In the series of extracts I am publishing from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought I have reached Chapter 20 which explores the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose approach has deeply influenced me even as I have profoundly disagreed with it, and which uses MacIntyre’s work as a means of pulling together the threads of my own argument.  This extract provides some background to MacIntyre’s work, and of his critique of the Enlightenment, and begins to challenge that critique by looking at his conception of moral ‘traditions’. (Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that Chapter 19, like Chapter 6, has gone missing; all will be explained in good time.)

A series of environmental catastrophes devastates the world. Blame for the disasters falls upon scientists, leading to widespread anti-science riots. Labs are burnt down, physicists and biologists lynched, books and instruments destroyed. A Know-nothing political movement comes to power, abolishes the teaching of science and imprisons and executes scientists.

Eventually there is an attempt to resurrect science. The trouble is that all that remains of scientific knowledge are a few fragments. People debate the concept of relativity, the theory of evolution and the idea of phlogiston. They learn by rote the surviving portions of the periodic table, and use expressions such as ‘neutrino’, ’mass’ and ‘specific gravity’. Nobody, however, understands the beliefs that led to those theories or expressions, and nobody understands that they don’t understand them. The result is a kind of hollowed out science. On the surface everyone has acquaintance with scientific terminology but no one possesses scientific knowledge.

So begins Alasdair MacIntyre’s brilliant, bleak, frustrating and above all provocative 1981 book After Virtue. A work of unleavened academic philosophy, it became a most unlikely bestseller, and highly influential among historians, theologians, political theorists. On both sides of the Atlantic, philosophically inclined policy wonks, such as David Cameron’s ‘Red Tory’ guru Phillip Blond, and Lew Daly, adviser to Barack Obama, have drawn upon MacIntyre’s work.

MacIntyre’s ‘disquieting suggestion’ in After Virtue is that while no calamity of the sort he describes has befallen science, it is exactly what has happed to morality. True, no philosopher has been lynched, no seminar room torched, no riots have erupted in response to the disastrous consequences of Kantianism or utilitarianism. Nevertheless, MacIntyre insists, moral thought is in the same state as science was in his fictive account, a state of ‘grave disorder’, and one in which the very disorder blinds us to the moral chaos that surrounds us. Moral thought has been hollowed out; everyone uses moral terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘should’, but no truly understands them. We possess ‘the simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.’ Hence we argue endlessly about the justice of wars, the morality of abortion, the nature of freedom, but not only do we not reach agreement, we cannot even agree about what criteria a satisfactory resolution to these disagreements would need to meet.

What caused the moral catastrophe? The Enlightenment. The ‘thinkers of the Enlightenment’, MacIntyre observes, ‘set out to replace what they took to be discredited traditional and superstitious forms of morality by a kind of secular morality that would be entitled to secure the assent of any rational person’, attempting to ‘formulate moral principles to which no adequately reflective rational person could refuse allegiance’. Instead what the Enlightenment ‘bequeathed to its cultural heirs were a mutually antagonistic moral stances, each claiming to have achieved this kind of rational justification, but each also disputing this claim on the part of its rivals’.

The Enlightenment rejected, indeed destroyed, the Aristotelian notion of a virtuous life that had shaped Western thought for nearly two millennia. It rejected, in particular, the notion of the telos – the insistence, not just in Aristotle but in all Ancient thinkers and in the monotheistic religions, that human beings, like all objects in the cosmos, exist for a purpose, and that to be good was to act in a way that enabled them to fulfill that purpose. From Homer to Aristole to Aquinas, the virtues were seen as excellences of character that enabled people to move towards their goals, and were, indeed, an essential part of achieving that goal.

Post-Enlightenment philosophers rejected such teleology, imagining humans not as creatures with definite functions that they might fulfill or neglect, but as agents who possessed no true purpose apart from that created by their own will; creatures governed, not by an external telos but solely by the dictates of their inner reason or desires. This shift, MacIntyre argues, was corrosive of the very idea of morality. By appealing to a telos, Aristotle and Aquinas had been able to distinguish between the way we actually are and the way we should be. Post-Enlightenment philosophers could no longer coherently do so. As a result they could find no moral anchor, no point of reference against which to adjudicate rival moral claims. And without such a point of reference, moral arguments become interminable and pointless. The end point in this journey comes with emotivism, the insistence that moral claims are nothing more than the expression of subjective desires. Emotivism, for MacIntyre is not simply a description of the theories produced by Ayer, Stevenson and their followers, but of all post-Enlightenment moral theories. Even those moral philosophies, such as Kantianism, that appeal to a rational standard binding on all are deluding themselves because there is no possibility of such a standard given the Enlightenment view of the sovereignty of the individual moral agent.

