The dignity of work: a surprising point of division


By Jonathan Malesic

Every American, it seems, believes in the dignity of work. Americans overwhelmingly see ourselves as hardworking, attesting to the value they place on work. Rival politicians like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Sherrod Brown all make appeal to the dignity of work in in addressing voters. At first glance, this seems to be a widely-shared belief, rare in our era of political and ethical polarization.

The trouble is that once we look more carefully, it becomes clear that we don’t agree about what the dignity of work means. Do we mean that all work has dignity for all workers? Is there such thing as an undignified wage, or undignified working conditions? Do people earn dignity solely through work, or do they already have dignity before they ever work a day in their lives? Can belief in the dignity of work lead us to overlook the suffering that workers endure on the job?

Because the words “dignity of work” resonate so well with Americans, they hold great potential for anyone who talks about the connection between faith and work. But in talking about the dignity of work, we need to be clear about what we mean. Accounts of the dignity of work affect both the ways we recommend that individuals approach their work and the policies affecting workers that we suggest governments and employers adopt. Without clarity, we can end up in a conceptual muddle, our arguments undone by unanticipated disagreement.

I care about clarity on this point because I want to see more dialogue about faith and work across ecclesial and ideological lines. As a Catholic and someone who is skeptical about the spiritual merits of the American work ethic, I am outside the major intellectual circle of the faith and work movement. But this movement is one of the few places reflecting on the relationship between work and spirituality at all. We all stand to gain from dialogue across lines of differing commitment.

There are at least three ways to think about the dignity of work. First, dignity may be intrinsic to the act of working. Work, even solitary work, elevates the person as he or she applies effort and skill to a task that has an effect on the world. Second, dignity may be conferred on the person by his or her community, in recognition for the usefulness of his or her work. You gain dignity as the community esteems your service as an architect or cashier or truck driver. (I have found the work of the sociologist Allison Pugh very helpful in understanding these two models of dignity.)

Each of these first two models gets something important right. But I believe that a third model is essential to thinking about the dignity of work theologically. On this model, work has dignity because the worker already has dignity as a person. Because you have inherent dignity, you lend dignity to your work. You cannot lose this dignity, even once you cease working. Even if you never work – due, for example, to disability – you retain that dignity.

Like other key theological notions of work, this idea has its roots in Genesis. Before God ever gives human beings something to do, he creates them in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). And God is dignified (indeed, holy) not because he works, but by his very nature. It’s true, according to Genesis, that God gave the first human a specific task: “to till and keep” the garden (Genesis 2:15). But even in that account, the man was created even before there was a garden (Genesis 2:7). Human existence – human dignity – is metaphysically prior to human labor.

In Catholic reflection on labor, a key implication of this view of dignity of work is that workers deserve pay and conditions commensurate with their God-given dignity. Pope Leo XIII, writing in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, argues on this basis for a living wage, limits on work hours based on the physical difficulty of the work, a right to organize, and a right to appeal to public authorities for a range of reasons, including “if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings.”

This optimistic view of human nature does not mean that Leo has forgotten Genesis 3. But he reads it compassionately, seeing in it a further justification for workers’ rights. As a result of sin, work is humanity’s means of getting what we need to survive. Work that pays too little is therefore an affront to human life.

A staunch defender of free markets would likely disagree with every word in the previous two paragraphs. But he or she would agree on some level. We all say the same words: “the dignity of work.” With greater focus on what we mean by those words, we may be able to figure out where, and why, we part company with our dialogue partners.

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas. He was formerly a theology professor and a parking lot attendant. He is currently writing book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.

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