Learning, Participation and After Virtue

What makes a good person?

This is an old and important question.  Philosophers and theologians through the years have sought an answer including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kierkegaard, Newman, Nietzsche and others.

Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful analysis of the history of thinking on this question and the current state of moral philosophy in his books After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre argues that a full understanding of moral philosophy today is constrained by failure to appreciate historical context.

He proposes a disquieting scenario to illustrate what he deems the state of affairs today. Imagine, he suggests, through some terrible catastrophe all the scientists in the world were wiped out and with them the thinking and practice they engaged in. Some time later, when people seek to revive science they would only be partly successful; they would have to rely on clues from remnants of documentation, pieces of laboratory apparatus and a scattering of folk ideas. The practice of science would be gone.

Although MacIntyre uses this vista to illustrate how, he believes, we have lost the way (and means) of moral philosophy, he is also making a point about ‘practice’. Human activities directed and sustained toward a particular goals are practices. Thus science and its sub-fields are practices, as are many of the activities we engage in such as medicine, engineering, academic scholarship, the arts and sports etc.. MacIntyre (1981a p30) makes clear his understanding of practice:

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 realised 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.

To me, this conceptualising of practice, internal goods and the extension thereof resonates with work by Davidov, Engeström and other proponents of Activity Theory and Learning as Expansion. It is also consistent with the arguments I make (Casey, 2013) that the ultimate goal, purpose  and direction, or telos, of learning is toward participation in practice. MacIntyre argues that ‘internal goods’ are always shared and belong to the practice. Internal goods act for the betterment of practice. I think this is what we mean when we use phrases like ‘in the service of Science’ or for ‘contributions to Agriculture’.

In order to answer the question of what makes a good person you would need to provide a context. A good scientist would be a person who extends the practice of science through participation and the realisation of internal goods particular to science. A good person today (in a general way) participates. Through participation we share in the development of, and are in the service of, societal practices. What is virtuous today differs from what was considered virtuous in the past. Why? Because practices have evolved and extended. Our understanding of issues such as climate change, world hunger, human rights and even ‘how we learn’ are the internal goods of the present time. With that in mind I’ll leave the last word to MacIntyre on his definition of a virtue:

A virtue is 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.

MacIntyre (1981a p32)


Casey, L. (2013). Learning Beyond Competence to Participation. International Journal of Progressive Education Special issue: Educating for Democracy and the Process of Authority, 9(2), 45-61. Available from http://goo.gl/Pg0T3O

MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue: A study in moral theory (London, Duckworth).

MacIntyre, A. (1981a). The nature of the virtues. Hastings Center Report, 11(2), 27-34.

MacIntyre, A. C. (1988). Whose justice? Which rationality? : Duckworth London.

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