After Virtue by Alasdair Macintyre (Review)

In my twenties I read a lot of books.  I was in seminary, reading assigned readings, and then I was starting out in ministry reading books on leadership and spiritual formation and the like.  Over time I began to notice some authors were referenced in numerous books I was reading.  Now in my thirties, it seems as if I am reading the authors who were often being quoted in books I read in my twenties.  Alasdair Macintyre is one such author.  I’d heard of his books numerous times but it wasn’t until a friend told me I seriously should read him that I finally did.

It feels odd to call this a “review” of After Virtue, just as I always feel weird reviewing any book that could be considered a classic.  This may not be a classic, but it has been incredibly influential in moral philosophy and I am nowhere near a philosopher.  That said, this is the sort of book that I love reading.  It stretches me.  It is not as easy to read as those spiritual formation books of a few years back for it is the deep well which those authors were drawing on.  But there is tremendous benefit in going to the well yourself rather then letting someone else get the water.  I think a lot of my pastor and ministry friends would not only benefit from this book, but would receive great intellectual stimulation in reading it.

Macintyre asks early on, why is it so difficult to have a debate over morals in our society?  People on both sides of the argument can give solid, cogent cases for their points but there never seems to be any headway made.  Right there I was hooked.  Whether it is gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, foreign affairs, or economics, this problem is clearly apparent.  We argue and argue and argue.  More often then not our arguments devolve into simple assertions, saying more about how we feel then anything else.  That is because there is little common ground to gain headway in the “anything else”.

What I loved about this book, and what makes it readable, is Macintyre makes his case through looking at history, telling a story.  He argues that the division between history and philosophy is artificial and unhelpful.  The historical situation in which a philosopher lived was always very important.  So instead of dry, difficult philosophy, Macintyre gives us a narrative.

His argument is that we have lost teleology, the sense of where a human life ought to be going.  In the past moral decisions fit into a life lived towards a clear goal.  It was akin to playing a game of chess – some moves are better then others and all moves are oriented towards a clear goal.  Once this was removed it became impossible to present a rational moral system.  Macintyre argues that all who have tried in the last three centuries, from Kant’s categorical imperative to Mill’s Utilitarianism, have failed.  Our morals may be similar to those of before, but we’ve lost the ground for them.  All we’re left with is preferences, some prefer one thing and some another.  Macintyre’s solution is a call for a return to Aristotle’s virtues that would lead us to our life’s best ends.

Overall, a fantastic book.  I will definitely be reading more Macintyre in the future.

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