Individualism, Commitments, and the Practices that Save Us 

Nicki Cavender

Every moral or ethical argument that I have recently been part of has ended in exasperation due to the fact that no one can ever answer the question 'whose responsibility is it?' This dilemma is surprisingly consistent as a conclusion to almost every conceivable moral or ethical problem in America today, and especially those concerning politics and the legislation. A six-year old murders another six year old and whose responsibility is it? Robert Bellah and his colleagues recognized and attempted to address this problem in their collaborative book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Their argument claims that the common moral discourse, the language of individualism, is bankrupt and consequently cannot adequately articulate any resolutions concerning the tension involving private interest and public welfare according to a conception of what is good in itself. While they correctly diagnosed the difficulty, they misdiagnosed the cause. I will argue that Bellah's claim concerning the incoherence of the first language of individualism as the cause of American's inability to resolve the public-private tension is incorrect due to the fact that it depends upon an invalid distinction between moral language and moral actions. Furthermore, I will argue that Alasdair MacIntyre's theory of practices in After Virtue, and Christopher Lasch's account of the liberal influence on this theory of practices in 'The Communitarian Critique,' successfully achieves what Bellah's theory does not: a coherent way in which to resolve the tension between private interest and public good and to define the meanings of freedom, justice, and success in a manner compatible with both private interest and public good.

In his book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bellah and his colleagues seek to understand how Americans today 'preserve or create a morally coherent life' (xli). In order to explore this issue, Bellah and his colleagues conducted many interviews with two hundred middle-class, white Americans. The main goal was to understand how these Americans defined their personal goals and values, how they defined the nature of success, freedom, and justice, and most importantly, how they defined the relationship between the individual and the society. Though many individuals were interviewed, the book mainly emphasizes the interviews of Brian Palmer, Joe Gorman, Margaret Oldham, and Wayne Bauer. These individuals are the representative characters of Bellah's American society, and therefore provide what he believes to be an adequate representation of the moral dilemmas facing Americans today. Bellah uses these four main interviews as evidence to support his claim that the common moral discourse of American individuals is inadequate and, therefore, incoherent. He claims that

when each of [the four main interviewees] uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than, as we have observed them, they actually are. (Bellah 21)
Simply, despite the individuals' moral differences, they all share the same moral language, which Bellah refers to as the first language of individualism, to articulate their conceptions of commitment. Yet this language is inadequate because it limits the individuals' ability to articulate the full extent of their commitments to their families, peers, coworkers, local communities, and greater community. Furthermore, Bellah claims that, because these people use the first language of individualism, they can neither coherently justify the goals or values of a 'morally good life,' nor coherently articulate the definitions of success, freedom, or justice. They are 'confused about how to define the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice' (Bellah 21), and this confusion is caused by the restrictions of their shared moral discourse. Thus, the main purpose of the book is to find Òa moral language that will transcend [Americans'] radical individualism' (Bellah 21), and, therefore, provide a language that enables Americans to adequately and coherently articulate their commitments, both public and private, and values that are necessary and sufficient for a 'morally good life' (ibid).

According to Bellah, a common assumption held by the four individuals interviewed is that the values and goals of a good life are indeed arbitrary. They constitute a moral framework that is individually created in order to effectively achieve personal interests and pursuits concerning a private vision of the good life. Therefore, these people have in common the difficulty of defining and justifying exactly what a good life entails. They are restricted by the first language of individualism and cannot articulate any goals that exceed the realm of personal interest. Bellah argues that this problem and others caused by the language of individualism actually stem from a disregard to cultural tradition and its relevance concerning current moral dilemmas. While individualism is indeed a valuable cultural tradition in America, it is not the only, or even most important one. 'The themes of success, freedom, and justice...are found in all three of the central strands of our culture- biblical, republican, and modern individualist' (Bellah 28). However, Bellah argues that our moral discourse only represents the tradition of individualism and not the biblical or republican traditions which are both equally valuable aspects of America's history. Yet for some reason, Americans have forgotten the biblical and republican traditions that so vitally contributed to the early success of the democratic state. Bellah argues in fact that the coherence of American society cannot survive without recognizing the importance and influence of these traditions.

The biblical tradition originated during the initial colonization of America. Puritans from England came to America in search of a life free from religious persecution. Though fundamentalists in their belief, they emphasized a vision of community that included an ethical aspect to the definition of freedom. The colonists implemented an ethics of social obligation and participation that enabled them to create a moral framework for family, church, and politics without fear of arbitrary power and persecution. Furthermore, the biblical tradition recognized the welfare of the colony and perpetuation of an ethical and moral community as essential criterions of success. The republican tradition on the other hand, was created by the founding fathers of the United States, including great men such as Abraham Lincoln. This tradition did indeed emphasize personal freedom, equality and liberty, but not independent of the absolutely vital responsibility of every individual to actively participate in the political system. The republican tradition maintained that effectiveness of equality and liberty in a republic was absolutely dependent upon civic participation. These traditions, Bellah argues, must be utilized as resources to create and engage in a coherent moral discourse about America's dire problems. 

