Acton Institute Powerblog

How does human work further human dignity?

For all the claims regarding the subjectivity of economics, including schools of thought that emphasize subjective value theory and the descriptive rather than the normative, much mainstream economic thought focuses on what seems to be objective and measurable. Take the case of labor economics and related policy discussions, such as the recently debated proposals surrounding child tax and the earned income tax credits.

The focus in these discussions is almost always and exclusively about what can be measured – that is, about wages or other forms of compensation. It’s about the money understood as an objective standard of what counts as a worthwhile occupation. Money earned in the marketplace is essentially the same as that which is given to someone by the government. The great thing about cash, from this perspective, is that it is fundamentally fungible: It doesn’t matter where or how you get it, because a dollar is a dollar, and all that matters is what it can buy.

In this context, broader discussions about the dignity of labor are welcome, in part because questions of dignity move beyond mere calculability. As Jamila Michener, the co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, puts it, “Of course, there can be dignity in work, and we should create the circumstances to make that possible, but there’s no natural dignity in work.” The focus here is on the demeaning, degrading, or destructive elements of some forms of work in our world; the point of departure is an assumption that work is inherently neither good nor bad, but that its moral status is determined entirely by its effects.

Now, just because there are some forms or amounts of work that are destructive, demeaning, or degrading doesn’t mean that work is intrinsically neutral or even (as in most economic theory) a cost to be avoided. It just means that the natural good of work can (and all too often is) corrupted.

To understand the dignity of work correctly, we need a proper understanding of work not only in its objective dimensions, but also in its holistic, subjective dimensions. The Christian tradition offers important insights in this regard, because it views human work within a robust anthropology which is itself theologically grounded. Human beings are made for work, because they are made in their Creator’s image.

Pope John Paul II, especially in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, helpfully articulated the relationship between work in its objective and subjective dimensions. One summary of his teaching states that Pope John Paul II:

taught that when people work, they do not simply make more, but they become more. The changes brought about by work cannot be fully accounted for by its objective dimension. The worker, the subject of work, is also greatly affected by his or her own work. Whether we think about executives, farmers, nurses, janitors, engineers, or tradespeople, work changes both the world (objective dimension) and the worker (subjective dimension). Because work changes the person, it can enhance or suppress that person’s dignity; it can allow a person to develop or to be damaged.

The effect of work on the worker is of central importance in addressing the social question. It is thus entirely appropriate to foreground questions of human dignity in relation to human labor. As Pope John Paul II wrote:

This does not mean that, from the objective point of view, human work cannot and must not be rated and qualified in any way. It only means that the primary basis of the value of work is man himself, who is its subject. This leads immediately to a very important conclusion of an ethical nature: however true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is “for man” and not man “for work.”

Focusing less on the what and more on the who of work leads to a virtue-ethical approach to work. Work forms human character. And while it can do so in ways that are destructive, it also forms character positively. Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster ask of each one of us:

Do you feel that in our mechanized society all slots are alike, and rob everyone of individuality? Anyone can push the broom, bake the pie, tend the machine, occupy the office, farm the land, or teach the class? Maybe so. But that is not the issue when our God-ordained uniqueness is in view. Anyone, or almost anyone, can do your job, but only you can accumulate what doing the job does to the doer. The work may be the same, but each “you” who does the work is unique. And the self that emerges from a lifetime of experience is unlike any other self-made by God. It is not what we do that passes into eternity, but who we become by doing. And who we finally are is the living deposit of each day’s doing, either in the light of the Word of God or the twilight of the word of man.

Only when we have an authentic and accurate understanding of human work in both its objective and its subjective dimensions can we properly ground the pivotal, structural questions about the economic, social, and political environments within which that work is pursued. And only when we have all these elements properly related can we hope to have a theory of work that is truly dignified.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.