Why Community Matters
Caleb Bernacchio, with whom I spent a good lunch this week, talking about the Benedict Option, writes:
Thinking about our conversation, I think there is one point that should be clarified. After Virtue, rather than a offering a program, end in an aporia but its conclusion is not totally lacking content. It suggests that we build new forms of community that promote and protect practices against the corrupting effect of institutional pressure and its accompanying vices.
Why is the question of building new forms a community the central question of After Virtue? Why is this a question of the first importance for MacIntyre’s philosophical project?
Because After Virtue was an extended argument against the very possibility of an ethical theory that was not grounded in a very particular type of community. This is a community that has three characteristics it is organized in terms of various activities directed toward shared goods, it provides a space for people to order their life toward a final end, and it understands the present in terms of tradition of which it is a part. The first characteristic is explained in terms of the notion of a practice. Practices are the key to any “new form of community,” because practices provides the primary locus for the experience of the virtues, as well as the experience of rationally grounded authority, and tradition.
Unlike mere discussions of virtues, practices provides the primary context for the experience of the virtues. They also allow for the development of practical wisdom. What are practices? They are arts, and sciences, games like chess or baseball, and crafts life carpentry and farming, and professions like accounting or engineering. To be a successful participant of any one of the activities one must possess the virtues to a large degree or at least rely upon the virtues of others to maintain the integrity of the practice.
Participating in any of these activities requires honesty, justice, and courage. One must be honest to oneself and to others about the quality of one’s performance. One must be just in giving other their due when they perform well; and one must be courageous in resisting pressure to cheat when the other team is not looking. One must learn that winning and excellence are not the same; by learning this in very particular cases one becomes practically wise.
Any new form of community in MacIntyre’s sense must be a community that seeks to promote and preserve practices against the threat of hostile institutions that ostensibly support the practice. So, for instance, schools have been known to degrade the disciplines of math or literature, and instead to teach students how to pass standardized tests. Universities have been described as glorified trade schools because they instrumentalize what should be a period whereby students learn various arts or sciences and in the process become better human beings; they instrumentalize the disciplines and instead focus on teaching students the skills that will look good on a resume. Youth sports have become obsessions driven by the unlikely prospect that a child will one day be rich and famous as a professional athlete. And work has become merely instrumental, directed toward profit maximization rather than excellence. In all of these cases key opportunities for the experience of and development of virtues, as well the firsthand appreciation of both tradition and rationally justified authority, have been lost. Instead, individuals (this term is appropriate in this context) learn to use the things they encounter merely as means to the fulfillment of their own desires. The result is a stunted character that lacks the virtues.
How is this relevant to the Benedict Option? People who are concerned because of the the hostility and rejection of Christianity especially Christian morality, must recognize that religious instruction is not enough. In your terms, religious instruction without the cultivation of the virtues, is a recipe for MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism). If Christianity is to be any more than skin deep it demands that one cultivate the virtues, especially the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage, and practical wisdom. This can be accomplished primarily by participating in a number of practices within a community that values practices precisely for the way that they contribute to common good of the community as a whole. It is for this reason that MacIntyre’s suggestion of the need for new forms of community, while not in any way a program, is not entirely lacking in content. Instead, such new forms of community must be communities that protect the integrity of practices, as the key locus of the experience of the virtues, authority, and tradition, against the threat of pride, avarice, and injustice. It is for the same reason that proponents of the Benedict Option must be concerned with practices as MacIntyre has described them.
This is also the reason that meaningful work is so important. So much of our waking hours are spent working. It is of the utmost importance that work contributes to character formation, and serves as means to contribute to the common good of one’s community. Work is not solely about making consumer goods, or profits, but it is instead a means of making one’s self, of shaping one’s character. It is for this reason that proponents of the Benedict Option must be concerned with promoting forms of work, and thus companies, that facilitate the cultivation of the virtues.