A Philosopher's Blog

Is Work a Blessing?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2013
English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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11 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Work, like life, is a blessing.

    What sort of work we do, and what sort of life we live, can be either a blessing or a curse.

    Adam worked in the Garden before the Fall.

    The curse was that his labor would no longer be fruitful… that the ground would only produce thorns and thistles.

    This curse was lifted after the Flood, when God told Noah he would never again curse the ground, and that the earth would be fruitful for as long as the earth remained.

    Before the Fall:

    “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

    After the Fall:

    “And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

    After the Flood:

    “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22)

  2. magus71 said, on October 7, 2013 at 11:12 am

    As a Christian, I must disagree with AJ.

    Socialism is an attempt, in my opinion, by Man to escape the first curse of God. The curse of toil and labor to feed himself.

    “Because you have listened to what your wife said, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground because of you. You’ll eat from it through pain-filled labor for the rest of your life.”~Genesis 3:17

    Attempts by men to circumvent nature have inevitably resulted in bad things, even when “logic” cannot cannot figure out exactly why this is.

    Note, too, that woman was given a curse. And man has tried, with disastrous results, to circumvent these curses.

    “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”~Genesis 3:16

    Feminism tries to destroy the curse of husbands ruling wives. The fruit of this is that many men and women find it nearly impossible to have a relationship of any sort; men and women hate each other now. Women have also tried to circumvent the curse of child birth, through birth control, the mythology of over population, and of course, abortion.

    Yeah, i know. It’s all Christian mumbo-jumbo mysticism to some. But I believe it.

    • magus71 said, on October 7, 2013 at 11:23 am

      The liberal attempts at circumventing the immortal curses of life almost always make the curses worse. Still, this doesn’t take away from the fact that work sucks, mostly because people suck.

  3. WTP said, on October 7, 2013 at 11:23 am

    If you want to eat, be clothed, and have shelter, SOMEONE has to do the work to provide those things. It’s a simple fact of life. No religion, political philosophy, nor any other form of sitting-n-thinkin will change this situation.

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 8, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Work is not a curse: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) “Work”: abad: to work, serve; Original Word: עָבַד – See: http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/5647.htm

  5. T. J. Babson said, on October 8, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    “In Praise of Idleness,” by Bertrand Russell:

    Let us, for a moment, consider the ethics of work frankly, without superstition. Every human being, of necessity, consumes, in the course of his life, a certain amount of the produce of human labor. Assuming, as we may, that labor is on the whole disagreeable, it is unjust that a man should consume more than he produces. Of course he may provide services rather than commodities, like a medical man, for example; but he should provide something in return for his board and lodging. to this extent, the duty of work must be admitted, but to this extent only.

    I shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside the USSR, many people escape even this minimum amount of work, namely all those who inherit money and all those who marry money. I do not think the fact that these people are allowed to be idle is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or starve.

    If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure. In America men often work long hours even when they are well off; such men, naturally, are indignant at the idea of leisure for wage-earners, except as the grim punishment of unemployment; in fact, they dislike leisure even for their sons. Oddly enough, while they wish their sons to work so hard as to have no time to be civilized, they do not mind their wives and daughters having no work at all. the snobbish admiration of uselessness, which, in an aristocratic society, extends to both sexes, is, under a plutocracy, confined to women; this, however, does not make it any more in agreement with common sense.

    The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.

    In the new creed which controls the government of Russia, while there is much that is very different from the traditional teaching of the West, there are some things that are quite unchanged. The attitude of the governing classes, and especially of those who conduct educational propaganda, on the subject of the dignity of labor, is almost exactly that which the governing classes of the world have always preached to what were called the ‘honest poor’. Industry, sobriety, willingness to work long hours for distant advantages, even submissiveness to authority, all these reappear; moreover authority still represents the will of the Ruler of the Universe, Who, however, is now called by a new name, Dialectical Materialism.

    http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

    There is lots more.

  6. Russel Ray Photos said, on October 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    My wise old grandmother always told me that when I found work that I enjoyed, it would no longer be work. She was so right.

    • WTP said, on October 13, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      I don’t believe that for a minute. Pelosi and Biden would have killed you by now.


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