Having rejected the ancient concept of individuals as embedded in, and constituted by, specific communities, post-Enlightenment liberalism instead views individuals, and their desires, hopes and aspirations, as having been formed outside of society, as arriving on the social stage as fully crafted. This, as Hegel, Rousseau, Marx and many others have observed is both an implausible and an impoverished view of human life. Yet, so deep is the impoverishment of modern moral thought that post-Enlightenment liberal philosophers, MacIntyre suggests, have made a positive virtue out of this degraded conception of moral life. They have come to see individual autonomy, and the detachment of the individual, as the consummation of humankind’s search for freedom. In fact, MacIntyre argues, such autonomy amounts to an emptiness, a moral vacuum. Because what MacIntyre calls the ‘democratized self’ has ‘no necessary social content and no necessary social identity’, so the self ‘can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing.’ In this process the crucial distinction between that which is ‘good’ and that which is ‘believed to be good’ becomes erased. Once that distinction disappears, there can be no rational foundation to moral claims any more than there could be a rational foundation to scientific knowledge if there were no distinction between that which is ‘true’ and that which is ‘believed to be true’. And with the erasure of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘believed to be good’ comes the carving out of a new distinction: that between facts and values. Facts having been wrenched away from values, nothing is left to temper the wildest flights of the moral imagination.

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Alasdair MacIntyre began his philosophical life in the 1950s as a Marxist. Like many of his generation, he broke with the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Two years alter, he wrote his celebrated ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’ in the New Left journal New Reasoner in which he excoriated the Stalinist identification of ‘what is morally right with what is actually going to be the outcome of historical development’. From such a Stalinist viewpoint, MacIntyre argued, all an individual can do is to ‘accept his part’ in a history determined by objective laws, and ‘play it out more or less willingly’. What he cannot do is ‘rewrite the play’. For the Stalinist ‘the “ought” of principle is swallowed up by the “is” of history’, something MacIntyre could not accept. But nor could he accept the liberal criticism of Marxism, rooted as it was in the idea that moral claims ‘stand beyond any rational justification’ and ‘cannot be justified by any appeal to facts, historical or otherwise’.  Liberal morality, he insisted, cannot but be arbitrary. The task MacIntyre set himself was to craft ‘an alternative to the barren opposition of moral individualism and amoral Stalinism’. While he rejected the Communist Party, Marxism continued to shape MacIntyre’s moral thought, though increasingly more as a means of analyzing history and society, and as a critique of capitalism, than as a guide to the good life.

By the 1980s, MacIntyre had been drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics, an attachment out of which came After Virtue. He was, however, no more a conventional Aristotelian than he had been a faithful Marxist.  Not only did he reject Aristotle’s metaphysical biology – the idea of the four causes – as a means of rooting virtues, but he maintained that not just virtues but rules, too, were important in sustaining a moral life. This eventually led him to Roman Catholicism and to Thomas Aquinas’ appropriation of Aristotle for Christianity. He is today one of the leading Thomist philosophers.

Through all the twists and turns of MacIntyre’s intellectual journey, a number of themes have remained constant. Whether as a Marxist or as a Catholic, he has always expressed a deep loathing of liberal individualism, and an insistence on the social embeddedness of the individual. He has insisted, too, that morality can be understood only in its historical context. Moral judgments are, as he puts it, ‘nowhere to be found except as embodied in the historical lives of particular social groups and so possessing the distinctive characteristics of historical existence’. Morality ‘which is no particular society’s morality is to be found nowhere’. Yet, he has been equally fierce in his opposition to relativism and to nihilism, to the idea that that which is good is nothing more than that which is believed to be good.

