Journal of Moral Theology
Each semester, I teach third-year business students a course in theological ethics. Since my students’ choices of majors (e.g., “accounting,” “marketing,” etc.) directly reference the jobs they hope to have after graduating, it has seemed fitting to make ‘work’ one of our topics of study. I am an Aristotelian, which means that my goal ought to be to teach about the manner in which my students’ work is part of their ongoing formation with the ultimate goal, one hopes, of becoming successful moral agents—or, in Aristotelian terms, achieving excellence in goodness. However, I have often been tempted to teach work’s moral significance by drawing on the studies of empirical psychology and social science. Indeed, the fact that these studies adopt and adapt concepts from Aristotelianism makes the temptation greater. For instance, a body of empirical research aims at scientifically identifying the constituent parts of “happiness.” The studies in “positive psychology” typically identify “meaningful work” as a feature of the lives of those research subjects who report a higher than average (subjective) experience of well-being. The studies define “meaningful work” by such characteristics as believing one’s job has “room for growth.” The characteristics for study are drawn up to be explicit and quantifiable criteria so that their presence could be measured. One might imagine that becoming familiar with these studies would arm students with a set of criteria enabling them to choose among alternative employment options more likely to be satisfactory; perhaps even, using the studies’ other features of happiness, help students find their way to a happier life. For instance, a job advertised as having opportunities for advancement within the firm would seem more likely to fulfill the “presence of challenge and room for growth” characteristic than another job lacking a clear path of promotion. Alternatively, a job at a company whose representatives make clear that the management style is “employee-centered” would seem promising for another characteristic of meaningful work identified by positive psychology, namely, the employee’s sense of being recognized by her supervisors for her accomplishments.
So, a set of categories with a family resemblance to the Aristotelian ones of flourishing, formation, and growth are transposed into terms with which social psychologists can run their experiments. Yet I suspect this approach misleads as much as it sheds light on how to understand the moral significance of work and what students might expect from a job. It imagines the student/employee as standing outside the activity of work, coordinating features of a job that suit her preferences. The study of work in an ethics class should not leave the student with an orientation wherein work is seen as one more of life’s contingent constraints through which she must find a way to maximize her own preferences. In a class such as mine, students should be pushed to see work as a potential domain for discovering and exercising distinctively human capacities. Work can involve growth that occasions joy.
The Journal of Moral Theology Inc.
Special Issue 2
Ryan, Mark, "Looking for Good Work: From Matthew Crawford to Pope Francis via Wittgenstein" (2022). Religious Studies Faculty Publications. 141.