The Anti-Integralist Alasdair MacIntyre

St Paul and St Thomas Aquinas tell us how there is always more to be hoped for in any and every situation that the empirical facts seem to show.
--Alasdair MacIntyre, "How Aristotelianism Can Become Revolutionary," 19

Along with Charles Taylor and Jean-Luc Marion, Alasdair MacIntyre is widely recognized one of the most important Catholic philosophers still working today. He recently published another book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity that offers a restatement of his distinctive approach to neo-Aristotelian and Thomist practical philosophy. Interest has only intensified as a result of recent questions surrounding the viability and legitimacy of liberalism, questions raised by Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule, to name a few of the most prominent contributors to this debate. In this light, and not implausibly, Cyril O’Regan recently cast MacIntyre as a leading detractor of modernity, a weeper, in his programmatic essay “The ‘Gift’ of Modernity.” This characterization is not wrong but it is, in important ways, incomplete. It fails to appreciate MacIntyre’s hope, his reasoned commitment to the possibility of a genuine politics even in a modern context.

What underlies the tendency to link MacIntyre with other more extreme critics of liberalism, proponents of integralism, is insufficient attention to the complexity of MacIntyre’s relationship(s) to Christianity. Of course, he has been a committed Catholic since sometime after the publication of After Virtue, but he has intellectually avoided reducing Christianity to a one-dimensional phenomenon. In fact, there is not one but three different dimensions of Christianity that figure prominently in MacIntyre’s work. For lack of better terms, these can be called, respectively, Hegelian, Augustinian, and Rahnerian conceptions of Christianity. In what follows, I explain these conceptions as they figure in MacIntyre’s thought and explain further how they provide a basis for genuine political agency even in a modern context.

Like O’Regan, most of MacIntyre’s readers have focused primarily on After Virtue, at times reading the earlier texts in the light of later works such as Whose Justice? Which Rationality? or Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry that explicitly discuss the Catholic tradition. Again, it is not implausible to focus on After Virtue but doing so presents an incomplete picture of MacIntyre’s thought, giving readers the impression that he is more pessimistic than is warranted.

In his most famous book, MacIntyre argued that modern moral philosophy, and much contemporary practice, was incoherent because it had jettisoned the notion of a telos. And while MacIntyre briefly sketches a constructive account of virtue towards the end of text, readers who stop at After Virtue are likely to take the book to be a portrait of resignation, concluding with a quasi-prophetic utterance about the return of “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict” (263).[1] To state this more clearly, many readers assumed that at its most fundamental level After Virtue was a rejection of secularism and a call for a return to Christianity. Again this not only misinterprets the text itself, but also fails to appreciate the complexity of MacIntyre’s understanding of Christianity.

The Human Meaning of Christianity

To see why this is the case, note the first mode of conceptualizing Christianity, labeled above Hegelian. In his early book Marxism and Christianity, MacIntyre explains the importance of this Hegelian conception of Christianity by critiquing “those contemporary demythologizers whose goal is to assimilate Christianity to the secular present”, saying:

But this is not a necessary outcome of the attempt to realize the human meaning of the Christian gospels. It is a basic contention of the book that Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx humanized certain central Christian beliefs in such a way as to present a secularized version of the Christian judgment upon, rather than the Christian adaptation to, the secular present (142-143).

Without reducing Christianity merely to this function, MacIntyre explains how it serves to inspire secular practices and institutions that stand opposed to existing social structures. In this sense the “human meaning” of the gospel is concerned with its role in humanizing existing social structures.

MacIntyre’s concern with the “human meaning” of Christianity provides a way of properly understanding the passage about St. Benedict at the end of After Virtue. What is salient about Benedict is the way that he contributed to the realization of the human or secular implications of Christianity: his theological vision resulted in the establishment of new forms of community that embodied a robust conception of the common good. Without denying the explicitly theological elements of monastic life, MacIntyre’s concern was with the way that a Christian spiritual vision inspired the creation of novel social structures and institutions that stood radically opposed to existing practices. Far from a “call to religion,” the conclusion of After Virtue pointed, albeit in a vague and somewhat confusing way, toward new opportunities to pursue common goods in modernity.

