Why Morality Seems Relative

Colossians 3 and 4 are full of moral exhortation. In preparation for preaching through these chapters, I have been reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work of moral philosophy entitled After Virtue. MacIntyre is a highly respected Notre Dame professor of philosophy who advances a startling thesis: though in 21st-century Western culture we still use the language of morality, the actual substance of morality (i.e. the philosophical foundation we assume to be underneath that language) is in shambles. Reason: the philosophical foundation for morality relies upon the Judeo-Christian worldview and also the (poly)theistic worldview of the ancient Greek philosophers. Enlightenment rationalism, having discarded those worldviews, has therefore (unknowingly) thrown out the philosophical underpinnings of morality as well. Here is MacIntyre’s hypothesis:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on scientists… A political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists.

Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement. Enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. All that they possess are fragments: instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles… children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all… The contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit, the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess… are the fragments of a conceptual scheme… we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.

[Objection:] If a catastrophe sufficient to throw the language and practice of morality into grave disorder had occurred, surely we should all know about it! It would indeed be one of the central facts of our history.

[Answer: Yes. Unless] the catastrophe of which my hypothesis speaks had occurred before… the founding of academic history, so that… from [modern history’s] value-neutral viewpoint, moral disorder must remain largely invisible. [In this case,] the forms of the academic curriculum would turn out to be among the symptoms of the disaster whose occurrence the curriculum does not acknowledge!

My thesis… [is that] the language and the appearances of morality persist, [but] the integral substance of morality has to a large degree been fragmented and… destroyed.


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  1. This is a good book. Although he’s really way more interested in the unity of a human life, restoring the importance of telos and communities formed by particular narratives than he is about theism as such. He seems to be a lot more critical of the post-Enlightenment world for its destruction of those things, and not really concerned all that much about God. He is going to propose that we need more Aristotle. It was one of the most influential books I’ve read in the last few years though, and I’ll look forward to reading any further thoughts you have on it.

  2. Cabe: Not everyone has the philosophical chops to engage this book. I would love to dialogue about it with you – it would help me process the book’s thesis. Let’s do it over email though, not on the blog.

    Yes, MacIntyre is all about Aristotle. But I’m less interested in his solution and more interested in his thesis. He has put forth a compelling account of the decline of virtue which explains the vacuousness of much modern moral dialogue.

  3. Definitely. This is a pastoral blog – not the right venue. I just saw you were blogging about MacIntyre on my Google Reader and couldn’t resist. Enjoyed the second post on him as well.

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