The significance of the republican and biblical traditions is that 'both these traditions placed individual autonomy in a context of moral and religious obligation that in some contexts justified obedience as well as freedom' (Bellah 143). So the emphasis on freedom and equality in both traditions was balanced by a common conception of the good which in turn was based upon an established moral framework. The problem concerning individualism emerged when these social and moral obligations succumbed to the increasingly dominant priority of formal freedom, equality and liberty. As the country grew and industry flourished the private and public spheres became increasingly distinct, and the social and moral obligations emphasized in the biblical and republican traditions gradually faded. Americans conception of the importance of work slowly changed from an activity that benefited both the individual and the community to an activity that was simply the means to achieving individual pursuits. Yet at the same time, many Americans were not satisfied with this purely material idea of success, and following the example of Walt Whitman, began to emphasize the freedom to cultivate a unique and individual self. Bellah refers to these different emerging traditions of individualism as utilitarian and expressive respectively. 

Utilitarian individualism 'views society as arising from a contract that individuals enter into only in order to advance their self-interest...[and] has an affinity to a basically economic understanding of human existence' (Bellah 336). Expressive individualism on the other hand 'holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized. This core, though unique, is not necessarily alien to other persons or nature' (Bellah 334). Or simply, utilitarian individualism is concerned with advancing one's position in society, both economically and socially, through hard work and initiative; basically a pursuit of one's personal economic and material interests. Expressive individualism is concerned with the pursuit of personal interests of a different kind. This type of individualism emphasizes the individual's right to choose and pursue his personal conception of a morally good life. While expressive individualism incorporates relationships with others, it still emphasizes personal satisfaction. Thus Bellah and his colleagues argue that 'the languages of individualism--utilitarian and expressive-- are impoverished vehicles for public discussion because they focus on immediate payoff of inner feelings. They do not help us think about the larger problems of our society, including the problems of those in situation's quite different from our own' (Bellah 4).

An example of the limitations of these two types of individualism expressed in the first language of individualism is the case study of Brian Palmer. During Brian's first marriage, he was completely consumed by a desire to 'get ahead.' He worked ridiculously extensive hours, and tremendously benefited economically. He constantly strove to achieve in the work place, viewed success as merely economic success, and felt personal satisfaction through this hard work and economic success all of which are indicative of a utilitarian individualistic moral framework. However, his marriage failed due to his lack of effort concerning the commitment, and during his second marriage he decided to change. He devoted more time to his wife, children, and the commitments of these relationships. Yet, he still explains the reason for this change as motivated by personal satisfaction. Rather 'he explains his drastic shift from obsession with work to devotion to family by saying that he just got more personal satisfaction from course B than from course AÓ (Bellah 76), thus maintaining a moral framework of expressive individualism. 

Both traditions of individualism contribute only what Bellah terms a cost-benefit analysis of the external successes and internal satisfactions concerning happiness, contentment, and freedom as criteria for self-approval. For instance, Brian was motivated to alter his habits merely because he realized both the costs and the benefits of maintaining a personally satisfying marriage; he had to manage with either less money or slower advancement in the company, but he in turn gained a successfully functioning relationship and family. Simply, Brian discovered that devoting more time to his family and less time to work was more satisfying to him, and therefore automatically inferred that it was a right action. Thus 'the right act is simply the one that yields the agent the most exciting challenge or the most good feeling about himself' (Bellah 76). Brian's actions depended only upon his personal preferences, not on any objective conception of the good because without a common moral framework the only available resources for defining and justifying a morally right action are the preferences of the individual. Bellah argues that because America's only currently recognized and implemented cultural resources offer only a criteria of right and wrong based upon self-interest and personal satisfaction, there is no means to reconcile any conflicting claims about what is good in itself.

Because the language of individualism emphasizes the pursuit of personal interests, it fails to provide a concept of the nature of success, the meaning of freedom, and the requirements of justice independent of personal preference. 

Americans tend to think of the ultimate goals of a good life as matters of personal choice. This means to achieve individual choice, they tend to think, depend on economic progress. This dominant American tradition of thinking about success does not, however, help very much in relating economic success to our ultimate success as persons and our ultimate success as a society. (Bellah 22)
In other words, because Americans associate the idea of success with the ability to achieve personal pursuits, which most often require economic success, they do not have the resources to conceive the notion of success apart from this notion of economic success. Consequently, individuals who do not achieve economic success feel a sense of failure based solely upon their economic situation. Freedom, according to Bellah, is interpreted by Americans as the freedom of 'being left alone by others, not having other people's values...or ideas forced upon one, being free of arbitrary authority in work, family, and political life' (23). Yet this concept of freedom prevents the formation of bonds of commitment because they would necessarily imply an obligation to interfere with someone else's values or ideas and consequently their freedom. Furthermore, freedom from the obligation to comply with any values or ideas other than individual values or ideas prevents the coherent engagement of a moral discourse concerning common conceptions of the good. And finally, Bellah argues that the American conception of justice, as concerning equal opportunities for all to pursue personal happiness does not provide a 'common understanding about distributive justice -- an appropriate sharing of economic resources' (26). Without this common understanding, the increasing division between the very rich and the very poor cannot even be coherently discussed or debated. So, lack of a common conception of distributive and substantive justice, of social, political, and cultural success, and of a conception of freedom that does not entail isolation and absence of obligation creates an inability to coherently discuss the intricacies of, or possible solutions to common problems in American society. 

