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Ends and Meanings: Alasdair MacIntyre on the three-legged stool of Aristotelian ethics

Below is MacIntyre’s description of the Aristotelian model of morality. He believes this model began to break down during the Enlightenment, leaving us with the shell or ghost of a moral language in which moral imperatives (“We ought to do X,”) have become, at root, nothing more than statements of preference (“I would prefer you to do X”) rather than appeals to an external standard (“You ought to do X because X is the [objectively] right thing to do”).

One result of this breakdown is that it is impossible to evaluate the relative value of competing moral statements, leading to interminable moral debates between competing (subjective) values. In addition, in the absence of clear moral ends all “ought” statements become (per Nietzsche) “the mask worn by the will-to-power” – that is, self-interested, coercive and distinctly immoral.

Here he goes:

In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin. Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis’. But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’ — Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato — means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life.

[A broadly Aristotelian scheme was] the moral scheme which in a variety of diverse forms and with numerous rivals came for long periods to dominate the European Middle Ages from the twelfth century onwards, a scheme which included both classical and theistic elements.

Its basic structure is that which Aristotle analyzed in the Nicomachean Ethics. Within that teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.

Ethics therefore in this view presupposes some account of potentiality and act, some account of the essence of man as a rational animal and above all some account of the human telos.

The precepts which enjoin the various virtues and prohibit the vices which are their counterparts instruct us how to move from potentiality to act, how to realize our true nature and to reach our true end. To defy them will be to be frustrated and incomplete, to fail to achieve that good of rational happiness which it is peculiarly ours as a species to pursue. The desires and emotions which we possess are to be put in order and educated by the use of such precepts and by the cultivation of those habits of action which the study of ethics prescribes; reason instructs us both as to what our true end is and as to how to reach it.

We thus have a threefold scheme in which human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be (human nature in its untutored state) is initially discrepant and discordant with the precepts of ethics and needs to be transformed by the instruction of practical reason and experience into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos.

Each of the three elements of the scheme — the conception of untutored human nature, the conception of the precepts of rational ethics and the conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos — requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible.

This scheme is complicated and added to, but not essentially altered, when it is placed within a framework of theistic beliefs, whether Christian, as with Aquinas, or Jewish with Maimonides, or Islamic with Ibn Roschd. The precepts of ethics now have to be understood not only as teleological injunctions, but also as expressions of a divinely ordained law. The table of virtues and vices has to be amended and added to and a concept of sin is added to the Aristotelian concept of error. The law of God requires a new kind of respect and awe. The true end of man can no longer be completely achieved in this world, but only in another.

Yet the threefold structure of untutored human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be, human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos and the precepts of rational ethics as the means for the transition from one to the other remains central to the theistic understanding of evaluative thought and judgment.

To say what someone ought to do is at one and the same time to say what course of action will in these circumstances as a matter of fact lead toward a man’s true end and to say what the law, ordained by God and comprehended by reason, enjoins. Moral sentences are thus used within this framework to make claims which are true or false. Most medieval proponents of this scheme did of course believe that it was itself part of God’s revelation, but also a discovery of reason and rationally defensible….

Alasdair MacIntyre – After Virtue [amazon]

See also:


Dark Counterpart

Freedom to the Nose
One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor: Paul Fussell on Experience and Perspective
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (1)
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (2) – notable exceptions
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (3) – the hard part
Aristotle on virtue as a mean (4) – leaning out (or “Whose fool are you?”)
At the Mountains of Madness: Edwardian* Science; Lovecraftian Cosmology
Emperor of Ruins (Lovecraftian anthropology; Kremlin psychodrama)

Victor Hugo on right, reality and the morality of the past

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