MacIntyre and “The Moral Masks of Modernity”[i]: The Ethical Shortcomings of Pretenders


If a person does good things, but thinks only bad ones, can that person be good? Can we, in true Stanislavskian spirit, fake it `til we make it, going through the motions of the person we want to be, smiling at the right times, crying at the right times, and eventually feeling the things that compel others to take the same actions with sincerity? Or are our public actions and private feelings members of disconnected realms, the first a proper subject of norms and rules, the second a sacred inner self that we are under no obligation to share? To rephrase the question in terms of the concerns of 20th-century dystopian literature: Are a person’s thoughts isolable from her actions, and are they her own business, no matter what those thoughts are?

We concern ourselves with the consequences of people’s actions. We have laws, norms, education, and more, aimed at shaping actions to produce better consequences. We concern ourselves with the intentions behind those actions, and intentions are, in a sense, thoughts about actions. The same laws, norms, and education frequently make distinctions between an unintended harmful consequence and an intended one. For example, the presence of mens rea, or evil intent, is in many cases important for determining what sort of punishment a criminal is judged to deserve. For killing, the cold-blooded killer might be charged with murder while the kidnapped person with Stockholm syndrome is charged with manslaughter or the person who thought the victim had a knife successfully claims self-defense.

But when it comes to the person behind the intentions, the modern world is notoriously far less concerned than, say, the Greeks, with the constellation of thoughts underlying a person’s character. It is common for therapists to assure their patients that what they think is ultimately their own business, but what they do is the business of society. All manner of violence and horror in mass culture is justified or excused as mere fantasy—the supposedly innocent product of the mind in its playground, as if imagination and action are separate and distinct. It seems the modern world is far more willing to recognize the influence of behavior on thought (such as with method acting, or meditating, or other ways of disciplining the body in order to discipline the mind) than the influence of thought on behavior. To argue as much would be an article in itself, so I will leave you to your intuitions on that one. My own intuitions are that we give the influence of thought on behavior far less attention than it deserves, and that the distinction between the public person and the private person is largely illusory. I also think that it is a mistake to blur the line between socially and governmentally enforcing moral norms: to say that the character of a person is the business of a community is not equivalent to saying that it is the business of the state.

When we think about the character of a person rather than the character of an action or intention, we think holistically about our cultures and what they produce. I am reminded of a talk by philosopher Shelly Kagan that I attended last year. I don’t recall too much about the talk, but if I remember correctly, Kagan gave an example involving a young boy attending his father’s funeral. There was some discussion of whether the boy should be sad—not just cry and give the appearance of sadness, but actually be sad for the death of his father. Is the world a little worse if there are boys in it who aren’t sad for the deaths of their fathers? After the talk, I had a conversation with another professor who emphasized how weird it is that we should require the boy to feel something specific. To my mind though, it makes perfect sense: Of course the boy should be sad! And if he isn’t sad, if he’s had a good life and a good father, we should be concerned. Character is inclusive of thoughts beyond those thoughts that are intentions—beyond those thoughts that are directly connected to action—and cultivating virtuous characters should, I think, be a modern concern. Naturally, this leads to questions of what virtue is, how we could even identify it before imposing our view of it on others, etc. But in principle, if there is virtue and if it can be identified, again, in principle, it seems to me that we are bound to one another’s characters and should want the best for them—not just when it comes to outward appearances.