Therefore, Bellah's central argument claims that Americans need to reprioritize their language of moral discourse to incorporate and emphasize the languages of the biblical tradition and republican tradition, both of which include a responsibility to civic membership of all citizens, welfare of the society, just allocation of economic resources, and a shared vision of the common good. As previously mentioned, the main purpose of Bellah's study is to attempt to find a common moral language that will exceed the limited abilities of the language of radical individualism in order to provide a coherent moral discourse that will accommodate valid conversations concerning the relationship between private interests and the public good. And according to Bellah, this tension will only be resolved through a cultivation of civic virtue amongst citizens who recognize and rely upon the languages of the biblical and republican tradition as the primary cultural resource to engage in such conversations.

Bellah claims that in order for a transformation of moral discourse from individualism to republican and biblical to occur, the social world of America has to essentially be reconstituted. By this Bellah means that the relationships between the government, economy, individual, community, work, and cultural traditions would have to undergo serious social transformation. First, Bellah proposes changing 'the climate in which business operates so as to encourage new initiatives in economic democracy and social responsibility' (Bellah 287). He also encourages a social transformation that would link private interests with the public good in such a way that would emphasize what individuals have in common, and the common goals they share. Bellah wants to 'move to ameliorate the differences that are patently unfair while respecting differences based on morally intelligible commitments' (Bellah 287). This transformation would of course include the emergence of a political discourse that could coherently articulate conversations concerning notions of distributive and substantive justice. Furthermore, Bellah argues that the government must take an active role in decreasing the economic and social punishments of failure and also the benefits and rewards of success; 'such a shift in rewards would have to be a part of a reappropriation of the idea of vocation of calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one's own advancement' (Bellah 287-88). In other words, Bellah wants the government to enact policies that would deemphasize extrinsic rewards of work, and in turn reemphasize the intrinsic rewards concerning both the individual and the society as a whole. This transformation would enable individuals to conceive of their personal efforts not only as privately beneficial, but also as a vital contribution to the common pursuit of the public good. Bellah further argues that by altering the conception of work from merely a means to achieve personal interests to an activity that also contributes to the public good, the separation of public and private spheres will begin to decrease, more time will be available for the improvement of family life, and individuals will begin to better understand the causes and effects of certain familial or cultural disadvantages amongst their fellow citizens. Bellah admits that reconstitution of the social order involves radical changes in every arena of private and public life, but he maintains that it is possible through institutional, educational, and motivational transformations that begin by the incorporation of the languages of the biblical and republican tradition (Bellah 289). 

Initially, Bellah's argument seems clear and coherent. He claims that the inadequacies of the language of individualism create the inability to articulate not only the full extent of Americans' commitments, but also the values that justify a morally good life and the definitions of success, freedom, and justice. He does not however, explicitly claim, or intend to defend, that any other contributing factor could cause these problems. In other words, Bellah's argument states that it is the language of individualism, Americans' shared moral discourse, that is the source of the failure to fully articulate and therefore justify their commitments, not some other inadequacy or deficiency within the culture. In fact, Bellah emphasizes the fact that the representative characters interviewed were all engaged in substantial, relational commitments, but merely could not adequately articulate the extent of these relationships. Concerning the interviewee Brain Palmer, Bellah concludes that 'despite the combination of tenderness and admiration he expresses for his wife, [and] the genuine devotion he seems to feel for his children Brian's justification of his life rests on a fragile foundation, he lacks a language to explain what seem to be the real commitments that define his life' (Bellah 8). So although Bellah claims that Brian does indeed lack a coherent and adequate moral discourse, he also admits that Brian has obvious devotion, tenderness, and admiration for his family. Simply, Brian has a substantially involved and interrelated relationship with his family, but just cannot articulate the extent of this real commitment that defines his life. Therefore, Bellah makes a distinction between involvement in a meaningful relational commitment and the ability to articulate the extent of that commitment:

Whether chiefly involved with private or public life, all four [of the representational characters] are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and...admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses...the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than..they actually are. (Bellah 21)
So, once again, Bellah's argument maintains that it is solely the language of individualism, that limits the ability to articulate the extent of commitments, which are in fact substantial and meaningful. 

Yet despite the fact that Bellah himself emphasizes the distinction between the lack of the ability to articulate the significance of a commitment that indeed has underlying relational substance, and the absence of this certain type of commitment altogether, he often confuses the two and interchanges them without notice. In other words, although Bellah claims that Americans cannot articulate the extent of their real commitments, he also implicitly claims that Americans do not even have these types of relational commitments. For example, Bellah states that Margaret Oldham 'places individual fulfillment higher than attachment to family and community' (13). Now, according to Bellah's original argument, this statement means that Margaret simply cannot articulate the full extent of her commitments to family and community, and therefore places individual fulfillment higher. But this is not the case. While Bellah claims that Margaret is tolerant and responsible, she 'has no reliable way to connect her own fulfillment to that of other people' (16-7). Bellah does not say that she has no reliable means to articulate the connection between her fulfillment and others, but rather that she cannot make the connection at all. She does not understand her relationships in any way other than individual fulfillment, and, therefore, could not possibly articulate them in such a way. This claim is of course incompatible with the original argument because the fact that the language of individualism cannot articulate the extent of Americans' commitments presupposes the fact that Americans do indeed have these commitments. His argument is incoherent otherwise, because only if Americans have these certain commitments, can they articulate them. So Bellah can coherently argue that the language of individualism is inadequate if and only if the individual is involved in a relational commitment, but simply cannot articulate the extent of the commitment.

