A philosopher’s view: the benefits and dignity of work

Many jobs can be bad for your health. It’s important for the quality of work to improve before it can be seen as a universal good. Rafael Cavalcante/Flickr

In a recent speech presented at the Sydney Institute, Julia Gillard reaffirmed her commitment to welfare reform aimed at full employment. This was justified not by the need for the government to cut its costs — there was no mention this time of a tough imminent budget–but by an _ethical _principle: work is a social good that governments ought to promote and help make available to everyone, if the circumstances allow it.

Furthermore, pursuit of the goal of full employment, on account of the “benefits and dignity” of working, is not just one political aim amongst others, but the central purpose of the Labor Party, as the prime minister depicted it in her speech. Under her leadership, “a new culture of work” would be entrenched.

Gillard’s speech raises some deep philosophical issues. Is work really a social good? If it is such a good, is it a special one, one that should be prioritized over others?

Is it the legitimate business of democratic governments to promote one conception of the good life over others (in this case, one that involves working) or to favour one particular culture or “ethos”?

Wouldn’t it be fairer to let people choose their own idea of what is good for them?

To get the question of whether work is really a social good into focus, it helps to specify, in suitably abstract terms, the kind of activity that work is.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle did this by way of a distinction between praxis, which is action done for its own sake, and poiesis, or activity aimed at the production of something useful.

The excellence or worth of _poiesis _consists entirely in the excellence or worth of the thing made by the activity.

This contrasts with _praxis _which, when it goes well, is its own end, worthwhile for its own sake.

Aristotle’s distinction between _poiesis _and _praxis _has had a huge influence on Western thinking about work.

It shaped Christian (especially but not exclusively Catholic) thinking about the value of work and was taken up in various ways by key philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith, and currents of Marxist and neo-classical economic thought in the twentieth century.

The conception of work as _poiesis _rather than _praxis _continues to be dominant to this day.

Work is widely seen as activity which is done exclusively for the sake of something else, as worth doing solely as a means to some external end.

Of course, gainful employment in a market economy always _is _done for the sake of something else: it is how most people make a living for themselves and their families. Work, as gainful employment, is an instrumental good.

It is instrumentally valuable from the individual worker’s point of view because of the income it brings.

And from a broader social-economic point of view, it is instrumental in the creation of the common wealth.

Now if this were the whole story about the value of work, then those who get an income without working, say by gaining an inheritance, or winning the lottery, or even claiming benefits, would not really be missing out on anything.

Indeed, they would be in the enviable position of receiving the benefits of work (income) without having to pay the costs (the effort, the time).

But it is clear that the lives of people who do not work are typically lacking in certain goods.

Research shows that physical and mental health are adversely affected by lack of work. You are more likely to suffer from obesity and depression, for example, if you are unemployed. This may be linked to another good that work helps to provide: self-esteem.

Self-esteem, in the sense of having a perception of the worth of one’s own existence, is bound up with the recognition one receives from others of one’s competences, achievements and contributions.

Your family and friends may love you just for who you are, and you may feel entitled to certain basic rights, like a right to basic welfare, just on account of being a person.

But the status of being a somebody, as the German philosopher Hegel famously put it, depends in modern societies on the public recognition of skills and achievements, which participation in a suitably regulated labour market is able to secure.

This brings us to another good that work can help to realise: the sense of being connected to something larger than oneself.

By participating in the division of labour, the French sociologist Durkheim observed, individuals can come to a livelier appreciation of their dependence on others and the need for cooperation.

And day-to-day practice in the activity of cooperative problem-solving, the American philosopher John Dewey persuasively argued, provides vital training for the citizens of a healthy democracy.

Health, the exercise and development of skills and capacities, self-esteem based on the recognition of one’s achievements, a sense of social connectedness and exposure to the demands of cooperation are some of the intrinsic goods associated with working life that are imperilled by lack of work.

Such goods are not subjective preferences, or expressions of cultural bias, but rationally justifiable ethical objectives that a government can legitimately seek to pursue.

But of course these goods are endangered not just by unemployment, but by the way in which work is actually organised.

Many jobs are in fact bad for your health, they stunt your capacities, they damage your self-esteem, leave you feeling isolated, and seem systematically designed to prevent you from cooperating with anyone.

So if the “new culture of work” called for by the prime minister is to have ethical weight, it needs to involve much more than the provision of more jobs: the _quality _of work has to improve.

For the benefits and dignity of work are as much a matter of what one _does _while working, and of the social relations one enjoys or endures there, as they are of the economic power it brings.