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After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Reviews | 0 comments

What is virtue? This is one of the questions Alasdair MacIntyre asks in his book After Virtue. Originally published in 1981, it was considered a groundbreaking work in moral and social philosophy … or maybe not so much “groundbreaking” as clarifying.

Virtue, politics, our interactions with each other and our rights to ourselves, these are questions that have been discussed since humanity expanded beyond two people.

What is “good” and what is my obligation and “right” to that good … these are not new questions. What MacIntyre does in After Virtue is reason through the different positions on these questions, points out the flaws and weaknesses in some and providing his view of reconciling these positions.

About Alasdair MacIntyre

MacIntyre was born in Scotland in 1929 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1970. He’s taught at Oxford, Boston University, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and the University of Notre Dame before retiring in 2010.[1]

He was a Marxist as a young man, but abandoned that philosophy after realizing there was no moral grounding within the Marxist framework for condemning the outrages committed by Marxists states.[2] Whatever our belief system is, in order for it to be true and vald, it has to explain both the world as it is and how is ought to be. That we believe anything is “wrong” is evidence that we know that there is an “ought” to which the wrong doesn’t measure up.

About After Virtue

After Virtue is his best known book on this topic and it began a dialogue that continued for the next 40 years on ethics, morality, and society. In After Virtue, MacIntyre states that the problem in society is that it is a

“culture of emotivism” in which moral language is used pragmatically to manipulate attitudes, choices, and decisions, so that contemporary moral culture is a theater of illusions in which objective moral rhetoric masks arbitrary choices.[3]

We see that so frequently today when morally charged words are used to justify the most horrific things, words that are used in a completely opposite way from what they have been historically understood to mean.

MacIntyre doesn’t only tell us what he thinks is the problem and the answer in After Virtue, but he also critiques other positions by philosophers in the past. This is where it gets a little challenging in reading for the layperson as MacIntyre refers to writers you may not have read, ideologies you may be unfamiliar with, and uses terms in a precisely philosophical that may be different from the way you may have come to have understood a label. MacIntyre continued his exploration and discussion of virtue ethics and society in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (1990), and Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

Read After Virtue

Interested in reading this book? It is available in Kindle Unlimited as well as print. Have you read it? Let me know your thoughts.

After virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

Reading After Virtue

It’s been a little while since I read a book like this and so I had to shift gears a little bit. One thing that has helped is following a recommendation from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book and taking time to define the terms. I am reading the book in a book club and we just began with the first two chapters. The back pages of my book are filled with terms MacIntyre uses and definitions from philosophical encylopedias online. As you begin understand the terms he refers to, the reading becomes a little easier go.

For such a seminal philosophical book, it may surprise you how conversational it is, because the book does read as if you were sitting in on one of MacIntyre’s lectures. This was one of the criticisms that came up in our first book club meeting. One person thought that it was too “wordy”` and should have been edited down. I don’t agree. It reminds me of Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, it’s written in a very similar style. Abolition of Man was specifically written to Lewis’s fellow academics, and I think that MacIntyre’s After Virtue was written with that intent as well; however, I think After Virtue is more accessible to the average reader than Abolition of Man is without explanation (After Humanity by Michael Ward is an excellent guide to AOM, My interview with Dr. Ward.)

Yes, MacIntyre explains a lot, but he is also covering 2,000 years of thought. You have to address objections and alternate positions before you can knock them down, which he does.

Who Should Read After Virtue

People who are familiar with philosophy are probably already familiar with MacIntyre’s work. However, If you read books on Christian thought, you probably have come across a reference to this book.  Just in the past year, I read The Benedict Option by Rod Drehrer (which I hated), Telling a Better Story by Joshua Chatraw, and After Humanity by Michael Ward, all of which reference After Virtue

The thing is, when there is a book that people continually cite as an authority in the books you read, it is probably a good idea to read that original source for yourself so that you can see if it really says what the people citing it says it does. That is the deal with The Benedict Option and After Virtue, Drehrer claims he is drawing on After Virtue in his book; however, people who are very familiar with MacIntyre’s work say that he completely misrepresents it and MacIntyre himself does not like the application of his work that Drehrer made in The Benedict Option.

Another reason to read this book is that MacIntyre’s book helps you think through your own beliefs and prompts you to ask yourself not only if what you believe is true, but is it consistent with your other beliefs.

If something is true, it will proof. What results are playing out in our lives from the beliefs we are acting upon?  In the prologue, MacIntyre reflects on the actuality of what is good and true, writing

When recurrently the tradition of the virtues is regenerated, it is always in everyday life, it is always through the engagement by plain persons in a variety of practices, including those of making and sustaining families and households, schools, clinics, and local forms of political community. And that regeneration enables such plain persons to put to the question the dominant modes of moral and social discourse and the institutions that find their expression in those modes. It was they who were the intended and, pleasingly often, the actual readers of After Virtue, able to recognize in its central theses articulation of thoughts that they themselves had already begun to formulate and expressions of feeling by which they themselves were already to some degree moved.[4]


[1] “Alasdair MacIntyre | Scottish-Born Philosopher,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed October 29, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alasdair-MacIntyre.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “MacIntyre,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., accessed October 29, 2021, https://iep.utm.edu/mac-over/.

[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition, 3rd edition. (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) xv.