Friday, October 6, 2017

Practice-internal goods

I’m hereby instituting a game: the breathing game. My score in the game ranges from 0 to 10. I get 0 points if I hold my breath for a minute. Otherwise, my score equals the number of breaths I took during the minute, up to ten (if I took more than eight breaths, my score is still ten).

It is good to do well at games. And I am really good at the breathing game, as are all other healthy people. For every game, there is a practice-internal good of victory. Thus, by choosing to play the breathing game, my life is enriched by a new practice-internal good, the good of winning the breathing game over and over. And of course there is an immense practice-external good at stake: this is a game where victory is life, as the Jem’Hadar say.

There is something absurd about the idea that I have significantly enhanced my life simply by deciding to be a player of the breathing game and thus attaining victory about 1440 times a day.

It is widely thought that there can be significant practice-internal goods in practices we institute. The breathing game’s practice-internal good of victory is not significant. Why not? Maybe because the game hasn’t caught on: I am the only one playing it. (Everybody is else is just breathing.) But if the good of victory would become significant were the game to catch on, then we have good consequentialist reason to promote the breathing game as widely as we can, so that as many people as possible could get a significant good 1440 times a day, thereby brighting up many drab lives. But that’s silly. It’s not that easy to improve the lot of humankind.

An intuitive thing to say about the breathing game is that it’s not very challenging. Healthy people can win without even trying. It’s a lot harder to get a score of 0 than a score of 10. The lack of challenge certainly makes the game less fun. But fun is a practice-external good. Does the lack of challenge make the practice-internal good less?

Maybe, but I am dubious. Challenge really seems rather external, while practice-internal goods are supposed to be instituted. Maybe, though, the story is this. When I institute a game, I am filling out a template provided by a broader social practice, the practing of playing games, and the broader social practice includes a rule that says that unchallenging victory is not worth much. I can’t override that rule while still counting as instituting a game.

That may be. But if the larger social practice, the one of games in general, is itself one that we have instituted, then we have good moral reason to institute another social practice, a practice of shgames. The practice of shgames is just like the practice of games, except that the practice-internal good of victory is stipulated as being a great good even when victory comes easily. We have very good reason to institute the practice of shgames, as this would allow everybody to play the breathing shgame (which has the same rules as the breathing game), and thus enrich their lives by 1440 valuable victories a day.

That’s absurd, too.

Here’s where the line of thought is leading me: We have significant limits on our normative power to set the value of the practice-internal goods of the practices we create. In particular, the practice-internal goods that are entirely our creation are only of little value—like the value of victory in a game.

One might think that this is just an artifact of games and similar practices, which are not very significant practices. Perhaps in our political practices, we can institute great practice-internal goods. I don’t think so. The state can bestow a title on everyone who scores a perfect ten in the breathing game, but the state cannot by mere stipulation make that title have great value of a practice-internal sort. Otherwise, it’s too easy to create value. (One may think that the issues here are related to why the state can’t just print more money to create wealth. But I think this is quite different: the reason the state can’t just print more money to create wealth is that wealth is defined partly in terms of practice-external goods, and mere printing doesn’t affect those. But purely internal goods can be broadcast widely.)

I am not claiming that there are no great practice-internal goods. There are great internal goods in marriage, for instance. But here is my hypothesis: wherever there are great practice-internal goods, these goods derive their value from a practice we do not instituted. For instance, if there are great internal goods in marriage, that is because either we have not institute marriage or because marriage is itself the filling out of a template provided by a broader practice that we have not instituted (I think the former is the case).

If we could institute practices with great practice-internal value, we should, just for the sake of the practice-internal value. But that is wrong-headed. In fact, I think that when we institute practices, it is for the sake of goods that we are not instituting. We get the practice-internal goods, then, but they are just icing on the cake, and not a good icing even.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding practice-internal goods, though. Maybe they have the following property: they provide reasons to pursue them for those who participate in the practice, but they do not provide any reasons for those who do not participate in the practice. On this picture, one could have a great practice-internal good, one that provides very significant reasons, but it would provide no reason at all to a non-participant, and hence it would provide no reason to institute the practice. This seems wrongheaded. Only real goods provide real reasons. If practice-internal goods were to provide real reasons to the participants, they would have to be real goods. But if something—say, the institution of a practice—would result in the existence of real goods to people, that does provide a reason to bring about the something. That’s part of what is true in consequentialism. Moreover, even if one removes the absurdity of thinking that there is reason to institute the breathing game, one does not remove the absurdity of thinking that people who play the breathing game are racking up much good.


Heath White said...

When MacIntyre talks about this (and I think he invented it), he says "practices" have internal goods while lesser "activities" do not. Architecture counts as a practice and brick-laying does not. The difference is supposed to be (IIRC) that practices are complex enough forms of life that they are ways of providing human flourishing; mere activities are too simple to do that. I think the idea is that the creation of practices with goods internal to them opens up avenues for human flourishing (it is *good* to be an accomplished architect) that are not merely given by nature, but simpler activities do not open up avenues for flourishing so they have no internal goods. (One might question this about bricklaying, which is not easy to do well, but consider the Fordian job of installing a particular engine part for eight hours a day.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's obviously a matter of degree here.

