Alasdair MacIntyre's Service to Theology

The latter half of the twentieth century saw fresh interest in Aristotelian ethics. One aspect of this renewal is hope for reform not only within the field of moral philosophy but for academic inquiry in general and for the wider culture. This has been a central hope of Alasdair MacIntyre, especially in his most famous work, After Virtue (1981), and in subsequent developments of the argument laid out there.

My thesis is that MacIntyre helps us to see that ethical reflection, properly conducted, leads to theological reflection, and so any ethical reflection that excludes any reference to divinity must fail at its task. But even formulating this thesis raises the question of what the task of ethics is. R.G. Collingwood pointed out that Plato’s Republic and Hobbes’ Leviathan are not different attempts to answer the same question; part of accounting for their different ideas about “justice” requires us to recognize that they developed their theories in different social contexts and to address different intellectual problems (Autobiography, 62). MacIntyre took this insight to heart, and has helped us to see that this question—what kind of problem is an ethical theory designed to solve?—requires careful attention to historical circumstance.

So, my strategy is not to assume that we know what ethical theories in general are supposed to do, and then review atheistic theories to show that and why they fail. Nor is it to assert the more direct—and obvious—point that moral laws only make sense if there is a law-giver. Elizabeth Anscombe made this point, in her 1958 article that is often taken as foundational for the twentieth-century virtue ethics revival, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” It was part of her strategy for reviving Aristotelian ethics to propose that Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue is advantageous for being more consistently atheist than other ethical theories that depend on vestigial theistic concepts such as law or obligation. MacIntyre’s After Virtue followed this lead. While he acknowledged that virtue has thrived in theistic contexts, he self-consciously argued in and for a secular, functionally atheistic context for a creative construal of virtue independent of theological commitment.

One implication of my argument is that this foundational tactic of the modern Aristotelian revival—advancing virtue as a more consistent account of non-theological ethics—is deeply paradoxical. If other ethical theories become contorted without God, then it was an ironic—though perhaps strategic—contortion of Aristotle to propose “virtue ethics” as independent of the divine. A closer reading of MacIntyre finds that a renewal of Aristotelian ethics, through the path of virtue, turns us back inescapably to reflection about divinity. The Aristotelian revival, as MacIntyre would see it, has the capacity to reframe not only the task of moral philosophy, but the task of theology as well, and to renew the social functions of both philosophy and theology. MacIntyre’s Aristotelian project is a service to theology, and to the Church.

As background for defending this claim in the latter part of this essay, I offer first a summary interpretation—necessarily inadequate—of the argument of After Virtue.

The Argument of After Virtue

MacIntyre famously begins with a “disquieting suggestion,” based on the analogy of a science fiction scenario in which a catastrophe renders unintelligible a cultural practice in such a way that its unintelligibility is not even noticeable to the people who are going through the motions of continuing the cultural practice. MacIntyre had in mind Walter Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, which begins after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed much of civilization, including the practice of science, and a community of monks works with fragments of scientific textbooks and instruments without fully realizing that what they are doing is not really science.

MacIntyre’s suggestion is that this is our situation with ethics: that our inherited moral language belonged to a project now lost—due to some catastrophe that we are not even fully aware of. Pieces of the past cultural practice—fragments of moral language, no longer entirely coherent on their own—survive; people continue to use them, but without realizing that they are no longer engaged in the former project, and—what is most disturbing—without the resources for even discerning what they have lost.

To help us imagine that this might actually be our situation, MacIntyre focuses for the first half of After Virtue on describing and accounting for the character of moral discourse in modernity. In the second chapter, he points out that in everyday experience—say, arguing about social policies—moral disagreements are articulated in conceptually incommensurable terms. People defending different views about abortion, war, or wealth distribution might appeal to rights, equality, liberty, fairness (today, we might add tolerance, consent, and equity) all of which concepts, used within the context of a relevant argument, seem perfectly coherent and suggest a kind of impersonal authority; but, in light of conflicting sets of concepts—say, rights of property vs. injustice of inequality—these arguments not only typically fail to persuade, they are literally incommensurable with each other. As a result, even earnest attempts at objectivity give the impression that argument is not about reasoning, but about manipulation or the imposition of self-interested will. It is no wonder, then, that people find appealing theories that reduce moral arguments to power struggles—in the form of Nietzsche’s post-modern will to power, or the Marxist-existentialist post-liberal critique of bourgeois morality as bad faith rationalizing self-interest.

