Grounds for Despair

John Dunn

  • After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre
    Duckworth, 252 pp, £24.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 7156 0933 5

At one point in Thomas Peacock’s satire Melincourt, the heroine Anthelia offers a spirited sketch of the character traits which she looks for in a prospective husband. ‘I would require him to be free in all his thoughts, true in all his words, generous in all his actions – ardent in friendship, enthusiastic in love, disinterested in both … the champion of the feeble, the firm opponent of the powerful oppressor – not to be enervated by luxury, nor corrupted by avarice, nor intimidated by tyranny, nor enthralled by superstition – more desirous to distribute wealth than to possess it, to disseminate liberty than to appropriate power, to cheer the heart of sorrow than to dazzle the eyes of folly.’ Her robustly philistine interlocutor, the Hon. Mrs Pinmoney, is unimpressed: ‘And do you really expect to find such a knight-errant? The age of chivalry is gone.’ Peacock is partly mocking Edmund Burke’s famous rhapsody over Marie Antoinette, as Marilyn Butler points out in her recent Peacock Displayed, but his heart is evidently with Anthelia. There is nonetheless some force to Mrs Pinmoney’s reply.

What makes Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue such an exciting book is the intensity with which he feels the weight of each side in this dialogue, the claims of moral aspiration and the dottily anachronistic and unreal quality of most of such aspiration in the face of the social and political realities of the modern world. What he sets himself to do, to put it unsympathetically, is to resuscitate the authority of chivalric values in a world from which the age of chivalry has plainly gone for ever. There is something irretrievably comic about any such venture – quixotic, one might call it. Only a moral philosopher singularly unconcerned at the risk of making a fool of himself could have written After Virtue: but even a moral philosopher intrepid enough to attempt a reversal of so much of modern intellectual history might have been expected to argue his case with more care and professional punctiliousness. MacIntyre himself takes argument very seriously. But in his writings, throughout his career, he has gladly sacrificed elegance and precision of academic presentation for boldness of line and human emphasis. Because he is such an original and imaginative thinker and also because, at best, he is such a wonderfully trenchant writer, philosophers have paid some attention to his earlier writings. But very few of them have seen the point of his very diverse preoccupations as a whole. (He has plainly had some difficulty in bringing this into focus for himself.) After Virtue makes it much harder to miss the connections between these preoccupations. It will be interesting to see whether the defiantly unfashionable character of his position as a whole proves more or less attractive than the fragmentary glimpses of it which were previously to be had. Since it is such an easy book to make fun of – and one, by implication at least, so deeply contemptuous of most recent academic moral philosophy – the response it elicits from philosophers should offer an instructive index of the moral sensibility of professional philosophers today.

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