THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Dignity of Work or Labor v. Human Dignity

Earlier this week, Catholic World Report, a webzine, ran an article, “Nonessential Workers” and the Essential Dignity of Work.”  Reading through the article, there seemed to be some confusion about different types of work, and even work as work, as well as the concept of dignity.  It seemed to paint the situation as a single issue in black and white, while in reality it is a number of issues that get into some very gray areas.

"I'll screw up your economy the right way!"
First off, one of the confusions regarding the dignity of labor these days is that it has become inextricably entwined with purely economic work, and often people aren’t too sure whether “labor” is a dehumanizing term for human workers, or a humanizing term for work.  Add to that is that one of the basic principles of Keynesian economics is that only a “job” entitles someone to income.  It doesn’t have to be productive work, as long as it’s a job for which someone is paid.
In fact, under certain circumstances (according to Keynes), it is better that the job consist of doing something completely unproductive, just to generate income (“effective demand”) to clear existing production.  As his lordship said,
When involuntary unemployment exists, the marginal disutility of labour is necessarily less than the utility of the marginal product. Indeed it may be much less. For a man who has been long unemployed some measure of labour, instead of involving disutility, may have a positive utility. If this is accepted, the above reasoning shows how “wasteful” loan expenditure may nevertheless enrich the community on balance. Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better. . . .
If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.  (John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936),
Work has no dignity.  Workers do.
In other words, Who cares what you’re doing as long as you get paid?  By that standard, a heart surgeon and an abortionist are of equal dignity, for they are both doing “jobs.”  Even someone who is paid to do nothing is contributing to society in the Keynesian Universe, because he is “stimulating demand.”
Obviously, there is some confusion here due to the fact that work qua work has no dignity.  It’s just work.  That’s all.  It’s only when the work is 1) worth doing, and 2) done by human labor that “the dignity of labor” (not “dignity of work”) enters into the equation.
And that leads to another little confusion: What do you mean by “dignity of labor”?  Do you mean that labor qua labor has inherent dignity?  Or that human labor has dignity due to its inherent link to the human person?
You see where this is going.  The “dignity of labor” (as opposed to the dignity of work) implicitly assumes that 1) some work is better than other work, and 2) it has dignity only because of labor’s inherent link to the human person.
The logical end of Keynesian economics;
That being the case, we necessarily conclude that, 3) a job performed only for the income it generates or that results in a harmful good or service actually violates human dignity.  You would otherwise be forced to draw the ridiculous conclusion that a well-paid, fed, housed, and clothed guard at Auschwitz had his human dignity respected, while a member of the Polish underground working without pay, starving, dressed in rags, and living in a hole in the ground had no dignity.
The problem is that if you restrict most people to wage system jobs as their primary or sole source of income, you are fostering the belief that human beings are only valued for their labor.  If people can’t “work,” then they are worthless, “useless eaters” for not producing.
In modern academic (and thus political) logic, this translates into the presumed need for “job creation” solely for the purpose of obtaining sufficient income.  “Job creation,” however, does not enhance human dignity; nothing, in fact, is more degrading to human dignity than to be forced to do a “job” that is unnecessary merely to obtain income.  Doing so ties someone down to meaningless labor and prevents him or her from the real work of acquiring and developing virtue and becoming more fully human.
This is what Aristotle called “leisure work,” or the work of civilization and personal growth.  “Job creation,” on the other hand, smacks of the sorts of tasks invented to keep slaves busy to justify feeding them until they’re really needed.
So, if work per se has no dignity, and labor only has a sort of dignity as a result of its inherent connection to the human person, does the dignity of the human person really require a “job” to give life meaning and for someone to realize his or her innate human dignity?
Or is there another way?  That is what we will look at in the next posting on this subject.