MacIntyre, sympathetic to and influenced by both Nietzsche and Marx, prefers to call this phenomenon emotivism—the view that moral utterances, even though they purport to give reasons, are really just expressions of feelings. Thus in the third chapter, he explores how, while emotivism fails theoretically as a genuine account of moral concepts, it makes very good sense as a kind of sociological account of how people experience the deployment of moral language. When moral arguments seem essentially interminable—irresolvable, because they use incommensurable concepts—then all attempts at moral persuasion cannot help but feel manipulative.

Emotivism is a late-stage development in modernity, and in chapters four and five MacIntyre characterizes the “predecessor culture,” which he calls “the Enlightenment Project of justifying morality.” It is a matter of cultural history that the idea of a sphere of “the moral,” consisting of rules of conduct that were neither theological nor legal, emerged in the early modern period (39), and this led to a search for a rational justification of these rules. The natural place to look was in some aspect of human nature: in the fact of choice, the power of reason, in the nature of desire. The point was to “justify” or find a basis for moral rules in something other than the idea of human perfection or happiness and something other than divine command (45). Here, MacIntyre offers a summary history, hardly meant to be exhaustive, highlighting key figures who illustrate different executions of this strategy: Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hume, who all, in their own way, looked for a way to preserve essential parts of the content of traditional religious ethics. They all, for instance, maintain a vestigial consensus for rules about promise-keeping, truth-telling, and faithfulness in marriage—but sought to justify these rules without appeal to religion:

In a world of secular rationality religion could no longer provide such a shared background and foundation for moral discourse and action; and the failure of philosophy to provide what religion could no longer furnish was an important cause of philosophy losing its central cultural role and becoming a marginal, narrowly academic subject (50).

As MacIntyre argues, in one of the crucial chapters of After Virtue, the Enlightenment project of justifying morality failed, and had to fail. As MacIntyre put it, the rules this project tried to justify had previously made sense as mediating the transition from human nature as it happens to be to human nature as it could be if it realized its essential nature. The rules implied a teleological conception of human nature. To the extent that the Enlightenment Project rejected this conception of human nature, and considered only man as he is apart from any notion of man as he could be if he realized his telos, the rules no longer made sense—indeed, they were dismembered pieces of a different conceptual framework, rendered incoherent in the new, non-teleological context. Moral rules, separated from the telos, became “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” (55).[1]

While MacIntyre recognizes that the teleological understanding of human nature was formerly rooted in a combination of metaphysics and religion, the challenge he sets for himself in the rest of After Virtue is to make it possible to conceive of a telos not in a biological or even abstract metaphysical manner but as something discovered in our social condition. According to MacIntyre, the key cultural fact was that before the Enlightenment “man” was a functional concept, in other words, to be a human being is to fulfill a set of roles, within a family, a polity, in relation to crafts and relationships, as part of the cosmos. So MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project not only happened to fail, but had to fail, because it replaced the teleological notion of human being, as perfectible in light of these roles, with the notion of the autonomous individual, conceivable without those roles and without any intrinsic telos or purpose other than to exercise its will.

