If you read the syllabus you’ll note that it says that this course will have a special focus “on matters relating to ethical practices and institutions.” That, of course, suggests a question: What are practices and institutions? Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue suggests a useful definition of practices:
By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established co-operative 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.
That’s a mouthful, and we’ll discuss it more, but the key phrases here are: (1) “socially established co-operative human activity”; (2) “goods internal to that form of activity”; and (3) “standards of excellence”. We’ll discuss these more fully in class, but MacIntyre’s examples of practices are things like arts, sports, games, sciences, fishing, farming, etc.
(1) These activities are cooperative in part because you learn these standards of excellence from those who have developed the necessary skills and abilities to do well, and also because they have histories, traditions, customs, and the like. That is, they involve communities of people, both at a time and through time, cooperating to improve the activity.
(2) They are activities that have ‘internal goods’. An external good would be something like money or fame. An internal good, however, is the excellence involved in the activity itself: people work hard to become good at (say) bass fishing not because of money or fame, but because being a good bass fisher is itself a kind of human excellence that they think is worth achieving. This is true of many different kinds of practices, those that are very serious (firefighting, soldiering, medicine), those that are disciplined forms of play (soccer, chess) and everything in between.
(3) Because they involve community-building around internal excellence, these activities over time begin to develop standards of excellence, and part of what it means to become involved in these activities is to try to live up to those standards of excellence, even to improve them. These standards of excellence are learned, and they are in great measure learned by doing. Most of becoming a good soccer player, for instance, is playing soccer or else practicing at particular skills used when you play soccer.
Institutions differ from practices in that institutions are more concerned with external goods; they are means of collecting, managing, and applying external goods (like money or celebrity), and in many cases they do this in order to support practices. For instance, we build hospitals to support the practice of healing, schools to support the practice of teaching, laboratories and observatories to support the practices of science. These are all examples of institutions. Whenever you are thinking about practices it’s important to keep an eye on institutions: institutions support practices, but corruption, failure, or mismanagement of the institutions can impede or even destroy the practices they support.