How does MacIntyre marry his historical account of moral thought to the idea of objective moral standards? By suggesting that the social embeddedness of moral thought can itself provide the foundation for objective standards.  The most damaging consequence of the Enlightenment for MacIntyre is the decline of the idea of a ‘tradition’ within which an individual’s desires are disciplined by virtue. Moral behaviour, MacIntyre came to believe once he had turned to Aristotle, is like any other practical activity, whether playing chess or herding sheep, a matter of conforming well to the standards of a defined practice. A player cannot decide for himself what it is to play chess well. That is defined by the practice of chess-playing that has emerged over centuries, through which is established a standard of excellence internal to that practice.  To be a good chess player one must heed the internal standards that define the playing of chess. One must also be driven by the desire to achieve ‘internal’ goods rather than external ones – by the desire to play well, rather than simply by the prospect of fame or money.

And so it is with morality. To be morally good is to conform well to the standards of good moral practice, standards established by criteria internal to that practice of morality. By conforming well to those standards, people come to develop the appropriate virtues necessary for the good life. We acquire virtues not by conforming to abstract ethical rules or laws imposed from above, but by developing a good character by acting well according to the practical norms arising from a particular form of life.

Practices cohere into traditions. A tradition comprises what MacIntyre calls a ‘community of inquiry’, communities dedicated to a project of developing the specific forms of knowledge and skills necessary for a particular practical activity. MacIntyre never properly defines what historically constitutes a moral tradition but simply uses as his key examples Aristotelian, Augustinian and Thomist practice. Traditions link the individual to a wider community, both contemporary and historical. What is significant about a tradition is that its  history imposes a claim upon the present. ‘What I am’, MacIntyre insists, ‘is in key part what I inherit’. I always exist as ‘part of a history’ and ‘whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not’, even if I reject the burden, I remain always ‘one of the bearers of a tradition.’

Every individual finds the purpose of his life, MacIntyre argues, by understanding its narrative structure, by weaving a story of the journey on which he is embarked. Humans are ‘story telling animals’, and it is through telling stories that they discover themselves. ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?”’, he suggests, ‘if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”’. That story links the past, the present and the future, not just of that individual but also of the community of which he is a part, and in so doing gives a conception of his life as a unified whole. That is why ‘The unity of a human is the unity of a narrative quest’.

Through participation in a communal quest, MacIntyre argues, moral claims become more than merely subjective. The narrative quest consists not just in the goals that I set myself and the goods that I desire. It consist also in the goals and the goods of the community in which I am embedded.  It is that social embeddedness that allows me to rise above my own desires and to understand those desires in broader, more objective terms.

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The fingerprints of Alasdair MacIntyre can be found throughout this book. The idea of morality as historically constituted, of the individual as socially embedded, of moral claims as neither absolute nor arbitrary, of modernity as transforming our relationship to morality, all ideas at the heart of this book, are all also MacIntyrean beliefs. Yet, while my argument is indebted to, and draws upon, MacIntyre’s work, it is also fundamentally different. At the heart of that difference lies distinctive ways of understanding moral agency, and of accounting for the impact of modernity.

Consider MacIntyre’s concept of ‘tradition’ and of its importance to morality.  In the premodern world, morality grew out of the structures of the community, structures that were a given. Societies changed, of course – the Greece in which Aristotle taught was very different from that in which in which Homer had written, Aquinas’ Christendom was very different from Augustine’s – but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Morality was about how to define right and wrong behaviours within the given structure of a society. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations. Moral rules both derived from, and defined, his role within that community, his duties towards other members and the actions that were compatible with his role and duties.  The structure of the community, the role of the individual and the rules of morality were all bound together in the structure of the cosmos, in the authority of God, or in both.

The emergence of the modern world, from about the sixteenth century onwards, brought with it major changes that transformed the language of morality. The idea that morality should be invested in God became less plausible. Not only did religious belief erode over time, but even devout thinkers (Kant, for instance) were less likely to look to God to set moral boundaries. Traditional communities disintegrated. Social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. Liberals and socialists, conservatives and communists, monarchists and republicans: all contested the idea of what constituted a good society. The concept of individual autonomy became far more important. In the ancient world, and even in medieval Europe, an individual’s identity and interest was bound up almost entirely with the community in which he lived. By the seventeenth century, the individual was emerging as a new kind of social actor, and one detached from the specifics of a community.

These changes were all intimately linked.  The dissolution of traditional communities unleashed new political and moral conflicts. Those conflicts were an expression of the new sense of agency, of the new belief in the possibility of humanly-willed social change. From the Anabaptists to the Diggers, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Chartist rebellion, from the English Civil War to the Haitian Revolution, people sought to remake their world through collective will and collective action. Many of these social movements were driven by faith. At the same time the growing belief that humans could, on their own account, both transform society and establish standards or right and wrong helped encourage disbelief in God. The political challenge to the old social order helped further disintegrate traditional communities.

