is an extended philosophical argument, informed by linguistic, historical, and sociological analyses, that seeks to explain the continuing irresolution of modern moral disputes; to critique the modern bureaucratic state and the claims of management science; and to provide an alternative to emotivist ethics in the form of a refashioned conception of the Aristotelian idea of virtue.
Written both for the practicing philosopher and for the interested layperson, the book arose from author Alasdair MacIntyre’s growing conviction that while every system of morality originates from, and is embedded in, a particular historical stream, it is nevertheless possible to offer a sound defense of one system over other competitors—without abstracting each system from its context and comparing abstractions. That, says MacIntyre, is a "barren" enterprise; for it is only within social contexts that ethical systems have meaning, and it is only through a historical and sociological analysis of each moral tradition that one, the Aristotelian tradition, can be vindicated.
The modern world, or at least the industrialized West, has, in terms of moral discourse, descended into a new Dark Age. Moral judgments lack content and are merely expressive of how one feels about a matter; this kind of ethical emotivism is an inheritance from the failure of the eighteenth century Enlightenment to provide an objective basis for moral judgments. In marked contrast is another historical stream, the Aristotelian virtue tradition, which can not only produce a coherent picture of the Enlightenment failure and the consequent breakdown of moral discourse but also show itself superior to contemporary moral fragmentation.
MacIntyre’s dialectical analysis of competing ethical traditions—how each tradition enlarges itself by building on its own failures and successes—owes a debt to G.
W. F. Hegel. Since the development of each tradition takes place in history, historical explanation is central to MacIntyre’s project of telling a story that "hangs together" in its delineation of the modern moral lapse into emotivism and its characterization of the virtue tradition as a coherent alternative. Historical explanation (and here MacIntyre is influenced by historian R. G. Collingwood) assumes that each historical act expresses a thought; the historian’s quest is to discover the thoughts expressed in those acts: The thought explains the act.
It is MacIntyre’s thesis that, though many continue to argue moral issues as if their words had rational force, "we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality." Analytic philosophy, as well as academic history, lacks the evaluative categories with which to discover and chart this profound disorder in moral discourse. The first eight chapters of After Virtue
are devoted to the modern moral disorder. In the pivotal ninth chapter ("Nietzsche or Aristotle?"), MacIntyre paints a stark picture of contemporary society at a moral crossroads. Finally, chapters 10 through 18 trace the various conceptions of the virtues developed since classical times and how the virtues, properly reconceived, make it meaningful to speak of the unity of a human life and coherent moral discourse. (A nineteenth chapter, published in the second edition of the book in 1984, contains various short replies to MacIntyre’s critics.)