MacIntyre, Management, and the Possibility of Virtuous Work

Perceptive readers of Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity may have noticed a shift of emphasis—if not substance—in MacIntyre’s discussion of contemporary organizations in the later text compared to that found in After Virtue. In the earlier text, MacIntyre identifies managerial pretensions, especially claims to possess “authority” and “effectiveness” as central elements of modern, emotivist morality, which he describes as a “theatre of illusions” (AV, 76). Yet, in the later text, W. Edwards Deming, “the maverick American management ​theorist,” is praised for teaching Japanese auto manufacturers after World War II how to manage employees so that they may “share direction toward a common good” (ECM, 130, 171). While After Virtue has contributed to a significant degree of pessimism concerning the possibility of virtue in modern society, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity offers a more complete picture of the potential for flourishing within organizations.

MacIntyre praises Deming for making workers “members of teams, each team having the responsibility for making a particular car, taking it through each stage of production, so that the excellence of the end product became the goal of their cooperative activity and their responsibility,” noting that before his initiatives “most workers were subjected to mindless routines on production lines, just as in American factories of the same period, each worker engaged in making one part for a whole to be assembled later, their work monitored for quality by inspectors” (ECM, 130). When work is performed collaboratively in teams with tasks directed toward identifiable, shared goals, employees can intentionally pursue excellence, developing virtues in the process of creating goods and services that contribute to the common good. In this context, work has the structure of “practice,” as MacIntyre used the term in After Virtue, involving activities through which “desires are educated and transformed” (ECM, 131).

What Deming recognized was the possibility that work conducted virtuously, in pursuit of common goods could also contribute to the long-term success of the firm. As MacIntyre notes:

Deming persuaded Japanese manufacturers that the type of production line in which each worker performs a single repeated operation, without any regard for the end product of those operations, and in which the quality of the end product is monitored by inspectors in fact militated against high quality. When, instead, teams of workers cooperated in taking each car through the different stages of its production, taking responsibility as a team for the quality of the end product, things went much better both for the cars and for the workers” (ECM, 170; italics added).

Much influential management research has followed Deming in recognizing that successful organizations are typically able to effectively utilize the often vast amounts of knowledge possessed by employees, by decentralizing decision-making and instituting collaborative processes, in order to both increase quality and enhance process efficiency (see, e.g., Adler, 2015; Adler & Borys, 1996).

What stands in the way of achieving this sort of harmony, where work is performed collaboratively in pursuit of excellence, in a manner that enhances productivity, fosters innovation, and increases efficiency? At least in some cases, it is poor management. Managers, for example, may be unable or unwilling to recognize employees’ knowledge and abilities, or reluctant to decentralize decision-making authority. As MacIntyre says, “Managerial control of the workplace may result in methods of work that are inimical to excellence” (ECM, 170). This conclusion is, perhaps, to be expected given MacIntyre’s earlier criticisms of “managerial effectiveness” as a “contemporary moral fiction,” undermined by the fact that the manager “possesses no sound stock of law-like generalizations” (AV, 106–107).

