Secular Stories Part 2: The Failed Enlightenment Project

This article is part of the series “Secular Stories.” Click below to read other installments:

We started this series with a discussion and acknowledgment of the problem of increasing “secularity” for Christians living in the modern West. The society and culture that the church occupies seem to keep drifting further from the Christian commitments that built Christendom. The same secular ideas and attitudes are appearing ever frequently within our churches as they do without. How can we be “salt” and “light” in such a hostile age? I proposed that the first step should be to attempt to understand this “secular” age by exploring how we got here. One of the resources I have proposed for the task is the book After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

So far, MacIntyre has described our modern world as one where people have lost the ability to dispute moral questions meaningfully without even realizing it. We no longer share a concept of “the good.” What we’re really doing is simply asserting our own position as true and pretending to use “objective” moral standards in order to persuade others of that position. MacIntyre calls this implicit ethics of personal preference and manipulation through power “emotivism.” He thinks it’s most evident in modern bureaucratic institutions, where someone like a manager or psychologist can easily operate with a primary motive to “make you fit in” regardless of whether “fitting in” is actually in your best interests, and without evaluating such according to some objective truth.


If emotivism is indeed the problem we’re faced with, it is reasonable to wonder how it came to be the ethical default in modern societies. MacIntyre believes the “predecessor culture” of a secularized and Protestant Northern Europe (mainly Germany and Great Britain) is to blame for the “Enlightenment project of justifying morality,”[1] to which emotivism was the subsequent reaction. According to MacIntyre, the failure of this “project” was inevitable, and several of the reasons he gives for this are germane to our broader exploration of secularity. In the fourth chapter of After Virtue, MacIntyre identifies several Enlightenment figures who seem to represent a sort of lineage of differing attempts in the project of justifying morality. Philosophers David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Søren Kierkegaard are named as the chief culprits.[2] In chapter five MacIntyre digs deeper into the reasons why he believes the Enlightenment project “had to fail.”[3] Here, MacIntyre identifies the loss of “teleological” thinking, so important to Aristotle and Aquinas, as the ultimate cause of this failure. MacIntyre takes the next chapter to clearly define the effects of the failure to justify morality, and how these effects ripple into our emotivist present. Several features of emotivist culture are identified, and these will also serve our broader aim of identifying secularity by its effects.

Protestant Culture and Voluntarism

Understanding the breakdown of the Enlightenment project to justify morality is necessary for MacIntyre if we hope to understand our current situation. He clearly states, “A central thesis of this book is that the breakdown of this project provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.”[4] Protestant Christians may be disturbed to learn of MacIntyre’s claim that it was the secularized Protestant culture already existent in Europe which laid the groundwork for said project. Whether the Reformation is truly to blame is something I want to address later. For now, let’s track with MacIntyre’s train of thought. He holds the Reformation tradition responsible for what he claims to be the “voluntarist” moral theology which was popularly believed in the places where the greatest damage was done.[5] For MacIntyre, a voluntarist moral theology has already done much of the work of gutting ethics of some of its most essential content.[6] People obeyed rules only because they were commanded by God. Regardless of whether we agree with MacIntyre’s claim about the voluntarism of Protestant moral theology, it can’t be denied that the figures he identifies as belonging to the Enlightenment project to justify morality certainly share a common proximity to Protestantism.

MacIntyre traces the project backward, beginning with the most recent figure, Søren Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard’s Enten-Eller (Either/Or, 1842) MacIntyre identifies the Danish philosopher’s notion of a “radical and ultimate choice” as a failure to justify morality. For Kierkegaard, “the principles which depict the ethical way of life are to be adopted for no reason” says MacIntyre, and this failure to offer a reason (or even acknowledge the need to do so) is a failure of the project as a whole. It would seem Kierkegaard is not wholly to blame for his error, though, because MacIntyre says he was only attempting to provide an answer to the unsatisfactory conclusions of Immanuel Kant.[7] Kant, who shared Kierkegaard’s cultural Lutheran upbringing, had attempted to locate the justification for morality within the human capacity for reason. A rule ought to be followed, not because God willed it (as Christianity teaches) or because it fulfills one’s final purpose (as Aristotle taught), but rather because it is the sort of thing that one can reason that everybody ought to obey. Kant held that this principle of universalizability was the true test for moral behavior—that man possesses the rational capacity to apprehend this fact is all that is needed to obligate him to behave likewise. MacIntyre has his reasons for thinking this theory ultimately fails the Enlightenment project, but for present purposes, it is most important to realize that Kant (even though he believed in God) proposed a moral theory which is still held today, largely because it removed God (as well as any personal goal attainment) from the picture. However, MacIntyre suggests Kant was only trying to answer problems that had arisen from an earlier figure of the English Enlightenment, David Hume.[8]

Hume is notorious as an early modern skeptic, being willing to question even the most basic assumptions of human life, including the principle of cause and effect. It is no surprise then that his account of the ethical was a reduction and a stripping down of moral considerations to what he believed to be their most essential components. Hume believed that moral rules could be justified “by showing their utility in helping us to attain those ends which the passions set before us,”[9] says MacIntyre. This account frames morality as a completely self-serving enterprise, but MacIntyre says that even Hume can’t reasonably advise whether it’s better to seek what’s pleasurable in the short term at the expense of the long term, or the opposite. He also says that Hume’s accounting of “normal” passions seems a lot like a projection of his own wants and interests.[10] By MacIntyre’s reckoning, Hume’s failure to justify morality has a few key features in common with his Enlightenment successors; it emerged from the backdrop of the preceding Protestant culture, the actual content of the morality being presented was oddly similar to what Christian morality had prescribed, and there is no accounting of how morality relates to human fulfillment or a telos.

