Yesterday I finally finished the regrettably too-short A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre. The book served as a delightful survey of the major points in Western ethical thought from the pre-Socratics through Moore and Sartre. For readers interested in a solid, not-too-technical overview of how moral theory has developed over the centuries, MacIntyre’s book will prove a trusted and reliable guide.
The part of the book I most eagerly absorbed was its final four pages. After wrapping up in a general way his observations about the developments and shortcomings of twentieth-century moral philosophy, MacIntyre advances the somewhat complex position that neither relativism nor absolutism are tenable in contemporary discourse because trying to find a single and all-encompassing theory of ethics is a fool’s errand.
To some degree, MacIntyre’s observation — not unique to him, of course — that people generally don’t adhere to a single and self-consistent ethical paradigm but rather shift among approaches depending on the people and the situation, marks a burst of sanity within an academic tradition that, having failed to find the One Big Explanation for morality, seems by-and-large to have retreated to linguistic games.
MacIntyre fleshes out his argument in book length in After Virtue. Occasionally described as a bridge between Augustinianism and Thomism, MacIntyre reaches back to ancient Greece and its virtues and drops them, with some modification, within a framework most robustly articulated by the Scholastics. This includes, in particular, a willingness to add a healthy of dose of teleology to ethics.
Perhaps the major system-builders — Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Burke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Moore — failed because they put their faith in reason, in the idea that ethics can be adequately described in logical terms. Perhaps it can; perhaps the right system-builder has yet to appear on the world stage. But perhaps the problem, as MacIntyre suggests, is that the entire effort is misguided. Perhaps ethics involves an interplay of sociology, biology, theology, and teleology that defies integration within a coherent and dogmatic theoretic structure.
I will not presume to level judgement about his position. But: It feels right.