MacIntyre, Alasdair (1929–)

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Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He was philosophically trained at Manchester University and subsequently taught at Manchester, Leeds University, Oxford University, and the University of Essex before emigrating to the United States in 1970. Since then he has held teaching posts at Brandeis University, Boston University, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and the University of Notre Dame.

By his late teens MacIntyre became sympathetic to Marxism as a theoretical articulation of the failures of contemporary social, economic, and political institutions, resulting in the publication of his first book, Marxism: An Interpretation, at the age of twenty-three. While never giving up his view that modernity merits wide-ranging criticism and that such criticism must come from a rationally defensible theoretical standpoint, he came to believe that Marxism lacked the necessary resources. What is needed, MacIntyre held, is a moral and political philosophy built on an adequate theory of human nature and the human goodthough this theory would have to recognize that human nature and the human good are deeply historically conditioned. What is also needed is an adequate account of how such a theory can be shown to be rationally superior to its rivalsthough, again, this account would have to recognize that standards of rationality in inquiry are themselves deeply historically conditioned. MacIntyre's mature philosophy, expressed in the series of books After Virtue (1981), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990), and Dependent Rational Animals (1999), respond to these perceived needs and exhibit the most noteworthy features of his work: his account of tradition-constituted rationality, his Aristotelian ethics of virtue, and his Aristotelian politics of local community.

Tradition-Constituted Rationality

MacIntyre's view is that the most salient feature of contemporary moral and political discourse is interminable disagreement. Defenders of rival views become ever more sophisticated in the development and advocacy of their theories, but there is no progress toward resolution of these disagreements. It seems to be the aspiration of participants in these debates to offer a defense of their respective theories that is acceptable to any rational agent. MacIntyre calls this aim of providing a defense of morality acceptable to rational agents as such The Enlightenment Project, and holds that, for all the substantive differences between figures such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, it is their common objective to provide a basis for morality that commands rational acceptance by all. After all, one might think that the alternative is an unacceptable relativism whereby different theories are justified in terms of different standards, with no way to bring rival theories truly into competition.

MacIntyre's contribution is to argue for the existence of rival and incompatible standards of rational assessment while denying that this affirmation brings with it a commitment to relativistic conclusions. We are confronted with different traditions of rational inquiry, each with its own theories and standards for assessment of theories, and each with a history within which various positions have been forwarded, defended, and to whatever extent affirmed or rejected. There is no neutral rationality-as-such by which we can decide between these various competing traditions. But relativistic conclusions do not follow, MacIntyre argues, because it is always possible that one tradition can show itself superior to a rival tradition by showing that one's tradition fares better than the rival even in that rival's own terms.

MacIntyre's positive views in ethics and politics are versions of Aristotelianism. In keeping with his conception of rationality in inquiry, his basis for affirming these views is that Aristotelianism is more defensible than rival traditions, even on those rival traditions' own terms.

The Ethics of Virtue

MacIntyre argues in After Virtue that of the classical moral theories presented by Hume, Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, neither they nor their contemporary defenders offer anything like compelling reasons to affirm these theories, nor do we have any reason to think that such reasons are forthcoming. Should we then, MacIntyre asks, follow Friedrich Nietzsche in thinking that the institution of morality is a fraud, to be jettisoned as the institution of taboo was jettisoned?

MacIntyre holds that there is an alternative to the moral theories defended in the Enlightenment and in the wake of the Enlightenment: Aristotelianism. On Aristotle's view ethics deals with the transformation of human beings from their immature condition into a condition that constitutes their true end, the realization of their specifically human potentialities, which realization occurs through the acquisition and exercise of various moral and intellectual virtues. Aristotelianism fell by the wayside during the Enlightenmentin part because of its close identification with Roman Catholic scholasticism and in part because of the discrediting of Aristotelian science in the Scientific Revolutionbut MacIntyre argues that this rejection was unwarranted, for an ethics coming out of the Aristotelian tradition is the best hope for moral philosophy.

MacIntyre's original formulation of this virtue ethics in After Virtue defines the virtues in terms of those qualities of character and intellect that are necessary for one's achievement of goods specific to practices (for example, games, crafts, arts, sciences, and other complex activities), for the sustenance of one's quest for the good life, and for the maintenance of one's community and one's traditions. He does not there formulate his view as part of a teleological conception of human nature and, indeed, in that work, he treats it as a desideratum for a restated Aristotelian ethics that it not rest on such a metaphysical biology. But in later works, most clearly Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre argues that ultimately we have to understand the virtues in terms of just such a teleological conceptiona version of Aristotelianism grounded in the work of Thomas Aquinasand that this conception is not at odds with the well-founded claims of contemporary science.

The Politics of Local Community

MacIntyre's views in political philosophy are frequently labeled communitarian, but this is a mistake if by communitarian we mean the position that states should be in some way guided by the ideals of the value of community. MacIntyre's position is more radical, for he holds that every conception of politics that is built on the attempt to justify the state is doomed to failure. For the statea hierarchically structured apparatus of political controlis not justifiable; all attempts to explain why the state is authoritative have failed. This does not mean that politics is an empty enterprise or that authority is inevitably illegitimate. It means, rather, that the goods of politics are realized not through the state but through much more local communities in which people can engage in genuine argument and have effective control over how their common life is structured. Only in local communities can the politics of the common good rather than that of individual advantage or class dominance be practiced. This emphasis on the necessarily local character of good politics also marks MacIntyre's views as Aristotelian.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Bentham, Jeremy; Communitarianism; Enlightenment; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Marxist Philosophy; Mill, John Stuart; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Scientific Revolutions; Social and Political Philosophy; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Virtue Ethics.


works by macintyre

Marxism: An Interpretation. London: SCM Press, 1953.

A Short History of Ethics (1966). 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981). 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

The MacIntyre Reader, edited by Kelvin Knight. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.

works on macintyre

Horton, John, and Susan Mendus, eds. After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.

Murphy, Mark C., ed. Alasdair MacIntyre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mark C. Murphy (2005)