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Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity:
An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative

by alasdair macintyre
cambridge, 332 pages, $49.99


The dialogues of Plato provide the first sustained demonstration both of the depth and difficulty of philosophy, and of the fact that the beginnings of the most profound philosophical investigations lie in seeming shallows. What is truth? What is justice? What is beauty? are as brief as questions can be, but in attempting to answer them, one realizes that they float on a narrow ledge beyond which run treacherous waters full of deep-rooted and tangled weeds.

In consequence, philosophical inquiry is hard and exhausting work. It takes intelligence of a rather rarefied kind, and work that is hard to sustain across a range of topics or over a long period of time. This is why figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Wittgenstein are intellectual “venerables”: They exhibit sustained heroic intellectual virtues. But while serious philosophy requires analytical acuity and energy, these are not sufficient for achieving true insights. One also needs to have good sense and good judgment, an eye for the weeds, and an ability to distinguish between the significant and the trivial.

Most professional philosophers in the Anglophone academic world have highly trained analytical skills, but far fewer have cultural breadth and depth, and good sense and judgment, and fewer still are capable of sustained fruitful investigations. In face of the difficulties of the subject there are two temptations, though they represent themselves as virtuous options: to ascend to a high level of abstraction that disengages from detail and even from broader intellectual relevance, and to descend into the details of one field or another—physics, psychology, economics, medicine, or whatever else, either in a spirit of useful supplementary service, or one of subservience to these as the true sources of understanding and utility.

This means that a good philosopher is either ignorant of these pressures or virtuously resistant to them. But one who is ignorant is unlikely to arrive at insights that can respond to these forces, and one who knows and seeks to counter them is liable to be worn out by the effort. The upshot is that there are very few long-serving, seriously good philosophers. So far as twentieth- and twenty-first-century Anglophone philosophy is concerned, the first rank is limited to Donald Davidson, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mary Midgley, Thomas Nagel, Derek Parfit, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Roger Scruton, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Williams. Of these, half are still with us: MacIntyre, Midgley, Nagel, Scruton, and Taylor, and of those, MacIntyre, Scruton, and Taylor remain highly active. Interestingly, all three are sympathetic to religion, with MacIntyre and Taylor being avowed Roman Catholics. I know and admire them all, but here I single out MacIntyre for special attention and praise for heroically occupying a position that is resistant to “modern” options, be they liberal or conservative. MacIntyre is the foremost philosophical witness to and interpreter of our conflicted contemporary condition. On that account the title of his latest major book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, is especially well-chosen.

MacIntyre’s earliest publication is an article on “Analogy and Metaphysics” in the (English Benedictine) Downside Review of January 1951, the month in which he turned twenty-two. Written in a period when logical positivism had consigned metaphysical, religious, and ethical language to the category of the senseless, MacIntyre argues first that linguistic meaning may be analogical as well as univocal and that science and observation themselves rely in part on the former. By establishing the usefulness, and perhaps indispensability, of analogical meaning, he opened the way to the rehabilitation of transcendent and normative discourse. Two years later his first book appeared: Marxism: An Interpretation, since which there have been fifteen or so more, plus four collections of essays. So he has been publishing from the beginning of adulthood through seven decades and is now approaching his ninetieth year. One might expect any new publications to be either brief reflections, or rehearsals of earlier productions first written in passion and now recollected in tranquillity. Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity is neither. For while it builds on earlier work, especially After Virtue (1981), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), and the second half of Dependent Rational Animals (1999), it carries the argument forward and engages directly with serious philosophical alternatives, particularly as represented by the writings of Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), to which MacIntyre’s title may be a nod.


Particularly since After Virtue, MacIntyre has acquired a broad following—intellectual historians; cultural, political, and sociological theorists; religious thinkers; and an educated public—but few, if any, of these have provided anything like a serious and effective philosophical challenge to his ideas and arguments. Williams is in a special category. His intellectual breadth, depth, and stamina matched those of MacIntyre, and they share a similarly bleak diagnosis of the pathologies of modern moral philosophy. But Williams was an atheist and a skeptic of attempts to revitalize ethical life by ethical theories, either restorations of earlier traditions or developments of new accounts. He did not write much in direct engagement with MacIntyre’s work (principally non-academic reviews of After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?). Yet his judgments of its strengths and weaknesses (principally ones of nostalgia for pre-modernity and exaggeration of the philosophical differences between past and present) were acute, and reading MacIntyre’s work and that of Charles Taylor, both non-English, non-U.S.-born members of a predominantly Anglo-American atheist peer group, caused Williams to reflect on his own outlook in relation to them. He writes:

If Taylor and MacIntyre will forgive my putting them into a mere cartoon sketch, one set of relations between our positions might perhaps be put like this: Taylor and MacIntyre are Catholic, and I am not; Taylor and I are liberals, and MacIntyre is not; MacIntyre and I are pessimists, and Taylor is not (not really).

While Williams was more morally comfortable with Taylor’s liberalism, he was more philosophically aligned to MacIntyre’s critique of modern moral philosophy, and on that account worried more about it. MacIntyre returns the attention in Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. Williams is the only contemporary philosopher engaged throughout the book as a figure to be responded to and hypothetically persuaded of the power of MacIntyre’s Thomistic Aristotelianism.

Like Williams, MacIntyre is deeply skeptical of the dominant modes of moral philosophy. This is because these approaches lack historical, social, and cultural awareness, and because they take as their subject “Morality”—an unwieldy product of modern social and ideological changes, given intellectual standing by three centuries of unwitting theorists. Like Williams, MacIntyre thinks “Morality” is a serious distortion of the proper concerns of ethics, namely living well as a human being. Though they disagree about what that means.

For Williams, it is a matter of the common human need to find something within oneself that can be made the core of one’s concerns and commitments, thereby enabling personal meaning and authenticity. MacIntyre sees this as problematically self-referential because it casts every ethical question as one addressed to the individual to resolve. The problem is not that Williams is an ethical egoist, for Williams believes that one’s commitments and concerns will extend to the welfare of others. The problem is rather that at any level of depth, complexity, or protraction, we cannot deliberate alone, both because the conditions required for such reasoning involve others checking and correcting the adequacy of our ideas and inferences, and because what is to be deliberated about generally concerns common interests.

Sometimes the commonality is directly evident—what shall we do about this or that? What would be best for us or them?—but at other times it takes work to reveal it. Yet even seemingly solitary concerns arise, take shape, and are only intelligible due to networks of past, present, or anticipated relationships; shared interests and values; and common goals. This is no less true in art and astronomy than it is in baking and building. Moreover, Williams is unable to address the kind of question that for MacIntyre is central to ethical thinking: I know what I feel, or desire, or am drawn to identify with, but what ought I to do? Are these feelings, desires, and tendencies good? Which is to say, are their objects good? To answer these questions we need a standard beyond desire and commitment. For Williams, human nature, to the extent that we can assume there is such a thing, is only a source of value-free biological and psychological facts, while for MacIntyre it provides a factual and evaluative ground. “What ought we to do?” is ultimately a question about what it would be good to do given the kind of (common) nature we have, about what pertains to it as conducive to or constitutive of human flourishing. I know my good in so far as I know the kind of thing I am, and unlike an angel, I am not a species unto myself. So the standard by which to determine what to do is “common” twice over, being the good of a common human nature and being a good that is realized and shared in common.


One might wonder whether this dialectical dispute is not overly restricted. Anyone who knows even a little about the history of moral philosophy will know that between Aristotelianism (represented by MacIntyre) and the quasi-existentialist ethics of authenticity (represented by Williams) there lie, both historically and conceptually, a range of other moral philosophies. Kant answered the question “what ought I to do?” by saying “act only in a way that you are willing that others should also act.” Bentham and Mill urged us to act always so as to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. A family of positions also deriving from Kant says that one ought to act in accord with rules that one can rationally subscribe to, just in case others do so also.

