Reading After Virtue, more than a few years ago now, was an important milestone in my intellectual journey. Its author, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has remained an influence on my thinking ever since. In the pages of Prospect, John Cornwell recently reflected on a lecture MacIntyre delivered about our ongoing economic troubles. In doing so, Cornwell offers a useful, and not uncritical, overview of MacIntyre’s career and the trajectory of his thought. There are some interesting, and to my mind, compelling observations in Cornwell’s synopsis including the following:
MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt. The owners and managers of capital always want to keep wages and other costs as low as possible. “But, insofar as they succeed, they create a recurrent problem for themselves. For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high.” Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.
This expansion of credit, he goes on, has been accompanied by a distribution of risk that exposed to ruin millions of people who were unaware of their exposure. So when capitalism once again overextended itself, massive credit was transformed into even more massive debt, “into loss of jobs and loss of wages, into bankruptcies of firms and foreclosures of homes, into one sort of ruin for Ireland, another for Iceland, and a third for California and Illinois.” Not only does capitalism impose the costs of growth or lack of it on those least able to bear them, but much of that debt is unjust. And the “engineers of this debt,” who had already benefited disproportionately, “have been allowed to exempt themselves from the consequences of their delinquent actions.” The imposition of unjust debt is a symptom of the “moral condition of the economic system of advanced modernity, and is in its most basic forms an expression of the vices of intemperateness, and injustice, and imprudence.”
One, of course, expects a moral philosopher closely associated with virtue ethics to judge the merits of an economic system according to the virtues or vices it encourages. This is not all that can be said, however, as many will point out (including Cornwell), and I’m beginning to think capitalism is too vague and elastic a term to be useful in serious discussion. Nonetheless, MacIntyre raises important concerns that we should take quite seriously.
In one of those moments of digitally enabled serendipity when linking from one item to another seemingly unrelated item one discovers an unexpected connection between the two, I followed the Prospect piece on MacIntyre with Ted Koppel’s much discussed Washington Post 0p-ed. In his piece, Koppel lamented the eclipse of dependable and objective news coverage by the sensationalized, partisan cable news programs of the Right and the Left. Koppel’s piece got passed around quite a bit online and seems to have struck a chord with those disillusioned by the conflation of news with entertainment.
Koppel’s argument is straightforward:
To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.
Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its “60 Minutes” news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, “60 Minutes” turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.
Perhaps Koppel has read After Virtue, it is interesting, at least, that he employs the language of virtue and innocence. While he may not have his facts on network news and profitability quite right, Koppel is making an argument that illustrates one of the key concepts laid out by MacIntyre in After Virtue. MacIntyre begins his argument for traditioned moral communities with the notion of a practice and goods that are either internal or external to it. MacIntyre defines a practice as follows:
By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (After Virtue, 187)
There are certain goods or rewards that are inherent or natural to a practice, and there are other goods or rewards that may attach themselves to a practice but that are incidental and perhaps even inimical to the practice itself. There is, for example, what we call playing for the “love of the game,” and there is playing for money. It may be nostalgia, naivete, or romanticism, but we like to imagine that some, at least, play for the love of the game.
Koppel’s point then, in MacIntyre’s terms, was this: Journalism lost its way when it began to be driven by the pursuit of external rather than internal goods. Profit is not a good internal to the practice of journalism, although it clearly can be an external good. But when the pursuit of that external good was injected into the practice of journalism it displaced the goods properly internal to the practice distorting and corrupting it. One can imagine a situation in which external and internal goods are properly ordered and prioritized so that they are both attained without compromising the integrity of the practice in question. The problem tends to arise when the external goods take precedence over the internal goods making the whole activity mercenary.
There is a lot more to be said, I’m sure, about this specific case. I’m in no position to judge the reliability of Koppel’s vision of the halcyon days of network news; most golden ages tend to reveal a good bit of tarnish upon closer inspection. Yet, Koppel’s argument resonates with us (unless you are Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly) because it gives voice to an unease we feel with the commodification of life and society. Rejoinders about the inevitability and necessity of it all strike us as cynical and callous.
We may not use MacIntyre’s terminology, but we have a sense of the natural connection between internal goods and a practice. Likewise, we are disappointed with those who pursue a practice merely for the sake of an external good — the athlete that plays only for money, the spouse who marries only for status, the politician who runs only for power. Increasingly, we are noticing the introduction of the pursuit of profit as a good into realms of social and private life where it could be only an external good, and where it threatens to displace the internal goods, thus bringing distortion and corruption.
Warding off the consequences of large scale displacement of internal goods by economic rationality may appear a losing battle. But acts of private resistance are not without consequence. To borrow the title of one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, the life you save may be your own.