The Virtues and Absolutism

by Chris B

There are many points of agreement between an absolutist political theory framework and the ethical project of Alaisdair MacIntyre, and it is the purpose of this paper to make the claim that MacIntyre’s ethical theory contained in After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? And Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry is completely compatible with this framework.

One of the major areas within which the absolutist framework can assist MacIntyre’s project, is in the area of political structure and the state, which is an area where MacIntyre appears obviously at a loss. An exploration of this is available in a paper by Thaddeus J. Kozinski in the First Principles Journal. This paper raises a number of issues with MacIntyre’s conception of the state which are of importance to this paper. Fundamentally, the author comprehends that MacIntyre cannot provide a coherent and robust explanation or criticism of the modern state’s actions, operations and existence (and for that matter, neither can the author):

If the explanation for the morally-biased character of the state is that it is a necessarily immoral bias, then one must conclude that the state is irredeemably evil. This severe judgment requires both an adequate philosophical explanation and historical demonstration, which MacIntyre does not provide.[i]

Something furthered by other commentators:

As Breen points out, MacIntyre confusedly characterizes the state as both irredeemably evil and non-political, and yet capable of some good political activity: “The state supposedly subverts all values and yet he praises the ‘Americans with Disabilities Act’ for removing obstacles to ‘humane goals.'” What this reveals is that, for MacIntyre, the state can be a bearer of ethical value, at least sometimes. However, if it is sometimes capable of genuine moral activity, then it is not irredeemably evil, as MacIntyre suggests in other places. Breen notes, “Whether states corrupt values is a matter of contingent fact, not theoretical generalization.” In other words, it is not clear why, if the state’s moral corruption is only a contingent phenomenon, it could not be reformed.[ii]

MacIntyre’s confused approach to the state whilst trying to counsel a conception of virtue which we will contend in this paper requires clear authority, results in the ironic situation of MacIntyre advising small communities in dealing with the state to:

adopt the self-serving, calculative attitude of state functionaries. Breen notes: “Far from attaining unified lives, virtuous practitioners must maintain a stark duality of mind, oriented to local excellence but the canniest of tacticians in their tussles with state functionaries.”47 The result of such moral schizophrenia can only be a less robust and integral practice of the virtues of acknowledged dependence.[iii]

The cause of this intellectual conflict is, I believe, correctly noted in the paper as it is claimed:

MacIntyre’s error is to conflate state politics with liberal politics, but he provides no adequate reason to think that the connection is a necessary one, even though it has been an historical one. In short, for Breen there is nothing incompatible about a state politics of the virtues of acknowledged dependence. Breen’s critique is powerful, and as we shall soon see, it is incompatible with MacIntyre’s political ideal not to involve the state in a politics of virtue.[iv]

Absolutist theory, however, can provide illumination on this; the connection is a necessary one for an unsecure power system, as the promotion of anarchist ontologies – of which liberalism is the prime example – is a necessary development of an unsecure power system of which the modern nation state is the example par excellence. And when a political system is unsecure and formally divided Macintyre’s critique of its corrupting nature is perfectly correct.

To explain this concept further, at this point we will have to make a bold claim and declare that the language and categories we are using to discuss governance are woefully inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they have been formulated on, and perpetuate, an underlying sociology which does not correspond with the virtues, but instead corresponds to the needs of the expansion of unsecure Power. There is unfortunately no clear way to explain this concept using the language of modern political discourse, so it will need to be explained on its own terms.

The means by which governance is conducted within the sphere we refer to as the International Community is convoluted and confused. In essence, the formal state stands as nothing more than a bureaucratic stamp, or rather a tool for decisions which emanate in elite circles irrespective of the formal roles they hold. This is not to say that the state and the roles it contains are not important, because they are as a means of legitimacy. If, for example, the head of the Ford Foundation were to declare that everyone should consider animals as covered by human rights tomorrow, no one would listen, but if this were to be issued from a functionary of the state, such as a supreme court decisions, then it would be a different matter.

Now, these decisions cannot be implemented in a proactive manner within the formal avenues, as the nation state is set up in such a way that it is supposed to be institutionally balanced to halt action, it is also subject to electoral considerations, so any policy being promoted will need to be popular, or at least palatable. What then occurs is a great pantomime in which resources extraneous to the formal state structure are used to develop “bottom up” change, promote the policies being implemented by this elite, and engage social pressure in favour of the changes. The huge resources of the foundations have been the key resources used by the governing elites in the Twentieth Century as has the education system and media, but these institutions have been doing this for as long as the power system in the Western world has been subject to checks and balances and premised on a democratic basis.[v] Having forced popular enthusiasm for change, or, having created sufficient anarchy to give casus belli for the change, formal enshrinement of the social change is formalised by the state. It is usually the case the change was wanted by no one bar the elite and usually a disgruntled minority, usual made disgruntled by the same elite for the purposes of change. It is also the case that this change is cover for other motives, such as geopolitical conflict.