MacIntyre acknowledges these approaches, but he has two reasons to set them aside. First, he thinks that they are locked in irresolvable conflict, and second and more importantly, he thinks that their purported solutions address an illusory problem. To understand this, one must go back to the first philosophical questions. Consider the perennial route into moral philosophy, the question “Is something good because we desire it, or do we desire it because it is good?” Subjectivists affirm the former, objectivists the latter. In accord with the dominant trend in recent ethics, the version of subjectivism that MacIntyre discusses is “expressivism,” a variant of what was earlier advanced as “emotivism.” According to this view, to “judge” that something is good is in reality to express a favorable attitude towards it. In contrast, the objectivist holds that we express favorable attitudes toward something because we in fact take it to be good. So the question remains, is it really good? Favoring doesn’t make it so; hence, we must look for an objective standard of value.

Here MacIntyre draws on Aristotle (and on Aquinas, whom MacIntyre credits with continuing, correcting, and deepening the Aristotelian tradition). In line with these earlier thinkers, MacIntyre argues that a standard of value is implied by human nature and its fulfillment in various species-specific activities. He takes trouble to point out that the particular forms of these are often culture-dependent, part of our “second nature.” Thus, while human beings are by nature language-users, they are not by nature English-speakers. English is only one of the culture-dependent determinations of the general capacity for language.

MacIntyre acknowledges that, especially in the work of Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard, expressivism is able to parry obvious attacks. At first sight, the expressivist has a significant advantage. Not only can he deflect and counter the moves of the various objectivist opponents, more importantly he can also explain why they cannot secure victory over one another: There is nothing to ethics except favoring one thing rather than another. By the expressivist’s lights, the objectivists can’t determine the objective truth this way or that—by appeal to the logic of practical reasoning, or the greatest happiness principle, or rules of cooperation and reciprocity—because there is no objective truth in ethics.

But in granting the expressivist this seeming dialectical advantage, how can the case for Aristotelianism be made good, and deployed also against Williams’s ethics of authenticity? Those familiar with MacIntyre’s prior writings will not be surprised to learn that the heroes who come to the rescue are Aquinas and Marx, the former in his constructive account of ethical reasoning, the latter in his critical analysis of the illusions of ideology, specifically its manifestations in “Morality.”

MacIntyre observes that there is a use of the term “Morality,” in contrast to “the morality” of this or that society, that is analogous to the contrast between “Science” and “the science” of this or that culture. The lower-case use is anthropological or sociological, describing without endorsing the beliefs and practices of various groups. The upper-case use, however, is intended to identify the “real thing”: It is what the various lower-case instances are or ought to be aiming at. So, what, then, is “Morality”? Though humans have always confronted moral questions, somewhat like Williams, MacIntyre sees “Morality” as a modern creation blending cultural norms and philosophical accounts of them:

It is presented as a set of impersonal rules, entitled to the assent of any rational agent whatsoever, enjoining obedience to such maxims as those that prohibit the taking of life and theft and those that require at least some degree of truthfulness and at least some maxims of altruistic benevolence. Why should we obey such maxims? Here there are alternative answers. One is that obedience to such maxims by others in relation to ourselves is something that as rational agents we cannot but will, and so consistency requires that we also take those maxims to govern our actions toward those others [the Kantian answer]. Another is that by obedience to such maxims we maximise well-being or happiness or utility, variously understood [the Bentham-Mill answer]. A third is that these represent the demands that it is or should be generally regarded as reasonable that we can make on others and others on us [the contractualist answer].

These three moral theories are all monistic, favoring a single criterion of moral correctness, and thereby must either repudiate or reduce considerations that appear to be of divergent sorts. Further, no explanation is given of the meaning or significance of the various kinds of requirements. Talk of consistency, or utility, or contract, places them in relation to a norm, but it does not illuminate the particularities, textures, and valences of moral (small m) considerations as we experience them. What, for example, of the seeming acceptability and even obligation of favoring one’s own children’s welfare over that of others?

