The Inherent Value of Work (Part 1)

Work has value beyond the paycheck that comes every other week. Those of us writing about faith and work have written about that fact for years. It is important, however, that we argue about the goodness of work with value terminology that provides a range of meaning sufficient to differentiate between different types of value.

Many people, when writing about value, differentiate between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Intrinsic value is defined as value that is native to an object or process apart from its usefulness for a practical purpose. A work of art is said to have intrinsic value because of its beauty that transcends its potential usefulness. Instrumental value is generally defined as value due to the utility of an object or process. Thus, a shovel has instrumental value in helping dig a hole, and my job has instrumental value evidenced by the paycheck that shows up in my bank account.

The faith and work movement tends to use the term intrinsic when referring to work because we are trying to help people to see the value of vocation and employment beyond the bank balance. Sometimes the word inherent is used interchangeably. The intent is good, but this has the potential to flatten our understanding of the world and mask the ethical complexity of work. The faith and work discussion would be richer and more helpful if we separated the unique, absolute value of God (intrinsic) from the contingent, subjective value of properly oriented goods apart from their material utility (inherent).

The Problem with Intrinsic Value

As Christ followers, we should value God above all created things. The Trinity is in a unique category of being: uncreated, eternal, self-existent, and limitless in value. When we ascribe intrinsic value to parts of the creation, we create a problem of vocabulary for adequately describing God’s goodness.

God’s value is not merely distinct in quantity, but in its quality. That is, God is good in a way that is different from the created order. His “wholly otherness” is the reason why Christ’s condescension to be incarnated is amazing. Our value language should try to approximate the distinctions between ultimate, eternal goods and penultimate, created goods. This is not a problem unique to the concept of work.

One of the problems with labeling work as intrinsically valuable is that it can make ethical decisions about competing good vocations seem arbitrary. If taking care of one’s children and going to the office are both objectively good in the same way, then a father is reduced to making decisions between those vocations on instrumental grounds. Inherent value, which is contingent, can help navigate between such competing goods.

Finding a Solution in Inherent Value

For philosopher C. I. Lewis, intrinsic value is “that which is good in itself or good for its own sake.” (An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation [La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1946], p. 382) Distinct from that category, inherent values are “those values which are resident in objects in such wise that they are realizable in experience through presentation to the object itself to which they are attributed.” (p. 391) Inherent value is subjective and contingent.

Lewis distinguished both of these categories from instrumental value, which depends upon the object’s material utility. An atheist, he denied that any object has intrinsic value. However, his vocabulary is potentially useful as Christians in the faith and work movement attempt to navigate explanations of the variegated goods we experience, as long as we add back in the category of intrinsic value as ascribed to God.

In this terminology, only the Trinity would have intrinsic value. Applying our particularly Christian framework, objects or actions with inherent value would be those that serve the purpose of glorifying God. The category of instrumental value would remain consistent with our present usage. Objects may have a degree of inherent and instrumental value simultaneously, but they will never have intrinsic value.

Inherent Value in Practice

It would be unfair to critique past usages of the word intrinsic to mean something the author did not intend. Popular usage will likely continue to use inherent and intrinsic as synonyms. However, prior uses of terminology should not discourage us from making better distinctions in the future.

For those involved in writing for the faith and work movement, enabling a distinction in meaning between the creator and creation could help differentiate between good work and bad work—that is, work that honors God and that which does not. Reconsidering our terminology can help us recognize the ethical complexities of work.

When we describe work as intrinsically good, what we typically mean is work that is properly oriented toward God. Already within the supposedly objective category of intrinsic value, we begin to carve out subjective exceptions. Work can be very good, but it is inexact to describe it as absolutely so.

There are forms of work (e.g., prostitution) that are irredeemably deformed. Bad work may have instrumental value (i.e., it may provide a paycheck), but it cannot glorify God because of its nature. The work itself lacks objective or intrinsic value.

Similarly, good work that is done with improper motivation also fails to glorify God and thus lacks intrinsic value. A mother who cares for her children for her own self-glorification may do good work for a bad motive. Her work does not have intrinsic value, however excellent the mechanics of her efforts. In fact, in this case, her work would have only instrumental value. However, if a mother does her mothering well with good motive, it can be said to have inherent value in the eyes of God, even if it is done imperfectly or does not produce the desired results.

The value of work in the eyes of God is always dependent upon the worker’s motive and character, not simply the work itself. I’ll have more to say in another post.

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