Internal Goods, External Goods

I’ve argued in a few places that MacIntyre’s take on goods internal to a practice is highly appealing, but lacking in some way.

Here’s my latest attempt to wrestle with the tension he presents between internal and external goods, drawing on a McCloskeyan sacred/profane dichotomy I used in this post.

For MacIntyre, practices include a set of values that new practitioners must be inculcated into before they can hone their craft. A crucial part of those values is a notion of goodness internal to that practice. External goods are things like public honoring, payment, and prizes, and are used to entice apprentices who have yet to internalize the notion of goodness within the practice. Institutions are the bodies of practice and knowledge devoted to using those external goods to bring people into particular practices. MacIntyre identifies a tension between the purpose of the institution, which is ostensibly to teach acceptance of internal goods, and the tools at its disposal, external goods, which could have a corrupting influence. A potter can fail to judge the quality of his pots by the standards of pottery if, for example, he cares only about what he can sell and for how much.

An economist scoffs at this analysis, for surely pots that easily break or are aesthetically unpleasing (to purchasers) will not sell well, especially over the long run. But craftsmen and practitioners themselves are quite familiar with this distinction, though often employing different terminology. See Bill Watterson on the newspaper comics business:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

It is easy to see in this passage MacIntyre’s internal goods in “the concerns of art” and external goods in “the interests of business.”

I made the following argument before I had read any MacIntyre:

Art, like virtue, is a balancing act—you must balance internal considerations for what you desire to accomplish with the plot, how you want your characters to develop, what sort of visual impacts you want to create, and so on. These are as much a “rocky marriage” as the marriage between them and more external considerations—who your implied audience is, whether there are enough such people to pay your bills, and if so, whether your agent or the syndicate or a publisher can be persuaded as such. To name but a few.

Art is the balance that is struck across all of these factors, not just the internal ones. Sometimes this means taking the Austin Kleon approach (or the one I recommend here) and keeping a day job unrelated to your art, so that what you actually create focuses primarily on striking the internal balance. That is ultimately where Watterson ended up, after he left the public limelight at the end of Calvin and Hobbes’ run.

Often, though, the things we think of as truly great were created by striking the best balance creators were capable of out in the marketplace—in partnership with the many merchants and middlemen who operate in that space.

My McCloskeyan take on the tension between internal and external goods goes as follows: actual practices require us to internalize the external goods to a great extent. All practices in history only survive because there is some material way of supporting them. Sometimes this is through direct purchase, sometimes it is patronage, and sometimes we take the Austin Kleon path. But the practitioner will have some notion of the good that is informed by but not subservient to what consumers or patrons or audiences signal their beliefs to be on the subject.

Focusing on the internal goods makes us more reliable, and better at our craft. But part of that focus involves reshaping our relationship to the external goods—for instance, working to make money in order to participate in MacIntyre’s networks of uncalculated giving, or taking consumer preferences as an input but not the only one, and hardly a given.

In any case full inculcation into a practice is not merely casting off caring about external goods in order to favor internal goods; a process of internalizing those external goods in relationship to the practice is a crucial part of the internal goods themselves.

Feedback extremely welcome on this.

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