In a previous post, I fleshed out what I believe to be a Theology of Work rooted in seeing systemic narratives that end in the dehumanizing worship of the “cult of Mammon” give way in favor of work that offers flourishing both for the individual and for the common good.
In this post, I’d like to switch hats and wrestle with the idea of work from a philosophical lens.
I’ve recently been wrestling through this question: Is there a difference between doing good work and doing work that is Good?
Of course, I believe that there is.
In my Theology of Work post, I grappled with what I see as a problem when Christians describe a “theology of work” that focuses merely on putting good, honest, hard-working “believers” into jobs as “witnesses” (though this may not be a bad thing) precisely because of the question I posed above. Though they may be doing good work, if the work they are doing is not Good (“Good” with a capital “G” in the sense that its aims are praiseworthy, beautiful, flourishing, providing dignity, ending oppression and marginalization, etc.) than they may unwillingly be complicit in legitimating and replicating larger narratives that are not Good (work whose ends are oppressive, unjust, demoralizing and/or dehumanizing).
The most chilling example of this is Adolph Eichmann, the unassuming, hard-working, loyal, honest, diligent, efficient and highly effective overseer of the Final Solution. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt describes this top-Nazi not as an evil, maniacal, brilliant mastermind, but, shockingly, as a man who was incapable of thinking beyond his role, a man whose humdrum life was lived without any great significance, a normal man who did not possess any great hatred for the Jews, who prided himself on his work ethic and sense of duty; in short, the ideal “company man.”
The problem, of course, was that the “company” was Nazi Socialism.
Now, that certainly is the extreme case study, but it does go to show how the ends matter; that no matter how good the work may be, if the work itself is not Good (right, true, beautiful, praiseworthy, producing wholeness, blessing, virtue, shalom), then even the most mundane, banal work can be “evil,” as Arendt suggests.
Aristotle discusses this in what he calls the telos or ends towards which we aim. If the teleology is off, then it does not matter how hard we work, or how important our title, or impressive our corner office, nor does it matter (in the long run) that we come to work sporting a positive attitude “with a smile on our faces” (again, no matter how “good” the work may be); what may ultimately matter in ultimate ways is whether or not the work itself is Good.
When I think about the philosophy of work, I turn to Lawrence Hinman and his book titled, Ethics, which gives us the metaphor of health as the benchmark for morality in this way:
“Morality is a lot like nutrition. We cannot avoid confronting moral problems because acting in ways that affect the well-being of ourselves and others is as unavoidable as acting in ways that affect our physical health…both are concerned with good health. Ethics has a corresponding focus on our moral health. It seeks to help us determine what will nourish our moral life and what will poison it.”
The questions with which I wrestle in this discussion are at the deeper, narrative level (knowing, of course, that most of us are doing well just to make a living). Questions such as: Does the work shape ends that are healthy morally, culturally, socially, relationally? Does the work promote human and communal flourishing? Does the job to which I give most of my waking hours promote and affirm dignity for others? Or does it, in the end, perpetuate systemic oppression, injustice, demoralization and dehumanization? And, more personally, if I find myself in work whose ends are not Good, what (if anything) should I do about it?
To me, then, there is no “neutral” work. Take your average drive-thru fast food chain. They might say, “Hey, we are not doing immoral work on the scale of the Final Solution. We are just serving burgers and shakes and providing jobs and paying taxes. Give us a break!”
Perhaps, but, if the goal is full health (flourishing) in all things, and the owner of said drive-thru chains were a person either concerned with theology or moral philosophy, he/she might want to consider first the obvious question of whether or not those burgers and shakes promoted physical health, whether or not their employees were paid a wage that allowed them to live lives of dignity, what their stated mission is (to make money or to bring about eudaimonia–well-being in all things), what dominates discussions at board meetings, what they feel they owe their “shareholders,” what they viewed as their responsibility to the marginalized and voiceless in the community, etc.
If the drive-thru owner (or employee, for that matter) felt that the answers to these questions raised more questions than answers in their work, perhaps said owner/employee might feel that shutting down one more burger and shake joint in order to give their lives to work that ushered in full human flourishing was a better way to spend their 9-5 day. Perhaps they might give themselves to shaping better stories both for themselves and for their world.
**Thoughts?? Use the comment section below to continue the conversation!