Read A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre Free Online
Book Title: A Short History of Ethics|
The author of the book: Alasdair MacIntyre
Edition: University of Notre Dame Press
Date of issue: January 15th 1998
ISBN 13: 9780268017590
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 36.79 MB
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Reader ratings: 5.8
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Review of Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics
The title of the book is misleading. It gives one the impression that AM will gives us a survey of the history of ethical positions. While he does do this to a degree, that is not the point of the book. AM’s argument is that key terms in ethics change meaning with the change in language and/or social custom (269). Secondly, key moves in philosophy and social theory change ethical foundations.
AM begins with Greek ethics and gives a thorough review of it. Interestingly, AM wrote this book before he endorsed Aristotelian ethics as the way out of the modern morass. He is more critical of Aristotle here than he is in After Virtue.
The next key move is Christianity. This section is weak for a number of reasons. AM had not yet converted to Christianity and as a result he depended on much out-of-date and long-refuted German scholarship on Christianity. Secondly, ten pages on Christianity? He tried to summarize Augustine and Aquinas in two paragraphs! That being said, his summary, while too brief, was accurate. Augustine and Aquinas reinterpreted key sections of Plato and Aristotle, respectively, into explicitly Christian categories.
But something changed in the history of Christianity. Luther arose. Luther introduced a character that had been absent in ethical discussions: the individual. Luther also introduced new rules for social ethics. Luther bifurcated morality by positing absolute and unconditional ethical commands on the one hand (God says so) with the self-justifying rules of market and state on the other (124). This paved the way for autonomy and secularism.
The rest of Western ethics can be seen as a footnote or an outworking to this. With the idea of contract introduced, social ethics now revolved around the tenuous idea of “natural rights.” Western thinkers could not (still can’t!) reconcile an authoritarian state with limits to the state’s power. Locke tried and came very close to doing this.
The Good: the reader has a good understanding after reading AM. This book’s argument is much tighter than that of After Virtue. Also, AM does a superb job in showing (hinting, rather) the inevitability of interpreting ethical norms from within a community. He perfects this move in After Virtue.
The Bad: The writing style could be improved. It is like watching an elephant run. I forgot how man times the author used the word “just” (and not in the sense of justice). Secondly, as he notes in his preface, his section on Christianity is weak. Thirdly, he spends too much time on analysis and too little on exposition. This is okay if the reader already understands the thinker in question. It is annoying if he doesn’t.
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Read information about the authorAlasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a leading philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology. He is the O'Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
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