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Ethics » Kantian ethics » MacIntyre's criticism

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his 1985 book After Virtue, accuses Kant of being action-centred rather than agent-centred, of being too worried about the rights and wrongs of little things and not worried enough about people's broader moral character. We all know that someone can seem bad despite keeping the law and that another can seem good despite having done something bad. Who was better, Anne Frank’s neighbours who, like good citizens, turned the family over to the Gestapo, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who risked everything in an assassination attempt on Hitler?

In fact, the broader virtue ethic that MacIntyre proposes is based on the ethic that Kant developed through the Metaphysics of morals (1797), the Critique of Judgement (1790) and the essay Towards perpetual peace (1795). As was said earlier, the Groundwork was just intended to get people asking the right questions. Kant had no easy answers to what we should do with our lives; in his view it is for every individual to use their reason and their freedom to work out how to be good for themselves by reflecting on their experience of other people’s lives. He accepted that mistakes are bound to be made, and that regret would temper the satisfaction of even the best person, yet he never despaired of the possibility of human beings living up to their natures and being good. He was never obsessed with rules in the way that MacIntyre suggests; the Groundwork, which MacIntyre uses to support this view, aims to work out how a virtuous person would act, not to railroad anyone into following a code first and being human second.

Character as the sum of a person's choices

One important point to take from Kant into the discussion of virtue ethics is that the general moral character is built up of every choice it has made. Modern virtue ethics tend to shy away from offering definite advice about right and wrong and are unclear about the virtues we should aspire to; in the confusion it would be easy to justify most behaviour. Kant is clearer and more demanding, not afraid to pin down his virtues of rationality and freedom or to describe how they would be enacted.

The Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals was produced to elicit discussion and controversy related to themes which Kant was handling at more length in the Metaphysics of morals and the Critique of practical reason. Kant often produced essays or short works whilst he was working up major books, so that many of the issues with and criticisms of his ideas would be flushed out whilst he still had time to respond to them. Unfortunately, Kant’s major books became so long and complicated as a result that many people never got as far as to read them, relying instead on the shorter works.

The Groundwork begins by arguing that the only inherently good thing is a good will. What does Kant mean by this? Kant uses two German words for "will", Wille, which refers to the universal principles of reason, and Willkur, which is the moral character within every one of us. Human nature, our character, is to be rational, but also to be free, therefore the Willkur is not programmed to follow the Wille, but must choose to do so. When faced with a moral decision the Willkur has to weigh up the apparently competing desires of the animal self (the Bestimmung), of the social/emotional self, and of reason, and freely choose to follow reason, subordinating the emotions and instincts to it. Only when somebody freely chooses to follow reason are they good and only that character which has always freely chosen the rational is truly good and deserving of any metaphysical reward that there may be.