Bellah further continues to confuse these distinct claims in various other passages. He claims that the American society is Òa society in which the individual can only rarely and with difficulty understand himself and his activities as interrelated in morally meaningful ways with those of other, different Americans' (Bellah 50). This claim is altogether different from the claim that the individual can only rarely and with difficulty articulate the extent of his commitments, both public and private, in a morally and meaningful ways with those of other, different Americans. Not to understand himself as morally interrelated to others implies that the individual does not even consider the fact that he is morally interrelated to others. Not to be able to articulate how he is morally interrelated to others implies that, even though he considers himself as somehow interrelated to others, he merely cannot find a way to articulate this commitment without seeming individualistic. So Bellah has again ignored the distinction that he himself made obvious.

In order to better understand this criticism, which admittedly involves an initially vague, yet eventually devastating distinction, I must reemphasize exactly what Bellah's argument entails. First, Bellah's definition of language is significant in that it does extend beyond the linguistic definition. He defines 'language' as Òa term [used] to refer to modes of moral discourse that include distinct vocabularies and characteristic patterns of moral reasoning' (Bellah 334). The phrase that is relevant to this particular criticism is 'characteristic patterns of moral reasoning.' In other words, according to Bellah, a language, by definition, includes an individual's mental process of reasoning based upon certain held morals or values. So whatever language, or moral discourse I use in conversation directly reflects not only my distinct moral vocabulary, but also my characteristic pattern of reasoning based upon what I consider my morals, whether personally chosen or merely recognized as existing within an established moral framework. Therefore, if I reach the conclusion that adultery is an immoral act through a characteristic pattern of moral reasoning that relies upon a individualistic moral framework, I will naturally articulate my position according to the language that includes an individualistic pattern of moral reasoning. Similarly, if I reach the same conclusion through a characteristic pattern of moral reasoning that relies upon an previously established moral framework of which I did not create nor voluntarily consent to uphold, I will also naturally articulate my position according to the language that includes a previously established pattern of moral reasoning. I will implement whatever language most effectively articulates my position whether I am aware of the traditional origin of the pattern of moral reasoning or not. Simply, my moral language, by definition, is an accurate representation of my moral reasoning. 

Now, consider Brian's situation once again. Bellah claims that, despite Brian's decision to change his lifestyle in order to accommodate his family at the expense of his career, he is still using the first language of individualism to articulate what he considers to be the good life based upon personal preferences and interests. And yet Bellah insists that Brian and the other interviewees are 'serious, engaged, deeply involved in the world. But insofar as they are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy, they cannot think about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition. They cannot express the fullness of being that is actually theirs' (Bellah 81). So Bellah claims that even though Brian is deeply involved in the world as an engaged individual, he simply cannot express this involvement because his language does not provide him with the resource to adequately think about himself as other than an arbitrary center of volition. This argument simply does not make sense. If Brian was actually deeply involved and engaged in the world around him, then his language would reflect a pattern of moral reasoning based upon an involved and engaged moral framework. However, because his language reflects a pattern of moral reasoning based upon an obviously individualistic moral framework, it is only coherent to conclude that he is not deeply involved in the world around him, nor is he engaged in the world around him. This is not to say that he does not recognize or interact with the world around him, for surely he does. But being deeply involved and engaged implies that he is involved in interactions with others in such a way that affect his characteristic pattern of moral reasoning, which of course is not the case. In fact, Bellah agrees that 'given this individualistic moral framework, the self becomes a crucial site for the comparative examination and probing of feelings that result from utilitarian acts and inspire expressive ones' (Bellah 78). So because Brian communicates in the language of individualism, which by definition includes an individualistic pattern of moral reasoning which is, in turn, based upon an individualistic moral framework, his actions are indeed motivated by nothing more than personal pursuits. Therefore, his language of individualism does not fail to articulate the extent of his commitments; it is actually quite effective in that it coherently articulates the nature of his commitments, which are individualistic. The language of individualism is not the problem, but merely a symptom. And now it is evident that while Bellah was on the right track, he clearly underestimated the extent of the problem. 

