Dubious Sites of Vague Human Activity: Internal and External Goods… A Modern Paradox

In the previous post of this series, we entered into the office and made a distinction between “peculiar” and “out of context” occupations. We defined “peculiar” jobs as those that are particularly useful to and designed for the site that it works for, such as a curator or an archivist. On the other hand, we defined “out of context” jobs as those that are not bound to a specific types of institutions but fit in various types of workplaces, such as an accountant or a marketer. And we focused more on the latter category. In this post, I would like to turn our attention to the former category of occupations which are created and trained for specific institutions or industries.

Although one may regard such occupations as more ‘fitting’ and ‘fulfilling the inherent purpose of the establishment that you work for’, I fear that it is these types of occupations that suffer from an inner struggle of means-ends relationships. That is, the tensions among one’s intentions which yearn for either internal or external goods. To further elaborate, I will be benefiting from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to clarify what I mean by internal and external good.

Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy and little chance of obtaining it. I, therefore, tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover, I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents worth of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, Strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself.

There are thus two kinds of good possibly to be gained by playing chess. On the one hand, there are those goods externally and contingently attached to chess-playing and to other practices by the accidents of social circumstance-in the case of the imaginary child candy, in the case of real adults such goods as prestige, status, and money. There are always alternative ways for achieving such goods, and their achievement is never to be had only by engaging in some particular kind of practice. On the other hand, there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, as I have already suggested, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games (Otherwise the meagerness of our vocabulary for speaking of such goods forces us into such devices as my own resort to writing of ‘a certain highly particular kind of’); and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent thereby as judges of internal goods.”

Now that we have, in our hands, the concept of an ‘external good‘, goods attached externally to an action (such as prestige and money), and ‘internal good‘, which is acquired only by through the action itself and for that action’s sake (like an architect aiming to design enduring yet aesthetic buildings because the nature of the job demands so). With these concepts brought up, we can now look into how neoliberal economy’s meritocratic nature demands from “peculiar jobs” to pursue external goods, rather than prioritizing internal goods.

Imagine that you are a programmer, which is a ‘peculiar’ occupation, applying for a position in a cybersecurity company. Throughout the application process, the first stage is the filtering of applicants according to their CVs/resumes. Although this may seem like a measurement of how much the applicant is good at bringing out the internal good of a job, the meritocratic system of the economy demands the employee to be able to advertise oneself as skillful in internal goods of a job. But this is done so in order to pursue something external, that is building a profile to be able to ‘step higher’ in career options. To elaborate, although the programmer aims to bring out the best in the job that he does, ultimately the internal good in developing his coding skills gets overshadowed by the external good of moving through the steps in building a career. Hence, what I fear is that it is these ‘peculiar’ occupations which face the challenge of discerning between internal and external goods: whether they spend at least a third of their day in labor and cultivate internal goods of the tradition of their job or whether what they do is ultimately for the sake of reaching towards external goods, such as building a CV to step towards a better career position. So, in this case, although the programmer, thinking that he intends to bring out the goods peculiar to his occupation, may adeptly solve security issues of the company he/she worked for before, but then deviate towards the attached goods his/her work brings once he/she realizes the game he/she has to play in the industry which demands self-marketing. Hence, we face a paradox in which institutions, companies, organizations themselves demand external goods while the employees should and are expected to strive for the internal goods of their job. So, we face a context in which the institution corrupts the virtues cultivated by the employee regarding his/her job. MacIntyre better explains the case by writing:

It is not only of course with sets of technical skills that practices ought to be contrasted. Practices must not be confused with institutions. Chess, physics and medicine are practices; chess clubs, laboratories, universities and hospitals are institutions. Institutions are characteristically and necessarily concerned with what I have called external goods. They are involved in acquiring money and other material goods; they are structured in terms of power and status, and they distribute money, power and status as rewards. Nor could they do otherwise if they are to sustain not only themselves, but also the practices of which they are the bearers. For no practices can survive for any length of time unsustained by institutions. Indeed so intimate is the relationship of practices to institutions-and consequently of the goods external to the goods internal to the practices in question that institutions and practices characteristically form a single causal order in which the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution. In this context the essential function of the virtues is clear. Without them, without justice, courage and truthfulness, practices could not resist the corrupting power of institutions.

The dilemma of the employee is one of the many paradoxes the modern capitalist work life, a meritocracy in which virtues are irrelevant, brings.

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