The overall effect of this structural issue is that those in positions of governance encourage and direct movements designed to undermine those structure and institutions under them which are designed to block their actions. The continuous advance of emancipatory philosophy then becomes obvious as a tool of Power aimed at those blocks beneath the formal state structure. In summary, democracy, republican governance and all various iterations of liberalism are a sham and a cover for thuggish expansion of Power.

Unfortunately, this mechanism is far more convoluted and bizarre than explained above, but it gives a satisfactory overall picture for the purpose of this paper. To concentrate on the state’s formal structure is to lose sight of what is actually happening.

So, contrary to MacIntyre, it is not political organisation on a great scale, or the state as an entity that is the problem but in actual fact it is a problem of power security and the structural make up of institutions that form governance. The rejection of divided governance and the public/ private pantomime is paramount, and it is something MacIntyre himself imperfectly articulates when he writes:

Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical, or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition[vi]

Whilst from an absolutist political theory angle this rejection is premised initially on the resultant chaos that such an arrangement produces, MacIntyre and his conception of the virtues add a deeper layer. Divided systems by taking conflict as ingrained within society systemise a conception of ethics which is an individualist and isolated affair- a marketplace of competing claims which are woefully unsuited to human flourishing. Unified structures meanwhile, of necessity, systemise a conception of ethics that are unitary and directed. MacIntyre has repeatedly referred to small unified communities as providing structures that shape moral traditions for good reason.

MacIntyre’s further lament on the impossibility of patriotism in the classical sense only heightens the clear and obvious links between absolutism and his ethical criticisms of divided political systems:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear.[vii]

The alternative being put forward by Macintyre being, again, the creation of small communities that he sees as the only possible way to embody the virtues in a systemic way. One memorable claim along these lines is his supportive comments in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?[viii] of Andrew Fletcher’s advocacy of dividing the British Isles into a collection of city states. Fletcher writes the following on this position:

And as to the advantage of having twelve cities governing themselves happily and virtuously, instead of one great vicious and ungovernable city, I leave it to your consideration, who have so judiciously shown, that great cities do not only corrupt the manners of their own inhabitants, but those of whole nations, and destroy all good government. Cities of a moderate extent are easily governed, and the example and authority of one virtuous man is often sufficient to keep up good order and discipline; of which we have divers instances in the history of the Grecian republics: whereas great multitudes of men are always deaf to all remonstrances, and the frequency of ill example is more powerful than laws.[ix]

So we face a point at which Absolutist theory derived from Jouvenel can lead MacIntyre and his project out of an impasse to which he has been unable to escape. The revolutionary concept which has never occurred to MacIntyre, and which never occurred to Fletcher, is that this radical decentralisation of governance and the resultant ethical ramifications could be achieved through the creation of an absolutist system with no systemic conflict of power centers and a clear structure – in effect a removal of that most pernicious of concepts imperium in imperio. It is quite unfortunate that the conclusion that almost all readers have taken is that the opposite is necessary.

MacIntyre’s latest essay on the role of ethics Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative further encapsulates the impasse to which MacIntyre has been trapped due to his adherence to an anarchistic ontology -whilst his entire philosophical position presupposes the rejection of this. That MacIntyre recognises this on some level is demonstrated by the following quote:

Aristotle’s account of the virtues, when fully spelled out, is or rather presupposes a psychology and a sociology. To have and to exercise the virtues is to function well in one’s social roles as citizen, as a member of a household and a family, and so on. A political society or a household functions well only if it educates its members in the exercise of the virtues, and political societies and households are classified and evaluated as adequate or inadequate by reference to just those social relationships – in the case of political societies the relationship of ruling or being ruled- that are either sustained or undermined by the exercise of the virtues.[x]

How, can such an account (to which MacIntyre himself holds) culminate in a political system which has at its apex a set of laws or a constitution? Virtue in MacIntyre’s account is plainly a social and practical endeavor which cannot be learned from merely referring to a book, but is infused with practice itself. Such a conception pre-supposes a single person at the apex of governance- a monarchical like structure.

