Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.

2nd edition, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.

MacIntyre writes that modern individuals lack continuity in identity; they wear masks and play roles to serve individual ends. If Berger is right, the peculiarly modern self, prior to and divorced from society, is miserable; if MacIntyre is right, this individual is also a kind of con artist (68). MacIntyre compares modern rationales for virtue with traditional accounts where virtues are ways of living which enable an individual to achieve his telos within the context of his particular circumstances. Some key concepts for MacIntyre are practices, the unity of human life and its nature as quest, social roles and identity, tradition and history, and the role of stories.

The traditional account sees man as inseparable from his social roles. In Heroic Societies, life is a story, not a series of unconnected incidents, and identity is determined by our social role and choices within in this story. Thus, at the same time “the self becomes what it is in heroic societies only through its role” (129) and “man in heroic society is what he does” (122). For example, when the Iliad starts, Achilles is in part who he is, the Greek warrior and friend of Patroclus. On the other hand, Achilles’ full identity has not yet been achieved and depends on how he will choose to live out or fail in these roles. The Iliad itself is a powerfully influential story for a warrior society whose members are seeking to carve out their own character within the context of their roles.

In the traditional view, “the chief means of moral education is the telling of stories” (121). Later in Chapter 13 and 15, MacIntyre also explains the importance of stories for educating our desires and assisting us to understand the demands of our roles. We enter society with roles. Stories teach what our roles are and how we are to act: “deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions” (216). We also learn from our history how these social roles came to be what they are and expect what they do: “the past is never something merely to be discarded, but rather . . . the present is intelligible only as a commentary upon and response to the past” (15). This implies seeing each human individual as a member of a wider historical community.MacIntyre’s account is compelling; in the end, we must choose between his account of the importance and existence of human telos and some real relationship between human beings or the account of men like John Rawls and Robert Nozick who unconsciously see the human race as a group of unrelated individuals shipwrecked on a desert island who need to work out some rules (250). Are we like that or are we as MacIntyre describes? Certainly, the removal of social roles, whether they represent real relationships or are man-made constructs, has made life very difficult. We are waiting for men like Rawls and Nozick to come up with some good rules that will give direction and meaning to human life.

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