Honor in the Task

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Americans are often contrasted with Europeans by the way we take work seriously. We identify with our jobs, not our inheritances or our noble ancestry. Often the first question we are asked when we meet somebody is “What do you do?” which is shorthand for “Who are you?” We connect the working life to human dignity. For us, as Tocqueville noted long ago, jobs may be easy or hard, well paid or poorly paid, but every kind of honest work is honorable. We are a country that honors work.

But it was not always so. And perhaps it might not always be so, which is the danger.


The first century of our existence was marked by slavery, which cast a dark shadow over many things, including the dignity of labor. Among its many wrongs, slavery made work dishonorable, something for respectable people of advantage to avoid.

U.S. Senator James Henry Hammond from South Carolina, more honest and more cutting than most defenders of slavery, freely admitted that slavery was oppressive. But he challenged slavery’s opponents to find any social system that was not. What about the mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts? Was this freedom?

The Civil War soaked the ground in blood, but it was also a war of ideas. The ideal of union, though powerful, was not enough. It was also necessary to say what the union was for, which in the fullness of time required rejecting slavery. The rejection of slavery, in turn, required another idea: the affirmation of work.

The rejection of slavery required another idea: the affirmation of work.

There are two essential ingredients to the work ethic: devotion to a practice and contribution to society. The most obvious point in favor of free labor is that it is free, but this argument would not satisfy the likes of Senator Hammond, who thought that wage work was oppressive because it was assented to against a background of poverty and desperation. A real choice requires real options, and options are exactly what most workers lack.

In the years just before his ascent to the presidency and the country’s descent into civil war, Abraham Lincoln tried to work out an answer to this problem. Against Hammond’s image of the American economy—one filled with impoverished wage laborers in the North and oppressed slaves in the South—Lincoln emphasized that it is wrong to think all workers are either hired laborers or slaves and thus oppressed. Most are neither hired laborers nor slaves, but instead work for themselves. Nor is where you start where you end. Many start out laboring for others, but eventually they come to buy their own tools, own their own land, and work for themselves. This opportunity to advance to a condition of independence is what could fund, in Lincoln’s view, a true work ethic. Opportunity makes work compelling.

Work—at least the right kind of work—activates a vast collection of human powers. It concentrates the mind, engages the heart, and directs the body. In this way, work is worthy of people who see themselves as dignified, free, and equal.


In Lincoln’s day, it might have made sense to imagine an economy of farmers and artisans filled with the hope of becoming their own bosses. A century and a half later, this image remains compelling yet less realistic. In the modern economy, most depend on employers, not only for their livelihoods but also for their health insurance. Where the farmer of the nineteenth century worked the earth and where the artisan worked materials into more useful forms, today we are more likely to work each other, managing our reputation in elaborate hierarchies that stack managers upon managers, where no single person can point to something at the end of the day and say, “I did that.”

The dream of escaping the web of interdependence and becoming your own boss survives, but mostly in fantasy form.

Work is always a virtue for the citizens of a free society. To remain free, we need to do what we can to avoid making ourselves a burden on our fellow citizens. So we work, but perhaps without a work ethic. To be sure, many people—80 percent, according to polls—feel their own work is meaningful and identify with it. Yet recent evidence suggests that job satisfaction is declining, especially among young workers in their twenties and thirties. What marks these young people is not that they reject the conventional values affirmed by their parents but that they have trouble locating any compelling purpose. They do not reject the work ethic as unhappy or pointless, as did the romantic rebels of the 1960s. Instead, they neither affirm nor reject, but drift without a purpose.

Lincoln emphasized that it is wrong to think all workers are either hired laborers or slaves and either way are oppressed.

The inability to locate purpose in the world of work may seem strange to some who see the point of work so clearly that it would seem to require no interpretation or argument. The point of work is quite simple in this view: to make us safe in an unsafe world.

As work promises to keep us safe, it also points beyond need to something finer: luxury. Elemental needs may be satisfied, but wants never end. As soon as one is satisfied, a new (and more expensive one) grows up to take its place. Even Ben Franklin, that archetype of the work ethic, had a taste for luxury: after he experienced some success as a printer, he traded in his earthenware bowls for China dishes. Unlike natural excellence, luxury is open to anyone who works, earns, and saves—and finds a little luck. But luck comes most to those who work. Because we might make our own luck, the work ethic possesses a hopeful and optimistic cast. Free labor, as Lincoln said, “opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”

Work gets its reason from wants and desires almost no one can escape. Seen this way, work is natural: it is what we do because we are what we are. Does work really need an ethic? Should we really need fancy purposes to experience work as meaningful?