Yet these criticisms are not MacIntyre’s final word on management. In fact, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity offers a brief snapshot of the virtuous manager, an account that tracks closely leading perspectives in management research. Describing management in the early days of the BBC, MacIntyre says, “Administrators and managers had provided space and resources for those who shared in producing the programs to pursue the common ends that they had made their own and to devise the means for achieving those ends” (ECM, 131). In other words, to foster excellence, virtue, and long-term organizational success, “managers [must] become enablers” (AV, 132). The influential management scholar, Paul Adler, terms this approach to managing participative centralization. Understood in this manner, management is not about applying “law-like generalizations” to a mindless workforce (see AV, 106), but rather involves empowering employees whenever they possess relevant insights or abilities, facilitating collaboration between individuals possessing different forms of expertise, and implementing processes that enable organization members to collectively control production and constantly improve quality and efficiency. As Adler and Heckscher (97) explain further, “centralization is participative in two senses: (1) the degree of centralization is decided participatively and (2) where and insofar as authority is centralized, it nevertheless functions in a participative manner.” Thus, when managed this way, the ideals of the practice come to shape the formal aspects of the organization (see Adler 2005). In short, it can be difficult to trust subordinates or allow them to have an influential voice in decision-making. In this context, the virtues are crucial not only to direct work toward excellence and the common good but also to ensure the long-term success of the organization. Virtues like humility, justice, and kindness are necessary if managers are to genuinely listen to employees, honestly evaluate their suggestions, and make them feel confident that they will not be belittled or punished for their mistakes. A manager lacking in humility will have too much confidence in his own opinions and too little in those of employees (see Argandona 2015; Vera & Rodriguez-Lopez 2004). Similarly, if the organization is to function in this manner, employees must be courageous enough to speak up when they can contribute to its common good (see Detert & Bruno 2021). Likewise, they must both exercise perseverance when managers, focused on short-term profitability, threaten to marginalize those common goods, and build solidarity with fellow organization members by showing respect and generosity in their interactions if the organization is to be cohesive enough to withstand such threats (see Bernacchio 2023).

As MacIntyre notes, for Deming “short-term profitability is the enemy of good productive work” (ECM,171). The crashes of two Boeing 737 MAXs as well as events leading up to these tragic accidents illustrate the dangers of short-term thinking. Boeing had long placed engineering excellence at the center of its corporate vision. But after Boeing’s merger with McDonnell Douglas, things changed dramatically. Harry Stonecipher, who became the CEO from 2003–2005, explained the shift at Boeing, saying, “When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm.” In light of MacIntyre’s work, we can say that Stonecipher effectively marginalized the virtues of excellent aeronautical engineering, allowing the institutional aspects at Boeing to corrupt the firm’s core practice. While it is difficult to draw a direct line between these changes and the tragic events involving the 737 MAX, more specific changes in management practices do seem directly linked to problems with the MAX. For example, before merging with McDonnell Douglas, Boeing intentionally kept “cost data out of the hands of rank-and-file engineers, to keep the information from compromising their designs,” but afterward, engineers were required to justify their decisions in financial terms. As one commentator noted, “Boeing wanted them all [the engineers] to make decisions with the cold eye of a Jack Welch” (84). Thus, it is not difficult to see how the cultural changes initiated by Stonecipher, driven by a focus on short-term profitability, shaped management practices and organizational processes, making it more difficult for employees to pursue excellence and more costly to act virtuously, nor to imagine how an excessive focus on costs lead to shortcuts in the production of the MAX.

Boeing’s problems extend beyond the safety issues that plagued the MAX. The firm has continued to face challenges financially, and it would not be far-fetched—in the light of the research recounted above—to see a connection between the firm’s struggles to produce high-quality aircraft in a timely and efficient manner and the shift toward profit maximization initiated by Stonecipher (on the potentially detrimental effects of a myopic focus on financial goals see Birkinshaw, Foss & Lindenberg 2014). Like MacIntyre, Philip Selznick, an influential organization theorist, argues that opportunism, involving “the pursuit of immediate, short-run advantages in a way inadequately controlled by considerations of principle and ultimate consequence” (143), is one the biggest dangers that firms face in developing a corporate identity and culture necessary for value creation and long-term success. When managers focus on immediate opportunities, they risk compromising the firm’s values and, as a result, its core capabilities, effectively destroying its capacity to create value (see Tsoukas 2018). Accordingly, a managerial focus on excellent work and the common good, e.g., the way the firm benefits various stakeholders, rather than short-term profitability, is essential not only to create an organizational context where employees can cultivate virtues and pursue human flourishing but also to develop the firm’s core capabilities so that it can succeed in the long-term.