The emergence of autonomy was not, in other words, merely an expression of individual desire or subjective attitude. It was also an expression of the collective desire for political and social change, and of the possibility, for the first time in history, of such change. The moral conflicts that so trouble MacIntyre are the consequence not simply of the breakdown of premodern traditions. Rather the breakdown of those traditions was itself the consequence of the emergence of social conflict. Equally, the lack of moral disagreement in the premodern world was not simply the result of moral thought and actions being enveloped within a tradition of practices. Those traditions were themselves a product of that lack of disagreement. When MacIntyre talks of premodern traditions he is talking of societies in which no alternative view of social or moral structures seemed reasonable or plausible. Why? Because there seemed no reasonable or plausible means of willing such change.  Modernity helped dissolve long-established communities and the seemingly timeless moral traditions. But it created for the first the possibility of collective change.

A tradition, MacIntyre argues in After Virtue, is an open-ended work of enquiry. ‘A living tradition’, he writes, ‘is an historically extended, socially embodied argument’ that is ‘partly constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose’ and whose vitality is sustained by ‘continuities of conflict’.  It is, he suggests, a very different concept to that of Edmund Burke who contrasts ‘tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict’. ‘When a tradition becomes Burkean’, MacIntyre insists, ‘it is always dying or dead’.

Premodern moral traditions may not have been Burkean, nor were they dying or dead, but neither were they as open ended as MacIntyre suggests. Not only were moral claims corseted by the social structures that gave them shape, but dissent, too, had to be constrained precisely because such dissent threaten to burst the corset and imperil the social order.  From the execution of Socrates to the burning of Christian heretics, from the drumming out of Pelagius to al-Ghazali’s insistence that certain Rationalist claims were not to be tolerated, dissent was always crushed, often most brutally.

MacIntyre himself suggests that ‘genuinely rational enquiry and more especially moral and theological enquiry’ requires ‘membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded’. He gives the example of Peter Abelard, the twelfth century monk best known today for his ill-fated love affair with Heloise. Abelard’s real renown was as the most brilliant philosopher and theologian of his age. His work was, however, highly controversial because it challenged orthodox opinion, particularly about the Trinity, which Abelard tried to derive through reason. Twice he was condemned for heresy, and twice he meekly accepted his condemnation. MacIntyre approves of both the condemnation and of Abelard’s submission to authority.  Abelard and his principal accuser, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux, both agreed, MacIntyre suggests, ‘that the integrity of the life of enquiry requires such interventions by authority’. Abelard, like all heretics, had been driven by ‘pride of will’. Heresy, MacIntyre writes, ‘is always a sign of pride in choosing to elevate one’s own judgment above that of genuine authority’. What defines a tradition, and hence moral truth, is not just reason or dialogue or debate but ‘genuine authority’. The ‘open-endedness’ of MacIntyre’s traditions is clearly strictly circumscribed.

It was precisely the claim that truth could be defined by authority that philosophers began to challenge from the sixteenth century on, and that came to define the Enlightenment, a challenge without which, as Jonathan Israel observes, modern ideas of ‘universality, equality and democracy’ could not have emerged. In defending the authority of premodern traditions against the Enlightenment idea of autonomy, MacIntyre may be taking a stance against the subjectivity of moral claims that he so despises. But the question he never properly addresses is how those modern moral ideas with which he has great sympathy would ever have evolved at all had the authority of those premodern traditions not been challenged in the first place.


  1. Really interesting critique of MacIntyre at the end there. I’m a big fan of his work, particularly After Virtue and Dependent Rational Animals. I wonder if you could give me the reference for what he says about heresy and authority though? I always thought he was open to a tradition being challenged from within, as long as the challenger had learnt the standards of excellence and rules of the practice.

    • Certainly MacIntyre, as I wrote, insists that in his conception a tradition is an open-ended work of enquiry, and open to internal challenge, quite unlike a Burkean anti-rational notion of tradition. And yet the very idea of a tradition as a singular, bounded entity open to change but within which that which is acceptable as conforming to the rationality of that tradition is defined, at least in part, by authority undermines the idea of open-ended inquiry. The quotes that you asked about come from Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), the first on p60, the second on p91, where you will also find the discussion of Abelard. (I rarely put footnotes into blog posts but the book is, of course, fully referenced.)

