Moral character

Lauren Goodlad

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In his influential study, After Virtue (1981), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre portrays modernity as a scene of fragmented selfhood in which the remnants of Aristotelian virtue provide a mere simulacrum of moral backbone. What is left to modernity, according to MacIntyre, is emotivism: “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and … all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” Thus, whereas Aristotle’s virtuous subject emerged from a morality embedded in “larger totalities of theory and practice,” the modern emotivist rehearses a moral vocabulary deprived of living substrate. Bereft of an active vision of the good, modern selfhood founders in a wilderness dominated by instrumental rationalities and Nietzschean will-to-power. In this way, MacIntyre’s communitarian outlook complements Michel Foucault’s genealogy of discipline and subsequent turn to an ethics of the self. That is to say, despite MacIntyre’s depreciation of Nietzsche, and Foucault’s embrace, both thinkers emphasize the Enlightenment’s failings and both prescribe micropolitical practices of the self. Crucially for this chapter on nineteenth-century moral discourse, MacIntyre’s fallen condition includes the Victorian-era virtues that conservative eulogists such as Gertrude Himmelfarb have opposed to modernity. For according to MacIntyre, the Enlightenment’s shortcomings were as fateful for the nineteenth century as for the present day - the Victorians as prone to idealizing the mere semblance of virtue as any generation since. On this view, modernity gives plausible form to moral ideas through the staging of representative types that MacIntyre calls characters. By fusing institutional “role” with individual “personality,” MacIntyre’s characters “morally legitimate a mode of social existence” which would otherwise stand forth as virtueless. The “characters” he identifies for the 1980s include the Therapist and the Manager, but their Victorian precursors were “the Public School Headmaster, the Explorer and the Engineer.” Thus, whereas the Victorians regarded “character” as a measure of individual and national fiber, for MacIntyre, “characters” are but “the masks worn by moral philosophies.” To be sure, MacIntyre’s description of Victorian culture and society is relatively scant. After Virtue tells us little about the shift from a producing to a consumer economy, or the eventual transition away from a language of character and toward one of personality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHistoricism and the Human Sciences in Victorian Britain
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9781316711286
ISBN (Print)9781107166684
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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