The Missing Telos

In the tradition of virtue tracing back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, MacIntyre points to a “teleological scheme” where:

there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he- could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.[11]

This transition is then accomplished by the use of reason. MacIntyre tells us that for Aristotle “reason instructs us both as to what our true end is and as to how to reach it.”[12] This insight into the mechanics of traditional virtue ethics helps us to understand why MacIntyre sees the loss of a teleological understanding to be so disastrous for ethics. It also explains why he holds major Reformational figures responsible for eroding a belief in the teleological.

MacIntyre claims that Protestant (and Jansenist) developments in theology called into question the ability of man to understand his “true end” (telos) because “that power of reason was destroyed by the fall of man.”[13] Contemporary scholars of Protestant theology are divided on this particular issue, with some holding that Reformational thought did not drastically depart from Aristotelian (or even Thomistic) virtue ethics until later thinkers like Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) and Cornelius Van Til (1895 – 1987), while others wish to understand the Reformation as a radical break from the metaphysics of the past. I’ll touch on this more later, but it will suffice to say that MacIntyre (a philosopher and not a theologian) assumes the narrative of a radical break, especially in the inability of human reason to aid in the path of virtue. However, the new convictions related to Reformational thought were not the only factor in the distancing of man from his telos for MacIntyre. He describes a corresponding shift away from Aristotle in the realm of academic sciences as well.[14] Together, these forces served to remove any sense of “function” from a discussion of human action and purposes. A telos tells a human being what he exists for, and how to know when he’s not acting in a way that will lead him there. This is another reason why MacIntyre laments the loss of the Aristotelian scheme, for the “loss of traditional structure was seen . . . as the achievement by the self of its proper autonomy.”[15] This “achievement” of autonomy is the ultimate uprooting of the human self from his natural, social and historical context. It is the necessary precursor to a culture of emotivism.

Rival Ethical Systems in Conflict

On the heels of the failure of the Enlightenment project of justifying morality, MacIntyre notes a divide in modern moral theories into two separate and incompatible systems of thought. He traces the search for a new (non-Aristotelian) telos in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill,[16] who attempted to make an “end” of pain avoidance and the pursuit of “higher” and “lower” pleasures, respectively. The other major competing school of thought is represented by those analytical philosophers who have followed Kant’s project of attempting to justify the content of morality as being objective insofar as its the result of a consistent exercise of human reason.[17] Eventually, this line of thinking resulted in a modern attempt to define objective human “rights,” which MacIntyre suggests are the counterpart to the claims of “utility” of the opposing system. These differing conceptions of supposed objective morality, then, are the cause of our modern emotivist turn, and modern bureaucracies are the stage on which the drama often plays out. It’s important to note that MacIntyre rejects the notion of “rights,” but only those “which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.”[18] This modern view of “rights” coincides with the autonomous, individual self and the manipulative culture of emotivism. In fact, “rights” along with “protest” and “unmasking” are identified by MacIntyre as among the chief means by which moderns attempt to get their own way in this emotivist culture. Understanding these behaviors is extremely helpful for our purposes because they are useful “tells” or signs of emotivism at play within a secularized society.

Modern Masks of the Arbitrary Will

Along with the modern notion of “rights,” which for MacIntyre are only tools for manipulating others, he names “protest” as “a distinctive moral feature of the modern age.”[19] He notes that “indignation is a predominant modern emotion,”[20] and protests represent an abandonment of any appeal to reason, and therefore an indication of the futility of rational debates having given way to attitudes of self-righteousness and indignation. MacIntyre also names “unmasking” as another modern practice typical of the age, which simultaneously reveals the problems of modern discourse while compounding them. Of this practice, MacIntyre says “unmasking the unacknowledged motives of arbitrary will and desire which sustain the moral masks of modernity is itself one of the most characteristically modern of activities.”[21] While emotivism almost necessarily pushes our discourse towards implementing the “masks” of arbitrary will and desire, MacIntyre warns that “unmasking arbitrariness in others may always be a defense against uncovering it in ourselves.”[22] These typically modern, emotivist behaviors are for MacIntyre a product of the depraved state of our moral discourse, namely emotivism, having been a product of the failed Enlightenment project and the secularized culture it arose from. Let’s take note of these modern practices or “masks” (including “unmasking”), recalling their origin (emotivism) and their purpose (to arbitrarily manipulate others), as features of secularity as it appears in the ethics of our culture.


  1. Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 50.
  2. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 49.
  3. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 51.
  4. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 39.
  5. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 54.
  6. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 39.
  7. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 47.
  8. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 47.
  9. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 48.
  10. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 49.
  11. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 52.
  12. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 53.
  13. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 53.
  14. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 54.
  15. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 60.
  16. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 62.
  17. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 66.
  18. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 69.
  19. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 71.
  20. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 71.
  21. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 72.
  22. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 72.

Jesse Nigro

Jesse Nigro is Editor-in-Chief at The North American Anglican and lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife and children, where he teaches philosophy at a classical High School. He earned his BA in philosophy from Creighton University and MA in theology from Concordia University in Irvine. Jesse has been an editor and operator at The North American Anglican since 2012.

'Secular Stories Part 2: The Failed Enlightenment Project' has 1 comment

  1. September 1, 2021 @ 4:34 pm Lindon Stall

    “[. . .] the Christian commitments that built Christendom” [paragraph 1]. I wonder, what are the relations between Christ and Christianity, between Christianity and Christendom, between Christ and Christendom? Surely, the relations are not those of simple identity, are they? Can Christ and the two concepts that derive from Him be so easily at one?

    Did Christ come to bring us Christianity? to bring us Christendom? Or to bring us Someone, Himself, who, unlike cultures built on or around Him, will *always* be with us, the loss of Whom we will never have to lament?


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