      • Thanks for this. I’ve read Whose Justice but not Three Rival Versions. Have you looked at Kelvin Knight’s book on Aristotelian Philosophy? The second part is about MacIntyre and MacIntyre is very approving of Knight’s interpretation of his work. Moreover, his interpretation is a radical one rather than conservative. Many in the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry are also on the left and have a radical interpretation. I don’t think he is an idealist or utopian though. As he has said, he is quite a pessimist. I think he sees practices a way of resisting the corrupting influence of capitalism. He also lately recognises the need for small communities to negotiate for resources from the state in order to survive.

    • That’s far too facile a comparison. I may profoundly disagree with MacIntyre but, as I wrote, I have also been deeply influenced by his work. MacIntyre has been particularly important in making the case for morality as historically constituted. Where you may have a point is that both MacIntyre and, say, Qutb draw upon certain Romantic notions of community and tradition. Then, so do many other contemporary thinkers inclined towards communitarian ideas. I have long argued, for instance, that racism and many strands of contemporary multiculturalism draw upon similar Romantic ideas. This makes many of the arguments, not just of MacIntyre but of philosophers such as Charles Taylor, for instance, or Will Kymlicka, problematic. It does not, however, suggest that they are sympathetic to racism or Islamism. Nor does it stop me from drawing upon many of their philosophical and historical insights.

  2. JA

    Thank you for the work you’re doing on MacIntyre. His work needs more consideration for broader audiences, but you have a difficult task.

    You might find his essay, Is Patriotism a Virtue? helpful. It describes his position on universality and the essays in Virtue and Politics provide a continuation of his thinking. Smattew’s references to Bin Laden and Sayd Qutb are superficial, but there is no denying that a part of him that finds the 13th Century more appealing. In the late 80’s he actually said that the great virtue of Islamic fundamentalist was that they “do not tolerate liberals.” That notion was not so funny after 9/11, but the point still stands that liberalism is weak in the face of a morally certain opponent citing religious text of any sort.

    Liberal explanations that depend on impartiality (Hegel’s moralitat) lose their power when they don’t address a way of life that is being threatened with change on the promise, yet unfulfilled, of something better (based on what?).

    He still take the sociology of Marx seriously with regard to the nature of human relationships. See his acceptance speech for an honorary Doctor of Letters by University College Dublin on 10 March 2009:

    His work on Edith Stein sheds some light on your points about his conception of authority and is worth considering beside his Rational Dependent Beings. In the past few years, his focus has become more intimate and focused on the individual, which might seem ironic (he hates irony and sees it as a moral threat), but is consistent with his earlier essays in Against the Self Images of the Age.

    Moral personality and moral agency is still at the center of his concern and he seems less inclined to discuss or speculate on social change, other than to comment on vices of particular kinds. From his lectures and writings, I think his most general conclusion is that large modern societies are inherently unsustainable as moral communities, more because of size than anything else. Liberalism is a sort of predictable philosophical band-aid to an ungainly and unmanageable social development. It’s almost like trying to have a conversation with too many people at once; chaos is the only natural outcome of such a mistake. The loss of traditions for him, is coincidental with the loss of rationality, because rationality is defined and cannot exist except in a tradition — a truly radical notion I think (Rationality being the same thing as giving reasons, which only make sense in context – he cites Frege as the source for this insight.)

    His ideal of a place where traditions of goods-based practice are embedded in communities that appreciate those goods, with the resources to support the virtues that make inhabiting such a place possible, is not an infinitely scalable activity (the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk…). I think it’s a valid interpretation to say that in his view, large societies inevitably become Towers of Moral Babel. In conversation, he concurred with the notion of Machiavellian myth-cycles, where even strong traditions and practices eventually break down over time.

    He’s not a garden-variety radical. You are right to spot the conservative thread (the corset) in MacIntyre’s philosophy. True authority derives from knowledge – and knowing is what Aristotle said it was (See Whose Justice, Which Rationality about errors of the mind). In class, he also defended the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo, due to the latter’s inability to provide proof, which is consistent with the reference to Abelard.

