3: The Third Dimension

1. Practices, Traditions, and Ways of Life

 When we turn to a third dimension of value, we find that it includes the other two dimensions, but transcends and can override both. In this third dimension, activities and experiences are not merely viewed practically in terms of what we get from them. They are also, more importantly, viewed in terms of how they define what we are.

 In this dimension, the hunter in a primitive society does not merely hunt for food (a second-dimensional concern). He also takes pride in his skill with the bow because of what it says about his standing as a human being. The activity signi­fies that he is an excellent archer, a good provider for his family and a loyal member of his tribe. It defines what he is and his status in the world and in the community of which he is a part.

We may say in general that the value of activities and experiences in this third dimension derives from their role in ways of life or forms of life which give them meaning or significance; and it involves the pursuit of various virtues or excellences characteristic of those forms of life.

This third dimension of value thus includes what Charles Taylor[1] has called “strong evalua­tions”—those that define our ideals rather than merely our interests. It also includes the values realized in what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “prac­tices” and “traditions.”[2]

By a practice, MacIntyre means “a socially esta­blished…human activity” through which we strive to realize goods by achiev­ing “stan­dards of excellence appropriate to that activity.” As examples, he cites architecture, physics, medicine, law, painting, violin-mak­ing, music, farming, chess, football, politics, wine-making, teach­ing and the making and sustaining of family life, among many others. Each of these practices has its own standards of excellence; and the excellences achieved in each are instances of third-dimensional value—a fine painting, a well-played chess game, a new scientific discovery, a beautiful-sounding violin.

When the pursuits of human goods in practices extend through many generations, they become tradi­tions and cultures, which are also embodiments of third-dimensional value. Religions and religious traditions count as well, in so far as they are not merely systems of beliefs, but entire forms of life with ritual practices, observances and ideals of spirituality or sainthood. Virtues, according to MacIntyre, are those human qualities (excellences) that allow one to achieve the goods distinctive of practices.

Through the pursuit of practices, traditions, and forms of life, humans seek a number of ends that are central to this third dimension of value. Among these ends, four are particularly worth mentioning—expression of meaning, mastery, contribution with commitment, and excellence or virtue. Rom Harre remarks that a substantial proportion of human behavior in all known cultures serves expressive ends.[3] As soon as basic utilitarian needs for food and shelter are fulfilled, even the most seemingly primitive of peoples turn to the activities such as story-telling, myth, dance, art, ritual practices and public discourse, through which they express to themselves and others what they are and what gives meaning to their existence.

By “mastery,” I mean simply the experience of doing something well, and by “contribution,” the fact that what one does is important to—plays a valued and indispensable role in—the community or form of life with which one identifies. The psychology of the homeless and unemployed is interesting in this regard. They worry about not having enough to eat (which is a second-dimensional concern). But they worry also about the loss of self-respect that comes from believing society has no need for them and there is no valued role for them to play (a third-dimen­sional concern).

Finally, the capstone of third-dimensional value is excellence of action or achievement in various practices and forms of life (arete, to the ancient Greek philosophers). The excellence may be manifested in the practice of virtues appropriate to a form of life or in the attainment of the highest achievements recognized in that form of life—great painting, music, statesmanship, and so on.

2. Inclusion and Overriding: Internal and External Goods

Note that third-dimensional value so conceived, includes the other two dimensions of value while at the same time transcending them. Pursuing ends of meaningful expression, mastery, contribution and excellence involves engaging in (second-dimensional) purposive activities that in turn involve successions of (first-dimensional) experiences—much as three-dimensional spaces include two-dimensional planes and one-dimensional lines.

But the activities and experiences of the first two dimensions are “transfigured” or “raised up” in the third dimension to a higher level, where they have a meaning and significance that transcends whatever practical ends they might otherwise achieve, or whatever enjoyment or pleasure they might afford.

Such transcending of practical ends and pleasures implies that there is also “overriding” in the third dimension. Enjoyments and pleasures of the first dimension and practical goals of the second dimension may be part of the pursuit of excellence. But some of them may divert or distract from that pursuit as well. A performance-enhancing drug may be a good thing if a runner has to get a message as quickly as possible to a neighboring village. But in the context of a competition meant to demonstrate athletic excellence or arête other factors come into play, even though the runner may in fact run faster.

