The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about this and upcoming conferences, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.
We live in a world where there is no universal agreement about values, nor what counts as right action, nor what sorts of lives can be counted as whole and integrated; we are dis-integrated persons. This is the core problem identified by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. How does this problem manifest itself? Many of us do not know our neighbors; home economics devolves into impersonalized encounters with big-box retail. We are anonymous to our CEO, who operates at seven levels of managerial remove. Participatory governance seems an abstraction. Religious or civic involvement, if we choose to engage, is often just another consumer choice. The combination of these factors leads many to feelings of alienation, powerlessness, even anger, but not to beatitudo, to joyful wholeness.
Alasdair MacIntyre has offered the practice as a possible curative to this dis-integrated state. From the perspective of one wishing to design a better world, the question is, “What is it about a practice that makes it beneficial, that allows it to contribute to beatitudo?” The answer is, according to MacIntyre, that practices deliver certain goods. Most obviously, they may yield external goods . . . the practice of architecture, for instance, may yield a building, as well as a paycheck to the practitioner. Further, there are roles within many practices—and from role assignment comes the possibility of authority, of power; goods such as wealth and power are called by MacIntyre external because they are not specific to a particular practice.
A second type of good are those that are intrinsic to the particular practice, such as the feeling an artist has when working on a particularly “painterly” painting, or the joy a quarterback feels in leading his team on a winning drive, or the sublimity of monastic life. A practice is worth committing one’s life to precisely because these internal (intrinsic) goods are available to all who are committed, even if the external goods—such as the wealth and power—never materialize for the practitioner.
Let us move up a unit of analysis. Beyond the goods that accrue to the individual, the practice itself engenders what a Buddhist might call “right action.” Practices rely on the virtues. MacIntyre states that a practice is not possible—and therefore its internal goods are not achievable—if participants are dissembling rather than truthful, cowardly rather than courageous, or unjust rather than just. Truth, justice, and courage are positive social by-products of well-functioning practices. Under this view, there can be little if any commonweal without virtuous action, and little virtue without practices. MacIntyre further asserts that all organized human activities are not practices. Bricklaying is not, but architecture is; throwing a pass is not, but football is. Thinking like a designer, this statement—if true—creates a problem proportional to the fraction of community members whose time is not organized by practices.
Practices are complex forms of cooperative effort, where the participants have at least an implicit understanding of what counts for excellence. To participate in the pursuit of excellence in architecture, a novice will need talents and interests that are not equally distributed across the human spectrum: a love of the built environment, an eye for proportion, skill in rendering. Even with these, she will need to submit to a program of training, apprenticeship, and assessment of skills. While of course exceptions to the rule exist, it is reasonable to assume that the internal goods related to the practice of architecture are for the most part realized by those who are recognized by other architects as “architects,” and so have managed to overcome the barriers of entry to the profession. The practice effectively controls access to itself.
The problem of practices is therefore one of access. Since significant barriers to gaining entrance to a practice may exist, and not all organized activity falls within practices, substantial fractions of a community simply will not participate in a practice. Importantly, the lives of the “non-practicers” may be unfulfilling, if the integration that flows from a practice is locked behind their doors. Thus, commonweal—the by-product of the virtuous behavior that practices engender—is at risk.
Partial solutions exist. If industrialization and atomization of work have “de-skilled” much of modern employment, one design option is to unwind methods of production that favor efficiency and instrumentalism over humanistic and spiritual aspects of work, and that have at their core division of labor. Today, we see this happening in the green shoots of “re-skilling.” Local food, micro-brewing, and custom fabrication all come to mind as current sites of practice-rebuilding.
Intellectual support for re-skilling appears in many sources, including the encyclicals of Leo XIII and John Paul II, the writings of Gandhi, and from contemporary authors such as Matthew Crawford. In rare cases, the support comes from the realm of economics itself. This was the case for the late E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. The expanding universe of our material desires brings two intertwined evils: the spending down of our planet’s non-renewable capital, and the creation of organizational structures that simply do not work on a human scale. Schumacher had given Leo XIII a careful read, and recognized in the social justice concept of subsidiarity an antidote to an economics that too often functioned as if people do not matter. Re-skilling undoes division of labor and re-integrates work . . . but because it is inherently less efficient . . . requires us to scale down as an economy, at least on the margins.
And so again, our design problem: how might more members of a community be engaged in practices, so more can enjoy the goods that flow from the practice, and also the commonweal that it generates?
From a design perspective, the ideal practice would be universal in the sense of being open to all, and yet particular in the sorts of behaviors inculcated and rewarded. We know, borrowing from Mary Douglas, that members of high-cohesion groups often express different behaviors toward members than non-members. One needs only to think of a practice such as the playing of hockey, where the boundary of virtuous reciprocity extends to one’s team, but often not beyond. The ideal practice would therefore be one in which the terms of membership specifically require practice of the virtues toward those in the out-group. Let us think of openness to all and care for the other as design constraints for this open practice.
MacIntyre and Mary Douglas point to an additional design variable, and to one significant design constraint. First, the constraint. Practices are not simply collections of disparate individuals, forming a sort of organizational scatterplot without a directional vector. Cohesion and coherence over time are only achieved through structure. For MacIntyre, members of a practice must submit themselves to the best standards available, engendering respect or even humility in the face of what has been done, and done well, before. From an anthropological perspective, Douglas shows us that groups that are successful in the long run must be cohesive, measuring high on her “group” dimension, but may vary depending upon to which particular traits are distributed throughout the community. The more variability in the group, the more difficult it may be for the group to cohere without additional rigidity in terms of hierarchy. This need not be via a strict positional hierarchy; authority can flow through other channels, but it must flow. So this open practice must have a theory of the distribution of authority—and this theory may be situational, dependent upon circumstances, such as composition of the practice, and scale. What is fixed is the goal—not the means.
Fritz Schumacher—the economist discussed earlier—points to an additional design variable. In his book entitled A Guide for the Perplexed, he reminds us that any reform should begin with those who are most proximate to us. And the person closest to us . . . is of course . . . us. Schumacher locates the center of our purposefulness in discovering meaning not in ourselves, nor in the group or groups we belong to, but in finding, accepting, and developing our place in the great chain of being that spans from the material to the spiritual. The core of any practice: we must attend toward that which is larger than ourselves.
This could perhaps be the “family,” or the “state,” or any other mediating structure between us and non-existence. Schumacher, quoting from the Cloud of Unknowing, says that all that is required of this open-to-all practice is “a naked intention directed to God . . . this alone is wholly sufficient.” One need not read this as particular, exclusive, or even necessarily monotheistic. Rather, the practice is a dispensing of the ego, and a clear focusing on what is ultimately worth attending to. The purpose of this practice must be outside ourselves. This open-to-all practice can spring out of different and various cultural traditions. Each expression may cohere at a deep level, perhaps at that of Axial-age similarities, or Leibniz’s and Schuon’s perennialism, and with a core of openness to all and care for the other.
Donald W. Wortham is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at The College of St. Scholastica.