But anyway, the great good in excellent practice of architecture is not simply an instituted good. There is a practice-external good of performing an important and difficult activity up to professional standards, and I think that if one brackets this practice-external good, the amount of good left in the excellent practice of architecture is no bigger than in excellence at the breathing game.

This may be just a disagreement about words here. We can distinguish two ways that a good could be internal to a practice: its existence can be internal to a practice, in the way that there are no soccer goals or soccer fouls without soccer; or its value can be internal to the practice, so that its value is instituted by instituting the practice.

The good of architecture is existence-internal to the practice of architecture (the standards of success are architectural). But it's largely not value-internal. It is an instance of a general kind of good independent of the practice.

With this distinction, my claim is that no good is great qua value-internal to a practice instituted by us (as opposed to instituted by our nature, etc.) We just don't have the normative power to create new value-internal goods.

Heath White said...

I think the MacIntyrean reply (and I am sympathetic but not card-carrying here) would be that (1) the goods intended are existence-internal. (2) Maybe we cannot create a big new category of value like "performing an important and difficult activity up to professional standards" but we can create instances of that category, and the value of the instances is not exhausted by being instances of the general good.

I think the idea is that variety, diversity, uniqueness, etc. are themselves valuable in goods, much like people are valuable but not merely because they are instances of the genus "human being." Part of recognizing human value is recognizing that each individual is uniquely valuable, and similarly for goods. The world would lose something if it lost French cuisine, and even if another elaborate and complex cuisine were substituted in its place, the goodnesses of the respective worlds would be incommensurable rather than equal.

You could think of practice-internal goods as a form of cultural artwork: the world gets unique and irreplaceable value from each one.

Brandon said...

When you say, "Only real goods provide real reasons," I think MacIntyre's view is that what you are (probably) calling 'real goods' are in fact just the practice-internal goods for the practice of giving a narrative unity to human life, which is something along the lines of what he thinks of as the most encompassing practice. So the breathing game is an unimpressive sub-game for doing well in the big game of life, so to speak, but that wouldn't in itself say anything about practice-internal goods generally. But of course, perhaps this fits your point, since it would be odd to say that we instituted the practice of living a human life.

I'm not sure that MacIntyre would think that we can just up and create practice-internal goods; he often describes practice-internal goods in ways that seem like they are only discovered by participating in the practice. I'm not sure it makes sense on his account to institute a practice in order to get its internal goods, because I don't think his account provides any way we could pre-know them. The joy of football is not something we just made up; it is not even actually something that we made the practice of football for; but football's development into a practice involves discovering goods internal to it, like the joy of the game, by which improvements or degenerations in football-standards can be measured. These internal goods don't provide you reasons for playing football; they provide you reasons for doing this or that in football. Your reasons for starting to play football can only come from something other than the goods you get when playing football.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Even if we do not pre-know *what* the practice-internal goods will be, it seems that we should be able to pre-know that there would be some practice-internal goods or others. And that's good enough for giving us reason to institute the practice. If I am given a box, and someone I trust tells me that a great good will result to me from opening the box, I don't need to know *what* great good it will be to have strong reason to open the box.

I do, however, have some worries whether the main goods that are discovered in football are really internal to the game. They seem to be instances of intelligible goods that fall under more general descriptions, such as the graceful following of difficult rules for the sake of an end set out by the rules. It's not a mystery as to why that's valuable, and I don't know have to have any internal appreciation of football -- indeed, I have none -- to see that those goods are significant.


The connection with incommensurability is helpful. I am OK with existence-internal goods that are great, as long as the greatness of the good derives from something we don't institute.

I agree that each individual human being has great and incommensurable value. So does each individual dog. But the value of any one of the human beings is in an important sense (though it's hard to specify!) greater than the value of any one of the dogs. And the explanation for this has to do not with the individuality of the human beings or the dogs, but with the fact that the human beings are persons and the dogs are not.

The picture I get is something like this. Something like the "magnitude" of the value of the human being is set by his or her being a person. But something like the "flavor" of the value is set by his or her individuality.

Likewise, the reason that the value of architecture has the kind of magnitude it does has to do with its being an instance of an important and difficult activity with strong professional standards -- it's not a mystery! -- but the particular flavor of the value is set by particular features.

Heath White said...

If I understand you then, the more precise thesis you are defending is

"no good is MAGNITUDINALLY great qua value-internal to a practice instituted by us (as opposed to instituted by our nature, etc.) We just don't have the normative power to create new value-internal good-magnitudes, though we do have the power to create new value-internal good-flavors."

(If "magnitudinally" is a word.) I think MacIntyre would probably be okay with that.

Is there value in variety itself? We have a lot more flavors today than in, say, Sumeria in 3000BC. Is that a better world we have created?

