For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative

by MacIntyre, Alasdair (2016)


Alasdair MacIntyre explores some central philosophical, political and moral claims of modernity and argues that a proper understanding of human goods requires a rejection of these claims. In a wide-ranging discussion, he considers how normative and evaluative judgments are to be understood, how desire and practical reasoning are to be characterized, what it is to have adequate self-knowledge, and what part narrative plays in our understanding of human lives. He asks, further, what it would be to understand the modern condition from a neo-Aristotelian or Thomistic perspective, and argues that Thomistic Aristotelianism, informed by Marx's insights, provides us with resources for constructing a contemporary politics and ethics which both enable and require us to act against modernity from within modernity. This rich and important book builds on and advances MacIntyre's thinking in ethics and moral philosophy, and will be of great interest to readers in both fields.

Key Passage

Activities too may engage or fail to engage us in various ways. Consider the attitudes of Japanese workers in automobile factories before and after the reforms designed by Japanese manufacturers under the influence of the maverick American management theorist, W. Edwards Deming. Before, most workers were subjected to mindless routines on production lines, just as in American factories of the same period, each worker engaged in making one part for a whole to be assembled later, their work monitored for quality by inspectors. After, workers became members of teams, each team having the responsibility for making a particular car, taking it through each stage of production, so that the excellence of the end product became the goal of their cooperative activity and their responsibility. Before, their work was no more than a means to a livelihood for themselves and their families. After, their work was directed toward an end which they could make their own. Compare with this the contrast observed by the British sociologist Tom Burns, between the attitudes and activities of those engaged in making television programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation in the earlier years in which such programs were produced and their attitudes and activities some years later. In the earlier period, what Burns had remarked was a shared understanding of what could be achieved by talented individuals of very different kinds, so that “engineers, scene-shifters, directors, actors, stage-managers, porters, lighting supervisors, accountants, cameramen, secretaries” and the like were able to dovetail in with the activities of others and to treat moments of emergency or breakdown as “signals for the immediate performance of appropriate and complementary tasks.” Burns compared this mobilization of both sophisticated routines and creative improvisations in the service of a common end with that achieved by surgical teams in operating theatres and by “fishing crews and ensembles of actors or acrobats or musicians,” resulting in each case in work of very high quality.2 Yet when Burns revisited the BBC a few years later, there had been a notable decline in quality and a notable change in attitude. Where previously administrators and managers had provided space and resources for those who shared in producing the programs to pursue the common ends that they had made their own and to devise the means for achieving those ends, administrators and managers were now imposing their ends and dictating the means taken by them to be appropriate. Of the activities of those at work in the earlier stage Burns said that “None of it seemed to be managed.”3 Of the activities of those at work in the later stage, it was clear that it had deteriorated in quality just because it was managed. We thus find in two very different cultural settings, Japanese and British, with work that makes use of two very different technologies, those of automobile manufacture and of television, the same contrast between two kinds of activity, one a mode of practice in which workers are able to pursue ends that they themselves have identified as worthwhile, in the pursuit of which they hold themselves to standards of excellence that they have made their own, the other an organization of activity such that their work is directed toward ends that are the ends of administrators and managers imposed upon their activities. In the former the primary responsibility for the quality of the end products of the work lies with the workers, who in this respect are treated as agents with rational and aesthetic powers, even though their labor is still exploited. In the latter this primary responsibility is assumed by administrators and managers, and productive workers are treated as means to the ends of administration and management.It is in and through activities of the former kind that desires are educated and transformed. Distinctions are made between real and apparent goods, between objects of desire that agents have good reason to pursue and objects of desire that need to be set aside if excellence is to be achieved. Feelings are transformed as what agents care about changes. What agents want for and from themselves and for and from others is no longer what it was. More experienced workers become teachers. Managers become enablers. By contrast activities of the latter kind fail to engage such feelings. They are at best means to ends beyond work, means perhaps to a pay packet that may make life outside work, the life of a consumer, more satisfying.    (p.130)


Desire, Practical Reason, Aristotle, Neo-Aristotelian, Marx, Aquinas, Politics, Ethics, Self-Knowledge Moral Philosophy


Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity

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