Thus, much management research agrees with MacIntyre that the quality of work is dependent upon organizational structures and the characteristics of management. Accordingly, while the metaphor of a “new St. Benedict” has, perhaps, reached the limits of its usefulness, it would not be implausible to claim that entrepreneurs insofar as they design organizations that make it possible for employees to pursue excellence, cultivate virtue, and promote the common good perform a function very similar to that of St. Benedict, as he is portrayed in After Virtue (262). What Benedict provided was a new institutional form wherein daily work could be directed toward one’s final end. MacIntyre says:

What makes it worthwhile to work and to work well is threefold: that the work that we do has point and purpose, is productive of genuine goods; that the work that we do is and is recognized to be our work, our contribution, in which we are given and take responsibility for doing it and for doing it well; and the at we are rewarded for doing it in a way that enables us to achieve the goods of family and community. This conception of work develops in secular the core of the Benedictine belief that work is prayer (MacIntyre 2011, 323).

In creating new firms, entrepreneurs have a far-reaching opportunity to shape the culture, structure, and mission of their nascent organization—a phenomenon referred to as “imprinting”—potentially creating opportunities for employees to realize the “secular core” of the Benedictine vision of work (see Bernacchio, Foss & Lindenberg 2011 for a discussion of the moral implications of imprinting).

MacIntyre provides an example of this in discussing the Cummins Engine Company. The firm was “founded in 1919 in Columbus, Indiana, by Clessie Cummins, an auto mechanic with a machine shop, who had become fascinated by the potentialities of diesel engines” (ECM, 172). The founder’s focus on innovation and the development of new products capable of meeting the needs of consumers and other stakeholders in the context of a growing economy had a lasting impact on the firm. MacIntyre notes that the “company was a research enterprise, responsive to its customers’ future as well as present needs, with a remarkable record in technological innovation” (ECM, 172). Moreover, to achieve these objectives, for a period of “several decades the company subordinated the need to achieve higher levels of profitability to the good of making excellent products, and individuals who worked for the company were expected to serve that common good” (ECM, 172). Thus, at least at the level of the firm, entrepreneurs and managers can shape employees’ opportunities to pursue virtue, excellence, and the common good through their work, notwithstanding the fact that social and macro-level economic factors may make this more difficult for some firms as compared with others. Likewise, they can do this in a way that is likely to contribute to the long-term success of the firm.

MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelianism is distinct in giving a fundamental role to social practices and the internal goods around which they are structured in his account of human flourishing. Because social practices are often housed in firms and other types of corporations, these organizations are crucial sites of conflict, where human flourishing may either be realized or obstructed. Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, read in the light of influential perspectives in management and organization studies, offers important insights into the way that managers can create and sustain organizations wherein human flourishing is achieved through excellent work, the common good is promoted through good products and services, and long-term success made more likely. None of this is to say creating a virtuous organization is easy or without obstacles. MacIntyre notes that consumers may demand products that are not genuinely good (ECM, 171). Other challenges include the possibility that activist investors will grow impatient with or fail to see the value in the firm’s long-term strategy or that powerful actors within the firm—e.g., entrenched managers—will resist the implementation of collaborative processes.

These challenges further underwrite the need for virtues amongst managers and entrepreneurs, including courage, perseverance, and practical wisdom. Yet perhaps most important is the virtue of hope, “a virtue that directs us beyond the facts of our present situation” (MacIntyre 2011, 19). As MacIntyre notes further, “St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas tell us how there is always more to be hoped for in any and every situation than the empirical facts seem to show” (MacIntyre 2011, 19). Perhaps too frequently, preconceptions about the lack of opportunities for good and virtuous work in a modern economy leave us without hope and prevent us from pursuing such opportunities when they are within our grasp.

Featured Image: Holbein the Younger, Georg Gisze, 1532; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Caleb Bernacchio

Caleb Bernacchio is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Management at California State University Monterey Bay. His research focuses on applications of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work to business ethics and organizational research.

Read more by Caleb Bernacchio