After Virtue makes seven central claims.
1. It is a distinctive feature of the social and cultural order that we inhabit that disagreements over central moral issues are peculiarly unsettlable. Debates concerned with the value of human life such as those over abortion and euthanasia, or about distributive justice and property rights, or about war and peace degenerate into confrontations of assertion and counter-assertion, because the protagonists of rival positions invoke incommensurable forms of moral assertion against each other. So, for example, in debates over abortion conceptions of individual property rights which were originally at home in the social philosophies of Adam Smith and Locke are used to defend a pregnant woman's rights to do what she will with her own body, conceptions of what justice requires in the treatment ofinnocent life whose original context was the medieval understanding of what biblical divine law prescribes are advanced to forbid the doing of harm to a human foetus and utilitarian views are deployed against both. Detached from the theoretical and social contexts in terms of which these conceptions were originally elaborated and rationally defended, the assertions of each of these rival positions in this and other debates have characteristically and generally become no more than expressions of attitude and feeling. The use of moral discourse in our culture has become what some positivistically inclined moral philosotook all moral discourse to be. From them I borrow the expression 'emotivist' to describe our moral condition.
2. What brought this state of affairs about? One centrally important cause, it is argued in After Virtue, was the failure of what I called 'the Enlightenment project'. The thinkers of the Enlightenment set out to replace what they took to be discredited traditional and superstitious forms of morality by a kind of secular morality that would be entitled to secure the assent of any rational person. So in Scotland, England, France and Germany alike philosophers as different as Hume, Bentham, Diderot and Kant tried to formulate moralprinciples to which no adequately reflective rational person could refuse allegiance. The attempt failed. What it bequeathed to its cultural heirs were a set of mutually antagonistic moral stances, each claiming to have achieved this kind of rational justification, but each also disputing this claim on the pan of its rivals. Hence the continuing clash between various types of Kantian moral philosopher and various types of utilitarian in a series of inconclusive engagements. It was natural that one conclusion drawn from this failure to settle moral disputes rationally was that reason was impotent in this area; hence not only American and British emotivism, but also Kierkegaard's philosophiprogeny.
3. Another consequence of these unsettled and unsettlable debates was the releasing into the culture at large of a set of moral concepts which derive from their philosophical ancestry an appearance of rational determinateness and justification which they do not in fact possess. So that appeal to them appearsto make an objectively reason-supported claim whereas in fact such appeals lack rational backing and can be put to the service of a variety of rival and antagonistic purposes. Because they disguise the purposes which they serve, they are useful fictions. The most important members of this class are the concept of human rights and that of utility or welfare.
Insofar as a moral culture is emotivist the relationship between individuals will be manipulative. The manipulative mode is accorded social respect by modernity through the prestige which the concept of managerial effectiveness enjoys. And this too functions as a moral fiction, a fiction because its application presupposes the availability of a set of social scientific laws, knowledge of which will enable managers to control social reality; but we do not in fact know of any such laws. The thinkers of the Enlightenment who taught us to search for them once again misled us. Social reality has a kind of unpredictability which the Weberian managerial ethos cannot acknowledge without revealing how much of the claims of modern private and public bureaucracy rests on deception and self-deception.
4. The philosopher who understood best that the Enlightenment project had failed decisively and that contemporary moral assertions had characteristically become a set of masks for unavowed purposes was Nietzsche. Nietzsche however generalised this insight into an overall account of the genealogy of morals. And in so doing he raised two questions. Is his history a truehistory? And is there perhaps a mistake lying at the root of the failure of the Enlightenment project which Nietzsche failed to underThat mistake, so I suggest in After Virtue, lay in the rejection of Aristotle's ethics and politics which immediately preceded and to some degree made necessary the Enlightenment project. And I go on to argue that Aristotle and Nietzsche represent the only two compelling alternaes in contemporary moral theory.
5. Chapters 10 to 14 of After Virtue provide an interpretative history of changing conceptions of the virtues from the archaic Greek society depicted in the Homeric poems to the European Middle Ages. This history is intended both to provide a challenge to Nietzsche's genealogical account and to provide the materials for identifying a core concept of the virtues, an identification which requires an account in terms of three distinct stages in the elaboration of an adequate conception of the virtues. The virtues are first of all those qualities without which human beings cannot achieve the goods internal to practices. By a 'practice' I mean 'any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of tryingto achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended' (below, p. 83). Such types of activity as farming and fishing, the pursuit of the sciences and the arts, and the playing of games such as football and chess are practices. Politics, as Aristotle understood it, and as it was sometimes embodied in institutional life in the ancient and medieval worlds was a practice. Modern politics is not.
This characterisation of the virtues in terms of practices is necessary, but not sufficient for an adequate specification. Virtues are also to be understood as qualities required to achieve the goods which furnish indihuman lives with their telos. And I argue that the unifying form of an individual human life, without which such lives could not have a telos, derives from its possessing some kind of narrative structure. Individual human lives however are only able to have the structures that they do because they are embedded within social traditions. And the third stage in specifying the nature of the virtues is that which explains why they also have to be understood as qualities required to sustain ongoing social traditions in good order.
6. It was a failure in the later European Middle Ages to sustain the ongoing tradition of the virtues, understood in both an Aristotelian and a Christian way, that led to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rejections of Aristotelian ethics and politics and so opened up the possibility of the Enlightenment project. During the period in which a traditional understanding of the virtues was no longer possible, but in which the Enlightenment project had yet to collapse, there was a revival of certain originally Stoic notions of virtue (as a singular noun), influential both in social life and in philosophical theory, especially in Kant's rendering. But we now live in an aftermath where neither the virtues nor virtue can be central to the general moral culture. We live after virtue in a period of unresolvable disputes and dilemmas, both within contemporary moral philosophy and within morality itself.
7. I argue at various points in the book that, although the rejection of Aristotelian ethics and politics in the historical circumstances engendered in and after the later Middle Ages is intelligible, it has never yet been shown to be warranted. And I conclude that when moral Aristotelianism is rightly understood, it cannot be undermined by the kind of critique that Nietzsche successfully directed against both Kant and the utilitarians, I therefore conclude that Aristotle is vindicated against Nietzsche and moreover that only a history ofethical theory and practice written from an Aristotelian rather than a Nietzschean standpoint enables us to comprehend the nature of the moral condition of modernity.
The MacIntyre Reader. Kelvin Knight, ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1998. pgs. 69-72