The BEST: Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
Reviewed by Michael J. Harris
Summary: After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s best-known and most influential book, is an extraordinarily rich and complex work of moral philosophy. The broadest of outlines: MacIntyre argues that in our culture, important moral disagreements seem irresolvable. This is because the parties deploy incommensurable moral assertions, which, removed from their original theoretical contexts, amount to little more than the expression of personal attitudes. This situation has come about largely because of the failure of Enlightenment philosophers to achieve their goal of establishing a secular morality to which any rational person would need to assent. To restore rationality to our moral commitments, MacIntyre recommends a return to the Aristotelean tradition of ethics and politics in which the concept of virtue is central, rather than the notion of rules so important to modern conceptions of morality.
Why this is The BEST: Unlike much of the moral philosophy being written when MacIntyre published the first edition of After Virtue in 1981, his magnum opus is not exclusively focused on the conventional philosophical canon and its contemporary successors but displays great erudition across a range of disciplines in the humanities. There is a broad similarity here to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which manifest unusually wide familiarity with secular literature.
But Rabbi Sacks is also drawn to the substance of MacIntyre’s philosophy and illuminates its deep affinities with some fundamental elements of a traditional Jewish worldview. Rabbi Sacks is especially enthusiastic about communitarianism – the idea, associated with MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, and in opposition to liberal individualism, that our identities and moral obligations are primarily rooted in our communities and their histories. Our moral obligations are not, as many contemporary philosophers argue, simply a matter of individual choice. On the contrary, in the spirit of R. Elazar HaKappar in Avot 4:29, as translated by Rabbi Sacks in his Siddur, “without your consent you were born, without your consent you live… and without your consent you will … have to give an account and reckoning.”
Already in one of his earliest books, Tradition in an Untraditional Age (1990), Rabbi Sacks, acknowledging After Virtue, champions the idea that “ethics belongs firmly within traditions and communities, and… we make our ethical choices as individuals within a specific historical tradition, and within the context of a community in which that tradition is given living substance.” He goes on to endorse “the case presented with overwhelming force by MacIntyre and others” that morality cannot flourish at the level of the state or the individual but in the midway setting of the community. Rabbi Sacks returns to these themes in another early work, The Persistence of Faith (1991), where he extends MacIntyre’s argument by urging that religions are particularly adept at creating communities based on shared moral values. The influence of After Virtue on Rabbi Sacks’s moral thought remains constant right up to his very recent book Morality [read preface and introduction here], in which he once again emphasizes the indispensability of community to morality and, in turn, the special potency of religion in generating communities.
Finally, it should be noted that not only did MacIntyre’s thought influence Rabbi Sacks, but Rabbi Sacks’ oeuvre impacted reciprocally on MacIntyre. In the opening chapter of Radical Responsibility (2012), a volume of essays by leading thinkers presented to Rabbi Sacks on his retirement as Chief Rabbi, MacIntyre includes many references to Rabbi Sacks’ works, praises his “original and insightful” application of After Virtue to a Jewish context, and writes that he has learned from Rabbi Sacks even on issues where they disagree. [Read MacIntyre’s essay here, courtesy of Maggid Books.]
Michael J. Harris is rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue, London, and Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies.