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How to save the value of productive work

Toward the end of his interview on Elucidations, Greg Salmieri [S.] argues against Aristotle’s view that some of our life-activities are intrinsically valuable apart from the whole they constitute, in order to make room for valuing productive work alongside the candidates Aristotle himself prefers. This raises a question about Aristotle and a worry about S.’s own view.

The question is this: what was Aristotle’s criterion for distinguishing the intrinsically valuable activities from the rest? The answer lies in the function argument of Nicomachean Ethics I.7. Aristotle argues there (to a first approximation) that our activities have intrinsic value when they express our characteristic nature, which is rational. So the intrinsically valuable activities just are the essentially rational activities, among which are contemplation and exercising practical wisdom. These are then the candidates for the governing activity of a happy human life.

But even if we think that Aristotle should have been (or even was) an ‘inclusivist’ about activities and allowed for a mixture of different activities in a happy life with no single governing activity, his list still seems to leave out productive work in a way S. finds objectionable. This seems right to me, but it is not enough to protest that Aristotle’s view arose in a context of aristocratic leisure. It is not the leisureliness of contemplation and exercising practical wisdom that makes them intrinsically valuable – indeed, Aristotle himself notes that the political life, the highest exercise of practical wisdom, is very far from being leisurely – but rather their essential rationality.

If we want to find a basis for valuing productive work alongside such activities, then I don’t think we can simply jettison the project of identifying a criterion for distinguishing the intrinsically valuable activities. S. suggests that we can rely on reflection about the value of our life as a whole, but this means either that life itself is of intrinsic value, which is unsatisfying given that we tend to think there are lives not worth living, or that some other criterion is being adopted implicitly, such as subjective satisfaction. (In the interest of brevity, I’m passing over a couple of S.’s other arguments against our thinking in terms of intrinsic value.)

There are two routes open at this point. First, we might substitute another criterion for Aristotle’s. One could read Marx, perhaps the greatest theorist of the nature of work, as substituting self-realization or self-creation for rationality. On that basis, Marx is able to champion productive work – though not of the making-circuit-boards-for-a-corporation variety! – as a human activity par excellence.

Second, we might agree with Aristotle about the criterion but disagree with his application of it. If we attend to the creative rather than the merely productive side of work, we might recognize in it precisely the kind of rationality that characterizes the intellectual and deliberative spheres that Aristotle champions. S. himself makes just this sort of case in the interview when he appeals to finding ways to deploy our intellectual faculties in whatever line of work we’re in, but it doesn’t depend on jettisoning Aristotle’s framework for the intrinsic value of certain activities; rather, it’s an application of it.

Going down either route will, I think, lead us to answer yes to Mark Hopwood’s questions in the interview about whether certain forms of work are preferable and whether we as a society should aim to promote those. The details will no doubt be difficult to sort out, but a criterion at least provides some measure by which to evaluate different kinds of work.

~Dhananjay Jagannathan

Posted in Supplements.

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