MacIntyre proceeds, in chapter six, to describe the “consequences of this failure,” primarily the emergence of new moral language that is meant to take up the slack. His focus is on the notion of utility and of rights, which he calls “moral fictions”: historically contrived and contingent ideas that we use as if they have clear moral meaning but which arose to play a role in a situated, and perverse, discourse, the failed enlightenment project of attempting to salvage moral rules without teleology. In addition to utilitarianism and liberalism, MacIntyre also thinks this the context for the emergence of emotivism, which is as important as a cultural phenomenon as a moral theory, as evident in what MacIntyre identifies as the characteristic “types” of modern agent who reflect on means but not ends: the aesthete (who manipulates others for his own amusement), the therapist (who enables effective choosers without reflection on choice worthiness), and the bureaucrat (who seeks effective production without taking responsibility for what is produced or how its production bears on other people). This dynamic—of individuals free to make choices without regard for purposes—also accounts for the strange authority of “managerial expertise,” and the widespread myth that facts separated from values: in a teleological view of the human conditions, evaluative judgments can be true; after teleology, values expressing private will become something radically distinct from public, empirical facts. In the seventh and eighth chapters, MacIntyre thus turns to a critique of positivism, and the flaws of the new style of inquiry into human dynamics, “social science,” as founded on positivist assumptions about human nature.

Halfway through After Virtue, in chapter nine, MacIntyre distills the first iteration of the central thesis of the book. Given the failure of the Enlightenment project and the flaws of liberalism, utilitarianism, and any account of human action based on positivism, it is clear that there is really an unavoidable choice: embrace a teleological view of human beings, or reject it and embrace the arbitrariness of morality.[2] Only Nietzsche’s “prophetic irrationalism” exposes the genuine vacuity of moral language once Aristotle is abandoned. The two options, then, are Aristotle or Nietzsche.

But how to choose? Nietzsche did not defeat Aristotle; Nietzsche’s view is only defensible if it was right to reject Aristotle (117). But was it? Exploring this question makes up the second half of the book, which offers a history of the idea of virtues. Aristotle plays not the only, but a central, role. In chapter ten, MacIntyre attends to “The Virtues in Heroic Societies,” giving special attention to the Iliad, and in chapter eleven, “Virtues at Athens,” he covers the sophists, Plato, and tragedians, especially Sophocles.

In chapter twelve, “Aristotle’s Account of the Virtues,” MacIntyre argues that for Aristotle the notions of virtues and law are essentially connected—both define the good of the community, and virtue is needed to apply the law, in the form of the virtue of good judgment, phronesis. MacIntyre is working here to do several things: he shows how the idea of virtue is linked to the idea of moral law, and he portrays Aristotle as refining the poetic, mythic, tragic, and philosophical traditions that preceded him. But also in this chapter, MacIntyre is eager to start the argument that one can have teleology without Aristotle’s particular metaphysical commitments.[3]

In the next chapter, “Medieval Aspects and Occasions” (13), as with the chapter on the Enlightenment, MacIntyre does not pretend to offer an exhaustive history but only treats representative thinkers. Aquinas, perhaps surprisingly, is a “marginal figure.” MacIntyre gives more attention to Abelard, the influence of Stoicism, Alan of Lille, and Augustine. The historical explorations of chapters ten through thirteen then lead, over the next three chapters (fourteen through sixteen), to MacIntyre’s articulation of a “social teleology” (196) to replace Aristotle’s “metaphysical biology.” As a creative theoretical contribution, this is perhaps the most original contribution of After Virtue, articulating virtue in terms of practice, narrative, and tradition. The upshot is that one must be able to conceive of actions within the context of social roles, related to other social roles, with a past and projected into the future so that rational justification of action depends on the agent conceiving of “the unity of a human life.” MacIntyre wants his readers to ask, and to answer yes to, the following question:

is it rationally justifiable to conceive of each human life as a unity, so that we may try to specify each such life as having its good and so that we many understand the virtues as having their function in enabling an individual to make of his or her life one kind of unity rather than another? (203).

