The Benedict Option at the Crossroads of Ethics and Economics

By Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy
June 19, 2015

Partially in response to Noah Millman’s Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions about the Benedict Option in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher and several others have sought to provide a more concrete account of the Benedict Option. While this discussion has largely revolved around the role of the liturgy and the importance of prayer (“A Benedictine on the Benedict Option”), Dreher’s response to Andrew Lynn’s Saving the ‘Benedict Option’ from Culture War Conservatism points towards a more concrete and secular politics—an Option that engages modern economics as well as modern ethics.

Dreher notes that he is “grateful to Andrew Lynn for pushing forward on how the BenOp cannot be quietist and strictly retreatist and be true either to MacIntyre’s vision or to the spirit of the Benedictine monasteries,” before listing Lynn’s examples of “the local politics of ‘grassroots organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighborhood needs, schools, clinics, and transport systems.’” It is precisely such forms of local political engagement that MacIntyre has indicated as the primary locus of the practice of the virtues in the contemporary world. In a recent book review, he outlines “those areas in our own social order within which the relationships between the virtues, friendship, and directedness towards the achievement of the human good have taken on a distinctively contemporary form.” He goes on to say:

The relevant list includes on the one hand those engaged in by members of some rank and file trade union movements, of some tenants' associations, of the disability movement, of a variety of farming, fishing, and trading cooperatives, and by some feminist groups, and on the other by those who are at work within schools, hospitals, a variety of industrial and financial workplaces, laboratories, theaters, and universities in order to make of these, so far as possible, scenes of resistance to the dominant ideology and the dominant social order.

Proponents of the Benedict Option must come to recognize that the primary means of opposing the destructive elements of modernity is through the shared pursuit of common goods. How can Dreher’s project, which has been almost exclusively framed in moral and religious terms, adequately account for one of the most important themes of After Virtue: the relationship between socio-economic structures and ethics?

In reference to MacIntyre’s final section of After Virtue, Robert Miller writes in First Things, “the ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained’ that MacIntyre mentions in that book turn out to be economic communities. We’re waiting not so much for St. Benedict but for St. Vladimir, a baptized Lenin.” In response to Miller, MacIntyre noted that this reference to Lenin was “absurd,” particularly because a major claim of After Virtue concerned the inadequacy of Marxism as a political program. But Miller is correct in noting that MacIntyre’s vision of a new St Benedict should be understood in terms of an effort to resist “the corrosive effect of the individualism of modernity on the tradition of the virtues,” especially at the level of economic injustice.

In response to a critic (“After Virtue and Marxism: a Response to Wartofsky”), MacIntyre acknowledges that he failed to provide an adequate account of the changing social conditions that accompanied the radical changes in moral philosophy outlined in After Virtue. He notes that the version of social and economic history that he judges “to be thus vindicated is that of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.” Polanyi is important because he offers an Aristotelian reading of economic history.

The Great Transformation outlines the attempt by early proponents of globalization throughout the nineteenth century to free the market from the fetters of the social and political structures within which it was embedded in pre-modern societies, especially the household and local community. If this sounds familiar, it is because neoliberalism has been the renewed attempt to realize a completely disembedded market through the process of globalization.

Without explicitly naming Polanyi, After Virtue refers to this process of disembedding: “One of the key moments in the creation of modernity occurs when production moves outside the household,” MacIntyre says. “So long as productive work occurs within the structure of households, it is easy and right to understand that work as part of the sustaining of the community of the household and of those wider forms of community which the household sustains.” As production moved outside the the home, it marked a transition towards serving the needs of markets rather than the common goods of communities.

Polanyi analyzed the rise of capitalism in terms of Aristotle’s distinction between household management and money-making, the former characterized by the subordination of economic pursuits to the substantive goods constitutive of the common good of the household. MacIntyre follows suit, describing the development of modernity in terms of the disembedding of production and the goals of production from the common goods of the household and local community. Whereas the history of moral philosophy outlined in the first half of After Virtue describes the incoherence of moral theories that attempted to do without the notion of a telos, this Polanyian passage indicates that the good rejected by modern moral theory and thus the good in need of recovery is the concrete common good of local forms of community.

Dreher argues that “The BenOp must be anti-modern to some extent. I hesitate to define (at this point) too strongly what that means, because we all live in modernity, and have been shaped by modernity.” MacIntyre’s Polanyian reading of the rise of modernity provides an insight into what must be rejected. We must be anti-modern to the extent that contemporary social and economic structures are destructive of the common good of local communities.

Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option stand at the crossroads of economics and ethics. Transcending contemporary cultural debates requires an understanding of the relationship between modern ethics and modern economics. Putting flesh on the Benedict Option requires an examination of contemporary forms of community that have been able to defend common goods against the atomizing effect of contemporary economic institutions.

Dreher notes that “the BenOp cannot satisfy itself with simply being the Republican Party’s social and religious conservative wing in exile.” In order to avoid this fate, proponents of the Benedict Option must seek to build new forms of community life that reject the destructive elements of modern economics as well as modern ethics. Such a project is at once more radical and more mundane than has been envisioned by many proponents of the Benedict Option.

Like MacIntyre, Dreher has rightly recognized the compartmentalizing effect that a diminished theism has on everyday life but has yet to adequately acknowledge how the instrumentalization of work is an inextricable part of this phenomenon. MacIntyre writes that:

“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 that 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 form the core of the Benedictine belief that work is prayer. (“Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Need to Be”)

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.