Alasdair MacIntyre, “Social Structures and Their Threat to Moral Agency.”

Delivered as Annual Lecture of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (24 February 1999); reprinted in Philosophy. 74. (1999): 311-329.

MacIntyre elucidates further the difference between social roles and the individual. How we perform in our social roles affects our identity, but we are not merely our roles: “what more there is to individuals than their role-playing also includes the continuities of each individual’s history, as they move from role to role, from one sphere of social activity to another” (315). This is where the notion of a tradition becomes important: we need some point of reference that we (and others) can trust so as to maintain integrity when we make practical judgments. MacIntyre defends the virtues of integrity and constancy without which virtue cannot exist. A tradition (or symbolic universe) enables us to achieve an integrated identity: “to have integrity is to refuse to be, to have educated oneself so that one is no longer able to be, one kind of person in one social context, while quite another in other contexts. It is to have set inflexible limits to one’s adaptability to the roles that one may be called upon to play” (317). Ultimately, universal human telos, in its particular personal articulation, drives the integration of our choices. Without an overarching telos, we can be dissolved into our roles (322).

Three vices cause people to be dissolved into their own roles:
1. Valuing total adaptability / flexibility in every situation (325-326).
2. A tendency to close our mind to any questions about human action beyond what is necessary to succeed here and now in this role (326).
3. A tendency to ignore incoherency in our life (326).

Seeking a whole identity, capable of responsible human action, is connected to overcoming these habits.



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