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Are there Evil Virtures? Slavery, virtue, and practice in MacIntyre’s moral philosophy

Alasdair MacIntyre’s concept of “practice” is a comprehensive one and transcendent of any particular culture. It is precisely in his distinction between the “codes of practices” (193) and the “core virtues” that are expressed within these codes that allows virtue to be independent of particular actions. While MacIntyre uses the morality of lying in different cultures as an example of how “codes of practices” vary from virtue (192-193), the issue of slavery (whether the American form or any of the others – African, Asian, Native American, ancient or early Modern) is an interesting one. Is there such a thing as a virtuous slave owner? (Aristotle should hope so, since he owned slaves). Is there such a thing as excellence in the management of slaves? While we might acknowledge excellence in the “practice” of the management of employees, is there any “internal good” to be gained from excellence in the management of slave labor? Or is it just inherently wrong? MacIntyre addresses the question on page 199, asking if some “practices” are inherently evil. He allows for the possibility, while confessing to be unable to find any examples (200). For him, the problem with the possible candidates for an evil practice, torture and sadomasochistic sex, is that he finds them closer to a “techne” than a “practice”. But plantation management in the antebellum South is complex enough to be a “practice”, and the social element is fulfilled by the community of wealthy slave-owners. In that historical context a slave owner could strive for excellence in the management of his plantation, judging himself according to objective standards shared by other plantation owners, and exercise “core virtues” in pursuit of an “inner good” (the wealth and status accrued from his exploitation slave labor being secondary), and be simultaneously virtuous and evil. In fact, the description might apply to Thomas Jefferson, except by all accounts he was a very poor manager of his estate, dying in near bankruptcy.


Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

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