Of course, if we are to continue discussing the issue of virtue, it would be remiss not to make it clear what is meant by virtue, and such a definition is provided by MacIntyre, but it requires some explanation, after which we can apply this conception of virtue to our current liberal state political systems.

For MacIntyre, virtue is:

an acquired human quality, the possession of 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[xi]

Practice being defined as follows:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. Tic-tac-toe is not an example of a practice in this sense, nor is throwing a football with skill; but the game of football is, and so is chess. Bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is. Planting turnips is not a practice; farming is. So are the enquiries of physics, chemistry and biology, and so is the work of the historian, and so are painting and music. In the ancient and medieval worlds the creation and sustaining of human communities—of households, cities, nations—is generally taken to be a practice in the sense in which I have defined it. Thus the range of practices is wide: arts, sciences, games, politics in the Aristotelian sense, the making and sustaining of family life, all fall under the concept.  But the question of the precise range of practices is not at this stage of the first importance. Instead let me explain some of the key terms involved in my definition, beginning with the notion of goods internal to a practice.

Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy and little chance of obtaining it. I therefore tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents worth of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself.

There are thus two kinds of good possibly to be gained by playing chess. On the one hand there are those goods externally and contingently attached to chess-playing and to other practices by the accidents of social circumstance—in the case of the imaginary child candy, in the case of real adults such goods as prestige, status and money. There are always alternative ways for achieving such goods, and their achievement is never to be had only by engaging in some particular kind of practice. On the other hand there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, as I have already suggested, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games (otherwise the meagerness of our vocabulary for speaking of such goods forces us into such devices as my own resort to writing of ‘a certain highly particular kind of’); and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent thereby as judges of internal goods.

A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice. Practices of course, as I have just noticed, have a history: games, sciences and arts all have histories. Thus the standards are not themselves immune from criticism, but nonetheless we cannot be initiated into a practice without accepting the authority of the best standards realized so far. If, on starting to listen to music, I do not accept my own incapacity to judge correctly, I will never learn to hear, let alone to appreciate, Bartok’s last quartets. If, on starting to play baseball, I do not accept that others know better than I when to throw a fast ball and when not, I will never learn to appreciate good pitching let alone to pitch. In the realm of practices the authority of both goods and standards operates in such a way as to rule out all subjectivist and emotivist analyses of judgment.[xii]

This conception of virtue is, again, necessarily a social conception, and a practical conception. This stands at odds with all current ethical and moral theory which place ethics as decodable from universal truths and as such are individualistic and non-social conceptions – anarchistic conceptions. As MacInytre notes, all modern understanding of ethics specifically divorce ethics from practice, and place the individual qua individual as the central point, which is obviously prior to society. Any political organization based on such a concept is going to be utterly lacking in the virtues, as it specifically rejects them. Indeed this is a point made repeatedly by MacIntyre, such as in his comments on St Thomas in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

the best regime is that whose order best conduces to education into the virtues in the interest of the good of all. Hence the modern liberal conception of government as securing a minimum order, within which individuals may pursue their own freely chosen ends, protected by and large from the moral interference of government, is also incompatible with Aquinas’ account of a just order.[xiii]

This concept of divided and undivided governance, and more pointedly, unsecure and secure Power also has relevance to MacIntyre’s attempts to formulate a criticism of economics. As MacIntyre notes throughout Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,  the liberal capitalist market system which is ultimately based theoretically on merely the amalgamation of the desires or wants of individuals is antithetical to excellence and the pursuit of internal goods, being based on reasoning from the position of individual qua individual, not at any point qua the political structure within which it resides or qua the good. That such concepts (again promoted by centralising Power we may add) such as free trade ultimately leads to the subversion of all values and virtue in society is therefore obvious. Worse than this, the virtues require us to be able to overcome our basic desires and to understand our roles in accordance with the society in which we reside and to shape our desires in accordance with the virtues. Desires then clearly become acknowledged as post societal and not pre-societal as they intrinsically betray an ordering to the goods.

On this topic, MacIntyre covers the difference between a virtuous conception as expressed by St Thomas, and one provided by Hume and Adam Smith:

Sentiments that Hume takes to be near universal and natural among mankind Aquinas takes to be symptoms of failure as a rational agent. And in this respect Aquinas’s view contrasts not only with Hume’s but also with that of Hume’s contemporary and friend, Adam Smith.

