MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, II

We began to look at Alasdair MacIntyre’s Riddell memorial lectures gathered under the title Secularization and Moral Change in the previous post. MacIntyre is best known for his book After Virtue. Here, we continue to summarize the other two lectures that make up Secularization and Moral Change. Again, I refer the reader to Peter Webster’s summary.


The question that MacIntyre asks in the second lecture is: “whether religious decline is a, or the, cause of moral decline”? [7] The notion that “intellectual scepticism” [37] causes religious decline, and religious decline causes moral decline, is “a familiar thesis”. [37] MacIntyre, however, maintains that secularization does not drive moral changes, but that moral changes drive secularization. [37]

In the wake of industrialization, rival moralities specific to the classes emerge, each with universal claims. [38] MacIntyre treats them as three:

1) The upper-middle class he treats first. As is seen in the school prefects from this class, it has, as its “principal virtues” [38], “loyalty to the group and the cultivation of a corresponding feeling that there are really no limits to what you may do to outsiders.” [38] The private-school “code that you may behave as brutally as you like to boys junior to you, but they may not protect themselves by sneaking” [39], attends to this. This class sees itself as “the bearer of the essential past”; its whole ethic is past-oriented, to the point of inventing family genealogies to better secure this status; this carries with it a sense that this class has a right to certain things that attend to this role (like certain jobs). Honesty is key (anything else is “beneath your dignity” [39]), and paternalism is to be shown to those over whom it is ones right and duty to rule. The religion of this group is not founded on the belief that God exists, but that “it is on the whole the right and fitting thing to go to church.” [40] (MacIntyre does not write this contemptuously.) The rituals should be looked at first; the rituals of this class function to bring the class together. [41]

2) The “middle-class businessman rooted in survivals of the puritan ethic” [41] follows next. The virtues: “thrift”, “hard work […] as a virtue in itself and not merely as a means to an end, and self-help and self-advancement have a maximal value.” Individualism is a marker of this morality — one ought not rely on one’s family and friends. Honesty is valued for self-respect, rather than as a marker of upper-class dignity.

The key relationship is not to the past but to the future. The promise which is written into the myth of this morality is that if you work hard, save, and rise early you will in fact prosper and do well. [41]

3) The working class sees class-loyalty as circumscribing the range of what one ought to aspire to be: to desire to become a manager or study at university is seen as traitorous to one’s peers, and one’s peers may very well put obstacles in one’s way. One can better oneself “only by bettering [one’s] class”. [42] One’s links are chiefly with those whom one works with. Workers are essentially equal with bosses. Paternalism is to be eschewed in favor of mutual help. “[T]he Trade Union takes over some of the functions of the pre-industrial extended family and of the pre-industrial community.” [42] There is a tension between a focus on the present and the future in this ethic, because of how close the class is to total destitution, with no prospects of substantially improving this, but a desire to create a fundamentally different kind of future as a result. [43] Work is central to their lives in a way that it is not for the middle class, and experienced by the working class as “an imposed necessity which they have to live through”; some see this necessity as carrying “dignity”, some don’t. [44]


These three moralities are listed “in fairly pure form” [44], though most people don’t live life in these pure forms, as they didn’t survive unchanged for three reasons:

A) liberalization, part of which means that “what a man values, what standards he adopts, is something he must decide for himself”; in the liberal framework, “facts are neutral” but “values are personal, values are private, values can be chosen”, leading to the confused situation where people feel there are objective standards for the virtues of one’s class, but that these standards are chosen, and so can’t be imposed on others (and, in turn, others can’t impose their values) [45];

B) changes to those institutions (e.g., marriage) and contexts (e.g., national political life) which were held in common among all classes, changes which occurred under “the pressure of social, economic, and technological change” [46]; it was assumed that marriage would continue where the woman’s social status was tied unbreakably to her husband almost as a kind of property, and that “a kind of general sexual asceticism” [46] could be taken for granted by all classes as a moral norm; it was also assumed that conflicts and flourishing would occur within the context of national political life [47], which attitude died in the wake of the Great War; and

C) the institutionalization of inter-class co-operation in the form of the secondary virtues brings about both an erosion of the pure forms and a bleeding between the forms that undermines the simple persistence of any class morality as listed above (when negotiating or dealing with another class, people can’t bring the morality of their own class to the table and insist on no compromises if anything is to get done); also, the sliding of people from one class to another undermines pure forms, as does the hodge-podge combination of moralities that people cobbled together for themselves (so that “when the positive moralities survive […], they survive most often in the form of fragments” [49]); especially the secondary virtues undermine them, though, as these become the real framework within which projects are pursued.