So MacIntyre argues that human actions are not intelligible apart from a narrative history; in effect, he is getting at traditional action theory, but replacing metaphysical anthropology with a literary sense of the intelligibility of a character.[4] In chapter sixteen, MacIntyre draws on various cultural critics such as Marx, Cobbett, and Polanyi to argue that modernity makes it hard for people to have a conception of narrative unity and practice; Jane Austen emerges as someone who managed to renovate virtues in light of the disorienting effects of modernity. Marx is also a vindicated—not ideologically, but sociologically—in chapter seventeen, where MacIntyre criticizes the dominant strains of liberalism, left and right, with a chapter dedicated to Rawls and Nozick: “Marx was fundamentally right in seeing conflict and not consensus at the heart of modern social structure” (253).

The final chapter of After Virtue thus offers an important revision of the intermediate conclusion. MacIntyre has out-narrated Nietzsche.[5] Nietzsche’s polemic works against attempts to rationalize rules, but it does not work against virtue, so long as virtue can be reconceived for the culture of advanced modernity. The choice is no longer between Nietzsche and Aristotle, then, but between Nietzsche on the one hand, and Aristotle, Trotsky, and Saint Benedict on the other. Why these additional two? Aristotle’s approach needs to be updated for post-industrial modernity, to accommodate the circumstances of social life under modern arrangements of power; so, a sober Marxist critique is useful, but without naïve Marxist optimism about salvation through politics—hence Trotsky. But some hope is appropriate, insofar as we can, within the context of modernity, imagine “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained”—hence, St. Benedict.

The Problem of “Virtue Ethics” Without God

This summary of After Virtue aims to convey the ambitious scope, and high stakes, of its argument. The object of MacIntyre’s criticism is not simply one or another inadequate moral theory, but the whole modern condition of thinking about human life, and the reform he proposes is no less significant than the preservation of humane culture against barbarism.

So it would seem a very small victory, not even a symbolic one and perhaps a Pyrrhic one, for “virtue ethics” to appear on syllabi in ethics classes as a unit competing with utilitarianism and Kantianism, as it so often does. In the terminology of David Solomon, MacIntyre proposed a return to virtue as something radical; but academics have domesticated it as something routine—another theory, to be taught alongside others, the incommensurability of which implicitly entrenches the very emotivism that MacIntyre sought to defeat.[6]

MacIntyre’s “radical” intention was to use the concept of virtue to rethink how to evaluate actions, which means rethinking the assumptions we are making about what a “moral theory” does and what kinds of questions it answers, and so even reconceive how we teach ethics and how it is related to other subjects in the university and to everyday decisions.

True success at introducing the concept of “virtue,” for MacIntyre, would mean recovering a teleological conception of human life—if things had been different, “virtue ethics” might have been called teleological ethics, or eudaimonistic ethics; it could have been called natural law ethics; in its account of dignity and sense of self-work, and traditional ethical attention to duty and shame, it could have been called honor ethics; as oriented to an ultimate good, it could have been called “summum bonum” ethics.[7]

Especially as a response to Nietzsche, who unmasked the fruitlessness of ethics after the “death of God,” “virtue ethics” even could have been called theological ethics. After Virtue connects the loss of teleology with the decline of theological authority; MacIntyre is not specific about the devastating catastrophe that began modernity, but it is clearly related to the changing status of religion in society.

What After Virtue implicitly acknowledges, but does not highlight, is that premodern ethical reflection was always about how human happiness is related to the divine. Discourse about God or gods did not always take the same shape, and was not always emphasized in the same way, and found different points of contact with discussion of human flourishing, but it was always present. Gods might reward or punish. They might be models of behavior, sources of debt or obligation, or authors of laws. They might assist or inspire, or they might subject us to a capricious fate; they might endow us with distinctive powers, or measure and judge us. We might be condemned to remain tragically distant from the divine or have hope for profound communion. But in some way or other, reference to divinity helps secure the features that MacIntyre identified in a supposedly agnostic or atheist concept of virtue: it was part of the “narrative unity” of life, and one which was not merely a subjective invention; conceiving life in relation to the gods provided the “implicit epistemology” of pre-modern culture with its characteristic “thoroughgoing realism” (129).

Asserting an essential connection between pre-modern moral and theological reflection is not to suggest that premodern ethics depended on any fully articulated theology. The point is that inquiry about human happiness was a primary locus for theological reflection, and an openness to the theological horizon of thought provided the framework for the intelligibility of moral inquiry.

