In his seminal work After Virtue (1981), philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to recover Aristotle’s notions of character and virtue. We form our character and write our own life story over time, MacIntyre argues, largely through participation in what he simply calls “social practices”—meaning any sufficiently complex human activity aimed at realizing something worthwhile or intrinsically good and capable of inspiring the pursuit of excellence. On that definition, the practice of healing or playing chess or democratic self-governance counts, but tic-tac-toe doesn’t; whereas the former extend the human potential for excellence, the latter merely amuses.
As a moral philosopher, MacIntyre is keenly aware of sociological context and the massive impact of cultural conditioning on individuals. Communities form around social practices and are sustained by master-apprentice relationships and traditions. A young violinist or aspiring architect, for example, has a deep appreciation for and is inspired by a Beethoven, a Frank Lloyd Wright, and other true masters. (Sorry, but there are no Wii masters.)
In After Virtue MacIntyre wonders aloud whether a contemporary society dominated by large institutions and a sensate culture has any room for the kind of dedicated, supportive, moral communities that sustain social practices and make possible the cultivation of virtues such as wisdom, justice, and courage. Aside from whether or not he is right about current societal conditions and their corrosive effects on individual character, McIntyre rightly points up the need for healthy communities that maintain the integrity of social practices within a living tradition.
At LRN, we’ve taken on the challenge of practicing self-governance, and we are evolving a set of practices designed to build a company of leaders. One practice is to recognize and celebrate Living HOW Moments. The inspiring stories often come from personal encounters that illuminate what Dr. King called the content of our character. Another is the Principled Performance Review process in which colleagues assess each others’ conduct based on a Leadership Framework and four core values: humility, truth, passion, and integrity. These and other practices are helping to form and sustain a community of high purpose, one dedicated to elevating human behavior and helping people do the right thing. They also are shaping a distinct culture. Around here, we simply call it HOW.
In my next blog, “Dancing as a Social Practice – A Tanguero’s View,” I’ll explore the HOW of Argentine tango.