MacIntyre’s Augustinianism

This contrasts with the second, Augustinian, conception of Christianity also prominent in MacIntyre’s work. The Augustinianism strand in MacIntyre’s thought has probably had the biggest impact within popular receptions of his work, especially in Catholic circles. Thematized explicitly in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, it is this notion that leads many people to assimilate MacIntyre to an integralist position. But this assimilation is a mistake, since it fails to distinguish the aims of these texts, focused on elaborating a theory of the rationality of tradition, from that of After Virtue, a work focused on moral philosophy and social theory.

In other words, MacIntyre’s Augustinianism is primarily epistemological. It involves the claim that secular modes of rationality are insufficient to accomplish their own aims and, because of this, they point in various ways to the plausibility of Christianity, as a mode of belief that does not suffer from the same limitations. MacIntyre’s Augustinianism, elaborated in the context of his theory of the rationality of traditions, though closely linked with ethical and political questions, gives no support to political Augustinianism. MacIntyre has consistently refused to define the common good in sectarian terms. As Hauerwas[2] explains, MacIntyre’s “account of natural law, as well as his understanding of practical reason and the virtues are secular,” not committing “him to some form of confessional theological position.”

As such, for MacIntyre, the primary problem of modernity is not its secularism but rather its forgetfulness of common goods. Likewise, even though these issues are closely related, the answer to the problem of modernity is not the re-Christianization of secular social structures but the political pursuit of common goods. The picture presented so far, already suggests a modification of the pessimistic reading of MacIntyre that links his position with that of the Catholic integralist critics of liberalism. For MacIntyre, secularism is not the problem, but rather the individualistic form that secularism has taken and likewise a plausible Christian response to modernity is not an attempt to overcome secularism but an effort to rediscover the “human meaning of the Christian gospel” in a way that radically critiques modern individualism and reinvigorates the pursuit of common goods.

Charity in the Secular World

A third conceptualization of Christianity contrasts again with the previous two. At the risk of confusion, I call this a Rahnerian account of Christianity. In using this term, I do not mean to imply that MacIntyre was either explicitly drawing upon or even indirectly influenced by Karl Rahner. Instead, it merely indicates a similarity to Rahner’s account of the relationship between nature and grace. In Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre says that “Charity in the form of misericordia is recognizably at work in the secular world . . .” (124).

What we learn from reading this text is that vulnerability is an inherent element of the human condition and that human beings cope with vulnerability by depending upon others for various forms of care, care embodied in virtues such as mercy, beneficence, and generosity.  Since these virtues can only be properly understood within a theological context, we can recognize manifestations of the virtue of charity—where selfless care and uncalculated giving enable others to meet their needs in order live well—in widely varying cultural contexts, even in secular or non-Christian societies. This aspect of MacIntyre’s understanding of Christianity suggests an important way in which MacIntyre is not a nay-sayer: he argues that we can recognize the virtue of charity at work in the world sustaining common goods in widely varying contexts even within modern secular society. This means that the picture of modern society as ethical wasteland is importantly incomplete; it fails to account for the often invisible forms of care that sustain families, workplaces, and communities of various sorts.

Modernity and the Politics of Hope

Hope has been a constant subtheme of MacIntyre’s work, not specifically as a theological virtue, but as a disposition undergirding the political agency of plain persons. Several conclusions follow from the discussion above, suggesting that hope not despair or resignation is MacIntyre’s final word. First, MacIntyre’s work gives no support to political Augustinianism. He has even acknowledged the injustice of many early modern confessional regimes[3]. But this points to a much more positive conclusion; there is no need to pursue the impossible and nostalgic goal of returning to an integralist state.