MacIntyre thinks that these conflicts can be illuminated by outlining a problem in contemporary ethics.

There is one position in modern ethics that would take principles such as “one ought to be honest” or “one should be generous” as fundamentally emotivist in origin and so merely voluntary in adoption: they name no real principle, but merely express the emotions and preferences of the one stating them.

Others would say that to use words like “rudeness” or “cowardice”, one is appealing to a moral framework that is granted, and not chosen; the moral language used assumes that one is drawing upon a normative moral framework.

“[S]ociologically”, however, these two positions may be not two exclusive positions about a common moral phenomenon, but “descriptions of two quite different sets of phenomena” which “coexist within our society.” [50] The one is those who live within an assumed moral framework, a concrete community of practice and judge choices of standards within that light. [51] The other is those who do not occupy a single moral community, but “find themselves solicited from different standpoints” and who thus “cannot avoid choice”. For these, “choice is the fundamental concept” and there’s no framework within which these choices could be criticized. [51] Emotivism is hard to resolve upon as the final word, however, because when we elect to value, say, honesty, we are implicitly making a moral claim beyond simply our own choices or feelings. Outside of a shared moral community, however, this normative element appears like a “private gesture” [52], even to the one making it. We are not such a unified moral community as a society, however, and we don’t share a moral language.


To the original question: in order for a society to have a common religious form it must have a common moral discourse. [53] In a society with different moral discourses, “the notion of moral authority is no longer a viable one”. [53] MacIntyre uses the metaphor of chess: we need shared rules, a shared right way of doing things, for there to be any authorities. There are many ways of doing things in the social fracturing of late modernity, though. In such a moral context, any churchman who stands up to make authoritative religious claims for all of England presupposes that everyone in his audience shares a standard with him (both ways of behaving and goals) that they in fact, do not — not as a whole society.

Thus, it is not the case that skepticism erodes religious faith and that this, in turn, erodes moral agreement:

it is not the case that men first stopped believing in God and in the authority of the Church, and then subsequently started behaving differently. It seems clear that men first of all lost any over-all social agreement as to the right ways to live together, and so ceased to be able to make sense of any claims to moral authority. Consequently they could not find intelligible the claims to such authority which were advanced on the part of the Church. […] Social change and with it moral change is chronologically prior to the loss of belief effected by [55] intellectual argument, except where a very small minority are concerned. [54-55]

Only after social and moral change have made it unclear what Christianity entails in terms of a way of life does intellectual argument even take on a key role — assuming that being Christian is more than simply joining with others at prayer and Eucharist, or other distinctly religious activities. The bishops make wider claims about the application of Christian principles to life than this, though — e.g., to war, &c. The bishops in England are typically drawn from the upper classes, however, and so they

still live within a moral framework and use a moral vocabulary that has been eroded and lost elsewhere in society; like other survivors of shipwreck they live on deserted islands. [55]

The judges are also drawn from this class, which explains why they engage in the same set of behaviors. [56] “This could only be maintained by people who are living in a past that has survived in our society in the life of a particular class.” [56] At best, authoritative moral utterances are, in such a context, “inapplicable” [57]; at worst, such utterances are “pernicious”, because it would provide the illusion that English society shares “common standards and ideas” instead of being “a society united […] by harsh utilitarian necessities”. [57]

It is possible, and admirable, to bring about a moral community of “shared ends and needs” that generate “a common life and common commitments”, but imposing religious forms that are alien to the habits and lived concerns of most people won’t help with that.

Moral disintegration and secularization (vi&., beliefs and activities that assume no God, as MacIntyre puts it [7-8]) are two sides of the same coin; moral disintegration is not produced by secularization, however, but the opposite.


Header image found here.

4 thoughts on “MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, II

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

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

  3. Pingback: MacIntyre, Demant, and the Book of Sirach | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, Some Concluding Thoughts | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.