Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition


When After Virtue first appeared in 1981, it was recognized as a significant and potentially controversial critique of contemporary moral philosophy. Newsweek called it “a stunning new study of ethics by one of the foremost moral philosophers in the English-speaking world.” Since that time, the book has been translated into more than fifteen foreign languages and has sold over one hundred thousand copies. Now, twenty-five years later, the University of Notre Dame Press is pleased to release t…

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Business Insider Op Ed – Catholics are right about birth control.(r/Catholicism)

Some responses and questions for your thoughts here (thanks for being thorough, by the way):

You say:

> 1) The polarization of society shows that… moral standards are being strengthened rather than lowered.

> a) To say that [moral standards] are lower because they are not Catholic is to [claim that the] Church [is] right because it says it is right, not because it is [demonstrable.]

I say:

First, “polarization of society” does not equal a “strengthening” of Catholic moral standards. Just because two groups hold competing and increasingly hostile views does not mean that either of those groups hold to the fullness of any particular moral standard, let alone Catholic ones.

As an aside, I’d also be interested in what you mean by “polarization of society.” Which society? What kind of moral structure do these two polarities adhere to? Are there really only two dominant competing moral theories that exist?

Second, how would you suggest we demonstrate the superiority of a particular moral position in a way that is intelligible to those who lack the moral language or conceptual framework to grasp it? Alasdair MacIntyre writes about this problem in the important work After Virtue—one cannot simply “demonstrate” the superiority of a moral position because we do not have a common lexicon in which to understand these positions.

I mention this because saying something is “not Catholic, and therefore not right” seems to me a very valid way of expressing one’s moral perspective. It doesn’t “prove” anything, but it encapsulates a moral position succinctly and objectively, something more than most modes of modern moral theory can muster. (I had to keep my m’s going there.)

You say:

> 2) In the 50’s and 60’s Kinsey found that 50% of married men had cheated on their spouses. In 1990 Lauman discovered the number to be 25%, and another report by Treas in 200 showed the number of people who had cheated to be 11%, which shows a decline in infidelity over that period.

I say:

These statistics do not account for the rise of internet pornography, ease of access to said pornography, and certainly doesn’t reflect the actual state of affairs (excuse the pun) between men and women today versus 60 years ago.

As for the first point regarding pornography: “Infidelity” is an amorphous moral term, because it always references how we conceptualize “fidelity”. Does a man remain faithful to his wife if he doesn’t sleep with another woman, but masturbates to pornography in the confines of marriage? As the taboo against porn has waned, so has the increase of its consumption (an easily searchable statistic.) It has become easier and “safer” to satisfy extramarital sexual desire through the use of the internet, so it follows that the more “risky investment” of an affair would fall.

Finally, the statistics you mentioned, especially Kinsey, cannot account for the actual occurrence of infidelity. Most are already aware of Kinsey’s methodological problems, and of course the very nature of infidelity is one that is shrouded in deceit.

Therefore, it isn’t helpful to use statistics surrounding infidelity and illegitimacy when discussing morals unless: 1) there is an agreed upon understanding of what constitutes infidelity and 2) there are a number of more reports regarding infidelity with varying methodologies that might be compared.

You say:

> 3) …even though they are not married, [couples with children are] still performing the same roles as if they were married

I say

This isn’t relevant to the thesis that “love, marriage, sex and procreation are all things that belong together” for the simple reason that, even if marital “roles” are established, the sacrament of marriage, which is an essential component of a “right” moral structure (as it relates to the identity of the human person, which relates to the identity of God, which relates to the ultimate happiness of the human person) is deemed unnecessary. This deeming rejects a sacramental word-view, which in turns rejects the foundation of Catholic moral theory (again, as it pertains to human flourishing in relation to the Sacred/Divine).

You say

> 4) “…with the expansion of women’s rights we are… objectifying women less than when Humanae Vitae was written.”

I say

As you mentioned, this is your opinion, and one I can appreciate—but disagree with. I agree with you that this is a “touchy” subject primarily because we haven’t done a good job defining what it means to “objectify” the human person. I think it’s clear this kind of objectification has always been present in human history, but I also think it’s clear that it has grown worse in the 20th century moving forward. Simply look at the “adult entertainment” industry for proof of this: There is literally a multi-billion dollar industry that revolves around turning the bodies of men and women into consumable objects. Not to mention the sex-trafficking industry is operating at an all-time high and demand is ever-growing. These kinds of industries have always existed, to be sure, but never before on such a massive scale and with so much tacit support from the general population.

You say

> 5) “Government coercion in reproductive matters [seem] hardly tied to expansion [of] birth control…children are expensive and as society becomes more consumeristic… people would rather spend their money on more things rather than more children.”

I say

Two things: First, I agree that people would rather spend their money on things than children. This fact supports the thesis that birth control has a corrupting and constricting effect on the morality of a nation, not a liberating one. Orienting people’s desires towards products rather than people is a commonly mentioned moral transgression, in and outside of a Christian ethical schema.

Second, it’s hard to prove “government coercion” when it comes to the expansion of birth control. In fact, countries like Japan are now having to encourage that their citizens not use birth control because of the devastating effect of population decline on the economy. But when the aforementioned consumeristic ideology has taken root even in the minds of those who control government, it’s clear to see why dispensing contraceptives becomes a priority, even to the point of elevating them to the status of a “woman’s health product.”


I think that your conclusion that “the prophecies of Humanae Vitae did not come true” is unsubstantiated and, perhaps more unfortunately, a misunderstanding of a component of the document’s argument. The idea that “increased birth control is an effect and not a cause of the shift in moral standards” glosses over the reality that moral standards are tied to material changes. The advent and widespread dissemination of artificial birth control was a catalyst, not an effect for the growth for the already-present disordered sexual ethos found natively in virtually every culture.

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Alasdair MacIntyre

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University of Notre Dame Press

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After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition

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Business Insider Op Ed – Catholics are right about birth control.

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