Prominent discussions of this idea in Catholic circles often amount to a form of elitism, where plain persons must delay political action until after elites have reestablished a Catholic administrative state.[4] But, according to MacIntyre, numerous political aims that are both more realistic and more important are actually available to plain persons in the ordinary contexts of households, workplaces, and communities. A growing body of research in business ethics and organization theory that has sought to apply Macintyre’s conceptual framework to contemporary firms[5] has illustrated this, as has MacIntyre’s recent discussion of the common goods of families, workplaces, and grassroots political movements.[6]

Thus, MacIntyre’s Augustinianism suggests that the Catholic tradition can inform contemporary social and political debate within the context of existing secular institutions. This points to a second conclusion drawn from the “Hegelian” aspects of MacIntyre’s Christian vision.  Though informed by Hegel and Marx, it would be mistaken to suggest that a vision of the “human meaning of the Christian gospel” is alien to the broader Christian tradition. Instead it relates directly to the humanizing role of the Church as it has shaped and informed existing social and political institutions beginning with the early Church’s commitment to charity, through its concern with education institutions, to the more recent focus on geopolitical issues after Vatican II.

MacIntyre’s novel claim is to suggest that the Catholic Thomist tradition offers a unique insight into the notion of a common good that can be applied analogously in a variety of social and political contexts, informing the political agency of plain persons. While the micro-level politics of households and organizations, and the contextual politics of grassroots movements—both aimed at promoting common goods and shaping institutions to better support them—are less flashy and often more mundane than recent discussions of anti-liberalism, they are also more realistic and offer a greater potential impact on the lives of plain persons. This is the locus of a politics of hope.

This leads to leads us to the final step of making conclusions from the discussion above. If Catholics are called upon to humanize existing social and political institutions by promoting common goods in the face of radical individualism, they need not expect to encounter an ethical wasteland within secular institutions. While a cursory reading of After Virtue might suggest this conclusion, MacIntyre’s later work, especially Dependent Rational Animals, offers a more complicated picture. As I argued in “MacIntyre’s Philosophy of Mercy’s Clandestine Work in a Secular World,” this later book suggests that there are more ethical resources available within a given culture than most are willing to acknowledge. MacIntyre’s argues that human life is sustained by wide-ranging forms of care, actions that give expression to virtues such as justice, generosity, and mercy. Thus efforts by Catholics to promote the common good may often find common ground with various networks of giving and receiving based upon solidarity and mutual care. But, MacIntyre argues, these forms of care give evidence to presence of the virtue of charity in the secular world.

Thus, read in terms of what I have called, somewhat misleadingly, the Rahnernian strand of MacIntyre’s vision of Christianity, it is possible to conclude that the hope that sustains the micro-levels politics of households and organizations, as well as grassroots political movements focused upon common goods, might be underwritten by a genuinely theological virtue of hope that accompanies and sustains plain persons as they engage in various forms of care on a daily basis. Rather than resignation, a broad reading of MacIntyre’s work suggests that modernity has not succeeded in marginalizing common goods and because of this, there are very many opportunities for substantial political engagement; likewise, hope for success in these political engagements should be sustained by observing the prominence of mercy in the daily activities of plain persons.

This critical appreciation of modernity in MacIntyre's work means that, using Cyril O'Regan's typology from "The 'Gift' of Modenrity," he might be better classified as a "shadow-seer" rather than as a "weeper."

[1] I thank Peter Wicks for pointing out how frequently this passage from After Virtue  is misquoted. Rod Dreher apparently quoting from memory, in The Benedict Option (4) substitutes “new” for “another” with no explanation.


[3] In Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity (137), MacIntyre says, “When Diderot looked forward to the day when the last king would be strangled by the entrails of the last priest, he understood the power over the mind of what he took to be theological superstition as underpinned by and underpinning arbitrary political power. About the regimes against which he thought and wrote, he was by and large quite right.”

[4] See: Adrian Vermeule’s review of Patrick Deeneen’s Why Liberalism Failed

[5] See: the recent book by Geoff Moore, Virtue at Work published by Oxford University Press (2017).

[6] See: Chapters 3 and 4 in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity.

Featured Image: Hans Holbein, Portrait of Henry VIII, 1540; Source: Wikimedia Commons, 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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