A distinction made by MacIntyre between two kinds of goods is important for understanding practices and third-dimensional value generally.[4] He distinguishes goods that are internal to practices from those that are external. If a violin-maker takes pride in his craftsmanship in producing an instrument of magnificent sound, then he is seeking a good that is internal to the practice of violin making, a good that is distinctive of this practice. By contrast, if the violin-maker’s interest is in the money or prestige his work will bring, he is interested in goods that are external to the practice. It is common to be interested in both kinds of goods, but external goods, such as prestige, status or money, can be realized in many different ways, whereas internal goods are specific to the practice in question: The skills and excellences of violin-making can only be fully realized by making violins.

There is a social point behind this distinction for MacIntyre. Like other social critics, he bemoans the tendency of modern commercial cultures to emphasize external goods over internal ones. Examples of this emphasis are not hard to find: Physicians who may be more interested in money and status that in the true ends of the practice of medicine, craftsmen and repairmen more interested in a fast dollar than in taking pride in their work, politicians more interested in their own survival than in serving the public’s interests, professional athletes more interested in the size of their latest contract than in the success of their team, a general fascina­tion with fame and celebrity at the expense of genuine merit and excellence of achievement.

The public unease inspired by these trends is related to a confusion of priorities, according to MacIntyre. Societies that emphasize external goods over internal goods impoverish the means by which humans go about cooperatively seeking the good. He notes that external goods are “characteristically objects of competition in which there must be losers as well as winners.” By contrast, “internal goods are indeed the outcome of competition to excel, but it is characteristic of them that their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice” and who can appreciate its achievements.

With internal goods there is a sense of excellence that transcends personal pleasures and possessions and has worth to a wider community of persons beyond oneself. In this manner, third-dimensional value takes us a further step beyond the subjectivity of the first dimension.

3. Practices, Traditions and Excellences (Aretai)

It should be clear from these examples that value in the third dimension is also plural, even more so than in the first two dimensions. There are many practices and traditions through which humans pursue meaningful expression, mastery, contribution and excellence. If this weren’t so, the possibilities for pursuing human goods would be immeasurably impoverished.

MacIntyre’s list of practices is only a beginning: architecture, physics, medicine, law, music, painting, chess, teaching, and so on. Each practice has its own distinctive kinds of excellence. Mozart’s achievements are different from Shakespeare’s, and the excellence of both differ from those of Michelangelo or Einstein, to take just a few clear examples.

To fully appreciate these different excellences or aretai, we have to understand the practices and traditions of which they are a part. You have to know something about physics and its history to fully understand Einstein’s achievements. To fully appreciate Michael Jordan’s greatness as a basketball player you have to know something about the game of basketball. If you do not know anything about Zen Buddhism, you cannot fully appreciate the practice of poetry that the Japanese call haiku.

In this way, practices, traditions and forms of life provide the contexts in which excellences have meaning. Shakespeare’s distinctive greatness could not have been realized without the English language, nor Mozart’s, if there were no violins. Yet even where we cannot fully appreciate the value of a practice from the inside because we do not share its distinctive traditions, we can acknowledge that there is such value from others who do appreciate it. Calligraphy is an art of writing practiced in China for centuries. I do not fully appreciate it, but I trust the judgment and expertise of my friend Shepard Liu when he shows me the work of acknowledged masters of the art; and I glimpse the beauty in their work.

Excellence is to some degree in the eye of the beholder, but not only in the eye of the beholder. There is an objective excellence to behold, if there is an audience fit to render it.

This does not mean that judgments of excellence in practices cannot be questioned or that the standards are always clear and fixed. MacIntyre emphasizes that practices can change and develop; and when they do they become traditions.[5] The trial lawyer’s standards of excellence are not merely connected to arbitrary rules of transitory legal practice. They are embedded in a longer tradition of common law that is supposed to serve the interests of justice, respect for evidence, fair representation, and so on. When particular standards of practice no longer serve these ends, they are subject to change. The same is true of musicians exploring the boundaries of musical traditions, such as jazz, or opera, or of chemists working within the traditions of modern chemistry.

