The Concept of the Person and the Future of Virtue Theory: MacMurray and MacIntyre

1. Introduction

Initially, it might seem that the attempt to the define the person is futile. After all, either we intuitively 'know' what the term 'person' implies, or else, it is simply a term with too wide and varied a meaning for it to be comprehensively stated. However, as a result of my PhD thesis on Macmurray, I have become acutely aware of the need to develop a flexible and intelligible definition of the person. Philosophically, the criteria of personal identity continue to be debated, while, for theology, any meaningful conception of a personal God must be underpinned by an adequate description of the nature of the human person. Firstly, we need to understand what it is to be a person, if we are to assist in the positive development of human beings as individuals. Secondly, if we are to encourage the progress of humanity as a whole, our perception of individuals must include an appreciation of their interrelation. In my opinion, Macmurray's work, although not without its problems, lays the foundation for such a definition.

2a. Macmurray's definition of the person

On the grounds that the legacy of Descartes' cogito still persists, Macmurray argues that the traditional conception of the individual is overly theoretical and egocentric. [1] That is, it fails to account for the every day experience of embodiment, or to confirm the existence of other selves.

While Descartes identifies existence with thought, Macmurray argues that thinking is merely one of the activities that the human being engages in; hence, the proper formulation of the cogito is 'I do think' [2]. Consequently, he claims that it is action and not thought that is primary, and, therefore, the human being is conceived as an agent. Since to act is to modify the Other, agency is at the heart of the human capacity for self-transcendence, or, as Macmurray puts it, the ability to act in terms of the nature of the Other. In addition, agency, as the form of the Self, implies that this activity is intentional; hence, action includes reflection as a constituent, although secondary, component. Two important implications follow from Macmurray's definition: firstly, if agency is the centre of reference, then, embodiment is presupposed; secondly, the possibility of action requires that there be something to act upon and so the existence of the Other is also presupposed. Macmurray states that: 'to exist is to be part of the world, in systematic causal relation with other parts of the world' [3].

Without discussing Macmurray's theory of action in detail here, if we accept that agency represents a more adequate conception of the Self than Descartes' cogito, on the grounds of intelligibility at least, our understanding of what it is to be a person; that is, to express our nature, is bound up with the ability to exercise our agency and, therefore, with the relation of the Self to the Other. In contrast with the solipsism of the cogito, then, Macmurray states that 'we are persons . . . in virtue of our relation to one another'4. In fact, from birth, he claims, the human being exhibits a necessary and characteristic impulse to communicate, thereby, revealing that interhuman relations are the foundation of our existence. On this basis, he insists that human experience is essentially shared experience, stating that, ''I' exist only as one element in the complex 'You and I''5. (There is obviously some similarity here with Buber's perception of the I-Thou relationship, although Macmurray does not extend the possibility of such a relation to organisms other than humans.)

2b. Macmurray's account of the common life

While the very fact of human coexistence would be sufficient grounds for seeking to establish mutually beneficial relations; for Macmurray, coexistence is not simply a description of human life, it is a prescription for the full development of the human person. Even though withdrawal from relationships is necessary for the individual to develop in opposition to her fellows, as an agent, her nature is incompletely expressed until she returns to active engagement in relations with those fellows. Nevertheless, such relationships can be entered into from either a negative or a positive motivation. According to Macmurray, a negative motivation results in egocentric, or self-centred action, whereas a positive motive results in heterocentric, or other-centred action. This terminology serves to reveal the dichotomy involved in negatively motivated relationships. Self-centred action prevents the relationship from being mutually enjoyed and, therefore, is detrimental to the full expression of either the Self or the Other. Conversely, other-centred action is both the true expression of the Self as agent and an invitation to the other person to reciprocate, thereby engaging in the full expression of his nature also. For this reason, Macmurray maintains that the quality of a person, as a person, is determined by 'the quality of his personal relations' [6].

Since the field of relationships is both vast and complex, Macmurray expands upon the type of relations required for growth by distinguishing between social and personal relations. Essentially, social relations, as found in the work place, for example, involve the relation of persons on the basis of their instrumental worth, whereas personal relations are grounded in the appreciation of one another's intrinsic worth. In the former case, the relationship is founded on the basis of a common purpose, whereas in the latter case, the relationship exists for its own sake. In this respect, Macmurray argues that, while social/functional relations are necessary, they are not sufficient; that is, they represent the means rather than the ends of life. Thus, he states that: 'The functional life is for the personal life; the personal life is through the functional life'7. To clarify this distinction, Macmurray refers to functional relations as 'societies' and to personal relations as 'communities'; the former is comprised of the association of members, while the latter describes the fellowship of friends. Fundamentally, therefore, personal relations involve the treatment of persons as persons, and not merely as objects. (Although the language of means and end is reminiscent of Kantian ethics, and Macmurray borrows from Kant's work in other respects, he is not a deontologist.)

