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Weathering the Storm:

Virtuous Communities in Southern Louisiana

While the national media has largely ignored the historic flooding in southern Louisiana, the
response of community members has been overwhelming. As the water began to rise to
unprecedented levels men from the area around Baton Rouge and Denham Springs set off in
boats down flooded roadways looking for persons in need. Others began volunteering at
shelters, cooking food to donate, and offering their homes to neighbors and sometimes to
complete strangers. Rod Dreher has noted the links between the Benedict Option and the
response of members of the various communities affected by flooding in Louisiana. While
Dreher has often highlighted the importance of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
(1981) as an inspiration for the Benedict Option, what has been ignored is MacIntyre’s more
developed account of the nature of flourishing communities in his lesser known book Dependent
Rational Animals (1999). In this later book MacIntyre describes communities that are constituted
by gratuitous networks of giving and receiving, an account that is aptly illustrated by the
communal response to the flooding in south Louisiana.

In the wake of last summer’s Obergfell decision - as merely the latest salvo in the Supreme
Court’s divisive cultural politics - increased attention turned to Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”
Taking his inspiration from the concluding pages of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where MacIntyre
called for “another— doubtless very different— St. Benedict,” able to preserve and rebuild local
social and political institutions “so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of
barbarism and darkness,” Dreher argued that the state of American politics called for a renewed
focus on the local, on families, education, and religious practices.

Although both Dreher and MacIntyre share a skepticism of national politics - in a short article
that has circulated during this election cycle, MacIntyre famously called for voters to abstain
from the 2004 presidential election because of the shortcomings of both major candidates -
Dreher’s Benedict Option has been much more centrally focused on the practice of Christianity
and the increasingly hostile environment resulting from the Supreme Court’s activism. What has
been missing from discussions surrounding the Benedict Option is a consideration of the way in
which MacIntyre has developed his account of flourishing community life in works following the
now famous discussion of a new St. Benedict in After Virtue.

MacIntyre’s most developed statement of the nature of community life that is conducive to the
virtues comes in a lecture series later published as Dependent Rational Animals. Coming nearly
20 years after the first edition of After Virtue, MacIntyre no longer employees the language of a
new St. Benedict or likens contemporary politics to the decadence of the late Roman Empire,
instead MacIntyre argues that human flourishing can be achieved within local communities that
are constituted by relationships of gratuitous giving and receiving. These are the relationships,
between friends, family, and total strangers, that are active in a more subtle way in daily life but
which are most apparent in strong communities when disaster strikes. In Baton Rouge and
Denham Springs, total strangers gave of their time and resources, sometimes putting their own
lives at risk, to help those in need. But in similar communities around the world, on a daily basis
communal bonds are evidenced by the way which in fellow community members give
assistance to those in need in a manner that extends beyond economic calculations. This type
of virtuous care is vital to the wellbeing of community members but it often goes unnoticed by
elites of various sorts who dismiss such people as close-minded or insufficiently cosmopolitan.

MacIntyre argues that as human beings we are always vulnerable to threats that make
flourishing precarious and that we can only live flourishing lives by relying upon the virtuous
care of friends, family, and often total strangers to give to us when we are in need. The
response to the recent floods gives ample evidence of the strength of of virtuous networks
spanning the communities of southern Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, the localism of the relatively
rural population of southern Louisiana offers a primary example of the parochialism and
“irrationality” derided by elites in the wake of the Brexit vote. While economic models can largely
capture the increased economic efficiency stemming from globalization it is not remarked often
enough that economists struggle to explain the type of widespread cooperation described by
MacIntyre in terms of networks of giving and receiving.

Economists tend to either dismiss the virtuous behavior on display in Southern Louisiana as
irrational or altruistic, or attempt to reduce it to some sort of implicit calculation of future benefits,
as if members of the Cajun Navy - the name given to community members using privately-
owned boats to rescue people trapped by the flood - were tacitly performing cost/benefit
analyses each time they came across someone in distress. The failure of economic theory to
explain the virtuous behavior exemplified in the wake of the floods in Louisiana, is directly
related to the bankruptcy of political discourse in the United States and Europe. According to
political pundits, the world is divided between cosmopolitanism and nativism, with the former
typically described as rational and “enlightened” and the latter as illiberal and archaic.

What many pundits, economists, and proponents of globalization fail to understand is that
communities centered upon virtuous relationships of giving and receiving are essential to
wellbeing in a manner vividly evident during disasters such as the unprecedented flooding in
southern Louisiana, and in a more subtle way on a daily basis in communities around the world.
Relationships extending beyond the economic sphere offer resilience in the face of the
numerous and unexpected difficulties encountered throughout the course of life. Discussions of
globalization, while rightly touting the economic benefits of expanded trade, have ignored the
subtle ways in which local communities are often marginalized by economic growth, weakening
the bonds characteristic of networks of giving and receiving. MacIntyre, in Dependent Rational
Animals, points to threats to communal integrity stemming from consumerism and reduced job
stability, both making virtuous relationships more precarious.

In the wake of the recent flood, Rod Dreher notes that he is primarily concerned with “the
politics of building local community, and local community institutions.” His critics have dismissed
the Benedict Option as a form of political quietism that ignores mainstream politics, but as
MacIntyre argues, a politics centered upon supporting and strengthening virtuous communal
ties, is neither quitiest nor isolated from national and international politics. Instead, this type of
political approach explicitly acknowledges the importance of strong local communities, in both
daily life and during extraordinary challenges, recognizing that communal ties provide resilience
in a manner that is often ignored by economic models. A politics of the common good centered
upon local communities asks how national and international political institutions can be made to
support the common good of local communities, as they did when Coast Guard helicopters
aided stranded residents and FEMA announced a program providing financial assistance to
property owners without flood insurance.

Discussions of economic policy must be conducted in a manner that acknowledged the purpose
of economics as a means of providing resources that support and sustain local community
relationships. Local communities are at times parochial but, as communities members’ behavior
in the wake of the unprecedented flooding in southern Louisiana makes evident, such
communities are often the source of virtuous networks of giving and receiving that provide care
to those in urgent need and contribute to the flourishing of community members in countless
ways. Our discourse about national and international politics, like our discussions of economics,
is severely impoverished if we fail to consider the way in which policy decisions impact virtuous
relationships constitutive of our local communities. Far from a secondary concern, national and
international political and economic policies must be understood primarily in terms of the way in
which they support or marginalize local networks of giving and receiving.

Caleb Bernacchio, a native of Baton Rouge, LA, is a PhD candidate at IESE Business School in
Barcelona. He previously earned an MBA from LSU. During the recent flood his parents and
brother were rescued by a neighbor with a boat after spending two days trapped on the second
story of a flooded house.

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