The Everyday Ethics of Work

Working: Its Meaning and Its Limits is the latest to come out in an emerging series that carries the title, The Ethics of Everyday Life. In the preface, the editors describe it innocently enough as having been “produced by a group of friends [they are Timothy Fuller, Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, Richard John Neuhaus, Mark Schwehn, and Meilaender], united by a desire to revive public interest in and attention to these matters [everyday ethical ones], now sadly neglected.” This benign description, however, barely conveys the seriousness of the editors' purpose, for it is nothing less than to issue a challenge to professional teachers of ethics to reform their entire discipline from the ground up.

The series' editors believe that contemporary ethicists have mainly abandoned the classical notion that ethics is about what it used to be about and what it (ethically) ought to be about - showing the way to live “the good life.” Unlike great moral thinkers such as Aristotle, Erasmus, and Adam Smith, today's ethicists, the editors complain, ignore everyday topics—being born, growing up, marrying, eating, drinking, talking, aging, dying. Instead, they write in that tedious academic's mode, one that is “highly abstract, analytically philosophic, interested only in principles or arguments, often remote from life as lived, divorced from the way most people face and make moral decisions, largely deaf to questions of character and moral feeling or how they are acquired, unduly influenced by the sensational or extreme case, hostile to insights from religious traditions, friendly to fashionable opinion but deaf to deeper sources of wisdom, heavily tilted toward questions of law and public policy, and all too frequently marked by an unwillingness to take a moral stand.”

The larger purpose of the series, then, is linked with this serious accusation that - irony of ironies - the art of moral wisdom has been lost and replaced by something absurdly immoral and unwise. For readers who instinctively agree, the series (and Meilaender's volume) will get the initial benefit of a welcome.

Meilaender's volume fits well with the larger purpose of the series. He has pieced together a collection of short readings (seventy-five in all) that is superb for its diversity and engagement of the subject. Some readers may object to the parochial scope of the selections, for they all come from the classical stream of the West. We hear a lot from the Bible, for instance, but not from the Koran or the Upanishads. The voices are nearly all male, the theologians all Christian, and the Christians almost all Protestants (nothing from papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, Laborem Ex-ercens, or Centesimus Annus). Someone might judge, with a little justification, that the failure to give a philosophical defense of what seems quite a consequential philosophical claim (the anti-relativism) comes to the sort of (albeit implied) moral deism that has made so many people into relativists in the first place. But for readers who accept the assumptions that the book's scope suggests, this sort of complaint will seem misplaced.

A Typology of Approaches

As for the logical arrangement of the selections, Meilaender does give a detailed account of his thinking on some of it. In his introduction, Meilaender explains that the book provides “a typology of approaches.” The book comprises three main parts: “The Meanings of Work,” “The Limits of Work,” and “Rest.” Meilaender is well aware of conceptual overlap between the classifications. Although he does not put it this way, at bottom, the first is really a heading for them all. The truth is that only the first part includes a true typology, for it contains the writings that “typify” the several relevant views of what, in the end, work means. We may rightly wonder just what sorts of “views” these are, since they do not break down into philosophical, religious, or even distinctly theological frames of reference for ethics. Dorothy Sayers and Karl Marx, for instance, appear under the same banner, “Work as Co-Creation.” As Meilaender describes this view, the human person is “created in the image of God” and “made priest of the creation, given 'dominion' over it by God”; consequently, “to be in God's image is to work with and under God to care for creation.” The next grouping is the more instrumental approach, “Work as Necessary for Leisure.” Its members range from Aristotle and Hesiod to Witold Rybczynski (a writing architect); for this view, the good life is not found in work (as necessary as it may be) but in leisure, “the cultivation of the mind through activities that are intrinsically worthwhile”provided such activities do not include undignified menial toil.

The third is the more ethically or duty-bound “Work as Dignied but Irksome,” which includes not just the Apostle Paul, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jaques Ellul, and George Orwell, among some others, but also the Little Red Hen. For such thinkers, “the worker may achieve considerable dignity in work that, although necessary, cannot be fulfilling or satisfying.” The last is the more religiously shaped approach, “Work as Vocation.” Its members include John Calvin, along with Charles Wesley, William Perkins, and Michael Novak. Under the influence of this view (which, Meilaender notes, has had a profound impact on Western culture), “daily work became a vocation, a calling from God” through which “one sought not the vision of God but the transformation of the world in accordance with God's will.”

Finding a Fitting Vision of Work

From the assertions these headings embody, it seems that the “views,” then, are “types” of what are distinctly different psychological or existential responses to work. I do not think one should object very much to Meilaender's using this sort of measurement, but it does make it harder to sort out the metaphysical and larger worldview matters that give shape to people's responses. (On these deeper levels, for instance, Sayers and Marx hardly meant the same thing by co-creation, and I would love to hear Wesley and Calvin conversing on the notion of calling.)

Another risk of typologies is that, when confronted with them, readers almost instinctively begin thinking of them as logically exclusive alternatives (even though the author discourages them from doing so). In the right hands, this mistake can be avoided, but from the arrangement it is not obvious that, say, for Novak (“Work as Vocation,” in Meilaender's scheme), what shapes the very (for him, biblical) notion of calling is just that God has ordered the world so that proper work is co-creation, among other things. Indeed, in Novak's complete view, the two notions of work are dialectically related and inseparable.

Still another peril of typologies (one thinks of H. Richard Niebuhr's famous Christ and Culture) is that they almost inevitably foster abstract theories (which is obviously not consistent with Meilaender's purpose). The problem is that work refers to such vastly varying circumstances and kinds of action that no general theory can possibly hold for all of them. Someone working as a college professor in modern-day America can certainly learn from Aristotle, Hesiod, and Marx on what her own sort of work means, but she will most certainly need to hear from wise thinkers who have immersed themselves in the realities of advanced modern economic life in the unique way that she has done. And that is not to mention the innumerably different forms and circumstances of work that keep emerging in our advanced market economies. If, say, we add the term some to the assertions that the group headings abbreviate, we get four pretty obviously true statements. In that light, however, a typology such as Meilaender's can serve very well the interest of people in discovering a more complete and (for them) fitting vision of whatever work it is that they do.

To conclude, in the right hands, and for readers (most likely in the college classroom) who accept the limiting scope of its assumptions, this volume provides a fine resource for serious reflection - in the context of our Western moral heritage - on how the working life might become a more integral part of the good life.