After virtue

The strain of ethics that places character above actions and intentions is called virtue ethics, and one of its better known proponents in the last 30 years has been Alasdair MacIntyre. His book After Virtue might be understood as a sendup of the modern condition. Modernity went wrong, MacIntyre thinks, in its willingness to accept the world at face value, to accept the tokens of morality (this or that action or intention) as adequate stand-ins for moral sentiment. If the moral education once worked to build virtues such as courage and honesty, somewhere along the way it became enough to manifest the appearance of courage and honesty. If the child says sorry and thank you in the incorrect tone of voice, an insincere attitude is betrayed. We coach away the attitude, but in MacIntyre’s view, the moral education we have today teaches us to maintain the convincing appearance of morality, but not necessarily to feel sorry, or feel grateful. The conversations around alienation and authenticity that we can trace through Marx, the German idealists, the Freudians, and the French existentialists do little to capture the particular type of sincerity that is sincerity to others, instead focusing on the authentic self that is unconstrained by social convention. To summarize or interpret MacIntyre’s whole book would be too much, and what I’d like to focus on is this sincerity to others.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre repeatedly returns to the importance of genuineness for virtue. In his lambasting of emotivism (emotivism claims, if I may oversimplify, that moral sentences are just expressions of personal attitudes or feelings—a very relativistic view of what morality is (setting aside certain strains of evolutionary naturalism)), he writes, “What is the key to the social content of emotivism? It is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations” (21, my emphasis). It is clear that MacIntyre thinks a proper account of morality must allow for such a distinction—we must be able to distinguish between the social relation that merely outwardly manifests the markers of virtue and one that is actually virtuous.

Interestingly, popular culture has a penchant for celebrating successful imposters. Movies like Catch Me if You Can—based on the true story of a career imposter who bounces from disguise to disguise successfully pretending to be an airline pilot, a lawyer, a doctor, and more, while forging checks and stealing money—capture the public imagination. In some of these stories, the fakers even turn out to be better than the real thing, as with Mumford, which is about a guy who pretends to be a psychologist in a small town and saves the day (thanks, Alex Cummings, for the tip). While the imposter figure can be exploited for thrills or horror (think All about Eve), we’re just as likely to find ourselves watching a plot that’s written to make us happy if the imposter pulls it off. Who wasn’t rooting for Tim Robbins’s character (an imposter executive) in The Hudsucker Proxy, or Pip (a rags-to-riches gentleman) in Great Expectations, or Eliza (imposter socialite) in My Fair Lady?

The common thread among the imposters we celebrate in film and literature may be their good nature, while the common thread among the ones who terrify us is just the opposite. But MacIntyre wants us to shed the naïve view that a person’s character is a dressing dummy, built either well or badly, upon which the world tries out various disguises. Just as our moral selves are shaped by what we do, what we do is shaped by our selves.

  1. Virtue as Reliable

While there is an important difference between doing good and appearing to do good while actually causing harm, this is not the difference with which MacIntyre is concerned when he speaks of genuineness (192). That appearances can be deceiving is obvious. More interestingly, someone appearing to do good and actually doing good could still fail to embody a virtue with respect to the good in question. In unsophisticated language, we could say that it is important to MacIntyre that the actor be doing good for the right reasons, but phrasing it this way engages a debate about the lines between motive and action, and this would distract from MacIntyre’s purpose, which centers around character.

To motivate my claims about his interest in genuineness, I will first turn to MacIntyre’s commitment to virtue as a reliable path to the good. On his view, the difference between the moral person and the faker is that the moral person’s success in individual cases of moral judgment or action is produced by virtue, which aims at the good, whereas the faker’s ulterior motives, while they may sometimes incidentally lead to correct judgment or action, have ulterior ends that won’t necessarily correspond to the good. MacIntyre does not use the term reliabilism, and rightly, because his focus is on what constitutes virtue and a virtuous person rather than on identifying particular virtuous judgments and actions. “Virtues,” he says, agreeing with Aristotle on this point, “are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways…. Moral education is an ‘education sentimentale’” (149). A reliabilist would put action before sentiment: those actions that consistently produced good results would give rise to virtues understood in instrumental terms.

In MacIntyre as in Aristotle, however, virtue precedes and guides action.[ii] This is evident in the generalizability of MacIntyre’s virtues. “Hector exhibited one and the same courage in his parting from Andromache and on the battlefield with Achilles” (205). If virtues arose from actions, this would not need to be one and the same courage—courage in battle could be a virtue in the practice of battle, and courage in parting with a spouse could be a courage specific to something else. For MacIntyre, virtues are not virtues because they are reliable; they are reliable because they are virtues. But although his is not a reliabilist account of virtue, the reliability relation that he takes to hold between virtue and the good is our way in to understanding why MacIntyre is especially concerned with genuineness. His interest in distinguishing between those who are virtuous and those who are just faking it reflects a view that only the virtues will reliably lead us to the good. MacIntyre correctly sees that an entailment relation[iii] between virtue and the good would be too strong, and an entirely non-causal relation would fail to capture how virtue can lead to a good life. The more moderate relation he posits is best understood as one of reliability, which makes the connection between virtue and good lives both somewhat predictable and somewhat unpredictable (96–104).

