How to Judge More Right

Context of the Book

This book was published in 1981, just before post modernism and culture wars. We can therefore also imagine it as a product of the 1970s, and its ambition to define new ways of life within smaller groups or possibly change the entire country. MacIntyre’s ultimate claim is that you can’t change the country but you can do your own smaller thing and it can be pure and true and consistent. I wonder if some utopian commune took this book to heart and tried to define their own virtue ethics.

The Majestic Parts

First, I want to give mad respekk to the golden passages MacIntyre drops such as:

Such a treat to arrive on this page.

The Greats

I really enjoy a work that can position a few important logical systems/traditions beside each other. Here, we get a nice review of utilitarianism, deontological imperatives (Kant), rights (Dworkin), liberal justice (Rawls), and natural rights (Nozick). He dismisses each of these with fairly common critiques that, I suspect, would not impress champions of any of these paradigms. (Example: utilitarianism fails because you can’t compare different kinds of happiness. I would consider this an elementary discussion and point out that its resolution is not really necessary for the theory to do its work; utilitarians usually find specific relationships between specific kinds of goods, such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)

Auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham displayed at University College London. These old boring philosophers we’re discussing were way fucking crazier than you are and had some very radical ideas well worth considering. Here, the motherfucker’s stuffed body with real fucking head is on display, in keeping with a will he wrote at the age of 21. Damn.

Impersonal Laws

Well known older moral codes tend to have been explicitly impersonal and universal because they were the word of a central and unquestionable authority. Whether God or a human ruler, morality was simply obedience. (I get how Nietzche might call these systems “slave morality.”) Most ethical arguments I hear today try to refer back to some inarguable rule just like this! “But that furthers inequality!” “look at all the gentrifiers!” And while most of the contestation happens at the “link level” between a specific situation and the Unbreakable Rule, I’m not sure we all agree on the “impact level” either!
An anti-choice protestor on the street recently insisted that I should care how many fetuses are “killed” every year. He claims that abortion is murder, then assumes I am concerned about this murder. But the truth is, I don’t care about routinized killing of forms of life that are not fully human to begin with! I don’t even always mind routinized killing of humans! Self-defense or execution of traitors in extreme conditions seems totally fine to me. I’m signed up to let others pull the plug if I’m a little vegetable sitting on a life support machine, so why does this streetguy think I am going to care about all the brightly colored fetuses on his nasty-pseudo-satanic anti-abortion poster? Babies born prematurely who are in bad shape should probably die too, for me, and any baby that is unwanted by the mother is fair game for “killing” in my heart.

Emotivism and Intuitionism

Some of MacIntyre’s best historical work is on the turn of the 20th century where emotivism superseded intuitionism. He tells this story backwards, starting with emotivism because it’s such a good account of what we see today and intuitionism only matters because emotivism does.

  1. there sure are a lot of other systems
  2. if your moral reasoning can’t convince others reliably, maybe it shouldn’t convince you either

Concepts Deserving Nasty Marginalia

It’s not all roses in this book and I spent more and more pages making little x’s or brief indictments of what is really a very special book. Here are a few themes I found particularly significant as problems in his overall argument.

Morality is Based in Social Life

MacIntyre doesn’t close out his central claim that well, really. If we are in moral pluralism and unable to relate our moral codes now, shouldn’t we get more specific about what those moral codes are and who is how sold on each why? That’s the usual approach to partisan disagreements — who has what commitment due to what forces?

The Brethren Court of Pirates of the Caribbean. Seems like these people would have some major differences in understanding, but need to make moral judgments together.


There are two chapters here arguing that facts are bullshit, expertise is a lie “the notion of social control embodied in the notion of expertise is indeed a masquerade” (p 107), and science is a sad imitation of reason. These sections are just after the majestic history begins, and prefaced with a fantabulous concept that there are a few central characters to any society who each “morally legitimates a mode of social existence” (p 29), so when he goes after managers for using faux rationality I was down to read further.


MacIntyre’s opening vision is that we are living in a world where the real structure supporting our moral system has been lost. (This has been compared to Canticle for Leibowitz, which I agree with.) We are living with fragments of this old structure and are unable to make much sense of them. We don’t even realize it. His suggestion is that we should understand where these fragments come from and try to build up a strong, autocthonous structure for morality.

Virtue Ethics

The second half of the book is almost unrelated to the first, but it’s a cool work of synthetic philosophy that proposes a very different way to think about morality.

My Attempts to Apply MacIntyre’s Virtue Ethics

MacIntyre’s new theory of virtue is designed to unite varied historical theories of virtue with common terms, and provide a useful model of the link between virtues and particular historically situated communities. This strikes me as a retcon, linking together things that were in fact quite disparate and probably never did really match up that precisely, but MacIntyre is really invested in a particular rational style that seems to demand this of him.

One virtuous homie right here.

Conclusion: Morality is Politics

In reflecting on the way emotivism plays out in my life, I have come to the conclusion that morality is politics. There are sometimes policies, or more often just slogans, that I can support, reject, or abstain from (“Families Belong Together!” is a recent one). There are types of action I can partake in that others may see as more or less moral. Yet how others see me is quite distinct from how a more thorough investigation might show me. When I taught college, people usually thought I was a very generous guy, helping the children. I don’t agree with that assessment at all, but why should I try to disabuse my flatterers?

It’s like that.