    It’s too easy to dismiss him as a lefty as some do. MacIntyre is far too complicated for contemporary labels. That makes him a difficult subject to describe to people outside the academy. I can’t wait to see how you finish his chapter and commend you for attempting to cover his work.

    • Simon

      Superficial perhaps, but amongst all the nuances is his unmistakable loathing of modernity and, as Malik says, any sort of liberal individualism. I appreciate you providing the references and will certainly check them out, but I doubt someone who supports Galileos persecution will offer much fertile material for contemporary ethical conflicts. I find it odd to see that others dismiss him as a lefty- my friends and I have always seen him as deeply conservative. The late Christopher Lasch, who In his own confused way rejected the enlightenment, once commented that he was worried the moral principles in After Virtue were compatible with various forms of fascism.

  3. JA

    One of the young Republicans who was a student in our seminar assumed, incorrectly, that MacIntyre would provide support for his conservative prejudices and was shocked to hear him speculate on what might happen in South Africa (1988), that it might be violent and probably communist, and that is would be a good thing. I can’t help but laugh at the expression on his face, even after so many years. I guess you had to be there.

    The criticism of Burke is very specific, that adherents of a Burkean tradition have lost an understanding of how a traditions goods and practices are related, and so are incapable of providing a rational justifications or criticism of it. One might compare that alignment as they do in evaluating progress in a contemporary strategic plan for a business, where being off-track is plain to those who understand what the plan is supposed to accomplish. As a Texas Aggie, I’m appalled at the use of the word ‘tradition’ on campus when it can be so easily bought and sold like a commodity (joining the SEC is a ‘new tradition.’). That example may seem quaint, but MacIntyre often used sports and games like chess (in After Virtue) as examples where the goods internal to the practices provide a basis for rational discourse, within the community of people who follow that particular sport or game (personal identity is also important and deriviative of the same social context). To Americans of my age and older, soccer is a waste of time, which would insult most of the world, while the brutality of American football has only recently been the object of reflection, given the prevalence of brain injuries. Still, there is no attempt to end football, despite the obvious risks. The triviality of such an example is a clue to the incomensurability problem as well. External criticisms of a sport are easily dismissed, as they usually contain a large amount of ignorance, relative to its fans, which take us back to his theory of knowing authority, and the limits of rationality.

    His theory of knowing was reiterated in a hallway conversation where he commented that the field of epistimology was ill-advised (I can’t remember his exact words, and he has a gift for turning a phrase), He used to say a lot of things for dramatic effect without spending much time explaining them. His comments on evolution were particularly interesting and I only caught the tail-end of a discussion of capital punishment, where he sounded more like Kant, saying something to the effect that it showed a lack of appreciation for human life.

    Unlike many other moral philosophers, I think MacIntyre’s relationship to his students is worth mentioning. His teaching went beyond the lecture. Graduate students were required to schedule an appointment to go over a their papers, one-on-one, line-by-line, to discuss and clarify the ponts being made. This rather intimidating treatment was required of all graduate students and I think it made for a much better learning experience. I don’t know if Iris Murdoch ever commented on her relationship with Wittgenstein as a teacher, but I would be very interested in knowing what she said if she did. Her work also received attention from MacIntyre and he wrote a foreword in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.

  4. I read AV differently. The real world crisis analogous to the “Disquieting Suggeston” is not the Enlightenment; the real crisis comes much earlier with the 14th century rejection of Aristotelian practical philosophy. The Nominalist movement replaced practical philosophy with voluntarist moral theologies in the fourteenth century. It is the attempt to resurrect science that is analogous to the Enlightenment’s efforts to renew rational moral philosophy. The problem is that modern moral philosophy is not practical philosophy, because modern moral philosophers maintain the same voluntarism in their normative ethics that they inherited from from the moral theologies of William of Ockham, Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini, Luther, Calvin, and Jansen. It is the voluntarism of modern normative ethics that Ayer and Stevenson rightly recognized as emotivist; and MacIntyre rightly recasts emotivism, Stevenson’s “false theory of meaning,” as a “cogent theory of [the] use” of moral terms in contemporary culture. The first half of AV shows how so many of the putatively impersonal and objective “oughts” and “shoulds” in modern ethics and politics really are subjective and arbitrary. The second half of AV proposes a way to return to practical philosophy, to an ethics that supports rational and deliberate human agency, as opposed to abstract theories of moral obligation.

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