The real difficulty then is not that the language of individualism cannot adequately articulate the relationship between personal interests and the public good, or the definition of success, freedom, and justice. But rather that there currently exists no means in which to resolve the private-public tension or to define success, freedom, and justice at all. In other words, America's problem is not merely the lack of an effective moral discourse to describe commitments and obligations, but instead the lack of such commitments and obligations independent of personal desires altogether. Therefore, Bellah's mistake is that he emphasizes the distinction between moral discourse and actual moral commitments as the source of the language of individualism's incoherence. Yet it is now evident that this distinction itself is incoherent. The tension between private interest and public good and the difficulty defining the nature of success, freedom, and justice is therefore due to something altogether different. Rather, the source of such tension is also the same source of the emergence of the language of individualism as the dominant moral discourse. Both problems are caused by the increasing influence of utilitarian and expressive individualistic conceptions of self, the transformation of the conception of liberty and equality as freedom from arbitrary power and persecution while maintaining civic virtue and concern for public welfare, to freedom from any obligation other than respecting the rights of other individuals' freedom, decreasing intrinsic value in work, and a growing capitalist market economy. Bellah does in fact claim that these transformations are responsible for the emergence of the language of individualism as the dominant moral discourse. However, he fails to recognize that they are also responsible for the American individualist's inability to reconcile the tension between private interests and public good and to define the nature of success, justice, and freedom independent of personal interests.

So now the problem remains, how does America begin to resolve the tension between private interest and public good and coherently define justice, freedom, and success for the society as a whole? The tension between private interest and public good originates from the absence of a common concept of the good life. Because values and moral frameworks are considered arbitrary and personal, and because the freedom to choose a personal moral framework so long as it does not interfere with others freedoms and rights is protected by law, there exists no objective criteria for judging right and wrong. Thus, what may be considered good to one individual may not be considered good to another individual, and so on and so forth. These competing conceptions of the good cause a seemingly irreconcilable tension. Furthermore, competing conceptions of success, justice, and freedom create similar conflicts. Freedom is, therefore, commonly defined as freedom from any obligations other than a subscription to a set of procedures enforced merely to maintain order and equal protection of every individuals' rights. So the absence of a common conception of the good combined with the freedom to choose any moral framework within the thin boundaries of the procedural account of virtue prevents individuals from reconciling competing visions concerning the way in which private and public interests should be prioritized. Therefore, the private-public tension and the definition difficulties are in fact caused by a lack of any common conception of a theory of virtues.

Alasdair MacIntyre's claim concerning what he refers to as practices, their internal goods, and their necessary relationship with institutions and society provides Bellah's argument with the substance that it lacks due to the incoherence of the argument for the the distinction between moral discourse and commitments. According to this account of practices, I argue that practices are central to a coherent account of the good. MacIntyre claims that practices embody certain virtues which are necessary for the persistence of that practice. These virtues are standards within the practice and, therefore, are common cultural resources by which actions and commitments are justified. 'Just as, so long as we share the standards and purposes characteristic of practices, we define our relationship to each other by reference to standards of truthfulness and trust, so we define them too by reference to standards of justice and courage' (192). In other words, if the participants in a practice agree to and uphold the established standards of the practice, then their relationships with others in every arena will be defined according to these standards. These standards of virtue are in fact the basis in which to establish a vision of the common good. Vital to this argument, however, is the validity of the claim that individuals will in fact share and uphold these standards in practice. But first, it is necessary to examine a detailed account of MacIntyre's conception of practices and virtues. 

Interestingly, though Bellah was influenced by MacIntyre, he never developed the argument that is so vital to his position. He often mentions 'practices of commitment' which strongly resembled MacIntyre's conception of practices, yet does not explain their significance or context any further. In Habits of the Heart, Bellah claims that 'sharing practices of commitment rooted in religious life and civic organization helps us identify with others different from ourselves, yet joined with us not only in interdependence and a common destiny, but by common ends as well' (Bellah 252). In other words, he admits that practices of commitment somehow serve to help individuals understand themselves within a larger context of community and the public good. Yet for some reason he does not elaborate any further on how or why this transformation will occur. He specifically refers to MacIntyre's practices not in Habits of the Heart, but rather in a response to a certain criticism in Community in America. Bellah argues that while it is extremely difficult to understand practices in an individualistic society that emphasizes self-interest and private pursuit, they indeed 'necessarily persist in our lives even when we find them difficult to articulate them...we locate these persistent practices in those spheres of our lives where biblical religion and civic republicanism still survive' (Bellah 271). In both passages Bellah admits the significance of MacIntyre's practices, but argues that they only persist in the biblical or republican traditions. However, this argument is also invalid as I will soon prove. But first I need to explain MacIntyre's account of practices and show how it successfully applies to Bellah's critique of individualism and commitment in America.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre provides a narrative in which he explains the historical context of various theories of virtue in order to understand contemporary America's current moral difficulties in the context of values, their origins, and how they persist. According to MacIntyre, practices are the primary arena in which virtues exist. By 'practice' he specifically means 

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. (MacIntyre 187)
In other words, a practice is an activity is recognized as socially established and that involves a group of individuals participating in order to pursue and achieve not only extrinsic rewards, but more importantly a standard of excellence according to the previously established precedents with in the activity. For example, playing catch with a friend is not a practice, but a baseball game is. Reading After Virtue is not a practice, but engaging in a philosophical debate with scholars is. And according to MacIntyre, tic-tac-toe is not a practice, but chess is a practice indeed. The realm of MacIntyre's practices includes but is not limited to the arts, sciences, socially established and complex games, politics, family life, community life, and education to a certain extent. However, the most important aspect of the definition of practices is the notion of internal goods as excellences which are to be pursued. 