Nor does the essential connection between moral and theological questions imply that premodern ethics was characterized by simplistic unanimity, or by lack of dispute. Disagreement—about the evaluation of action, and about the character of divinity—was, of course, common. What is salient is that such disagreement could be made intelligible as disagreement, and rationally negotiated, in light of a generally acknowledged connection between moral and theological questions: how one conceived of divinity would shape one’s conception of how to live, and how one thought about human nature and destiny in turn informed one’s conception of the divine.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a useful artifact here: undoubtedly a theological work, and organized around the consideration of human beings having their beginning and end in God, modern readers are tempted to view it as a kind of academic encyclopedia of doctrine, but its primary catalyst in historical context was the need for integrated moral formation. And Aquinas’s method in the work is to embrace fully the role of dialectical confrontation and argument in rational inquiry. His questio format, a literary incarnation of the medieval university’s classroom disputation, makes conspicuous and essential to the text the role of facing, articulating, and working through disagreement, the negotiation of disparate sources and conflicting voices, in order to arrive at truth.

The link between ethics and theology is found in reflections other than the strictly philosophical—it is a thread that Greek philosophy picked up from Homeric epic and Greek tragedy and from local customs of civic piety. The first philosophers did not seek to overcome this connection so much as to clarify, discipline. and purify it. And, of course, the link between theology and ethics is conspicuous in Jewish religion. It was only natural for Christian theologians to carry this forward, while open to learning from pagan Greek philosophers.

The theological dimension of medieval scholasticism, of Greek myth, and of Jewish revelation is not in question. Less often appreciated is that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has an inherently theological character.

God in the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle’s first mentions of God in this text might seem incidental, rhetorical flourishes, or superficial pieties. Thus he says in the very first book that it is more godlike to attain the good for the polis than for an individual (1094b11), and soon after god appears in a list of things that illustrate that many different kinds of things that are called good (1096a25).

But it is harder to dismiss as a less than serious question when Aristotle asks, still in the first book, whether happiness comes by divine dispensation (1099b10–17). Aristotle seems willing to consider the hypothesis, and in a way not rendered entirely irrelevant by the fact that what Aristotle is aiming to arrive at is the insight that virtue is acquired:

For this reason also the question is asked, whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance. Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.

Much later in the work, Aristotle comes back to this point, to say that even if nature contributes to happiness, this itself could be a means of divine dispensation (1179b22 ).

There are other instances of Aristotle making reference to divinity. In reflecting on how we value blessedness and happiness, Aristotle names the gods as paradigms of those states. (1101b17–25). In Book IV, he describes the virtue of magnificence in reference to the gods, insofar as spending for religious purposes is honorable and public-spirited (1122b19–22), and he subsequently describes a similar relationship with respect to magnanimity (1123b19). In Book V, he mentions that justice is not mutable or arbitrary with the gods (1134b27), and says that there is no limit to how much good the gods can enjoy (1137a27). Discussing pleasure, Aristotle emphasizes that given the nature of divine activity, God’s enjoyment must be especially pure and enduring (1154b26).

Another serious question that Aristotle raises in the Ethics is whether it is possible to have friendship with God. Insofar as friendship implies a degree of equality and cooperation in a common goal, it seems not (VIII.12, 1162a4-6; VIII.14, 1163b16-17; IX.2, 1165a24-27). So, a particularly high view of divinity leads Aristotle to deny the possibility of our relating to God as an equal. It is sometimes said that Aristotle’s God is impersonal, but it seems more fair to say that his God is such a transcendent person as not to be available to relationship with us—a view at once pious and tragic, which Aquinas takes as confirmation of the fittingness of the miracle of the Incarnation.[8]

And, of course, the most important inclusion of divinity in Aristotle’s Ethics is the discussion of contemplation in Book X. As rational creatures, our telos is in the most perfect rational activity—and Aristotle compares this to the activity of Gods. Indeed, the Gods are most happy, and we are most happy when we are like Gods, and we are most like Gods when our activity is most like theirs, that is to say, when we are contemplating the Gods.

