After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

All power tends to coopt and absolute power coopts absolutely.

All power tends to coopt, and absolute power coopts absolutely.

At the foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements the truth of which no further reason can be given.

Contemporary moral argument is rationally interminable, because all moral, indeed all evaluative, argument is and always must be rationally interminable. Contemporary moral disagreements of a certain kind cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present or future, can be resolved.

Deprive the taboo rules of their original context, and they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions, as indeed they characteristically do appear when the initial context is lost, when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten.

In such a situation the rules have been deprived of any status that can secure their authority, and, if they do not acquire some new status quickly, both their interpretation and their justification become debatable. When the resources of a culture are too meagre to carry through the task of reinterpretation, the task of justification becomes impossible. Hence perhaps the relatively easy, although to some contemporary observers astonishing, victory of Kamehameha II over the taboos (and the creation thereby of a vacuum in which the banalities of the New England Protestant missionaries were received all too quickly).

For Kant one can be both good and stupid; but for Aristotle stupidity of a certain kind precludes goodness.

From this it does not of course follow that there are no natural or human rights; it only follows that no one could have known that there were. And this at least raises certain questions. But we do not need to be distracted into answering them, for the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.

If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.

In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good as specified by the good for man, there can no longer either be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good. Hence notions of desert and of honor become detached from the context in which they were originally at home. Honor becomes nothing more than a badge of aristocratic status, and status itself, tied as it is now so securely to property, has very little to do with desert.

... it is not just that moral conclusions can not be justified in the way that they once were ; but the loss of the possibility of such justification signals a correlative change in the meaning of moral idioms

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world, and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.

It is yet another of Nietzsche’s merits that he joins to his critique of Enlightenment moralities a sense of their failure to address adequately, let alone to answer the question: what sort of person am I to become? This is in a way an inescapable question in that an answer to it is given in practice in each human life. But for characteristically modern moralities it is a question to be approached only by indirection. The primary question from their standpoint has concerned rules: what rules ought we to follow?

J.B. Bury once followed Pascal in suggesting that the cause of the foundation of the Roman Empire was the length of Cleopatra’s nose: had her features not been perfectly proportioned, Mark Antony would not have been entranced; had he not been entranced he would not have allied himself with Egypt against Octavian; had he not made that alliance, the battle of Actium would not have been fought—and so on.

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.

One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household. So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household in turn sustains. As, and to the extent that, work moves outside the household and is put to the service of impersonal capital, the realm of work tends to become separated from everything but the service of biological survival and the reproduction of the labor force, on the one hand, and that of institutionalized acquisitiveness, on the other. Pleonexia, a vice in the Aristotelian scheme, is now the driving force of modern productive work.

The choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is not the choice between good and evil, it is the choice whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil.

The introduction of the word ‘intuition’ by a moral philosopher is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong with an argument.

The medieval world then is one in which not only is the scheme of the virtues enlarged beyond an Aristotelian perspective, but above all in which the connection between the distinctively narrative element in human life and the character of the vices comes to the forefront of consciousness and not only in biblical terms.

the present is intelligible only as a commentary upon and response to the past in which the past, if necessary and if possible, is corrected and transcended,

There is no way to understand the character of the taboo rules, except as a survival from some previous more elaborate cultural background. We know also and as a consequence that any theory which makes the taboo rules ... intelligible just as they are without any reference to their history is necessarily a false theory... why should we think about [the theories of] analytic moral philosophers such as Moore, Ross, Prichard, Stevenson, Hare and the rest in any different way? ... Why should we think about our modern use of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late eighteenth-century Polynesian uses of taboo?

The true genre of the life is neither hagiography nor saga, but tragedy.

To cry out that the emperor had no clothes on was at least to pick on one man only to the amusement of everyone else; to declare that almost everyone is dressed in rags is much less likely to be popular.

To have understood the polymorphous character of pleasure and happiness is of course to have rendered those concepts useless for utilitarian purposes; if the prospect of his or her own future pleasure or happiness cannot for reasons which I have suggested provide criteria for solving the problems of action in the case of each individual, it follows that the notion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is a notion without any clear content at all. It is indeed a pseudo-concept available for a variety of ideological uses, but no more than that.

Totalitarianism of a certain kind, as imagined by Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, is therefore impossible. What the totalitarian project will always produce will be a kind of rigidity and inefficiency which may contribute in the long run to its defeat. We need to remember however the voices from Auschwitz and Gulag Archipelago which tell us just how long that long run is.

unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.

we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives.

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others. In my drama, perhaps, I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince, but to you I am only A Gentleman or at best Second Murderer, while you are my Polonius or my Gravedigger, but your own hero. Each of our dramas exerts constraints on each other’s, making the whole different from the parts, but still dramatic.

What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?

Whenever those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises. And consequently it is possible to predict with confidence that in the apparently quite unlikely contexts of bureaucratically managed modern societies there will periodically emerge social movements informed by just that kind of prophetic irrationalism of which Nietzsche's thought is the ancestor. Indeed just because and insofar as contemporary Marxism is Weberian in substance we can expect prophetic irrationalisms of the left as well as of the Right.

would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St Paul—does