Anyone can appreciate the traditional purposes of work—security, comfort, and luxury. Yet solid though they are, standing alone they threaten to undercut the dignity of work. The traditional purposes of work ultimately suggest that the good life is an escape from work.

For those who lack trust funds, connections, and other safety nets, the habit of work is the most practical virtue they can possess.

A true work ethic does not merely ratify the traditional approach of work but transforms it. The Protestant ethic overturned the traditional approach to work by connecting work not with worldly goods like security and wealth but with salvation. In the Protestant ethic, work is commanded by God and—this was the radical part—God’s command touches all socially useful and honest labors, regardless of their social status. The farmer and the statesman each have their work to do, and each kind of work is equally important. Leveling distinctions, the Protestant ethic acknowledges a democracy of work: all work has dignity. And all work has a point, which is to create a community that exemplifies God’s teachings. Skills are not tools one gets to gain advantage over others, but they are gifts, meant to be deployed for purposes larger than our own.

This connecting of work to purposes larger than ourselves is what equipped the Protestant ethic to invest all useful and honest work with meaning. And this is what the work ethic in its contemporary form still requires. To work from an ethic (rather than simply from need or vainglorious desire) is to work with a view to excellence. It means cultivating our own gifts, activating our full powers, and giving them focus. The Protestant ethic connected work not with worldly goods like security and wealth but with salvation. The purpose of work was larger than the worker, and that’s what gave it dignity.

There are two essential ingredients to the work ethic: devotion to a practice and contribution to society. No doubt, for many kinds of work these two ingredients will be hard to locate. Job roles that have been stripped of their skills, their discretion, their variety, and their responsibility offer little scope for developing excellence. In addition to the de-skilling of jobs, bureaucratic structures that fragment jobs into infinitely small pieces can make it difficult to detect how our own work contributes to anything outside the organization in which it is nested. The cartoon Dilbert and the television sitcom The Office hardly exaggerate the pointlessness that work comes to possess when it is disconnected from the larger world and takes its bearings only in response to managerial whims.

It is not the case that a work ethic makes sense regardless of what you work at. By their sheer scale, advanced industrial economies threaten to make the work ethic irrelevant in the worst way—by making it quaint.


But it is not quite quaint yet, and it would distort our experience to claim that work today is wholly unworthy of a work ethic. The builder, the teacher, the counselor, the banker, the mechanic, the nurse, the engineer, and countless other occupations all involve an understanding of what it means to be good at the job, and how the job contributes to the larger world.

To improve the quality of work where it is deficient, we have to be capable of recognizing the value of work where it is sufficient to support a work ethic. This means asking the right questions about work, especially our own work. The questions central to the work ethic are: “What kind of excellence of skill does doing this work develop?” and “How does this work contribute to the larger world?” If we bundle those two questions together, we could simply ask, “Why might this work be called good work?” To be able to answer those questions is to “give an account” of one’s work.

Perhaps for many of us, time is too scarce and the pressures of everyday life too unremitting to bother with giving an account. And perhaps it is not necessary. A mechanic has a job to do—figure out what’s killing the car’s battery!—and no one wants to pay his mechanic $90 per hour to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Giving an account requires distance and time that few can afford.

Yet if it is right that young people are finding it increasingly difficult to map their own sense of purpose onto the world of work, it is more imperative that the older generation take the time to give an account, to think through what might make their work good work. Many have learned how to find meaning in their work—by quietly subverting small-minded managerial control, by focusing on what is really important, by consciously mastering skills that are of more general use in life, by learning how to cooperate and work together, and by daring to invest something of their unrepeatable spirit in their daily labors.

Transmitting all this learning to the young will not happen automatically. Market forces, left to their own devices, might sooner dissolve the work ethic than sustain it. Passing along the work ethic to those who are finding their way in the world of work for the first time will require giving an account of our own work, more explicitly and more honestly than has been the custom.

The work ethic is not without its critical edge; after all, it makes the traditional purposes of work seem insufficient. Yet on its vitality depends the honor of work, and more fundamentally, the equal respect characteristic of a democratic culture.