So, another tragic piety in Aristotle is the realization that the life of contemplation must be beyond our natural power—and yet, Aristotle says, we must strain every nerve to try to live according to the best element in us, to take on immortality as much as possible despite our mortality. It is little wonder that Aquinas saw in this an implicit confirmation of beatitude, the Christian belief in supernatural happiness beyond this life.

What I am trying to make plain is that rendering an account of Aristotle’s inquiry into the nature of virtue and happiness without reference to the divine would be as fragmentary and incomplete as other “theories of ethics” without virtue. The contortions of ethics without virtue were the contortions of ethics without God; a restoration of Aristotelian virtue is also, of necessity, a restoration of Aristotelian common good and ultimate end, of law and happiness, which is to say a restoration of the theological dimension to ethics.

MacIntyre’s Service to Theology

In light of After Virtue’s attempt to downplay theology—and even metaphysics—all of this could sound like a criticism of MacIntyre, but I mean it as a prelude to appreciation. MacIntyre has in fact been attentive to theological questions, and the need to reconceive how we ask theological questions in light of moral questions. His project as more than simply a strategy or theory within the field of moral philosophy, nor as a conservative critique of modern culture. By practicing a particular approach to philosophizing about ethics, MacIntyre has been rendering a constructive service to theology—helping it to understand itself better, and to restore it to a place of privilege in society.

It may help to keep in mind that the first edition of After Virtue was published in 1981. MacIntyre not a Christian when he wrote it, but he converted around the time it was published. In an essay published two years later, “Moral Philosophy: What Next?” (Revisions, 1983): (8–9), he wrote:

We inhabit a culture which was at an earlier stage informed by a shared belief in a summum bonum. And that belief had classical, in particular Aristotelian, as well as biblical, sources. They combined to provide morality with a point and a purpose, in virtue of which the moral life could be treated as an intelligible pursuit for a rational being. But when shared belief in the summum bonum is lost, the question of the point and purpose of morality also becomes one for which answers have to be invented, and to which naturally enough rival and incompatible answers are given.

Among the innovations of modernity MacIntyre identifies are a new idea of choice separated from moral psychology, and a new idea of principles of action separated from divine law (11). And so he makes explicit what some think After Virtue denies, “There is no sphere of morality independent of the agent’s metaphysical or theological (or antitheological) view of the world and, more particularly, of God and the self” (14). “The comfortable assumption that questions about God can be put to one side at the level of moral decision (an assumption that extends well beyond moral philosophy) will have to be abandoned” (14, correcting “as” to “an”).

The affirmation that moral reflection cannot be separated from theological reflection cannot be more clear, and MacIntyre consistently returns to this theme in later work. MacIntyre’s Postscript to the 2nd edition of After Virtue (in 1984), ends with a section on “The Relationship of Moral Philosophy to Theology,” in which he admits that he downplayed the role of a Biblical worldview in Aquinas’s reception of Aristotle, saying that his “narrative” is a work in progress that needs to be revised in that light. He does in fact follow this up later work. In 1988, his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? devotes considerable attention to the role of law, and the Christian understanding of conscience, in Aquinas.[9]

MacIntyre thinks a fundamental question for philosophy is how and to what extent knowledge of God is possible. Consistent with his understanding of the historical, socially embodied character of rationality, he suggests that a culture of belief is as important to cultivating certain concepts as the concepts are to maintaining the culture. This insight is central in his account of Edith Stein’s conversion (Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913–1922 [2006]). MacIntyre admires Stein for considering the question of knowing God not primarily as one of impersonal argument but of joining a community of inquirers. Stein, he says, asked two central and urgent questions: “Of what communities should I make myself a part? [and] . . . . In dialogue with whom . . . should I carry forward my thinking and my personal formation?” The rationality of theological belief, according to MacIntyre, is not something that is figured out before entering into the social circumstances in which religious belief can become intelligible:

We do not . . . begin with some adequate grasp of the concepts of knowledge and truth and in the light of these pass judgment on whether or not we know something of God or whether or not it is true that God exists, but rather it is from our encounters with God—and with the world and with human beings—that we learn what it is to have knowledge and what truth is. (Edith Stein, 175)

MacIntyre is most explicit about philosophy’s service to theology in his book God Philosophy Universities (2009). There, it is clear that philosophy must be open to theological questions, and that any genuine university must have structures in place that are different from secular universities which preclude that philosophical work (179)

MacIntyre’s most recent book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative (2016), argues in its final pages that the worldly, finite ends of practical reasoners presuppose “an end beyond all finite ends” (230). Metaphysically, this is a transcendent God, but practically, it at least means that the only way, in this finite world, that “we complete and perfect our lives [is] by allowing them to remain incomplete” (231). The human being, for true fulfillment, needs not only the metaphysical reality of God, but a venue of reflection about our relation to that God. And so, the book ends with this claim:

The perfection and completion of a life consists in an agent’s having persisted in moving toward and beyond the best goods of which he or she knows. So there is presupposed some further good, an object of desire beyond all particular and finite goods, a good toward which desire tends insofar as it remains unsatisfied by even the most desirable of finite goods, as in good lives it does. But here the enquiries of politics and ethics end. Here natural theology begins (315).


I have tried to argue that understanding virtue apart from theological questions is as distorting as any other attempt to make sense of ethics without God. Specifically, I have tried to show that MacIntyre’s vision for a revival of Aristotelian ethics is a profoundly radical critique not only of moral discourse or the teaching of ethics, but of late modern conceptions of self, patterns of life, and social structures—and I have tried to highlight, what is not conspicuous in After Virtue but made more explicit in MacIntyre’s later work—that this radical vision demands a restoration and reinvigoration of theological as much as of moral reflection. It follows from all of this that we do not fully understand MacIntyre’s project as an Aristotelian moral philosopher unless we see it as including a crucial service to theology and to the social structures that support the life of Christians.[10]

I have saved for my conclusion a few words about one last work of MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry. Though published as a book in 1990, the work was originally delivered as a series of lectures, in 1987–1988, at the University of Edinburgh. The occasion was the famous Gifford Lectures, the prestigious series founded and endowed one hundred years earlier, in 1887, by Lord Adam Gifford for the purpose of promoting philosophical knowledge of God.

MacIntyre concludes with a critique of the modern university, as an institution that was founded specifically to foster a certain kind of rational inquiry about how we should live, but which has over time rendered itself irrelevant, following trends rather than shaping inquiry, and reflecting the incoherence of modern moral theories by systematically excluding the forms of discourse that would allow that inquiry—the forms of discourse that were essential to the medieval university, interpretive lectures and participatory disputations, structures of “constrained disagreement” that fostered debate and sought to explore and bring into conversation sincere attempts to understand human life.

Of course, these structures of constrained disagreement were fostered by expectations of decent behavior and theological commitment, but modern universities have alternative systems of constraint, MacIntyre suggests that perhaps “fundamental debate on moral and theological questions [can] now only be carried on outside the constraints of the conventional academic system, in the waging of a kind of guerilla warfare against the system” (221).

Catholic intellectuals, professors, and students often find themselves engaged in something like that guerilla warfare, posing questions and advancing hypotheses, sometimes at the periphery of official university activity. As MacIntyre understood, the pursuit of truth involves considering ideas that may be, considered in their context, institutionally subversive. Sometimes this takes the form of a lecture, but even then the lecture is at best a provocation, and an excuse for a gathering whose real import is in the conversations that precede and follow it. MacIntyre’s critique of the university even includes a specific critique of the lecture as a form: unlike medieval lectures, modern academic lectures tend to be performances, rather than expositions of authoritative texts and invitations to ongoing dialectic. Lectures—and their written form, as essays or chapters—may have a place in reviving education, but only insofar as they are invitations to read and reread other sources, and to continue inquiry in community, impelled by further questions, criticisms, and counter-arguments—genuine conversations in pursuit of truth, in which there must be no predetermined barriers to considering the divine.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is revised from the text of a lecture delivered for the Thomistic Institute chapter at the University of Georgia (Athens, Georgia), April 22, 2022, and for the Philosophical Society at the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, Scotland), March 9, 2023.