From Jane Austen, MacIntyre takes the idea that morality “is meant to educate the passions; but the outward appearance of morality may always disguise uneducated passions.” “Jane Austen’s preoccupation with the counterfeit” is the keen observation that uneducated passions are like gunshots in the dark (241). A well-aimed gunshot and a shot fired by a careless drunk person into the darkness could both stop someone from bombing a city, but the latter is not thereby an act of virtue, even if it is fortuitous. There cannot be a science of the merely fortuitous, and likewise we cannot expect a virtuous life to be systematically produced by chance.

  1. Dissembling as Vice

Genuineness also helps MacIntyre to incorporate vice into his account. A problem with utilitarian accounts of the good, such as Benjamin Franklin’s, according to MacIntyre, is that they minimize the significance of vice, considering only virtue and the absence of virtue, even treating traditional vices as the ends of instrumental virtues (183). Pleonexia, or avarice, can be welcomed in a viceless account as an external good in the service of which we cultivate instrumental virtues (185) such as cleanliness and industriousness. To avoid allowing that vice could be the telos of a virtuous life, MacIntyre believes he cannot treat the virtue-neutral agent equally to the vicious agent.

Fakers are vicious for their dishonesty. Of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, MacIntyre writes,

Henry Crawford is the dissimulator par excellence. He boasts of his ability to act parts and in one conversation makes it clear that he takes being a clergyman to consist in giving the appearance of being a clergyman. Self is almost, if not quite, dissolved into the presentation of self, [and is] in Jane Austen’s world [and in MacIntyre’s] a symptom of the vices. (241)

The claim is that there’s something essentially different between pursuing A and pretending to pursue A. It’s easy to see that playing baseball is generally a better road than fishing to playing baseball in Fenway Park. But why is thinking of oneself as a baseball player better than thinking of oneself as someone who is going to go all out pretending to be a baseball player? MacIntyre’s answer is in constancy and integrity.

  1. Genuineness, Constancy, and Integrity

Macintyre refers to Jane Austen as “the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues” (243). Austen, he says, offers us a bedrock virtue that the modern world needs:

By the time Jane Austen writes [narrative] unity can no longer be treated as a mere presupposition or context for a virtuous life. It has itself to be continually reaffirmed and its reaffirmation in deed rather than in word is the virtue which Jane Austen calls constancy. (242)

MacIntyre combines Austen’s notion of constancy with integrity to develop his idea of “unity of life” as necessary in the quest for the good (219). He sees constancy and integrity as “sustaining virtues,” virtues that we must have in ourselves and our communities in order to value and pursue virtue and a virtuous life (219). Though integrity is never explicitly defined in the book, he gestures at its being something like self-integration. He writes, “constancy requires a recognition of a particular kind of threat to the integrity of the personality in the peculiarly modern social world” (242), where constancy is a volitional commitment to a virtuous narrative made by submitting oneself to the authority of a tradition (194), and having integrity is having that commitment holistically, as an integrated self. What it means for a narrative to be virtuous is for it to arise from “moral belief,” because “small-scale actions…can embody intentions whose import derives from some large-scale project of the individual, a project itself intelligible only against the background of some equally large or even larger beliefs” (28).

A single act of courage in a cowardly life isn’t intelligible. Hector’s facing Achilles is intelligible as an act of courage because we know that Hector strives to be good. If Paris, with his very different narrative, faced Achilles, the act could not reasonably be read as courage. For Paris to be virtuous once but at all other times terrible, having virtuous beliefs and intentions once buts terrible beliefs and intentions otherwise, could make sense on a view where, say, good actions were themselves virtuous. But such a view would deprive virtue of its volitional property, and a well-timed sunny day could be virtuous. It could also make sense if we are not accountable to ourselves from moment to moment, but “Me-yesterday committed the crime and me-today is innocent” isn’t a savory defense. MacIntyre has good reasons to want to associate virtue with constancy.

