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

MacIntyre offers the example of a child learning to play, and ultimately to appreciate, chess (2007, p. 188). In this example, the child initially plays to be rewarded with candy, but eventually comes to experience the internal goods of chess, and no longer needs the extrinsic reward. The case of work as an object of consumption is similar. What work is done for the sake of will be telling. If it is engaged in solely for the sake of payment, it will not be engaged with as a practice irrespective of whether the activity itself satisfies the requirements of MacIntyre’s definition, i.e. irrespective of its complexity, social-establishment and so on, a point made above with reference to football. If it is engaged in for some richer purpose, then it may constitute practice-engagement, even if external goods, e.g. the salary, are considered to be highly important. Garcia-Ruiz and Rodriguez-Lluesma have persuasively argued that “consumption decisions are frequently experienced as activities that are necessary for the achievement of the goods internal to practices” (2014, p. 525). The key point here is that consumption need not be passive, but can be informed by a virtuous conception of the good life. One prerequisite of our being able to meaningfully understand work as a potential object of virtuous consumption is that at least some degree of choice is often available to workers. Another is that workers do not simply pursue jobs which pay the highest available salary or carry the most status. Neither of these conditions is as widespread as we would no doubt like them to be, but, in developed countries at least, neither is entirely rare.  Where these conditions hold, people can display their commitment to the good life by seeking practice-based work...However, as MacIntyre’s fishermen example (1994, 2008b), in which crew members join for the pay and stay for the rewarding relationships provided by the community, shows, people do not need to seek out the practice in advance in order to be able to come to appreciate its internal goods, even though they must eventually come to appreciate these goods to be engaged in the practice qua practice. (p.116)


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


On MacIntyre

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