On Smith’s account of economic activity, it is by each individual pursuing the increase of his or her own profit that productivity is increased, and that each individual benefits from the labor of others, so that the general prosperity is increased. What motivates individuals to act so as to grow as wealthy as possible is in key part, on Smith’s account, a set of cheerful illusions fostered by our imaginations about the satisfactions afforded to the great and the rich by their possessions and power, illusions that, except ‘in times of sickness and low spirit,’ set us to work.[xiv]

These desires not only can, but must, be controlled and regulated toward an overall good for any society to function properly. A pursuit of virtue which correctly orders these desires is therefore paramount, yet the consumerist economic system of liberal democracy is devoted to the atomisation of individuals and manipulation of these societally adopted desires through consumerism and the application of advertisement to stimulate demand for the productive basis of the economy, whilst simultaneously asserting that desire is intrinsic – an astonishing example of the incoherence of liberalism. The members of a liberal economy become nothing short of individual entities manipulated into consumption, and any virtue is decried as unrealistic by the collective political spectrum – both left liberal and right liberal. MacIntyre notes this very same issue when he bemoans the total absence of a possibility of collective good in the positions of both Smith and Hume:

But is should at once occur to us that that conception and thought are not found in Hume’s writings anymore than they are in Smith’s. And this suggests that their absence was a matter of the general culture shared by Hume and, Smith and those educated contemporaries in Scotland, England, France and the Netherlands who were their readers and who provided the political, mercantile, commercial, and academic leadership of their societies.”[xv]

We can also provide another avenue of potential assistance to the critique of economics in the area of property because MacIntyre’s attempts to wed Marxism to an understanding of virtues come across as quixotic by MacIntyre’s own rational system, something he seems unaware of. Marx in his conceptualisation of capitalism worked with categories and considerations of property which he inherited from the liberal political economy of Smith and Hume et al. This consideration of property is one in which the property in question is treated as a possession and is not a granting of authority. This distinction is key. Possession is a status which does not rely on legal distinctions, or even the agreement of another person, but is a brute fact. Either the actor possesses the possession, or they do not. Property however, is utterly different, and relies on the recognition by authority in the form of custom and law. The conflation of all property as possession is something which is central to Marx’s theory of surplus value and the unjust appropriation of an agent’s property (or rather , possession.) The significance of this is that this analysis and understanding is one which singularly considers the political structure within which the property/ possession is analysed as almost irrelevant. To draw this issue out further, consider the following; Marx uses a theory of property derived from Locke’s labor theory of property, this theory of property presupposes that property is what Hodgson in Conceptualizing Capitalism[xvi] calls an agent-object relationship. In effect this understanding falls within an anarchistic conception of property. This anarchistic conception of property has clear and discernible geneology from the very same state of nature conception which MacIntyre so correctly rejects in the field of ethics – so why should it hold in the arena of property? The answer must be that it simply cannot. Further to this, the argument has been made elsewhere[xvii] that this conception of property itself must be perceived in light of the institutional conflicts in play at this time and place, and this provides us with a clear picture of a conception of property which is derivative of the very same section of society from which modern ethics derive. Property in the Marxist sense, and in the liberal sense, is ahistorical and does not correspond to reality. If it could in any sense be implemented in reality, no functional society could follow.

At this point, we can also note a major departure of absolutist theory from liberal and Marxist understanding of man as a self-interested entity, we can do this by rejecting all of those critiques of capitalism which vilify these actors in capitalism who form the “the political, mercantile, commercial, and academic leadership of their societies”[xviii] as being critiques based on an account of human behaviour which is not confirmed by examples. Marx’s analysis, which MacIntyre follows far too closely, leads to only a partial understanding that while these actors promote a form of society and ordering of goods in line with their social positions, this was not, and has not been, in line with mere greed, but contained a genuine belief in the beneficial nature of this state of affairs. We can thank Marx for his understanding of the role of the economic position on the actor and the formative role of the social position, but then depart from him on this anthropology. What we find when we don’t purposefully blind ourselves with this anthropology is that these very same actors transfer their wealth into the promotion of what they perceive as the common good. For examples of this, one only has to look at the aforementioned foundations of the 20th Century and the actions of the heads of industry. From the Ford Foundation, the various Carnegie Foundations, the various Rockefeller foundations, to now the Gates foundations and Soro’s Open Foundation, those who obtain great wealth then direct it to what they see as societal good, good which is informed by the traditions from which they operate. That this wealth is also used for more cynical means is part and parcel of the unsecure Power system. Power pursuit is both driven by desire for power and for the societal good that one believes one will render to society.

