Virtues, Values, and the Good Life: Alasdair MacIntyre's Virtue Ethics and Its Implications for Counseling

Article excerpt

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's critique of modern ethics and his virtue-centered alternative suggest that counseling can be considered a form of applied virtue ethics, helping clients cultivate the qualities necessary to live the good life. Although similar to developmental theory and positive psychology, this perspective also questions whether counseling is value neutral and suggests that counseling should account for the (often hidden) traditions, virtues, and practices of the good life it promotes. Comparison with spiritual direction suggests ways counseling can apply the insights of this model ethically within a pluralistic setting.


Alasdair MacIntyre's (1984) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory and its sequels (MacIntyre, 1988, 1990, 2006) hold important consequences for both counseling theory and practice, suggesting significant new ways to understand the relationship between counseling and ethics. This communitarian virtue ethicist is one of the most important philosophers of the past 50 years, yet his provocative work has had little impact on counseling. This project is ambitious, technical, and often polemical, qualities that might explain its absence in the counseling literature despite its stature among philosophers, but it is also rewarding when

given a patient hearing.

MacIntyre's Virtue Ethics

Imagine a world shaken by catastrophe, where only fragments of humanity's scientific knowledge remain, and people are struggling to piece this knowledge together (MacIntyre, 1984). With this disquieting image begins one of the most influential and thought-provoking works of philosophy to have appeared in the last 50 years: MacIntyre's (1984) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. In his work, MacIntyre advances the thesis that "in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder which I described" (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 2) because modern philosophy abandoned the perspective of virtue to construct context-independent ethics.

Diagnosing a Catastrophe

In After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, MacIntyre (1984) pointed to the disarray in modern ethics by highlighting society's inability to conduct rational arguments about ethical concerns. On many important ethical issues, contemporary society seems intractably divided, with opposing sides showing little interest in engaging one another in reasoned debate. Instead, partisans seem merely to cheer for their own preferences and demonize those who disagree with them. MacIntyre (1984) claimed that, regardless of whether they know it, the participants in such confrontations exhibit the logic of emotivism, a theory that moral judgments are nothing more than matters of personal like or dislike. According to emotivism, right and wrong have no real meaning; ethical judgments are simply attempts by people to get others to agree with them through cheering or expressing disgust. By this logic, ethical debates have no reason or purpose. Instead, emotivist societies tend to reduce ethical questions about what is right and just to issues of utility--what makes something good is its effectiveness for this person at this time. But in doing so, these societies neglect important ethical problems such as how can people reconcile their own needs with those of others and how can people's choices lead to a coherent good life.

MacIntyre (1984) indicted therapists as collaborators in this ethical viewpoint: Because the effect of emotivism is to see all ethical statements as expressions of personal preference, the therapist exists to help clients pursue whatever goals those clients see fit--regardless of how these goals affect others. In this view of therapy, all that matters is effectiveness and feeling good; counselors and clients are absolved of moral growth and communal responsibility. Emotivism can degenerate into the sort of community caricatured in an episode of the animated television series The Simpsons (Meyer & Anderson, 1993) in which Springfielders, heeding the advice of the town psychiatrist to mimic Bart's inner child, have a "do what you feel" festival that results in a riot because people "doing what they feel" end up fighting and neglecting their responsibilities. …