What Makes Work Meaningful?
Hong Kong Philosophy
August 29, 2000
September 8, 2000
At long last I have been learning to work. By that I mean that there is in my daily life a satisfactory predominance of activity over passivity, of reality over fantasy, of creation over conception. It continues to astonish me that this simple human ability to work brings so much additional pleasure, order, solace, and meaning to my life.
Sara Ruddick (contemporary
It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next. ... You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful.
There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library: a point whereon little rivers of tabular statements periodically flowed into the howling ocean of tabular statements, which no diver ever got to any depth in and came up sane. It was a disheartening circumstance, but a melancholy fact, that even these readers persisted in wondering. They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women! They sometimes, after fifteen hours' work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own. Mr. Gradgrind was for ever working, in print and out of print, at this eccentric sum, and he never could make out how it yielded this unaccountable product.
Does work bring a dimension of meaning to life that we would otherwise find lacking (ie. if we did not work, but only entertained)? Ruddick supplies an answer to this question above. Dickens, on the other hand, has us ask: is it not a good thing that we have leisure activities (reading and the circus are two key examples in Hard Times) to lift us above our often meaningless work?
The following list, with quotations from relevant philosophers, provides four possible answers to the question: What makes work meaningful? I chose to keep the list short. While each of the early answers seems to have something right about it, the last answer is the most satisfactory of those examined, in my view. I will attempt to say, very briefly, what I think is wrong about each of the other answers. You may well disagree with me and prefer one of the earlier answers, or an alternative.
1. Pleasure makes work meaningful (the Utilitarian solution)
a. Where the total quantity of pleasure is what matters:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do ... Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.
b. Where qualitative differences between pleasures are also taken account of:
It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone. ... It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
John Stuart Mill,
2. 'Subjective' attitudes of individuals makes work meaningful (the Existentialist solution)
The Gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. ...Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. ... I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lair of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. ... Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. ... I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Myth of Sisyphus'
3. 'Objective' material and social conditions make work meaningful (the Marxist solution)
... the more the worker [in the capitalist mode of production] exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. ... The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. ... The alienation of the worker means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien. ... The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life ... everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you ...
Karl Marx, Economical
and Philosophical Manuscripts
4. The discovery and use of opportunities to develop virtues / excellencies (arete) of character makes work meaningful (the neo-Aristotelian solution)
All think the happy life is pleasant and they weave pleasure into happiness ... quite reasonably, since no activity is complete if it is impeded, and happiness is something complete. Hence the happy person needs to have goods of the body, external goods, and fortune added, so that he will not be impeded in these ways. Some people actually maintain, on the contrary, that a person is happy when he is tortured on the wheel, or falls into terrible misfortunes, provided he is good. Whether they mean to or not, these people are talking nonsense. And because happiness needs fortune added, some people think good fortune is the same as happiness. But it is not. For when it is excessive, it actually impedes happiness; and then, presumably, it is no longer rightly called good fortune, since the limit is defined with reference to happiness.
... Happiness, then, is something complete and self-sufficient, and is the end of action. Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the 'well' is thought to reside in the function, so would it be for man, if he has a function. ... the function of man is an activity of soul in accordance with, or not without, rational principle ... human good turns out to be activity of soul in conformity with excellence ... But we must add 'in a complete life'. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods. ... A practice involves standards of excellence ... the standards are not themselves immune from criticism, but nonetheless we cannot be initiated into a practice without accepting the authority of the best standards realized so far ... If, on starting to play baseball, I do not accept that others know better than I when to throw a fast ball and when not, I will never learn to appreciate good pitching let alone to pitch.