Labor, Virtue, and the Good Life

Many scholars find that today, people value labor and career as central to one’s life and identity more so than they have in the past. Hannah Arendt diagnosed the contemporary world in 1958 as made up of “societies of laborers and jobholders” whose lives largely revolve around labor that provides the necessities of life. Andrew Delbanco, in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, recognizes that universities have transitioned from institutions tasked with forming well-rounded citizens and people of character to institutions primarily designed to help students in the job market after graduation. James Livingston points out in No More Work that one of the uniting features of conservative and liberal politicians is their desire to pursue full employment, even though not economically necessary. Josef Pieper contends that modern society emphasizes labor to such a high degree that an adequate amount of time is not dedicated to leisure and the contemplation of other higher aspects of life.

While these accounts of labor differ to some degree in their approaches and conclusions, they are all related in that they recognize the centrality of labor in modern society and provide normative commentary on why this centrality is negative. Indeed, each account finds that the particularly high priority placed on labor somehow misses something about ultimate purpose and what is ultimately fulfilling in life. However, while these accounts indicate labor’s centrality and the history of labor’s ascendance to its current esteemed position, none provide a full account of how changes in moral values might have allowed these attitudinal changes to take place. Moreover, because these accounts do not fully address the role that moral values play in understanding attitudes toward labor, they ultimately do not succeed in giving a positive account for how to change these attitudes that they collectively agree are harmful.

Here, I hope to demonstrate how the erosion of virtue and the idea of a shared telos  helps to explain the changing attitudes toward labor found throughout the history of political thought and in the present day. (By “shared telos,” I refer to the idea that humans according to their nature have an end that is desired for its own sake. This end, by Aristotle’s account, is eudaimonia, a state of doing and being well and actualizing our human capacities. In order to for this to occur, people perfect their virtues, which are “precisely those qualities the possession of which will enable an individual to achieve eudaimonia.” Virtue ethics is objective, since eudaimonia is a telos or end that can be ascertained by reason. By pursuing this end, humans pursue the “good life,” or the life of eudaimonia achieved by acquiring these virtues). Below, I suggest that the disappearance of virtue ethics and an objective conception of the good life contribute to an increasing role of labor in society’s conception of an ultimate meaning and purpose in life. Adopting an Aristotelian teleological framework could provide a solution to the aggrandizement of labor that the above authors recognize. Two thinkers who especially contribute here are Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntyre.

In her work The Human Condition, Arendt explores the different sorts of pursuits that make up human life. One of these pursuits, labor, she defines as the activity necessary for sustaining life. Labor exists so that people have the resources needed for other higher pursuits; labor is simply a means to other more important ends. Labor was most clearly viewed in this way by the ancients, especially Aristotle. The ancients, she explains, saw life’s meaning and expression actualized not when laboring but when living freely in the polis. The “good life” was one fulfilled apart from labor (though labor provided the initial resources necessary in order to pursue the good life). By this, we find that the ancient view of labor is one that holds it as a necessary but insufficient means of pursuing the good life.

In modern day, the ancient view of labor has been stripped down in a way that elevates labor’s role. Arendt recognizes that modern communities are now “societies of laborers and jobholders” working “for the sake of life and nothing else.” Now, rather than pursuing some conception of the good life apart from their labor, people labor simply for life’s sake. People seem to lose a general, objective conception of the good life and simply pursue life and continued existence. As a result, labor under the modern conception becomes a necessary and sufficient means of pursuing life.

What does the Aristotelian conception consist of, and how has it come to be abandoned in modern thinking about labor? Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue provides some resources to answer this question. In his work, he traces the changing conceptions of morality from the objective virtue ethics of Aristotle to the present-day “emotivist” theories of morality which hold that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” Living in accordance with virtue is what constitutes the good life, as conceived by the ancients. This ethical framework came under attack largely due to disagreement with Aristotle’s metaphysics and understanding of human nature. With this came disagreement about the content of humans’ telos or whether such a telos grounded in human nature exists at all. Post-Aristotelian moral theories over time abandoned the claim that man has certain natural, objective ends with which to orient himself and his actions. The abandonment of this objective grounding led to moral frameworks that essentially rely on subjective feeling. As a result, abandoning the Aristotelian ethical framework necessarily meant also abandoning an overarching conception of the good life. After all, once morality is defined by what each person judges to be best based simply on subjective experience there can no longer be a universal standard by which to judge what a good life would be.

Taking Arendt and MacIntyre’s accounts together, we can see that the ancient view of labor saw labor as necessary but insufficient for the good life because it only provided the means of sustenance, but not the means by which to achieve eudaimonia. Achieving this is only possible with the time and resources to cultivate virtue. While labor helps one to reach the state at which he has the time and leisure to cultivate virtue, labor alone does not provide such cultivation. By contrast, the modern conception of labor requires the displacement of the importance of virtue. If labor is to be seen as necessary and sufficient for fulfillment, there is no place for a conception of the good life and the virtue required for reaching it.

Abandoning the Aristotelian conception of the good life meant that, in order for shared political life to continue, we needed something else that was common to all of us together to supply our lives with the purpose and goal that virtue was essential for attaining. Because labor is something that everyone needs in order to live, it took over the role that virtue once had and became the common factor that gave life in the political community meaning and purpose. Arendt notes that “all activities indeed find their common denominator in laboring.” Since this common denominator is something which we all share, it supplants what was once considered constitutive of our shared telos. Furthermore, we find indications of a similar sentiment in writers such as Karl Marx, who sees labor as a common defining feature of our humanity. Notably, Marx breaks with a long history that distinguished humans based on their capacity for reason and instead suggests that humans are different from the animals not for “the fact that they think but the fact that they begin to produce their means of subsistence” through labor.

Still, it seems that there now exists a sense of entrapment within the confines of the modern conception of labor because of the increasing blurring of needs and desires. As Arendt argues, much of the expansion of labor’s role is a result of superfluous desires that come to be seen as needs. Arendt recognizes the continual blurring of needs and desires and goes so far as to speak of a “grave danger that eventually no object of the world will be safe from consumption” and being seen as a need, whether or not that object is actually necessary for sustaining one’s life. In other words, the strength of our desires keeps growing, and therefore so too does the role of labor. This process can be partially attributed, again, to the shift from a virtue ethical framework to one grounded in subjectivity. The Aristotelian framework provides some objective standard by which to judge the goodness and necessity of things for achieving our human ends. By contrast, a framework reliant only upon the feelings and subjective experience of individuals provides no such standard. Instead, it enables the process by which our attitudes and preferences are determinative of how we should act and what we should seek. As long as the modern conception of labor remains fully intact, it seems that the “grave danger” Arendt speaks of could very well become reality.

In short, understanding the purpose and role of labor in modern society (and what this purpose and role should be) is an issue of great and increasing importance. As many argue, the modern increase of labor’s importance carries with it a number of implications, including shifting educational priorities, an overworked population, and a deep-seated sense of meaninglessness and unhappiness. If we are to understand and change how we view labor, it is imperative to grapple with the underlying values motivating these attitudes and understand the consequences of maintaining or changing these values.

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