Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Work And Dignity

Human Agency and the Ethics of Meaningful Work: A Bibliographic Essay

William Hasselberger

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of work for contemporary life in advanced industrial societies: we spend vast stretches of our lives working for pay; we tend to identify ourselves with “what we do,” that is, how we are employed; and our various forms of work are replete with socio-cultural meanings. In Western democracies in general, and America in particular, the working life has long been connected with identity, moral character, and human dignity. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

As soon as a stranger is introduced into any company, one of the first questions which all wish to have answered, is, How does that man get his living? And with reason. He is no whole man until he knows how to earn a blameless livelihood.

The celebration of the moral worth of work is a fixture of American culture. further, work is formative: it shapes one’s character, encouraging certain habits of thought and action, virtues, and vices.

These features of work provoke questions about its ethical significance. What kinds of work are meaningful, rewarding, dignified, and worthwhile; conversely, what kinds of work are meaningless, stultifying, deadening—even an affront to human dignity? What makes for meaningful work in the modern world? How do contemporary forms of work shape the self and influence other elements of our lives? finally, what are the political implications of the problems of meaningless work and the promise of meaningful work, and what role should such notions play in our account of a just society?

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