A further question might be this. Grant that persons have a special value. Do collections of persons (nations, cultures, circles of friends, etc.) have a special value that does not simply reduce to the goods they create for their members? If so, one might say that we can create these new values (by aggregating in certain ways). Alternatively, one might take the view that creating these values is just more flavors for good lives.

Brandon said...

Even if we do not pre-know *what* the practice-internal goods will be, it seems that we should be able to pre-know that there would be some practice-internal goods or others. And that's good enough for giving us reason to institute the practice. If I am given a box, and someone I trust tells me that a great good will result to me from opening the box, I don't need to know *what* great good it will be to have strong reason to open the box.

I don't understand this argument at all. (1) You can't know whether a good is great unless you have some kind of access to what it is -- in the box example, someone who knows this is telling you, but there is nothing even remotely analogous to this in the case of practice. (2) Many practice-internal goods are relatively minor with respect to the goods of life. They only play an important role within the practice, not on any larger scale. (3) That a practice has internal goods tells us nothing about the value of the practice itself, which, again, for MacIntyre would be a matter of how these practices or their internal goods relate to the internal goods of the practice of living a human life (which is also how he would understand your discussion in the next paragraph of the more general descriptions). (4) Strictly speaking, we don't institute practices (MacIntyre distinguishes institutions and practices very sharply); we have to develop them by extended social cooperation over time. No one can just up and start a practice. Not every kind of activity one starts is a practice, and one cannot always even tell beforehand whether an activity is really going to be suitable for it (or in what form it would be suitable to become a practice); one can only get to practice by discovering that one can find goods internal to it.

The suggestion is analogous to saying that because fun is a good, one should go around making games that are fun. Nobody knows for sure whether a game is actually fun until people start playing it and actually have fun playing it. Even knowing that a game is fun doesn't necessarily mean you should spend your time and energy on that rather than on something else. And practices are a massively greater and more complicated investment than games, requiring a history and multiple people cooperatively contributing, refining, making discoveries about how to do things.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is quite helpful.

Ad 1: Remember my target, the thesis that we have the normative power to institute significant practice-internal goods. If we know we have this power, then we should be able to pre-know that our exercise of normative power will create such goods.

Ad 2: Yeah, but if *any* practices have purely instituted internal goods that are significant as compared to the external goods of life, then--or so my initial thought was--we should be able to institute such goods in a trivial context, too.

Ad 4: Didn't you say that football was a practice? That's a game. Maybe, though, it isn't just the *game* of football that is the practice, but football and the cultural stuff around it?

The more I see an emphasis on the need for discovery, for the practice requiring a history, etc., the less I see the value of the goods as something instituted. The value seems more and more to be just an instance of recognizable non-instituted human goods. Those non-instituted human goods may be the internal goods of an overarching practice, but if so, then it's not a practice we've instituted. For it just doesn't seem to be likely that we have the normative power to institute a practice with such significant goods.

I suppose one could have this theory, which escapes my earlier arguments. We have a normative power to institute practices with truly internal goods of great value, but the normative power requires certain conditions for its exercise. Just as our power to reproduce requires a man, a woman, cooperative physical activity and something like a stroke of good fortune--we can't just will the existence of a new human being like God can--so too our normative power to invest a practice with internal goods of great value is greatly limited. The normative power requires for its exercise a complicated and roundabout process, which requires the cooperation of many people.

I am suspicious of such a story. When such complicated and roundabout stuff is needed for the production of practices with significant internal goods, then perhaps the goods aren't really internal, but are external aesthetic and moral goods of the diachronic system that is allegedly creating the internal goods. What makes it plausible that practices involving significant goods could be produced in this way is, I think, that we actually recognize external goods that are thus produced.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The more I think about it, the more I like the story that the internal goods are existence internal, but not magnitude-of-value internal. We can institute a game, and specify victory conditions, but what we can't specify is how valuable victory will be.

Actually, that's not quite right. We might be able to specify comparative values. We might be able to specify that one kind of a victory in a game is worth more than another (e.g., a victory by 30-2 is worth more than a victory by 15-2). But how objectively valuable all these victories are, that's not up to us to institute. That's something that ultimately derives from human nature.

By the way, I didn't realize that talk of practice-internal goods is so tightly bound up in people's minds with MacIntyre.

Brandon said...

Football as a sport would be a practice; this is different from a game, since, as you say, the sport includes a culture of the game as well as the game itself. That, at least, is the MacIntyrean notion.

I think it is plausible to say that most practices are part of a most encompassing practice that we ourselves can't institute. But I also think that 'external goods' usually means something different than what you seem to mean by it -- so joy of the game is an internal good of the sport of football, but external goods, in the usual sense of the phrase, would be things like salaries, trophies, and other things used to incentivize the practice beyond what it supplies in itself, and administered through institutions created to support the practice (like football leagues).

I've never come across a non-MacIntyrean talking about practice-internal goods unless they were criticizing MacIntyre, so that's the reason the two are tightly bound in my mind.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I thought that the distinction between internal and external goods in a game or other institution was just part of our general philosophical patrimony. I only learned last week that it comes from MacIntyre. :-)