What Makes Work Meaningful?

Hong Kong Philosophy Café Handout
August 29, 2000

Web Version
September 8, 2000

Daniel Star

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 philosopher)

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.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

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.

Jeremy Bentham


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, 'Utilitarianism'

2. 'Subjective' attitudes of individuals makes work meaningful (the Existentialist solution)

3. 'Objective' material and social conditions make work meaningful (the Marxist solution)

4. The discovery and use of opportunities to develop virtues / excellencies (arete) of character makes work meaningful (the neo-Aristotelian solution)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue