‘What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre’ reviewed by Jorge H Sanchez Perez

Reviewed by Jorge H Sanchez Perez

About the reviewer

Jorge H. Sanchez Perez is currently a PhD Student at the Philosophy department of McMaster …


Fran O´Rourke presents a volume of essays that sharply presents an entire century of ethical theories together despite their divergence, in many cases, from one another. But this divergence also allows the reader to engage with a particular author that has not followed a single path regarding his philosophical inquiries, Alasdair MacIntyre. It can easily be argued that he is one of the most prominent names in the field of ethics during the 20th century, with a strong presence through to the 21st century as well. The first essay is a personal piece by the honored author. MacIntyre himself sets the tone for the book. He devotes the essay to engage with his own personal history with philosophy. He starts by presenting one of his most notorious affiliations throughout the years, Thomism. This particular school of thought presented a set of interesting ideas for MacIntyre but the trend during his youth in the 1940s, was none other than a strong version of the analytical tradition presented by A. J. Ayer. In Ayer´s terms, philosophical inquiries are nothing but inquires about language, therefore making a lot of claims from the Thomist school, which focused on the relationship between reason-informed human actions based on theological assumptions easy to discard for the lack of language-based evidence to support them. In this sense, the Thomist take on human action starts by affirming that there is an objective good reason for a human action despite the agent’s choice of one reason or another. Two famous critics of these kinds of claims, that marked MacIntyre’s early conceptions or internal debates, were none other than Ayer himself and Sartre. These two authors, despite belonging to two different schools of thought—the former an analytical and the latter a continental—agreed on considering that the Thomistic take on the reasons for human action were highly debatable. For them, there are acts of choice that are prior to any action, or any kind of consideration of what is actually or objectively good (19). Thus placing their evaluation of a good action or a good reason for action beyond the sphere of a teleological statement such as the one made by the followers of the Dominican philosopher, for whom your reason for action is the good that has to be achieved by the very action that will take place in order to accomplish such good.

These kinds of debates were as much a part of the philosophical debate then as they are now, but it was Marxism which was the theoretical entry that allowed MacIntyre, in his own words, to find a way to evaluate ethical theories in a context. As he mentions it with his evaluation of Marx and Engels, every morality is in fact the morality of some particular social and economic order and there is a whole set of presumptions that moral philosophy ends up structuring within a particular ethical discourse (20). However, the Marxist critique of morality, and mainly Christian-based moralities, showed the same flaws as other theoretical structures that aimed to solve the ethical debates. And this situation seems to be one of the leading points of MacIntyre’s entire philosophical project, to solve the apparent incapacity of the 20th century to stop going back and forth from Kantian theses to Utilitarian claims. This internal contradiction of the ethical programs of the 20th century led MacIntyre to consider the ethical claims made through the century more as part of an ideology than of an ethical theory. These problems led him to focus on the use of the term “good” and how to use that word to engage in a proper ethical debate which could allow him and others to overcome the problems the ethical discourses were unable to work through. His solution was none other than to recognize that one of the best approaches could be a rather “classic” one: Aristotelian thought then made its way back into the 20th century. Ethics for MacIntyre then becomes a practical issue; we have to deal with ethics on the “field” and under a particular social structure and a particular economical scenario. All these issues led him to treat ethics as a practical discipline that has to be there to help us distinguish what we want and desire from that which is “choice-worthy” (27).

After that thought-provoking chapter, the book begins to deal with the question of how do we make/keep philosophy relevant and humanistic nowadays. John Haldane´s piece discussing MacIntyre’s thought, although interesting, can be better read as a realization that the predominant tradition in the Anglophone/analytical academy has led itself to dismiss other forms of thought by considering them obscure and irrelevant (43). As any current reader of philosophy can realize, for many moral philosophers currently working in the Anglophone academy, the only proper way to look at moral philosophy is by means of language and by means of language they mean English language, and by English language, basically the grammar of the language. Whether this methodological approach is better than others or not is not the question that MacIntyre’s work aims to solve, but, as Haldane notes, the aim is to show that there is as little neutrality with this approach to moral philosophy as there is in others. Even by using scientific claims to support one’s arguments, the very philosophical anthropology that is presupposed by those working within that tradition is an important element to be shown and not to be taken as a simple absolute predominant conception whose neutrality can be accepted beyond any doubt.

One of the strongest points of the book is the account it makes of different philosophical theories that emerged or were discussed during the 20th century. That alone, I think, makes the book worth reading. But out of the eighteen chapters, some show particular strength in terms of allowing the reader to move through the philosophy of the last century and to engage with possible counterarguments to MacIntyre’s ethical/Aristotelian claims about the capacity to turn ethics into the practical discipline he wants it to be. On the other hand, one of the weakest points of the book is its focus on the Western tradition. Although MacIntyre presents himself as imbued by a Marxist critique of society as a key element to realize the limitations of one’s claims, the entire rhetoric of the book fails to see beyond the scope of the very Western tradition. Even if only to attack them, philosophical arguments beyond Western academia could enhance the internal debate in several ways. Looking at single chapters and the topics of each one would take more than a single book review, which is why I would like to focus on three chapters at this point: chapter nine, chapter thirteen and the epilogue.

Chapter nine, “Marxism and the ethos of the Twentieth century”, presents one of the strongest critiques of MacIntyre’s work. Raymond Geuss does not hide his admiration for MacIntyre and displays a strong command of the theories he wants to attack. He begins by setting the ground for the first part of the question that gives the title to the book under review. When asked, “what happened in moral philosophy in the twentieth century?” Geuss has one single and clear answer, “Nietzsche is what happened” (221). For Geuss it is clear that the 20th century saw the collapse of the ethical projects that tried to link people through the use of some kind of vague notion of trans-subjective authority. This kind of project can be traced back, within the Western tradition, to the use of Christianity as a source of validity for trans-subjective ethical claims that held authority over diverse human groups. The 20th century, however, saw the decline of such projects due to the very nature of a society where claims about aesthetics and subjective inclinations held more importance than universal claims. Aiming at the second part of the question, “what happened to moral philosophy in the twentieth century?”, Geuss has another strong and direct answer: Marxism happened. And this point opens the gate for the discussion about the very nature of Marxism. As a critique of former religious sets of beliefs, Marxism was not aiming to destroy any kind of universal sources of objectivity, but rather to replace the ones it aimed to leave behind in the path of modernity. However, as Geuss clearly notes, Marxism failed in that task and left society open for Nietzsche´s nihilism (223) to take its place.

Geuss follows up his critique of the failure of Marxism to exist beyond its own ethos of needs-production-consumption by aiming to critique MacIntyre’s solution to the problem. MacIntyre at this point relies on the Aristotelian tradition to secure a better ethos for individuals to follow in order to overcome the desire-based system of action that could be derived from Marxist theory. To overcome these flaws, the solution should be simple, implies MacIntyre, to develop an overarching system where the ultimate goal is to arrive at the best possible goal. This teleological standpoint does not provide, however, a solid answer to why I should discard my previously held desires in order to aim for a bigger and better one that is hard to define in the first place. With these criticisms of the solution provided by MacIntyre’s take on Aristotelian ethics, Geuss delivers a serious punch into the project defended by MacIntyre (236).

Chapter thirteen, “Evolutionary Ethics: A Metaphysical Evaluation”, by Fran O´Rourke, the editor of the book, shows where the debate in the field is heading in the 21th century and it is basically another return to materialism in the terms of Lucretius or Hobbes. The chapter starts with the recognition that as well as with any other field of human knowledge, moral philosophy has been affected by the debates regarding the role that evolutionary theory should have within it. One of the problems for the inclusion of evolutionary theory within the realm of moral philosophy is the naturalistic vision of the world that it entails (324). The naturalistic fallacy can easily be brought into the equation. To assume that something is good in ethical terms, as G. E. Moore would present it, is basically to understand it as a manifestation of what we perceive to be good in the world, that is the particular feature of it that seems to represent that which we already think is good. Therefore, we can only define good in terms of what we have previously considered to be good and those definitions can only be defined as good based on either one particular characteristic or a subsequent line of reasoning that would not be able to prevent itself from being circular. O´Rourke presents the different strains of evolutionary ethics and the central theses they all defend: morality is nothing but another biological trait in order to preserve the species (325). The disregard for Aristotelian thought, as many would consider Aristotle the creator of biology as a science, is an important absence, and within the new trends in evolutionary theory it is a flaw that does not go unnoticed by the author of the chapter. A second and stronger attack on evolutionary theory is the emergence of strong conclusions, such as that the role of philosophy in moral philosophy is no more. In the same line as the claims made by Stephen Hawking regarding the lack of capacity of philosophy to follow up with current science, but this kind of claim faces a strong counterargument that they cannot avoid. If one assumes that the entire biological system of life is a closed system of causes and effects that works under the laws of physics, then one is necessarily assuming a strong materialistic view of reality. That kind of metaphysical assumption lies, without a doubt, in the field of philosophical inquiry.

The epilogue of the book aims to answer the question “What Next?” and is written by MacIntyre himself. And this final chapter deals in the first place with Geuss’ statements regarding the status of Marxism as a failed ethical project and the incapacity for Aristotelian thought to overcome the flaws of the former theory. MacIntyre sets the record straight for the proper reading of the ultimate overarching good in Aristotelian terms. The main problem here for the author is that Geuss is not reading Aristotle in the way he should be read. He argues that the notion of how to live well without instrumentalizing every desire we have is present in the works of Aristotle and Aquinas and therefore clarified. With this claim I would have a strong disagreement, as Geuss would.

In conclusion, this collection of essays in honor of Alasdair MacIntyre provides the means to engage with century-long theories of moral philosophy in a positive and interesting way. And, more importantly, it allows the reader to be part of a debate between ethical theories that are usually presented as completely different and incapable of arguing with one another. The book displays how MacIntyre has tried to bridge those gaps and provide a way to interact with all of those theories in such a way that the philosophical community is in his debt. Whether he is capable or not of presenting a solid argument in favor of his account of the final balance of the debate between these different ethical arguments, is for the reader to decide after a thorough review of MacIntyre’s life work.

5 August 2015

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