Engaging in practices can produce two different types of goods, those external to the practice and those internal to the practice. External goods include money, power, status, and prestige. These goods are sought after in order to increase the ability to pursue individual interests. Furthermore, the achievement of external goods is never limited only to engaging in practices, but are also achieved in various different ways. On the other hand, goods internal to the practice are only possibly achieved through engaging in the practice. Internal goods are practice-specific, meaning that I can only define a good that is internal to a practice in relation to that specific practice, or at least very similar practices. And furthermore, goods internal to a particular practice can only be recognized through active participation or experience in that practice. Experience is a necessary requirement for achieving internal goods. So even though it is possible to win money, power, and prestige both by fairly winning a boxing match and by stuffing the gloves with lead and unfairly winning a boxing match, it is impossible to achieve the excellence, or the goods internal to the practice of boxing such as form, technique, stamina, speed, and intelligence, without engaging in the activity purely for its own sake as an experienced boxer who wants to uphold the standards established by generations of boxers and truly participate in the practice of boxing.

Another important distinction between external goods and internal goods is that goods external to a practice are achieved through competition in which someone wins and someone loses. And yet even though 'internal goods are indeed the outcome of competition to is characteristic of them that their achievement is good for the whole community who participate in the practice' (MacIntyre 190-1). For instance, in a boxing match, only one person wins the prize money, the title of champion, and the advertisement deals, but both fighters gain from the winner's superior boxing ability. The loser understands how he was beat and what skill he needs to practice in order to pursue the excellence of the practice. And in fact, all boxers, whether beginners or professionals, potentially gained insight from the winners performance on how to increase their boxing abilities. But something other than experience and knowledge of the practice is necessary to achieve the goods internal to it. Achievement of the internal goods of a practice is absolutely dependent upon the utilization of virtue. 

MacIntyre specifically defined virtue as 'an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods' (191). For example, the boxer who wins due to the lead in his glove is barred from achieving the goods internal to boxing because he won by cheating, lying, and cowardice. He did not win by exemplifying the excellence of the practice, or by exhibiting superior technique, strength, or intelligence, but rather by disregarding the integrity and honor of the entire history of the practice. However, the boxer who won fairly by exhibiting superior stamina, strength, intelligence, and technique did so because he fought fairly, courageously, and honestly. 'In other words, we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty' (MacIntyre 191).

Even though goods internal to a practice are indeed practice-specific, the virtues that make the achievement of these goods possible are not. Is it not commonly agreed upon that cheating in any sport is dishonorable, not only to the involved participants and the community of participants, but also to the tradition in which past participants strove to establish and uphold the standards which now serve as ethical and moral frameworks within the practice? Whether or not the boxer wins the money is relevant only to him. Whether or not he competed and performed in accordance with the demanding standards that define the integrity of the practice is relevant to the entire community of boxers and fans. Nobody argues whether cheating in a boxing match is good or bad, right or wrong. There are no large moral debates concerning the ethical status of copying a famous painting and claiming it as original. There are no altercations concerning whether this is cheating or that is cheating. Cheating is commonly agreed upon as breaking the rules of the standards of an established practice in order to achieve the goods external to that practice. The problem arises, however, when a boxing match turns into politics, or family life. Suddenly the priority of rights rears it head and standards of such practices fade into obscurity. Why are practices that involve private interests immune from the application of traditionally established standards that more trivial practices such as boxing, chess, and baseball are required to uphold?

In order to answer this question, we must first examine two different problems that threaten the cultivation of virtues in contemporary American society. First, it is quite easy to anticipate a negative reaction to the seemingly fixed nature of the goods internal to practices according to MacIntyre's theory. Both the external and internal goods of a practice are however dependent upon the tradition and history of the practice. 'Practices never have a goal or goals fixed for all time-painting has no such goal nor has physics -- but the goals themselves are transmuted by the history of an activity' (MacIntyre 194). It is therefore possible that what was once considered cheating in a certain practice has evolved through consentual agreement of the participants within the tradition into a permissible action for pursuing the goals internal to that practice. For instance, recruiting laws for professional supports seem to change almost constantly, but there always remains a standard, despite alterations, by which to abide. The necessary condition remains, that the participants of the practice have established and consented to a common goal with ethical standards from which to appeal. Thus it is imperative that the participants engaged in a practice, whether baseball or politics or family life, must confront and acknowledge the past achievements, the standards of tradition, and the authority they both demand upon the participants of the practice.