To treat another person as a person, then, implies the recognition of her agency. Moreover, the expression of agency implies the freedom to act; consequently, the individual engaged in heterocentric action will avoid curtailing the freedom of the Other. When the relations of persons are indirect, however, the consequences of actions are hidden; thus, a system of justice and law is required, in order to eradicate special privilege and protect from harm. In this way, justice secures the conditions that are needed for a potentially all-inclusive community, based simply on common humanity. (Macmurray, however, is not a communitarian, since he envisages a universal community and avoids emphasising the good of the group at the expense of the individual.)

2c. Macmurray's perception of the religious enterprise

Nevertheless, Macmurray argues that the creation and maintenance of such relations is not a political task, since enforced freedom is a contradiction in terms. On the contrary, religion, he claims, is ultimately concerned with relationships; the relation between humans and Nature, the relations amongst persons and the relationship between humanity and divinity. Essentially, he states that, 'religion is the celebration of communion'8. In particular, Macmurray emphasises the religious motifs of love and forgiveness as evidence of the intention to extend community, and, hence, he chastises otherworldliness for its lack of social efficacy. Similarly, he laments the divisiveness of doctrinal distinction and highlights the importance of ritual in the sustenance of positive personal relations. In fact, he argues that, while religious belief involves assenting to creeds and dogma, religious faith is an attitude of mind. Fundamentally, therefore, Macmurray stresses sincerity rather than outmoded moral codes; thus, allowing for the suggestion that he is more concerned with character than with the construction of a universal ethic.

3. Macmurray and virtue theory

Although Macmurray does not explicitly connect his account with virtue theory, the similarities are striking. In general, the virtues, as Aristotle describes them, are dispositions associated with human flourishing and well-being; that is, they are the qualities which achieve what is good for the human being as a person. In addition, Aristotle holds that the moral agent is one who does what is virtuous because it is virtuous.9 Consequently, he regards friendship as a virtue, since friends are jointly pursuing the human good.

Likewise, we can see that Macmurray's concern with positively motivated relations is with the full expression of human nature. In addition, he views friendship as the paradigm instance of the development of the human person as an agent, and, moreover, as the prime example of the realisation of the good life for humanity as a whole.

4. Macmurray and MacIntyre

On the basis of these preliminary remarks linking Macmurray's concepts with those of virtue theory, in general; it becomes plausible to investigate the possibility of drawing connections between Macmurray's work and that of a contemporary virtue theorist such as MacIntyre. Essentially, MacIntyre, like Macmurray, is reacting against individualism and compartmentalism. Firstly, MacIntyre is critical of the social division of life into public and private components, on the grounds that the Aristotelian virtues function within a social framework. He states that: 'the unity of a virtue in someone's life is intelligible only as a characteristic of a unitary life'10; that is, it is through the depiction and appreciation of life as a whole that virtue is to be apprehended. Secondly, he opposes the philosophical atomisation of the activities of the Self, by asserting the importance of narrative. By charting the moral fragmentation of society, MacIntyre argues that moral character is to be discerned from the narrative of the community. Indeed, it is within community that the individual must account for her actions and, likewise, that others are made accountable to her.

While Macmurray could benefit from MacIntyre's historical analysis of morality and his emphasis on narrative continuity, in the discernment of action, then, Macmurray's account of the responsibility of agency, in respect of indirect as well as direct relations, enables MacIntyre's local application of virtue theory to be extended to the global arena.

5. The future

It seems, then, that there would be some scope for developing Macmurray's unified account of the person, in order to underpin MacIntyre's work, while, simultaneously, supplementing Macmurray's emphasis on the Other with MacIntyre's understanding of character. Insofar as it appears intuitively to be the case that we need to understand the human person before we can relate adequately, the arguments for seeking to enhance Macmurray's concept of the person hardly need to be stated. Furthermore, a theology which failed to effect the positive relations of human beings and, thereby, the growth of persons, would be lacking in an important respect. Moreover, with the recent reports of human atrocities, such as ethnic cleansing, a concept of the person that engenders ethical responsibility for the Other must be beneficial. In addition, in the current climate of religious and cultural pluralism, it seems that the future progress of humanity, towards greater freedom and equality, requires something akin to Macmurray's and MacIntyre's stress on community.

Clearly, care would need to be taken, in the attempt to develop their theories, to retain meaning in the concept 'community', while also allowing for individual space. Finally, even if moral relativism appears to be the only option in this enterprise, this does not necessarily mean that all sense of ethical direction must be lost, and, in its favour, relativism allows for diversity and, therefore, for the widening of interhuman relations.


[1] John Macmurray, The Self as Agent (London: Faber, 1995), p. 11.

[2] John Macmurray, 'The Agent', MS, undated (John Macmurray Microfilm, Aberdeen University Queen Mother Library: Item 3.8).

[3] Macmurray, The Self as Agent, p. 80.

[4] John Macmurray, Persons in Relation (London: Faber, 1995), p. 61.

[5] Macmurray, Persons in Relation, p. 24.

[6] Ibid., p. 95.

[7] John Macmurray, 'Two Lives in One', talk 3 from 'Persons and Functions' series, The Listener, 26 (1941), 822 (author's italics).

[8] Macmurray, Persons in Relation, p. 162.

[9] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, tr. H. Rackham (London: Heinemann, 1952), 1228a1.

[10] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1994), p. 205.

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