(Roughly) Daily

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life”*…

Your correspondent is headed into another period of turbulence– travel, talk, meetings– this one, a little longer than the last; so (Roughly) Daily is about to go into another hiatus. Regular service should resume on or around October 8.

If only it were so easy… There is always a demand for more jobs. But what makes a job good? Tyler Re suggests that Kant has an answer…

Work is no longer working for us. Or, for most of us anyway. Citing lack of pay and promotion, more people are quitting their jobs now than at any time in the past 20 years. This is no surprise, considering that ‘real wages’ – the average hourly rate adjusted for inflation – for non-managers just three years ago was the same as it was in the early 1970s. At the same time, the increasing prominence of gig work has turned work from a steady ‘climb’ of the ladder into a precarious ‘hustle.’

The United States Department of Labor identifies a ‘good job’ as one with fair hiring practices, comprehensive benefits, formal equality of opportunity, job security and a culture in which workers are valued. In a similar UK report on the modern labour market called ‘Good Work’ (2017), Matthew Taylor and his colleagues emphasise workplace rights and fair treatment, opportunities for promotion, and ‘good reward schemes’. Finally, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has two sections on work. They cite the free choice of employment and organization, fair and equal pay, and sufficient leisure time as rights of workers.

What all three of these accounts have in common is that they focus on features of jobs – the agreement you make with your boss to perform labour – rather than on the labour itself. The fairness of your boss, the length of your contract, the growth of your career – these specify nothing about the quality of the labour you perform. And yet it is the labour itself that we spend all day doing. The most tedious and unpleasant work could still pay a high salary, but we might not want to call such work ‘good’. (Only a brief mention is made in the Taylor report – which totals more than 100 pages – of the idea that workers ought to have some autonomy in how they perform their job, or that work ought not be tedious or repetitive.) This is not to say that the extrinsic aspects of work like pay and benefits are unimportant; of course, a good job is one that pays enough. But what about work’s intrinsic goods? Is there anything about the process of working itself that we ought to include in our list of criteria, or should we all be content with a life of high-paying drudgery?

Philosophers try to answer this question by giving a definition of work. Since definitions tell us what is essential or intrinsic to a thing, a definition of work would tell us whether there is anything intrinsic to work that we want our good jobs to promote. The most common definition of work in Western thought, found in nearly every period with recorded writing on the subject, is that work is inherently disagreeable and instrumentally valuable. It is disagreeable because it is an expenditure of energy (contrast this with leisure), and it is instrumentally valuable because we care only about the products of our labour, not the process of labouring itself. On this view, work has little to recommend it, and we would do better to minimise our time spent doing it. A theory of work based on this definition would probably say that good jobs pay a lot (in exchange for work’s disagreeableness) and are performed for as little time as possible.

But this is not the only definition at our disposal. Tucked away in two inconspicuous paragraphs of his book about beauty, the Critique of Judgment (1790), is Immanuel Kant’s definition of work. In a section called ‘On Art in General’, Kant gives a definition of art (Kunst in German) as a subset of our more general capacity for ‘skill’ or ‘craft’ (note that Kant’s definition should not be limited to the fine arts like poetry or painting, which is schöne Künste in German, which he addresses in the following section of the book). In other words, Kant defines art as a particular kind of skilled labour. Kant’s definition of art as skilled labour will direct us to the intrinsic features of work that we ought to include in our conception of good jobs…

Read on: “Freedom at Work,” in @aeonmag.

* Mark Twain


As we center satisfaction, we might recall that on this date in 1908, at the at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, “Model T 001”– the first production Model T– rolled off the line.  Generally regarded as the first mass-produced/mass-affordable automobile, it made car travel available to middle-class Americans– and became the avatar of assembly-line production and the type of jobs that it produces.

(On May 26, 1927, Henry Ford watched the 15 millionth Model T Ford roll off the assembly line at his factory in Highland Park, Michigan.)

1908 Ford Model T ad (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 27, 2023 at 1:00 am