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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by…

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981)

by Alasdair C. MacIntyre

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Highly controversial when it was first published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has since established itself as a landmark work in contemporary moral philosophy. In this book, MacIntyre sought to address a crisis in moral language that he traced back to a European Enlightenment that had made the formulation of moral principles increasingly difficult. In the search for a way out of this impasse, MacIntyre returns to an earlier strand of ethical thinking, that of Aristotle, who emphasised the importance of 'virtue' to the ethical life. More than thirty years after its original publication, After Virtue remains a work that is impossible to ignore for anyone interested in our understanding of ethics and morality today.… (more)
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I'm not sure I entirely agree with MacIntyre's thesis that we have necessarily descended into a subjective, emotivist morality due to our loss of a sense of duty to a larger, communal whole, but its interesting to contemplate in light of other non-philosophical works like "Bowling Alone" documenting a similar decline in civic engagement. I wouldn't say this was a light read but it was accessible to me as a lay reader with basic familiarity with Western philosophy (although I'm sure more familiarity with the other philosophers mentioned would have enriched my experience considerably). ( )
  Jthierer | Oct 7, 2019 |
An exploration of moral philosophy in the Western tradition.

The author's main premise, if I have understood it properly, is to commend the Aristotelian tradition and many aspects of its framework in order to have a coherent, rational discussion of virtue and morality, declaring all modern attempts to formulate a rational secular basis for morality and virtue to have failed.

The author begins with this failure, and here he is at his best, demonstrating the reduction of morality/virtue into a sort of emotivism: what is right is right because it feels right. He traces this from Kant and Hume and Kierkegaard to utilitarianism and Marxism, pointing out the flaws in each argument, and demonstrating that the project is all doomed to failure because of emphasis on the individual and the denial of any sort of telos in moral discussion, leading to a default Stoicism. He also does well at critiquing the elevation of law as enforcing virtue or defining virtue and the problems manifest in such a shift.

To the author modern moral discourse is a hodgepodge of various artifacts from previous ages which cannot be coherently molded together; he credits Nietzsche for identifying the failures of Enlightenment moralism but shows how his project suffers from the same individualistic failings.

The author explores how virtue has been understood in the Western tradition; I found his point regarding how the Greeks attempted to reconcile their understanding of the heroes and virtue outside of the heroic age to be compelling, and appreciated his exploration into the difficulties of both Plato and Aristotle in not imagining how there could be a contrast in rival goods, something acutely understood by Sophocles and the tragedians. He explores the variations in what is seen as the virtues throughout time but attempts to show how there is a coherent framework which is bequeathed by Aristotle and improved upon by the New Testament, Aquinas, and others.

His goal is not to commend any given tradition, instead suggesting that each conception of the virtues and morality tends to reflect the context in which they develop or are maintained. Instead, he seeks to find a tradition which has the tools available to reckon with other conceptions of virtue and morality and can incorporate what is good and commendable and thus proves adaptable, and he finds this in Aristotle's framework above all others.

His critique of how justice is understood is insightful, explaining well how different groups of people can focus on certain elements of what seems just while neglecting others, and thus finding it difficult to communicate effectively in an individualist, emotivist age.

In the postscript the author engages with some of his early critics and proves willing to learn from the critique and express how the work is not complete but an invitation to further exploration of the theme.

I am somewhat familiar with ancient philosophy but only have a surface level understanding regarding many of the modern philosophers described. I am strongly tempted to agree with the author and desire a more pre-modern framework but cannot competently fully adjudicate his claims. Nevertheless, a compelling and challenging read. ( )
  deusvitae | May 9, 2018 |
Is there anything left to be said about After Virtue? With this book, Alasdair MacIntyre brought Aristotelian-style virtue ethics back into the modern conversation. It is a true classic, still quoted and built upon today, almost forty years after its original publication date.

After Virtue falls into two parts. The first half of the book is deconstructive. MacIntyre carefully explains how the ethical problems of our time cannot be answered from within our post-Enlightenment framework. The ethical landscape today resembles the ruins of a once great culture. We have bits and pieces of ethical material from the past, but no historical context with which to apply them. Without context there can be no ethical progress beyond the emotivism of the day.

"[M]oral judgments are linguistic survivals from the practices of classical theism which have lost the context provided by these practices" (60).

The second half of After Virtue is constructive. Now that the problem is diagnosed, MacIntyre prescribes Aristotelian medicine. Humans are social creatures, narrative construed toward a telos or goal. It is through the practice of virtues within a community that humans mature and become the sort of people who are able to encounter the moral quandaries of the day.

It is difficult to overstate the value of this book. After Virtue is one carefully argued perspective in which each of the 286 pages adds value. It is multidisciplinary, combining philosophical argument with sociological and historical context. Despite its age, I found myself continually reflecting on current political and social events through MacIntyre's lens.

This is not a Christian book per se, but it has serious implications for the church. This is the foundation on which Stanley Hauerwas has based his ethical perspective. Pastors who wish to understand the moral makeup of the world and the church would do well to revisit this venerable volume. ( )
  StephenBarkley | Dec 14, 2017 |
MacIntyre resurrected a virtue-based ethics and tied it to politics and society in an interesting way -- through narrative -- in order to connect Catholic thought, progressive politics, and democracy. His vision of community is interesting, but not, I think, altogether complete.
  Fledgist | May 5, 2012 |
This is a sweeping book that covers moral theory from Aristotle up to today. MacIntyre provides a bleak view of the state of modern moral discourse, regarding it as failing to be rational, and failing to admit to being irrational. He claims that older forms of moral discourse were in better shape, particularly singling out Aristotle's moral philosophy as an exemplar. After Virtue is among the most important texts in the recent revival of virtue ethics.
MacIntyre's argument is not just about the collapse of communities, it’s also about the transformation in how we think about the moral life that has purged the language of virtue from our speech and from our sensibility. After Virtue ends by posing the question 'Nietzsche or Aristotle?', although MacIntyre acknowledges that the book does not give sufficient grounds for a definitive answer that it is Aristotle, not Nietzsche, who points to the best solution for the problems that the book has diagnosed. Those grounds are set out in MacIntyre's subsequent works, in which he elaborates a sophisticated revision of the philosophical tradition of Aristotelianism.
In this work he is an advocate of the community over the individual and it is a sad story, but told no better than here. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Apr 7, 2012 |
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