Another, more difficult problem is the necessary existence of institutions to sustain practices. MacIntyre claims that institutions, which are mainly involved in acquiring external goods such as money, power to distribute money and extrinsic rewards, and prestige, are vital for the perpetuation of practices and their internal goods. The external goods of an institution and the internal goods of a practice must remain however balanced in order to avoid despotism. If a society places too much emphasis on the external rewards reaped by the institutions, then the internal goods of a practice are in grave danger. The persistence of practices is dependent upon the cultivation and application of the previously described virtues. So the virtues must not only be exercised in practices such as sports and the arts, but also family life and politics in order to sustain the practices and thus not fall prey to the competitiveness of the institutions. The practices that involve private interests are, therefore, immune to the from the application of traditionally established standards that more trivial practices are required to uphold because they concern areas of life in which individuals feel most passionate, namely protection of rights from arbitrary power or morality and also the protection to pursue economic interests to the extent of one's ability. Individuals do not feel threatened by the standards required in a baseball game, but when established standards within a practice that potentially affect the priority of the right to pursue individual interests are involved, they are likely to draw an invalid distinction between certain trivial practices and other more important practices.

So how does this theory of practices relate to Bellah's original project to find a coherent moral language that will transcend radical individualism, and therefore provide a language that enables Americans to adequately and coherently articulate their commitments, both public and private, and values that are necessary and sufficient for a morally good life? To begin, we must not only find a coherent moral language, as Bellah claims, but also a coherent moral framework that is the basis for that language. Instead of appealing only to the biblical and republican traditions, which are inadequate and constricting to say the least, I appeal to the history and tradition of every established practice and their institutions in order to make sense of and adopt a coherent moral framework. Every established practice has rules and standards that must be upheld. These rules and standards are products of past generations engaged in the same practices, just as the current standards and rules of practices contribute to the future generations understanding of and responsibility to the persistence of these practices. Of course in theory this proposal seems plausible, but how would it work in practice? 

First of all, every individual must realize that the obligations and responsibilities to family life and political participation are identical in nature to the obligations and responsibilities to the rules and standards established in a sport, art or discipline. For example, when a baseball player is up to bat, and he gets three strikes, there is not moral issue concerning the umpire's responsibility to call him out. The standards of the game were already established, and in order to continue to excellence and integrity of the game, the players must abide by the rules. This is not to say, however, that they must agree with the umpire's call on a very close out at first. In fact, there are means by which a player, supported by his team and his coach can indeed protest. And there is of course no difficulty with the coherence of the moral discourse because one of the requirements necessary to achieve goods internal to a practice is experience, or knowledge within that practice. So the umpire is not a total authority, but he is necessary not only to uphold the procedural rules of the game, but also to make decisions based upon the standards of excellence established in the practice. Now, another important aspect of this scenario is the role of the audience. Yes, they are indeed involved in the game as spectators, but because they are not participating in the game their opinion, needs, or wants are usually ignored. Only the players, coaches, and umpires are involved in the discussion concerning a controversial call. However, anyone could join a team and play, for it is merely the active participation in the practice that enables the audience member a voice in the politics of baseball.

Now, consider the same scenario yet instead of baseball, the practice is now national politics. The situation should closely mirror the baseball example, but for some reason it does not. Individuals in America erroneously assume that the definition of freedom includes the right to be free from any obligation or responsibility other than those created by the individual (as long as they do not interfere with anyone else's self-defined obligations and responsibilities). But according to the definition of a practice, politics is just as much a practice as baseball. Yes, both practices are dependent upon institutions concerned in external goods for their persistence, but the fact that they are indeed practices is evident. However, a baseball player does not sit around the dugout and argue with his players and coaches over the fact that he wanted to bat first, or that he did not want to play the game according to the established standards and regulations of the practice. He would immediately be admonished. So it makes no sense that Americans assume that the practice of politics does not include established standards that go beyond mere procedural laws that protect the integrity and excellence of the political state. Politics does in fact have standards which were established by the founding fathers of this democratic country. They include upholding a standard of justice that account for the welfare of the community as well as the welfare of the individual. They include definitions of justice, freedom, and success that are not limited to the individual and his economic situation. And yet Americans have either ignored this tradition, thought that it did not apply to current affairs, or simply never been taught this tradition. But if Americans ever plan to resolve the tension between individual interests and the public good, they must realize that the welfare of the public good is an established standard of obligation that cannot be separated from American politic's tradition nor its practice. They must also realize that the values that ensure the achievement of internal goods in any practice are indeed the values that ensure the achievement of internal goods in the practice of politics. Justice, courage and honesty are not arbitrary values. They are supported and endorsed by a long tradition and cultural history that cannot be separated from them. These values need to be recognized and upheld as the common moral framework that every participant in the practice of the American community is obligated to uphold. 

The distinction between practices such as baseball and politics is obviously based upon on the liberal conception that the unique purpose of politics as a regulatory system that reconciles conflicting claims, from a morally neutral framework, concerning the distribution of goods and services in order that individuals can be free to pursue their own interests. Baseball is obviously a practice because it has both external goods and internal goods. Yet political activity is commonly considered as merely regulating the procedural framework that is responsible for maintaining an atmosphere based upon the liberal conceptions of equality, freedom, and liberty in which individuals can pursue private interests. In other words, politics is most often conceived as only essentially concerned with external goods. But this idea of politics is only the liberal conception of politics. It is not the politics of the tradition and cultural history in which the American government was originally founded. This view of politics has distinct internal goods embedded in a tradition rich with values and standards. The politics of the American tradition is undoubtedly a practice. 

