Religious Studies Faculty Publications

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Source

Virtue: Readings in Moral Theology No. 16


In September of 1995 the Associated Press released a wire photo showing Russian lawmakers of both genders in a punching brawl during a session of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.' Is this behavior an ethnic idiosyncrasy? Do only government officials duke it out over matters of great importance? Or have fisticuffs suddenly become politically correct?

No, on all counts. Pick a topic, any topic -- abortion, euthanasia, welfare reform, military intervention in the Balkans -- and initiate discussion with a group of reasonable, well-educated people and observe the outcome. Chaos ensues. Of course the volume of the debate may vary according to how "close to home" the issue hits the participants. But any moral discussion, given a group of sufficient diversity, has the potential of escalating into a shouting match ... or worse. An even more striking feature of moral debates is their tendency never to reach resolution. Lines are drawn early, and participants rush to take sides. But in taking sides they appear to render themselves incapable of hearing the other. Everyone feels the heat, but no one sees the light.

Many thinkers are inclined to see shrillness and interminability as part and parcel of the nature of moral debate. But Alasdair MacIntyre begs to differ. In After Virtue he offers the "disquieting suggestion" that the tenor of modern moral debate is the direct outcome of a catastrophe in our past, a catastrophe so great that moral inquiry was very nearly obliterated from our culture and its vocabulary exorcised from our language.

What we possess today, he argues, are nothing more than fragments of an older tradition. As a result, our moral discourse, which uses terms like good, and justice, and duty, has been robbed of the context that makes it intelligible. To complicate matters, although university courses in ethics have been around for a long time, no ethics curriculum predates this catastrophe.

Inclusive pages





The chapter is made available for download with the permission of the publisher; it appeared in Virtue, edited by Charles E. Curran and Lisa A. Fullam, pp. 51-78. To order the entire volume, see the publisher's website.

The chapter first appeared in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre, Nancey Murphy, Brad J. Kallenberg, and Mark Thiessen Nation, eds. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).


Paulist Press



Place of Publication

Philadelphia, PA

Link to published version