The implication is clear, MacIntyre has himself applied exceptional sociological awareness to extricate himself from the errors of our modern ethical inheritance, but has been led astray by Marx’s economics and fallen back into this same anarchist tradition with all of its attendant errors in economics and political structure theory. MacIntyre then presents a strange hybrid of two mutually incompatible concepts in his essay Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity. The ethics of virtue simply do not fit Marxists interpretations of economics, nor do they fit Distributionist economics.

MacIntyre’s understandable slip in taking on a conception of property that is infused with the very same underlying philosophical precepts as the modern ethical project he rejects is a great source of weakness. Thankfully, in the area of tradition he is not so unaware. Many commentators have noted with some confusion that on a number of occasions Macintyre has taken aim at Edmund Burke’s conception of tradition. Something demonstrated by the following passage from After Virtue:

Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead. . . . The individualism of modernity could of course find no use for the notion of tradition within its own conceptual scheme except as an adversary notion; it therefore all too willingly abandoned it to the Burkeans, who, faithful to Burke’s own allegiance, tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence in economics to the doctrine and institutions of the free market. The theoretical incoherence of this mismatch did not deprive it of ideological usefulness.[xix]

Just what this oligarchical revolution was in MacIntyre’s opinion is of issue. What the revolution in effect succeeded in doing was enshrining just that agent-object conception of property which MacIntyre has advocated erroneously as a means of analysis for his understanding of virtue and political action. Prior to this period, it appears property was understood as a granting of authority, after this period – and this is key- property was considered as not reliant on this authority.

This rejection of the role of authority is central to Burke’s consideration of tradition, more fundamentally so than the issue of rationality. So when we find MacIntyre noting that on the issue of rationality as a defining feature of a tradition that:

Burke was on this matter, as on so many others, an agent of positive harm. For Burke ascribed to traditions in good order, the order as he supposed of following nature, “wisdom without reflection” (reflections on the revolution in France, ed. C. C. O’Brien, Harmondsworth, 1982, p. 129). So that no place is left for reflection, rational theorizing as a work of and within tradition.[xx]

What he misses is why Burke (a Whig politician) was putting forward this formulation, and the answer is because he was trying to elaborate a mechanism for tradition that was in effect spontaneous and not the result of authority and governance. Burke presented an anarchistic conservatism, something which later thinkers such as Friedrich Von Hayek have taken to its logical conclusion and made obvious with the vacuous concept of spontaneous order. This sheds further light on Burke, because the French Revolution that prompted his elaboration of “conservatism” was basically the aggressive application of just that same underlying anarchistic ontological understanding of society of which he was a proponent. This is something that MacIntyre himself notes in After Virtue when he writes:

Indeed at least the first phase of the French revolution can be understood as an attempt to enter by political means this North European culture and so to abolish the gap between French ideas and French social and political life. Certainly Kant recognized the French revolution as a political expression of thought akin to his own.[xxi]

His call to “unthinking wisdom” in the form of leaving existing structures in place then comes across as a plea to not apply anarchism fully, but to instead merely leave the structures that non-anarchistic monarchy put in place. It is a theoretically incoherent advocacy of the advancement of principles of anarchism as far as he thinks are beneficial to society, not just him, but society, which is something which conservatism has continued to do since. The rejection of rationality and tradition in the guises understood by MacIntyre then become a subset of the rejection of authority that occurred with the English Civil War and after, which was itself a symptom of institutional conflict and the centralising Power of the unsecure system. And this is precisely the argument that this paper seeks to put forward, this being that an absolutist political theory supplies the model which explains why the ethical and social changes that MacIntyre reveals occurred. So when MacIntyre writes the following in After Virtue:

There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing in their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.[xxii]

We believe the absolutist theoretical framework supplies just such a history. The actions and thoughts developed and acted out by these thinkers are explainable from a position of understanding the incentives and the predictable actions of those in positions of authority, and from a position of understanding how they act from the traditions they inherit. These institutions which make up the authority within any given domain are of paramount importance because it is precisely these institutions which are the ultimate gatekeepers of social change. This is in stark contrast to all anarchistic ontologies which simply ignore them at best, or treat them with hostility and consider them parasitic at worst.

The absolutist framework within which MacIntyre’s ethical historical geneology fits so well is then one which traces the period of modernity as a continual institutional conflict between unsecure power centers which have engaged in a number of behaviours which are predictable. The ethical changes which MacIntyre traces are then explainable as the unfortunate outcome of the centralisation of Power within the western European states, and the removal of ecclesiastical power centers in the process. More detailed outlines of this model are provided in the accompanying papers in this journal edition.

