Friday, November 12, 2010

Collectives—and Virtue

In a comment yesterday Brandon (Siris) enclosed a link to a paper by Alasdair MacIntyre titled The Nature of Virtues, saying that he found parallels in McIntire’s paper to my posts on collectives. That paper is a long and learned (if also fascinating) disquisition on virtue. The parallels appear on the last of nine dense pages—and are indeed illuminating.

Some context before I present some quotes. MacIntyre develops his theory of virtues by pointing out that virtuous actions or practices are associated with what he calls external as well as internal goods. External goods are the rewards associated with virtuous actions—thus money, fame, influence, and so on. Internal goods are joys, pleasures, and satisfactions that arise from the virtuous acts themselves—and would be present even if no external rewards flowed from them. My own favorite example is the joy that comes simply from doing a job right. In the concluding paragraphs of his paper, MacIntyre applies these concepts to collective activities—and reaches the same conclusions I do. I spoke of inefficiency and higher costs as concomitants of genuinely human (read virtuous) behavior. The emphasis is mine. Here are the quotes:

The virtues are of course themselves in turn fostered by certain types of social institutions and endangered by others. Thomas Jefferson thought that only in a society of small farmers could the virtues flourish; and Adam Ferguson with a good deal more sophistication saw the institutions of modern commercial society as endangering at least some traditional virtues. It is Ferguson’s type of sociology which is the empirical counter part of the conceptual account of the virtues which I have given, a sociology which aspires to lay bare the empirical, causal connection between virtues, practices and institutions. For this kind of conceptual account has strong empirical implications; it provides an explanatory scheme which can be tested in particular cases. Moreover my thesis has empirical content in another way; it does entail that without the virtues there could be a recognition only of what I have called external goods and not at all of internal goods in the context of practices. And in any society which recognized only external goods competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature. We have a brilliant portrait of such a society in Hobbes’s account of the state of nature ….

Virtues then stand in a different relationship to external and to internal goods. The possession of the virtues—and not only of their semblance and simulacra—are necessary to achieve the latter; yet the possession of the virtues may perfectly well hinder us in achieving external goods. I need to emphasize at this point that external goods genuinely are goods. Not only are they characteristic objects of human desire, whose allocation is what gives point to the virtues of justice and of geometry, but no one can despise them altogether without a certain hypocrisy. Yet notoriously the cultivation of truthfulness, justice and courage will often, the world being what it … is, bar us from being rich or famous or powerful. Thus although we may hope that we can not only achieve the standards of excellence and the internal goods of certain practices by possessing the virtues and become rich, famous and powerful, the virtues are always a potential stumbling block to this comfortable ambition. We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound.
The link to the paper itself is here.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the link. This will take a while, but promises to be well worth the time.