How can ethical reasoning have been narrowed to such abstract and limited ideas? MacIntyre draws on Marx to explain how social arrangements and relations of power and dependency gave rise to various interests that were served through managing behavior by promulgating certain kinds of responsibilities and rights. The aggregation of these diverse forms of obligation makes up “Morality.” Philosophers who define and defend “Morality” have failed to see that they too are subject to various social and economic constraints and incentives, and in their thinking they have tended, generally unwittingly, to voice as deliverances of reason what in fact are the behavioral requirements for the successful functioning of social and economic institutions. His principal case study is David Hume:

In his essay “Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences,” Hume declared that “Avarice, or the desire of gain, is a universal passion, which operates at all times, in all places, and upon all persons.” . . . It is true that in the Enquiry Hume did for a moment entertain the possibility of replacing the inequalities of the present by an equal distribution of goods . . . but he at once dismissed this possibility as absurd . . . claiming that egalitarian schemes would be “impracticable.” . . . [He] thus identifies what he takes to be natural and universal sentiments, and so of what he takes to be natural and universal morality, with an uncompromising endorsement of the values of the 18th century British social and economic order. . . .

What I am entertaining, then, is the possibility that in 18th century Britain a widely held belief in the universality of morality, conceived roughly as Hume conceived it, functioned so as to conceal from the view of many of his contemporaries the underlying moral and social conflicts of their society and by so doing sustained the workings of the agricultural, commercial, and mercantile economy to the profit of some and to the detriment of others.

MacIntyre’s argument is intricate and moves between abstract philosophical reasoning, historical analysis, social critique, and biography, but what it leads to is a re-expression and validation of a sophisticated version of the basic Thomistic-Aristotelian account of what is involved in asking and answering questions about what ought to be done or avoided. There needs to be a standard against which to measure the deliverances of sentiment and content of social agreements, for these sources are neither self-validating nor fundamental. What underlies human practical reasoning is human nature and the goods internal to it. Only these can halt the regress of questioning: What ought I to desire? What ought I to desire to desire? . . . What ought we to agree to? What ought we to agree to agree to? Not only can such an approach provide an objective standard, it can, with aid from Marxian social analysis, explain the failure of other approaches to account for, let alone to resolve, their theoretical disagreements and the disagreements at the level of pre-theoretical moral thinking. It does so in part by showing that the source of some disagreements lies in false consciousness, and by recognizing that the ways in which human capacities may be realized are diverse and that the range of considerations relevant to human flourishing are also variable. Philosophical ethics can bring order to the variety of values and principles not by converting them into a common currency (welfare, rights, duties, etc.) but by showing how in often complex and culturally mediated ways they relate back to human nature and the diverse constitutive goods of that form of life.

Notwithstanding his reliance on and identification with Aquinas, for whom the human good is ultimately ordered to the beatific vision, MacIntyre does not theologize his project. Yet he does indicate somewhat hypothetically that practical deliberation, his original and recurrent point of focus, can open toward the transcendent and the divine:

At certain points in her reflections upon herself [an agent] may well be compelled to resort to higher order reflection upon her practical thinking . . . [which may lead to the recognition that] the nature of her practical reasoning and of the practical reasoning of those in whose company she deliberates has from the outset committed her and them to a shared belief in God, to a belief that, if there is nothing beyond the finite, there is no final end, no ultimate human good, to be achieved.

Readers interested in Christian apologetics, or ones looking to an eminent Catholic philosopher to berate and defeat atheists and secularists, should not turn to this book for comfort or guidance, and if they do, the prominence of Marx may occasion disappointment. MacIntyre is here engaged in a more extensive and more charitable task: to address readers, be they believers or unbelievers, who wonder how moral reasoning can lead to true answers. He brings to that task almost seventy years of sustained and disciplined thinking since writing his MA thesis on “The Significance of Moral Judgements,” a title that equally well summarizes this major and crowning study, which completes, so far as anything of the sort can be completed, the long investigation begun with After Virtue. MacIntyre’s many insights have attracted a wide and diverse following. Those who carry on the project that this book and its predecessors represent are likely to find that what began as reasoning about ethical conflict and human nature will lead one day to recognition, and (one hopes) contemplation, of the divine.

John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor, Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University.

Photo by Sean. License via Creative Commons.