A tradition, as MacIntyre puts it, is a continuing argument about what is worth pursuing. Judgments about what is worth pursuing continue to be based on human purposes, desires and interests, to be sure. But the purposes and interests are elevated in the third dimension to the level of ideals that transcend personal and subjective needs; they become goods for an entire community or form of life with which one identifies; and they thereby invest one’s activities with greater significance. There is more to argue about because there is more at stake.[6]

4. Virtues and Forms of Life

We have been talking about exemplary forms of excellence or arete in arts and culture that are contestable, though also recognizable. But third-dimensional value includes much more than that. It also includes playing roles and fulfilling functions well within cultures, cooperative enter­prises and forms of life: being a good accountant, auto mechanic, police officer, carpenter, nurse or engineer, a loyal employee, caring parent, courageous soldier, generous donor, fair judge, honest shopkeeper, patient arbitrator, grateful friend or responsible citizen.

These are also examples of third-dimensional value. And they show how the virtues enter into third-dimensional value: loyalty, courage, generosity, fairness, honesty, gratitude, trustworthi­ness, responsibility, and the like. These are traits that make good employees, parents, soldiers, judges, friends, citizens, and so on. And they are traits that contribute to the flourishing not only of the individuals who possess the traits, but also to the flourishing of various “forms of life” and to other persons who participate in those forms of life.

Ascriptions of virtues and excellences of these kinds are called “strong evaluations” by Charles Taylor.[7] Strong evaluations express not merely our interests, but our ideals, in the sense of traits of character and excellences of accomplishment that define what we are and what kinds of persons we think we should be.[8]

Since third-dimensional value may thus include ideals, virtues and excellences of varying kinds in different practices, traditions and forms of life, there is a plenitude of value in the third dimension; and value is plural in this dimension as well.

But, despite this plurality, there is a further measure of objectivity in the third dimension, as noted earlier, because third-dimensional value is no longer related merely to subjective expe­riences or to personal and practical needs, as in the first two dimensions of value. One may well be wrong or deceived about whether one really is a good mechanic, calligraphist, coura­geous soldier or loyal friend by the standards of the practices, traditions and forms of life in which one participates and to which one contributes.

Yet we may continue to wonder about the standards of the practices, traditions and forms of life themselves. Are the practices, traditions and forms of life themselves ultimately “worth pursuing”? This is the deeper question about ultimate ends to which third-dimensional value gives rise. If, as MacIntyre says, traditions and forms of life are continuing arguments about what is worth pursuing, are there standards for judging which traditions and forms of life are objectively right and worthy—standards that go beyond, or transcend, the traditions and forms of life themselves?

MacIntyre himself was deeply troubled by this question because he was convinced that if human value was not a meaningless abstraction, it had to be rooted in concrete human expe­riences, practices and forms of life.[9] Humans normally seek the good in the contexts of their particular experiences and activities within communities and traditions into which they are enculturated; and it is hard to see how they could do so in any other way. Being initiated into a culture begins with learning a language and social conventions that shape our sensibi­lities and influence the way we interpret and value things around us.

But such cultural shaping would seem to suggest that all human value might be inevitably relative after all—relative to cultures, traditions and forms of life in the third dimension of value. How can we make judgments about the objective rightness or worth of cultures, tradi­tions and forms of life themselves? This question takes us beyond the third dimension of value to a still higher dimension.

[1] 1982

[2] 1981: 187

[3] 1980: 5

[4] 1981: 188.

[5] pp. 221ff.

[6] Other recent philosophers have emphasized the importance of third dimensional value. Joseph Raz, for example, in his Tanner Lectures on Human Values, emphasizes, like MacIntyre, that many values arise from, and are dependent on, “social practices” (2003).

[7] 1982: 113

[8] Elizabeth Anderson is another philosopher who has emphasized the importance of ideals in this sense to the theory of value. (1993: 7)

[9] MacIntyre pursued this problem in other works, e.g.,1988 and 1990. Discussion of his efforts to resolve it appear in two instructive anthologies: Horton and Mendus eds., 1994 and M. Murphy ed., 2003.

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