Revival of Virtue Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre

There are five points of Virtue Ethics as defined by Alasdair MacIntyre:

POINT 1: THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE WAY TO DECIDE BETWEEN COMPETING MORAL THEORIES

How do we decide whether we should follow Situation Ethics or Natural Law? We can criticise both theories, but we’ve got no way of deciding which theory is best. We could look at the Bible, but even then both theories justify themselves using Biblical quotation. Is it better to be deontological or teleological? We’ve got no way of deciding. InAfter Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that this is true for all moral theories: there is no way to decide which theories are better.

POINT 2: THIS IS BECAUSE WE CANNOT MOVE FROM IS TO OUGHT

Moral theories tell us what we ought to do. Facts tell us what is the case. We already know that you can’t move from a fact to a value. It doesn’t follow logically to say something is true, so we ought to do a particular thing. We can’t logically justify saying: there is a famine in Birmingham, so we ought to feed the Brummies. We would need to add a further statement like “we shouldn’t let people starve”. A fact doesn’t lead to value. Because facts don’t lead to values it’s impossible to agree on a starting point that we can use to decide whether moral theories are any good or not. For example if it were a fact that Christian theories had to have fixed rules rules then we could agree that Natural Law was a better theory than Situation Ethics.

POINT 3: ARISTOTLE’S MORAL THEORY ALLOWS US TO MOVE FROM FACTS TO VALUES

Aristotle argued that all people had a telos or final end. Because of this we can move from facts to values. For example, knifes are intended to cut, so we know that a good knife will be sharp and a bad knife will be blunt. Given the final aim of the knife (cutting), it’s easy to move from facts to values: “this knife is blunt (fact) so I ought to sharpen it (value)”. We can use the same idea for people: if our final aim is flourishing then it’s bad to spend seven years lying on a sofa watching the Chuckle Brothers and pouring curry into yourself through a funnel.

POINT 4: MODERN MORAL PHILOSOPHY HAS LOST THIS CONCEPT OF A TELOS AND SO HAS BECOME EMOTIVE

The Enlightenment is the period of European history, starting in the early 18th century, when using reason and scientific method became important to thinkers. MacIntyre argues that it was at this point that moral philosophy lost its idea of a telos and so became redundant. Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and David Hume are examples of prominent enlightenment philosophers. They all tries to justify their arguments with reason without using the idea of a person’s telos. But, argues MacIntyre, if we lose the idea of a telos it becomes impossible to rationally decide on one moral theory compared to another (see above). If we can’t rationally convince someone to accept a theory then all we’re ever doing is manipulating and trying influence people. Remember emotivism? It said that when we have moral arguments all we are ever doing is saying boo or hooray, so if you convince someone to agree with you, it has nothing to do with the strength of your theory: it is about the strength of your personality in being able to influence them. So modern moral philosophy is emotive, because we don’t have any facts that we can agree on to assess which moral theory we should accept.

POINT 5: THE SOLUTION TO THIS PROBLEM IS TO RETURN TO A KIND OF ARISTOTELIAN POSITION

MacIntyre thinks that we do have a telos, but that this isn’t as simple as Aristotle’s Eudaimonia. MacIntyre says that we all engage in practices. Practices are activities which contain a particular idea of good within them. So good in cricket will be different from good in childcare, but both are practices. Those people who know something about childcare or cricket will know what is good and what isn’t, in regards to them. Hitting a ball hard and straight is good for a cricketer, but hitting a baby hard and straight is bad for a father. You engage in lots of different practices. You’re a student, a sportsperson, a dutiful child, a friend, an artist etc. Sometimes you’ll have to choose between them. Should you go out with your mates or go to your dad’s 50th birthday?

The way to make this decision is, says MacIntyre to think of your life as a story. MacIntyre calls this your life’s narrative unity. If your life was a story what would be the most important themes? What would your story be about? What would be the most important subplots? Which bits could you leave out? If you can decide what your story is about, you can decide what your telos is, and if you can decide what your telos is, you can decide which practices you should and shouldn’t do. So let’s say that two of the practices I’m involved in are teaching and taking part in drinking competitions. How do I decide whether to go boozing all day on Sunday and kip in a gutter, or plan your lessons? I think about the story of my life. What’s more important to the story of my life, teaching or boozing? Of course it’s teaching so I’ll have to put off kipping in a gutter for a week. How should I behave as a teacher? Should I beat you with a knobbly stick if you can’t remember Aristotle’s virtues? No, because I know the virtues associated with the practice of being a good teacher in our culture: patience, kindness &etc. and this is what I should be aiming towards. Now I can make moral decisions, and decide between moralities, because my life has a telos.

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