MacIntyre's Philosophy of Mercy's Clandestine Work in a Secular World

Alasdair MacIntyre is most well-known for his scathing critique of liberalism and modern moral philosophy, contrasting this mode of thought with the classical tradition of the virtues found especially in the works Aristotle and Aquinas and in communities embodying this ethos.

But what is less well known is a second, but more far-reaching critique of the entire Western tradition of moral philosophy for failing to take seriously the facts about disability, vulnerability, and dependence that are part and parcel of the human condition. Overlooking this strand of MacIntyre’s thought obscures important insights concerning both his politics and the relationships between philosophy and theology in his work. What this account makes apparent is how MacIntyre offers a genuinely Christian but non-sectarian politics of mercy, an account that speaks directly to the contemporary political crisis.

A noteworthy passage from Dependent Rational Animals[1] captures this second critique:

[T]wo related sets of facts, those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others are so evidently of singular importance that it might seem that no account of the human conditions whose authors hoped to achieve credibility could avoid giving them a central place. Yet the history of Western moral philosophy suggests otherwise. From Plato to Moore and since there are usually, with some rare exceptions, only passing references to human vulnerability and affliction and to the connection between them and our dependence on others.

MacIntyre continues:

And when the ill, the injured, and the otherwise disabled are presented in the pages of moral philosophy books, it is almost always as subjects of possible by benevolence by moral agents who are themselves presented as though they were continuously rational, healthy, and untroubled (1).

This is a far-reaching indictment of moral philosophy, but one that cuts across the divide between modernity and the classical tradition.

MacIntyre first highlights the pervasiveness of vulnerability and affliction within human life. This is, perhaps, most evident in acute forms of disability, but MacIntyre cautions us not “to think of the ‘disabled’ as ‘them,’ as other than ‘us,’ as a separate class” (1). Rather, a clear-sighted consideration of the human condition reveals that we are all actually or potentially disabled in more or less serious ways. Either from sudden illness, or injury, or in old age, as in childhood, we may become radically dependent upon the care of others in ways that we could not have foreseen. But vulnerability extends beyond this type of affliction. MacIntyre argues that we are vulnerable to the loss of anything that we need to live well. Not only care for urgent bodily needs, but also knowledge, skills, and resources, along with companionship and emotional affirmation, are at times desperately needed.

This points to the second set of facts noted by MacIntyre, facts about the ubiquity of dependence within human life. Even Aristotle failed to note the extent of dependence; MacIntyre notes the absurdity of the Aristotelian great-souled man who is willingly “forgetful of what he has received” (7). Because of the urgency and unpredictability of our needs, we rely upon the care of others, care that is often largely uncalculating. MacIntyre describes such caring relationships as networks of giving and receiving. While friendship offers a paradigmatic example of this type of relationship, we would be remiss if we failed to note the extent to which we receive care from coworkers, causal acquaintances, and even total strangers.[2] And MacIntyre argues that by engaging in this form of care, we gain the ability to engage in meaningful forms of deliberation, better articulating our shared goods. In this sense, mercy is the basis of dialogue.

According to MacIntyre, all of this is to say that mercy, the virtue that directs us toward the urgent needs of others, has a fundamental role to play in human communities, especially in sustaining networks of giving and receiving that enable us to cope with vulnerability. This account also illustrates the contours of MacIntyre’s genuinely Christian but non-sectarian politics of the common good. For MacIntyre, the common good is largely constituted by these intertwining relationships of giving and receiving that are sustained by the virtue mercy. Drawing upon Aquinas in order to provide an account of mercy, MacIntyre notes that mercy is closely associated with the theological virtue of charity. Surprisingly, on MacIntyre’s account, we can only properly understanding flourishing communities, whether secular, Christian, or non-Christian, insofar as we understand, at least to some extent, the way in which the virtue of charity is operative in these communities. Thus, charity, especially in the form of mercy, provides the standard for proper human relationships, regardless of the context.

MacIntyre’s account illustrates the way that the virtue mercy continuously reinscribes bonds of solidarity even in our highly “liquid” modern context. MacIntyre notes that we “move in and out of communities” (122) and belong to multiple networks of giving and receiving. This presents a picture that is quite a bit different from the standard view of MacIntyre as promoting isolated sectarian communities that seek to separate from the modern world. These utopian fantasies fail to come to grips with MacIntyre’s realism. Instead, his politics of mercy suggests that communities within modernity can be created, sustained, and extended through acts of mercy that cross conventional boundaries. This type of radicalism challenges what Pope Francis[3] described as “the globalization of indifference” by refusing to ignore the reality of disability, vulnerability, and dependence.

But MacIntyre defends the secular nature of his account by arguing that charity in the form of mercy “is recognizably at work in the secular world” (124), stating further on that mercy “has a place in the catalogue of the virtues, independently of its theological grounding” (124). This offers something different from a “two-tiered” approach to nature and grace. Instead, according to MacIntyre, grace is visibly at work in the secular world in the works of mercy, regardless of where they are found. The works of mercy sustain communities by enabling members to cope with disability, disease, and deprivation through relationships of giving of receiving. Through a theological lens we can better understand the reasons for mercy and its ultimate finality, but what we understand is something likely present in any community.

In this light, there is a surprising similarly between MacIntyre’s politics of mercy and Francis’s pastoral vision. In his apostolic letter Misercordia et misera[4], Pope Francis concluded the Year of Mercy by noting, “Mercy cannot become a mere parenthesis in the life of the Church; it constitutes her very existence, through which the profound truths of the Gospel are made manifest and tangible” (§1). Francis goes beyond MacIntyre in at least two ways. First he highlights the fact that mercy is first and foremost a “gratuitous act of our heavenly Father, an unconditional and unmerited act of love” (MM §2). Mercy is received from God before it is given to others, and we have received mercy in various forms. Secondly, in being merciful to others, we not only respond to their needs and so doing sustain the common good of our community, but we also imitate Christ. As Francis says, “The desire for closeness to Christ requires us to draw near to our brothers and sisters, for nothing is more pleasing to the Father than a true sign of mercy” (MM §16).

Where Francis provides a theological rationale for the virtue of mercy, MacIntyre outlines its political function. In this light, MacIntyre’s provides a genuinely Christian politics that crosses the divide between left and right, religious and secular, etc. and avoids a narrowly sectarian vision. Mercy, according to MacIntyre, “extends beyond the boundaries of community” (129) and by focusing on the needs of others, it creates new boundary spanning bonds of solidarity. Similarly, in the light of MacIntyre’s politics of mercy, it is evident that Francis offers a far-reaching critique of contemporary politics and society. Far from an accomodationist vision, Francis continuously highlights the many ways in which all of us living in contemporary society fail to acknowledge dependence, dependence first on God as primarily merciful, and, secondarily, dependence on others whose acts of mercy provide enable us to cope with vulnerability.

[1] All quotations from Alasdair MacIntyre are taken from: Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).

[2] I was forcefully made aware of this when neighbors, whom I had never met, rushed to my assistance when I was seriously injured in a boating accident.

[3] Pope Francis, 2015 Lenten Message,

[4] Quotations from Pope Francis in this paragraph taken from: Pope Francis, Misericordia et misera, 2016,

Featured Image: Paula Modersohn-Becker, The Good Samaritan, 1907; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Caleb Bernacchio

Caleb Bernacchio is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Management at California State University Monterey Bay. His research focuses on applications of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work to business ethics and organizational research.

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