After After Virtue

My girlfriend has a copy of After Virtue lying around, and I’ve been re-reading parts of it two years after I finished it for the first time. MacIntyre spends a long time drilling home the point that The Enlightenment Project Had To Fail. He deliberately obscures the reasons why The Enlightenment Project Had To Happen. For the un-initiated, “The Enlightenment Project” is the one of finding a rational basis for morality—a rationally compelling answer to the question “why should I be moral.” According to MacIntyre:

The [pre-enlightenment] moral scheme that forms the background to their [Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, etc.] thought had, as we have seen, a structure which required three elements: untutored human nature, man-as-he-could-be-if he-realized-his-telos, and the moral precepts which enable him to pass from one state to the other.

But the joint effect of the secular rejection of both Protestant and Catholic theology and the scientific and philosophical rejection of Aristotelianism was to eliminate any notion of man-as-he-could-be-if he-realized-his-telos.

[Enlightenment thinkers] inherited incoherent fragments of a once coherent scheme of thought and action and, since they did not recognize their own peculiar historical and cultural situation, they could not recognize the impossible and quixotic character of their self-appointed task.

The problem is that the concept of a human telos as a grounding for moralitya purpose that simply exists the same way objects do—was never coherent in the first place. Good-for-me is just as obscure and mysterious a concept as good-in-general (which is, in a sentence, the reason I am no longer a Randroid). A telos is my telos because I find it (or, if I understood it correctly, would find it) a compelling reason to act. If the telos just exists out there in the ether, there is no explanation of how this is possible. It must be by virtue of connection to something in my nature. The Enlightenment project is an attempt to solve this problem. MacIntyre’s historicism is an attempt to conceal it.

2 Responses to “After After Virtue”

  1. Sameer Says:

    Nice blog–what inspired you to start it?

    Spot-on criticism of The Good. (Though I think you mean to say “the telos just exists out there in the ether”…it has only just exited thanks to your critique :-)

    In what sense, then, are you “retrofitting Aristotle for the 21st century”?


    P.S. By “anti-charity” they mean that you can choose a charity that you hate to donate to if you fail, serving as extra motivation to stick to your resolution. An fervent opponent of abortion rights, for instance, could choose to let his money go to NARAL if he fails; knowing that if he smokes that one cigarette, he is contributing to the slaughter of innocent babies (N.B. not my position). Anyway, didn’t know you were opposed to charity, just government!

  2. astegmaier Says:

    I guess telos is one of those concepts that will have to be retrofitted. :-)

    I am very interested in the concept of eudaemonia, and I think there might be a way to construct it so that it would be a compelling motivation for any rational being. I think, at least, that a soul that has achieved eudaemonia would need to be unified–not at war with itself–and that the goal of unity would be a compelling one for any soul that actually experienced self-conflict. There has to be more to it than this, but that’s a start.

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