For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Moral education at work: On the scope of MacIntyre’s concept of a practice"

by Sinnicks, Matthew (2019)


This paper seeks to show how MacIntyre’s concept of a practice can survive a series of ‘scope problems’ which threaten to render the concept inapplicable to business ethics. I begin by outlining MacIntyre’s concept of a practice before arguing that, despite an asymmetry between productive and non-productive practices, the elasticity of the concept of a practice allows us to accommodate productive and profitable activities. This elasticity of practices allows us to sidestep the problem of adjudicating between practitioners and non-practitioners as well as the problem of generic activities. I conclude by suggesting that the contemporary tendency to regard work as an object of consumption, rather than undermining MacIntyre’s account of practices, serves to demonstrate the potential breadth of its applicability.

Key Passage

Practices require us to acquire the virtues because it is only through virtue acquisition that we can properly experience the internal goods practices make available. On MacIntyre’s view, our attempts to improve ourselves so as to master some rewarding activity are more effective as a moral education than any formal ethics course could be (see MacIntyre 2015)...As MacIntyre says, “the exercise of the virtues is something learned in the context of practices... those who engage in practices need the virtues if they are to achieve the individual and common goods internal to practices”. So, not only are practices intrinsically satisfying and inherently worthwhile, they are also morally educative. Indeed, just as virtues are internal rather than external means to the end of human flourishing in the Aristotelian tradition, practices are internal means to virtue acquisition.--Rather than seeing MacIntyre’s definition as an austere and perhaps arbitrary stipulation regarding which activities can provide a basis for his definition of virtues, we should read it as a considered description of the sorts of activities that are morally educative and intrinsically rewarding as a result of their distinctive qualities.…..Practices must have a coherent core to allow for the gradual progression of standards of excellence and must be complex in order to be able to be sufficiently challenging and fulfilling. This complexity is what prevents engagement in a practice from becoming monotonous. Non-complex activities, such as planting turnips or throwing a ball, will not be morally educative as they will not require the virtues. Although such activities may require much repetition, this does not imply that they can teach us perseverance, as the virtue of perseverance is only what it is when it serves some worthwhile end.….. Practices must also be cooperative because we are typically unable to correct our own mistakes when beginning to engage in a practice, and are sometimes incapable even of perceiving those mistakes. This brings us to another key feature of practices: the role played by a particular community of practitioners within a particular tradition of practice...In attempting to master a particular practice, we must engage with and learn from our contemporary fellow practitioners, with whom we can discuss the practice, share advice, and give and receive encouragement and criticism. It is with these fellows that we are able to discuss the relevant standards of excellence which go beyond any subjective enjoyments provided by the practice in question, and in this sense practices also have a significant historical element… (p.107)


Macintyre, Ethics, Business Ethics, Morality At Work, Moral Education, Moral Training, Practice


On MacIntyre

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