Now, according to Christopher Lasch's argument in his article 'The Communitarian Critique,' this liberal notion of politics is responsible not only for the invalid distinction between practices such as baseball or chess and the practice of politics, but also for the emphasis on the tension between private interests and the public good altogether. Baseball, unlike politics, is not responsible for reconciling the private-public tensions. Politics, on the other hand, is not responsible for reconciling whether or not the play at home was safe or out. Every practice has its own unique objectives, internal goods, and standards requiring technique and experience; the reconciliation of the private-public debate is merely one of the objectives particular to the practice of politics. The tension, however, is not what threatens the integrity of commitments in America, and is not the cause of the rampant individualism. ÒA more comprehensive indictment of individualism is called for; and the best way to bring it into focus is to organize political discourse not around the 'invasion of privacy' but around the corruption of internal goods by external goods, practices by institutions' (Lasch 184). The successful persistence of both the practice of baseball and the practice of politics is, therefore, threatened by the institutions and external goods that sustain them. Furthermore, it is the liberal vision of politics that 'deprives individuals of any perspective from which to criticize the corruption of practice by external goods' (Lasch 183). 

For example, Lasch claims that the main difference between a liberal view of politics and a vision of politics as a practice is obvious in the debate concerning the boundaries of the protection of privacy. 'The concept of privacy has no moral content. It equates freedom not with submission to an exacting discipline but with the absence of constraint, the right to do as one pleases, both liberals and conservatives adhere to this empty ideal of freedom and privacy; they disagree only about what is truly private' (Lasch 184). In other words, both the liberal (in a partisan sense) and conservative subscribe to a notion of freedom void of moral content which limits individuals' moral framework to preferences, which consequently leads to arguments concerning rival claims of privacy. Lasch maintains that the privacy argument should not be argued based upon the mere fact that every individual is guaranteed the right to privacy, but rather that a violation of an individual's privacy threatens the integrity of the practice and internal goods of the violator and the violated. This analysis includes an ethically based reason for the importance of privacy, a framework in which to judge what should and should not be considered private, instead of merely claiming that privacy is protected because it is a right, and a definition that exceeds subscription to a procedural notion of privacy and the private-public tension. A conception of privacy according to the theory of practices and institutions has a moral content that serves to protect the vitality of practices and also the institutions that sustain them. 

Now of course skeptics (probably liberals) will undoubtedly argue with this theory in one of two, or perhaps both ways. First, it can be argued that my whole argument rests too heavily upon the comparison of baseball and American politics. After all, a baseball player chooses to be a member of a team, and thus chooses to voluntarily subscribe to the obligations and responsibilities necessary to the practice. An individual however does not necessarily choose to be an American citizen, and therefore is not and will never be obligated to participate or uphold the established standards within the practice. Now this criticism rests upon the assumption that choice has something to do with the definition of practice. Unlike Locke, who argues that enjoying the advantages of a government implies tacit consent, I argue that consent has absolutely nothing to do with the theory of practices at all. Yes, a baseball player decides to join a team, and no I did not choose to be an American citizen, but I am; that fact does not excuse me from the standards and obligations within the practice. Now, I could choose to move and relinquish my citizenship, but then I would have to choose to become a citizen of another country, and I would certainly be obligated to uphold the standards within that particular practice. So a criticism based upon the fact that we did not choose the be born American citizens is irrelevant. 

As previously noted, the standards within a practice are never absolute, and they can in fact be altered from their original position within the tradition. The process of alteration however is not a free for all, and by no means is every individual responsible for creating his own standards with in a practice in order to achieve personal interests. The meaning and implication of success, justice, and freedom within the political practice will indeed invariably change somewhat. But again, the practice and the standards it upholds must always depend upon and reflect back to the traditions and culture history that secured it persistence.

So Bellah and his colleagues were in fact correct in their suspicions that there exists no resource in current American lives to reconcile the tension between private interests and public good. And only through MacIntyre's theory of practice and its implications, can the problems with America's moral conceptions and ideology be recognized and resolved. Both Bellah and MacIntyre, however, both fail to realize that the true problem is not the tension between private interests and public good, which is distinctly liberal and disappears once the liberal conceptions of politics and community are rejected. The real problem is the corruption of practices by institutions. While Bellah recognizes that there is a problem concerning individualism and commitment in America, and while MacIntyre provides the framework in which to solve the problem, Lasch ultimately diagnoses the true origin of the problem, the emerging dominance of institutions and the consequences of this dominance. Yet all three would agree that America's cultural history and rich tradition cannot be ignored, for it offers the framework and guidance that we so desperately seek through the creation of our own moral framework. Our political tradition has to be taught not only as 'history,' but as the original source of the definition of success, freedom, and justice from which we should base our current conceptions. Americans have to stop conceiving themselves as autonomous authors of their own story, and then through the persistence of practices dependent upon the values transmitted by generations of tradition, they will come to understand not only how to reconcile the tension between private interest and public good, but more importantly how to preserve the balance between practices and institutions. 



Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven M. Tipton. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Lasch, Christopher. 'The Communitarian Critique.' Community in America. Ed. Charles H. Reynolds and Ralph V. Norman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981. 


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