For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work


by Knight, Kelvin (2008)


Parts 1 to 3 of this paper explore the theoretical rationale and ethical significance of Alasdair MacIntyre’s twin distinctions between goods internal and external to practices and between goods of excellence and of effectiveness. Parts 4 and 5 then relate this analysis to his critique of contemporary institutions, compartmentalisation and management. My argument is that these concepts express a teleological theory of why and how goods should be ordered which, in refusing to identify practical rationality with institutional actuality and instead differentiating between rival traditions, progresses beyond the theories of Aristotle and of other, past and present anglophone Aristotelians.

Key Passage

MacIntyre’s primary structural critique of modernity is now that institutional domination and compartmentalisation prevent practices from adequately educating people in the virtues. Institutional domination denies individuals the opportunity of learning how to become independent practical reasoners. Compartmentalisation prevents them from coherently relating their different activities within their own lives, just as it prevents those activities from being coherently related in society as a whole. Given his stipulative definition of practices, this entails that what most people do in their working lives cannot be understood as participation in a practice, and his refusal of any ethic of ‘my station and its duties’ is therefore more than the Bradleian one of its inadequate idealism. Work cannot provide an education in the virtues because it is not something over which workers have control or responsibility. As Marxists, guild socialists, distributivists and others have argued, when workers do not own the instruments or products of their own labour, and when they have to sell their labour, then they are alienated from their own activity. If human beings are understood, as by Aristotle, in terms of their activity, then to be alienated from one’s activity is to be alienated from one’s self. Control or manipulation of one’s activity by someone else causes alienation, and alienation causes demoralisation. (p.118)


Alasdair Macintyre, Macintyre, Aritotle, Goods, Practices, Practical Rationality


On MacIntyre

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