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What Work Is Really For

September 14, 2012

Gary Gutting in The New York Times:

Is work good or bad?  A fatuous question, it may seem, with unemployment such a pressing national concern.  (Apart from the names of the two candidates, “jobs” was the politically relevant word most used by speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions.) Even apart from current worries, the goodness of work is deep in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday.

But there’s an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.

We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake.  It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well.  But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)? [More]

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