability he is concerned with (see Radical translation and radical interpretation).

Second, MacIntyre’s account of morality has been accused of being both reductive and foundationalist: we should not see our task in moral philosophy as constrained by MacIntyre’s tripartite schema, fitting moral injunctions as a whole to a non-moral foundation in ‘human nature’. MacIntyre views the relation between the three elements of the tripartite schema as internally related, unintelligible in isolation; but this internal connection would only be possible in an ideal life. Similarly, MacIntyre’s argument does not rest on a prior conception of human nature that constrains possible developments of morality: reflective moral life may be a partial determinant of this ‘essence’.

The third criticism is that MacIntyre is actually far more modern than he seems, and rhetoric aside he is as committed to the values of modern moral and political philosophy as any modern liberal. These critics point out that MacIntyre is committed to such values as autonomy and positive freedom, and exaggerates the difference between ancient and modern ethical outlooks.

Their case is strengthened by the final line of criticism, which challenges MacIntyre’s historical narrative, and presents an alternative account of the history of moral thought in the West that offers a better explanation than MacIntyre’s version. Philosophers such as Charles Larmore and J.B. Schneewind have presented a view of modern moral life more hospitable to the rise of modern liberalism, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989) offers an alternative view of modern morality far more sympathetic than MacIntyre to the values of the modern world. This third line of criticism is the most powerful since it matches MacIntyre’s strengths of combining philosophical insight with wide historical learning.

Citing this article:
Thomas, Alan. MacIntyre, Alasdair (1929–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

Related Articles