Different kinds of work – a hierarchy of dignity

I have been writing about the dignity of work and the importance of work that is meaningful, personal, and truly human.

We can divide work broadly into two kinds: the making of things and the serving of persons. To that we can add then the maintenance of things made and the ‘maintenance of persons’, e.g. health care.

The work is more personal the closer the worker is to the thing made or the server to the person served. Machinery, automation, and computerization remove the worker more and more from the thing made, making work more efficient, but less personal. The same is true with the relation between those engaged in works of service and the person served.

There will always then be a tradeoff between efficiency and the personal quality of work. Nevertheless, a well-ordered society would, as much as possible, put the focus on the personal quality rather than the efficiency. The movement towards ‘globalization’ is a movement towards efficiency at the expense of personal connection.

We can also reflect on the dignity of different types of work. This does not necessarily reflect remuneration, nor should it necessarily do so. That is especially so because it is impossible to put a price tag on ‘dignity’.

First, we can point out that there are jobs that are immoral and shameful, like prostitution and drug dealing, even when the former is given the name ‘sex work’ and the latter is legalized, as has happened with the marijuana industry. These ‘works’ contribute neither to the well-being of persons, nor of society; quite the contrary. The legalized gambling industry pretty much falls in the same category, even when it is used to support public schools.

There is also a whole industry of souvenirs, knick-knacks, and curiosities, that have very little real artistic value. The entertainment and recreation industries certainly serve legitimate purpose, but recreation and entertainment certainly are not and should not be the primary goals of human life. Unfortunately, lacking any shared vision of a higher good, these industries have taken on a vastly disproportionate role in human life.

One problem with free-market economic theory is that that so long as money is exchanged between employer and employee, between buyer and seller, the economy is functioning there is really no way to distinguish economic activity that really contributes something to society in terms of product or service and that which either does not contribute, or worse erodes and corrupts. That does not mean that free-market economic theory is flawed, just that it is limited. Unfortunately, no one seems to have any idea as to how a free market can properly be guided and directed without being suppressed.

In 1991, after the collapse of Soviet Communism, St. John Paul II wrote a social encyclical Centesimus Annus, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s foundational social encyclical, Rerum Novarum.

He observes therein that Marxism failed because of its intrinsic contradictions. He does not, however, give an unqualified endorsement of capitalism, though he does recognize the importance of “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.” (CA 42) But such a system must be “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.” (Ibid.) One reason for this is the intrinsic limitation of markets. “There are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold.” (CA 40) A mother’s ‘work’ is not and cannot be valued in market terms. Yet, it is both indispensable and altogether escapes the logic of the market. Paid ‘day-care’ is never an adequate substitute.

In any case, continuing with our consideration of the dignity of different kinds of work, we can say that work derives its dignity from the contribution to the well-being, material and spiritual, of human persons and human society.

There is certainly a foundational dignity to those ‘essential’ works that serve our material well-being: the production and distribution of food, shelter, and clothing; the maintenance of ‘infrastructure’; healthcare. It is also easier to put a ‘price-tag’ on these kinds of work.

Work that serves the spiritual, intellectual, imaginative, and even emotional well-being of persons (e.g. priestly ministry, teaching, and the fine arts) possess a greater inherent dignity, but the more noble they are, the less they can be evaluated in monetary terms.

There is another realm of ‘work’ that tends rather to be despised, because ‘quality’ in this realm is very lacking. Nevertheless, these works possess a great inherent nobility and are indispensable for human social life – works of leadership, organization, and administration. At the highest level this is the work not of the ‘politician’ or bureaucrat, but of the true ‘statesman’.

In a just society, certainly all those who contribute by means of their work should also receive a sufficiency to meet their needs. Nevertheless, while remuneration cannot be proportioned simply to the dignity of the work, it is essential that apart from market mechanisms there be a strong social and cultural recognition of the proper hierarchy of ‘value’ or better ‘dignity’.

All work is not equal in dignity, nevertheless St. Joseph always reminds us of the dignity that comes from the workman himself.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.