Genuineness is importantly more than an outward appearance of narrative unity of life. Consider the difference between a sincere clergyman and a faker who has decided, for amusement, to play the part of a clergyman long-term. The faker may be a very good faker, but the clergyman and the faker have different narrative commitments. The clergyman is committed to being a clergyman, and the faker is committed to pretending to be a clergyman. The small-scale projects of the faker will embody different intentions than those of the clergyman. MacIntyre says, “It is necessary, if life is to be meaningful, for us to be able to engage in long-term projects, and this requires predictability” (104). Virtuous narratives—that is, projects with virtuous ends—predict, or tend to produce, virtuous lives. The project of being a clergyman will involve a commitment to honesty and what it reliably produces, whereas the project of the faker will involve a commitment to dishonesty and what it reliably produces. In the long run, although the person pretending to be a clergyman could perhaps luck into leading the same life (for all appearances) as would a clergyman, it will only be luck—pretending to be a clergyman, or embodying the vice of dishonesty, does not reliably produce what honesty tends to produce. It reliably produces something closer to a clergyman’s life than pretending to be an acrobat would produce, but MacIntyre’s important claim here is that if we take Road A toward the end, we’re generally more likely to arrive at the end of Road A than we are to arrive at the end of Road B (where Road B is one specific alternative, not a long disjunction of possible alternatives). On his view, vice tends to produce the bad and virtue tends to produce the good, and the disingenuous life is a life of vice.

  1. Defending Predictability through Genuineness

MacIntyre addresses two types of objections to his claim that virtue reliably tends to lead to the good: the first is that pursuing A does not entail obtaining A (102). It is worth noting that MacIntyre is only concerned with whether pursuing A and not pursuing B generally probabilifies obtaining A over obtaining B, but defending the correctness of his reliability claim is not the goal of this article. The second objection is that the reliability of virtue and virtuous narratives presupposes that an agent’s behavior is predictable by observers, but we should instead prefer to think of human lives as being strongly unpredictable (204). MacIntyre answers this objection primarily in building a case for unity of life, but he also returns to genuineness, and specifically to the importance of having a robust conception of genuineness. He believes that modern philosophers have robbed genuineness of its social dimension: “Indeed the self’s refusal of the inauthenticity of conventionalized social relationships becomes what integrity is diminished into in [for example] Sartre’s account” (205).

For Sartre, at least according to MacIntyre, to be genuine is not to answer to others. An integrated self is atomistic. Nietzsche goes a step further than Sartre to contend that personal authenticity requires social inauthenticity: “A great man…finds it tasteless to be familiar; and when one thinks he is, he usually is not. When not speaking to himself, he wears a mask. He rather lies than tells the truth: it requires more spirit and will” (Nietzsche quoted in MacIntyre, 257–258). On authenticity, which answers to less than MacIntyre’s more robust concept of genuineness, the fake clergyman is at least as genuine as the real clergyman, and probably more so for bucking convention and not being beholden to the expectations of others. Genuineness, on the other hand, takes honesty with oneself and honesty with others to be “one and the same,” which is essential to MacIntyre’s view, because, “Someone who genuinely possesses a virtue can be expected to manifest it in very different types of situation” (205), from various interactions with the world, to the inner life.

If we reject the one-dimensional authenticity (be true to thyself) endorsed by Sartre and Nietzsche in favor of MacIntyre’s two-dimensional account of genuineness (be true to thyself and true to others), we get the predictability that MacIntyre wants: if there is a normative requirement that the telos an agent appears to have reflect the telos to which he takes himself to be committed, then the agent’s actions can be intelligible to both the agent and observers. But MacIntyre’s stronger argument against authenticity is that we don’t have to issue a fiat to make people’s appearances line up with their realities: we get some amount of predictability for free by engaging in practices, which teach us to detect and participate in genuineness.

