Alister Macintyre - after Virtue: the Nature of Virtue

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MacIntyre set out to respond to the potential criticism that there is no core conception of the virtues to be found among the many rival conceptions. He goes over rival accounts of the virtues by Homer, Aristotle, the New Testament, and Benjamin Franklin. MacIntrye contends that most contemporary ethics are too individualistic, and strives to resurrect a Neo-Aristotelian framework that stresses traditions, and the virtues and practices central to those traditions.

Greg Pence paraphrases MacIntrye arguments as “We are Platonic perfectionists in saluting gold medalist in the Olympics; Utilitarians in applying the principle of triage to the wounded soldier; Lockeans in affirming property rights; Chirstains in idealizing charity, and followers of Kant and Mill in affirming personal autonomy” MacIntrye contends that most contemporary ethics are too individualistic, and strives to resurrect a Neo-Aristotelian framework that stresses traditions, and the virtues and practices central to those traditions.

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He boils the different ideologies of virtue he examines into three different conceptions of a virtue to confront.

  • A virtue is a quality which enables an individual to fulfill his/her social role Homer.
  • A virtue is a quality which enables an individual to move toward the achievement of a human telos whether natural or supernatural – Aristotle, The New Testament and Aquinas.
  • A virtue is a quality which has utility in achieving earthly or heavenly success.

MacIntyre argues that there is a common claim among each account that offers the beginning of a core conception. Each account ‘claims not only theoretical, but also an institutional hegemony’, in that the virtues are embodied in specific institutions: the polis for Aristotle, Philadelphia for Franklin, and the church for New Testament Christains.

So one feature of the concept of virtue is the presumption of some prior account of social and moral life.

He then states that the logical development of the concept of virtue requires three stages:

  • the background account of a practice.
  • an account of the narrative structure of a single human life.
  • an account of what constitutes a moral tradition.

His account of practice is different than our normal definition of it, he defines a ‘practice’ as any complex social activity, with internal goods and standards of excellence realized in order to achieve it, which extends our understanding of and our ability to achieve human goods and ends; but he notes that virtues are not only exercised in the course of practices.

In order to explain the difference between external and internal goods of a practice, he describes a situation in which an intelligent child is taught to play chess with the promise of receiving more candy if she wins; the candy is an external good, which could be achieved many ways other than playing chess, and to which chess is an incidental means. Focused solely on such external goods, the child has motivation to cheat; but as she learns to play, she attains particular skills, and gains reasons to excel at the game of the chess, not merely the goal of winning. So if the child cheats, she will deprive herself of these internal goods, and defeat only herself. These internal goods ‘cannot be had in any way but by playing chess’.

He notes that external goods, when achieved, become an individual’s property, and are thus a subject of competition, while the achievement of internal goods benefits the whole community who participates in a practice.

From this MacIntyre formulates ‘a first, even if partial and tentative definition of a virtue: A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods’.

He argues this because the goods of a practice can only be achieved in tandem with its pursuit by others practitioners, we must accept the necessity of the virtues of justice, courage and truthfulness. It is still the case that vices may flourish where virtues are required, but the immoral people rely on the virtues of others and deny themselves the internal goods of a practice.

Practices also require the exercise of technical skills, but a practice is much more than just a set of such skills: it is an entire conception of ends and goods which those skills serve and enrich.

Practices must also be contrasted with corrupt institutions, which ‘are characteristically and necessarily concerned with … external goods’.

Yet the making and sustaining of institutions which benefit communities without becoming corrupt is itself a practice. That practice is particularly important to the exercise of the virtues, which are always practiced within the context of a particular community.

MacIntyre notes that his account of the virtues differs from Aristotle’s in that it does not require his metaphysical biology(later redacting this statement), and in that because of the multiplicity of human practices consequent multiplicity of goods, conflict may arise from competing goods rather than solely from flaws in individual character.

But his conception is still Aristotelian:

  1. its requirement of the same distinctions and concepts required for Aristotle’s account, such as that between intellectual virtues and virtues of character<
  2. its agreement with the Aristotelian account of pleasure as heterogeneous, in contrast to the utilitarian view
  3. the link it creates between evaluation and explanation, so that an account of the actions of a person must make some appeal to their virtues and vices.

He notes that his account does not preclude that there may be practices which are evil, and thus virtues which sustain evil; rather, his account supposes only that virtues be initially defined in terms of practices. But because of this objection, his account is clearly incomplete in several ways.

  1. is that a life informed only by the conception as defined thus far would ‘be pervaded … by too many conflicts and too much arbitrariness’ as a result of the multiplicity of goods.<
  2. is that many virtues remain incomplete without a conception of the telos of a whole human life, which is necessary to provide a rational ordering between virtues.These two objections lead to
  3. which is that the crucial virtue of constancy cannot be defined except in reference to a whole human life.

So, MacIntyre argues that the account he has offered so far is incomplete, and that to give a more fully adequate account it is necessary to answer the question of whether it is ‘rationally justifiable to conceive of each human life as a unity’.


  • What do you think MacIntyre would say about our current society?
  • Some argue that the gentrification of the moral tradition is a form of oppression and would limit social innovations, what do you think of this critique? and could you give examples?
  • How does MacIntyre conception of virtue fit in the Nature v Nurture debate?

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