Excerpt #28 — Alasdair MacIntyre on The Secondary Virtues

We are better acquainted with MacIntyre’s “secondary virtues” than we are with virtues proper; they have become the staple of our shared life, because they make a shared life between heterogeneous moral communities possible. They do not, however, tell us what we should aim at in pursuing a worthy life, only how we should bend our purposes.

Alasdair MacIntyre has a book titled Secularization and Moral Change which I finally got around to reading. In it, he notes how a set of virtues that he calls “the secondary virtues” came to the fore in English life as a compromise between the different interests of different classes in the wake of urbanization and then the Industrial Revolution.

If you read any book produced from the late nineteenth century onwards about English life written by an Englishman from an English point of view, the virtues which are said to be characteristic of the English are a pragmatic approach to problems, co-operativeness, fair-play, tolerance, a gift for compromise, and fairness. I call these secondary virtues for this reason, that their existence in a moral scheme of things as virtues is secondary to, is if you like parasitic upon, the notion of another primary set of virtues which are directly related to the goals which men pursue as the ends of their life. The secondary virtues do not assist us in identifying which ends we should pursue. The assumption made when they are commended is that men are already pursuing certain ends, and that they have to be told to modify their pursuit of these ends in certain ways. The secondary virtues concern the way in which we should go about our projects; their cultivation will not assist us in discovering upon which projects we ought to be engaged.

Later in the argument I shall remark further how [25] the moral concepts central to modern English life have been of the secondary kind. The public virtues of British life, the virtues that are publicly commended as peculiarly our own, the virtues which children are especially taught to appreciate, just because they are secondary virtues, are virtues which rule out any kind of metaphysical exclusivism. They are virtues which express an attitude to the world in which the making of cosmic and universal claims for one’s own group, as against other groups, is no longer possible. Both the economic and social needs that were met by co-operation between classes and the accompanying moral schemes led to a situation in which every attempt to universalize, to give cosmic significance to, the values of a particular group were bound to founder. And so all those attempts made in the late nineteenth century to provide a new religious expression for the life either of one part of the English nation or of the nation as a whole founder too. [pp. 24-25]

MacIntyre thinks that the US has a shared value system that can be appealed to by the wealthy and the poor alike, so that religious communities in thr US are not necessarily class communities. MacIntyre thinks that this shows that

the difference between the secularization of English society consequent on industrialization and the lack of secularization in American society is in the end a product of two different class structures, one of which allows for there being a national community of values and the other of which only allows that national community of values to exist at the level of what I call the secondary virtues. [34]

These secondary virtues are quintessentially English, MacIntyre argues, in a way that they cannot be for Americans:

the key ideas of British society, the ideas typified by the secondary virtues, are ideas which arose out of the necessity of class compromise and class co-operation […]. [35]

The ruling class’ ideas (and virtues and norms) are not the ones that have won in English life: those that have won were the “secondary virtues” of the parking lot of compromise, and

the area of compromise in English life has been extended into the institutionalization of the discussion of religious issues. [36]

The syllabus for what is to be taught about religion in English schools seems detached from the rest of life because of this situation:

Even when taught at its best what is taught about religion can have little or no relationship to the kind of norms and attitudes which are imposed in the world of work, and therefore prevail both in the present paternal world which children share and in the future adult world into which they will go. [36]

MacIntyre notes that it is impossible to give a unifying religious anchor to all of society in the wake of social differentiation, and, in England, it was increasingly impossible to offer a unifying moral vision and moral community to the different classes and their various interests. More than this, though, in England,

independent moralities were eroded just because it became necessary for rival social classes to institutionalize their co-operation, so that the points at which men from different classes met and worked out common aims became as important and more important to society than the points at which they worked out the aims of their own group. The morality of the public-school prefect was crippling in negotiations with British Trade Unionists. The morality of the middle-class businessman offered no solution to the problems of dealing in a day-to-day way with a skilled labour force whose personal aspirations came nearer and nearer to his own. At the same time for the morality of thrift and hard work there was always the additional difficulty that this morality was continually eroded by the success which it itself fostered. John Wesley had lamented that the trouble with his Methodist version of the puritan ethic was that it did help [one] to succeed in business; having succeeded in business, [one] became rich and [one] no longer lived by the puritan ethic. [One is] in fact displaced from that economic and social situation in which the stimulus of the puritan ethic has point. The result is a change in the motives of the business community, linked also to its increasing influence politically, and with the fact, for instance, that more and more businessmen become able to send their sons to Public Schools, where a common institutional framework for the morality of two originally quite different social groups begins to be worked out. All these reasons increase the appeal to the secondary virtues of co-operation, of compromise, of a pragmatic approach, of fairness, and more and more there is a retreat from the inadequate positive virtues that have characterized different and rival groups. Even when the positive moralities survive, as they do survive up to this day, they survive most often in the form of fragments, and one finds in many people a mixture of the puritan ethic with the public-school morality of the paternalist administrator, or of the kind of solidarity that belongs to the Trade Union ethic with some of the values of self-help, and so on. It is for fewer and fewer people in England the case that there is any unambiguous and single moral form within which they could work out their lives. [48-49]

I expect I’ll be summarizing this entire work soon, but MacIntyre’s arguments regarding these “secondary virtues” is, I think, looking at in somewhat isolation.


Header image found here.

9 thoughts on “Excerpt #28 — Alasdair MacIntyre on The Secondary Virtues

  1. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, I | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, II | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, III | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Summary | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: Alasdair MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Selections from Demant’s Review | Into the Clarities

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