[1] More: “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.” Modern approaches rejected “a teleological view of nature, any view of man as having an essence which defines his true end.”

[2] Nietzsche saw clearly that “the deontological character of moral judgment is the ghost of conceptions of divine law which are quite alien to the metaphysics of modernity” (111).

[3] As MacIntyre puts it, we have to “replace Aristotle’s metaphysical biology” (163). Although some have interpreted this as a rejection of metaphysics in general, the emphasis seems to be rather a rejection of the particular biological claims Aristotle made.

[4] Another related theme here: tradition as socially embodied argument (222), which many have recognized as a Gadamerian or Newmanian understanding of the essential historicity of reason. The need to reconnect ethics with an adequate psychology of embodied rationality is also evident in MacIntyre’s title: “How Moral Agents Became Ghosts, or Why the History of Ethics Diverged from That of Philosophy of Mind,” Synthese 53.2 (Nov 1982): 295–312.

[5] Three Rival Versions also cites Dante as a master-narrator. Arguably it is the story-telling that makes After Virtue so successful. Many of the same individual critiques of modern ethics were not new—for instance, see Veatch’s Rational Man (1962)—but they had not before been made without anything near the rhetorical influence of After Virtue.

[6] David Solomon, “Virtue Ethics: Radical or Routine?” in Michael DePaul, and Linda Zagzebski (eds), Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology (Oxford, 2003).

[7] Consider, with this in mind, the atheism of Nietzsche (as a sociological/psychological observation that the notion of God is no longer active) with the genuinely hypothetical methodological atheism of Grotius (imagining how that there would still have to be a moral law even if, per impossibile, there were no God). Nietzsche’s observation turns out to be functionally true as far as ethics is concerned: ethics cannot survive the death of God. Grotius’s claim that the laws of morality could be the same even if there were no God turns out to still depend on a teleological conception of human life and did not anticipate how much the necessity of moral truth depended on that metaphysical conception, and how little support that metaphysical conception would have in the absence of belief in God.

[8] The virtue of piety is central in Greek ethics, and there is a puzzle about why, or whether, it is absent in the Nicomachean Ethics. Does Aristotle embody it, without discussing it? Sarah Broadie, “Aristotelian Piety” (Phronesis, 2003) argues that X.8, 1179a22–32 gives an implicit definition of piety, as an account of why the gods love the wise person; and in general Aristotle’s discussion of contemplation as an activity that is blessed and relates us to the Gods is framed in terms of traditional expressions of piety. Aristotle also seems to discuss piety in the Politics, Bk. VII.

[9] Even Dependent Rational Animals (1999) could be said to have an implicit theological dimension. It is mostly about our dependence on others because of our embodied, social nature, but implicitly also about dependence on account of what sets us apart from animals, our rational nature. In general, the key focus of that book, the “virtues of acknowledged dependence,” could very well serve as a translation of the classical virtue of “piety.”

[10] It is worth mentioning at least a few theologians who have received this service as such: David Cloutier and William C. Mattison III, “The Resurgence of Virtue in Recent Moral Theology,” Journal of Moral Theology, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014): 228–259, and Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, Routledge (London/New York), 2003.

Featured Image: God the Father in the St. Nicholas church in Ghent, photo by Eric Hulsens; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 4.0.


Joshua Hochschild

Joshua P. Hochschild is Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary's University (Emmitsburg, Maryland). He is a past President of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and in addition to scholarly work in medieval logic, metaphysics, and ethics, he has published and lectured widely on the history of philosophy and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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