  1. Conclusion: Genuineness in Practices

Once we see the importance of genuineness to MacIntyre, his choice to ground his theory of virtue in practices makes more sense. Practices don’t produce virtue (we bring virtue to a practice), but they do produce conditions that cultivate recognition of genuineness, and thus the ability to distinguish between genuine and fake appearances of virtue. He describes practices as “providing the arena in which the virtues are exhibited” and as “crucial to the whole enterprise of identifying a core concept of virtues” (187). While at first it seems odd how interested MacIntyre is in the virtuoso at this or that practice, the virtuoso embodies an individual and social commitment to a certain kind of genuineness. The educated critic might claim that Liszt focused too much on showy technical feats and wasn’t the best artist, but that critic could not honestly say that Liszt wasn’t a masterful pianist. The importance of a successful display of mastery is that no one is duped and no one is disingenuous. This is at least in part because both expertise and inexpertise—and the presence or absence of a practice’s internal goods—are generally demonstrable. MacIntyre says, “The internal goods are those which result from an extended attempt to show how Wittgenstein’s dictum ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul” …might be made to become true by teaching us ‘to regard…the picture on our wall as the object itself…depicted there” (189). In other words, internal goods reflect efforts to unite appearance with reality, or to ensure that the picture before us of a person’s narrative is no “mere” representation. No expert could question that Liszt was a virtuoso.

Roger Federer

Furthermore, this kind of expertise is not a matter of taste. MacIntyre emphasizes that internal goods are shared because their shared character allows us to calibrate our instruments of judgment for detecting virtue and vice within practices. Having a better-calibrated instrument results from honestly committing one’s personal narrative to the practice, as well as from enough of one’s fellow practitioners making similar honest commitments. This sort of calibration is common to all practices (as MacIntyre understands them), which is why chess players and non-chess-players alike can appreciate—although to varying degrees of specificity—Magnus Carlsen’s achievements, and why cyclists and non-cyclists were crushed when Lance Armstrong confessed to doping to win seven Tours de France. A cheater who wins an external good also loses an internal good, for himself and for all those who share it. The great artists of a practice, like Beyoncé or Roger Federer or John von Neumann[iv], set a higher standard of excellence. The cheaters skew our instruments of judgment. But as I hinted before, training in a practice improves our ability to detect imposters, and we count on rooting out Lance Armstrongs over time. Thus, by and large, practices as an arena for exhibiting virtue guide us in setting personal limits to match what is (honestly) humanly achievable, encourage us to honestly strive to meet and even exceed these limits, and teach us to recognize virtue in ourselves and others.

On the other hand, I would be remiss not to mention that where practices have the potential to hone virtues, they can do the same with vice. For example, “diving,” or pretending to have been fouled, has become standard in professional soccer. I find it disturbing to watch. While maybe we could imagine a sport in which lying is a playful and cooperative goal, this is not always the case. So while it seems that MacIntyre is correct in thinking that practices (like soccer) improve our genuineness-detectors, it does not follow that practices will value genuine practitioners over clever deceivers. But MacIntyre has an out here: he does not claim that practices yield virtue, only that virtues are best identified and honed through practices. Thus individual practitioners, in order to be virtuous, must value virtues and bring these values with them to all their practices.

Genuineness is an important strand running through MacIntyre’s entire project. Modernity’s apparent disinterest in differentiating between the pure of heart, so to speak, and the skilled—even effective and functional—dissembler is for him a tragic failure to understand morality as it is lived—not by individuals in isolation, but by individuals whose selves are, like it or not, socially intertwined.


[i] MacIntyre, 72. All citations are from MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Vol. Internet Copy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. Also: dear academic philosophers, this started as a philosophy paper, but it is now not really a philosophy paper, so please chill out.

[ii] I have twice been accused of misreading MacIntyre here, but I stand by my unpopular reading until he do come out of the woodwork to set me straight.

[iii] For virtue to entail the good would mean that wherever there is virtue, there is the good, and wherever there is not the good, there is not virtue.

[iv] Although perhaps von Neumann isn’t the best example when it comes to being virtuous and not just virtuosic!