One brief example we can present here regarding the history of philosophy is that philosophy is the product of the university system, a system which Bertrand de Jouvenel notes were encouraged by secular power in the form of the monarch, as it provided him:

“with his most effective champions. These maintain his cause, whether against the Emperor or the Pope, in brilliant theses, but, also and still more, they gnaw darkly and continuously at the foundations of baronial right.”[xxiii]

Universities became the birthing ground for power’s intellectual attack on those traditions which were based on a pursuit of excellence. Those then operating within this university system produced a philosophical tradition embodied by these institutions, which then continue to develop along the rational parameters set by this conflict. Traditions are the result of institutions, so which institutions are allowed to flourish or promoted by Power, become the producers and keepers of traditions in the area within which Power operates. Absolutist theory then places the issue of rejection of virtue that MacIntyre traces firmly in the hands of unsecure centralising Power, so by the time we get to the sophisticated philosophical elaborations of liberalism of the modern period the structural changes that it described had already been accomplished.

What these institutions then do is they provide a tradition, in this case the very liberal philosophical tradition noted by MacIntyre, whose adherents lack the necessary sociological awareness to transcend the intellectual system they are provided. What they take as universal and timeless is in fact historically and geographically contingent.

Now, it must be noted at this point that the political theory I present may be superficially interpreted as being subject to just those criticism of mechanistic theories which MacIntyre presents in After Virtue when he writes:

“An Aristotelian account of what is involved in understanding human behavior involves an ineliminable reference to such items; and hence it is not surprising that any attempt to understand human behavior in terms of mechanical explanation must conflict with Aristotelianism.[xxiv]

But I would counter that the mechanisms outlined by absolutist theory are imbued with precisely those aspects which MacIntyre identifies as being necessary to be in line with an Aristolean understanding of facts. Not only does power analysis present human action within a teleological setting with reference to the goods of the actors in question, but it is also placed within a framework which is acknowledged as a tradition in the MacIntyrean sense and not a claimed “objective” position. The model is not based on supposedly value free concepts but on the regularity of the tools and mechanisms available to actors within authority, or with power, in a society given institutional conflict. The tools used are predetermined by the socially perceived validity of the concepts advanced, hence we see a continual and chronic advancement of the socially acceptable ploy of advancing equality and liberty as a means to undermine other power centers. Indeed, just such an understanding is partially expressed by MacIntyre himself when he writes:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf. As I have remarked elsewhere, it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.[xxv]

In summary, the claim of this paper is that the ethical project of Alasidair MacIntyre can be augmented by an absolutist conception of power and politics and provided with a robust political model that provides an explanation of the trends and developments which supersedes the Marxist foundations of MacIntyre’s conception of tradition. This conception also supersedes the poverty of liberal interpretations of the role and development of the modern state, power, authority and property in society. In short, we believe Absolutism provides a sociology that is of extreme value to MacIntyre’s project, and would represent a radical step forward in attempts to develop a coherent political framework embodying virtue.



[i] Thaddeus J. Kozinski, “Alasdair MacIntyre’s Political Liberalism,” First Principles ISI Web Journal (March 1, 2008.) Accessed April 4, 2017.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the accompanying papers in this journal for a fuller elaboration of this political interpretation.

[vi] Alaisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) p 255.

[vii] Ibid, p 254.

[viii] Alaisdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, ( Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp 257-8.

[ix]  Andrew Fletcher of Saltoon, Selected Political Writings and Speeches, Ed. David Daiches (Edinburgh, Scotish Academic Press, 1979). Accessed April 4, 2017,

[x] Alaisdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2016) pp 220-21.

[xi] MacIntyre, After Virtue p 191.

[xii] Ibid, pp 187-90.

[xiii] MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p 200-01.

[xiv] MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity,  p 91-92.

[xv] Ibid, p 92.

[xvi] Geoffrey Hodgson, Conceptualizing Capitalism: Institutions, Evolution, Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.)

[xvii] See the paper titled Absolutist Ontology in this edition of this journal for an account of the origin of anarchistic property claims.

[xviii] MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity,  p 92.

[xix] MacIntyre, After Virtue, p 222.

[xx] MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, p 353.

[xxi] MacIntyre, After Virtue  p 37.

[xxii] Ibid, p 72.

[xxiii] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth (USA, Beacon Press Boston, 1962,) p 185.

[xxiv] MacIntyre, After Virtue  p 84.

[xxv] Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to My Critics,” in After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Horton and Susan Mendus, ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p 303.