Alasdair MacIntyre. 2002. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Orig Pub 1966). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
I used to joke that any mathematics text with the words, like simple or elementary in the title, was neither simple or elementary—at least on first reading. The truth of such titles can only be known to those who persist with multiple readings. Ethics is similarly a field much like mathematics that gets easier with repetition.
In his historical narrative, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Alasdair MacIntyre repeats the premise: “Moral concepts change as social life changes.” (1) After writing about a third of his book on ancient Greek philosophical and moral thought, MacIntyre observes:
“The Division of labor and the differentiation of function in early societies produces a vocabulary in which men are described in terms of the roles they fulfill.”(84)
History of Good
An example that he works out in great detail is the notion of the word, good, writing:
“The word αγαθός, ancestor of our good, is originally a predicate specifically attached to the role of a Homeric nobleman. ‘To be αγαθός,’ says W. H. Adkins, ‘one must be brave, skillful and successful in war and in peace; and one must possess the wealth and (in peace) the leisure which are at once the necessary conditions for the development of these skills and the natural reward of their successful enjoyment.” (5-6)
Not just everyone could be good and we would immediate judge a “good” Greek tribal warlord harshly for behaviors not commensurate with our own standards of goodness. In fact, MacIntyre argues that even later Greek literature after the development of city-states would find such behavior reprehensible. In this new Greek social context, αγαθός loses its original meaning predicated on the role of a Greek tribal warlord (a presupposition) and takes on a new meaning—a general sense of approbation not tied to any particular role.
Moral Context Matters
More is at stake here than a lesson in ethnolinguistics. Fast forwarding past a long narrative history of philosophical ethics MacIntyre opines:
“In discussing Greek society, I suggested what might happen when such a well-integrated form of moral life broke down. In our society, the acids of individualism have for four centuries eaten into our moral structures for both good and ill. But not only this: we live with the inheritance of not only one, but a number of well-integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christianity simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption, and the traditions of democracy and socialism have all left their mark upon our moral vocabulary. Within each of these moralities there is a proposed end or ends, a set of rules, a list of virtues. But the ends, the rules, the virtues differ… It follows that we are liable to find two kinds of people in our society: those who speak within one of these surviving moralities, and those who stand outside all of them”(266)
Given this moral dilemma, Kierkegard’s admonition that we must chose to adhere to a particular morality speaks directly to our moral circumstance (215).
Background and Organization
Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre (1929- ) is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame educated at Queen Mary, University of London, University of Manchester, and University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous publications, including: Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-22(2006), Dependent Rational Animals(1999), Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry(1990), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?(1988), and After Virtue(1981)
MacIntyre writes in 18 chapters preceded by two prefaces, corresponding to the two editions of the book, and followed by notes and an index.
Observations of a Keen Mind
While the narrative flow of an historical treatise is central to its development and reading, such books are often remembered more for particular insights shared along the way. MacIntyre’s insights go beyond a brilliant statement of the obvious.
MacIntyre writes: “The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters”(110) The divine theme may seem obvious but today many authors offer lengthy critiques of the cultural context of the Bible seldom posing to note that God appears at all. Surprisingly, he goes on to write: “the whole problem of Christian morality is to discover just what it is.” (111) In developing this theme, he is not disrespectful at all, but notes how Christian morality has evolved to speak to the particular contexts in which it is found. He contextualizes Christian ethics without suggesting that it is arbitrary or relativistic. How else could the Holy Spirit serve to guide us in our daily walk?
Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century provides aperceptive and assessible overview of the history of philosophical ethics. Seminary students and pastors will benefit from taking the time to absorb this work.
MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story
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