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Conceptualising Meaningful Work as a Fundamental Human Need

Abstract

In liberal political theory, meaningful work is conceptualised as a preference in the market. Although this strategy avoids transgressing liberal neutrality, the subsequent constraint upon state intervention aimed at promoting the social and economic conditions for widespread meaningful work is normatively unsatisfactory. Instead, meaningful work can be understood to be a fundamental human need, which all persons require in order to satisfy their inescapable interests in freedom, autonomy, and dignity. To overcome the inadequate treatment of meaningful work by liberal political theory, I situate the good of meaningful work within a liberal perfectionist framework, from which standpoint I develop a normative justification for making meaningful work the object of political action. To understand the content of meaningful work, I make use of Susan Wolf’s distinct value of meaningfulness, in which she brings together the dimensions of objectivity and subjectivity into the ‘bipartite value’ of meaningfulness (BVM) (Wolf, Meaning in life and why it matters, 2010). However, in order to be able to incorporate the BVM into our lives, we must become valuers, that is, co-creators of values and meanings. This demands that we acquire the relevant capabilities and status as co-authorities in the realm of value. I conclude that meaningful work is of first importance because it is a fundamental human need, and that society ought to be arranged to allow as many people as possible to experience their work as meaningful through the development of the relevant capabilities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Campbell (1989) describes how, during the two world wars, German theorists sought to restore Arbeitsfreude, or the joy of work, based upon the central organising idea that work alone ‘is capable of giving meaning to human existence’ (ibid., p. 4). Arbeitsfreude was motivated by enlightenment values, but given energy by the manifest harms visited upon workers by industrialisation (ibid., p. 9). However, when Arbeitsfreude was united to an ideology of German Work, as a superior form of work, it became a tool in Hitler’s fascist nationalism (see also Schwartz 1998). My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing Arbeitsfreude to my attention.

  2. 2.

    Sources of meaning are multiple, and issue in a diversity of positive and negative values. There is an extensive organisational studies literature on what meaning work has for people, and what values are experienced as meaningful. For example, Rosso et al. (2010) identify four sources of meaning in work: the self, others, the work context and spiritual life, and seven categories through which people experience their work as meaningful: authenticity, self-efficacy, self-esteem, purpose, belongingness, transcendence and cultural and interpersonal sense-making. Michaelson et al. (2013) argue for interdisciplinary research in meaningful work which combines organisational studies research on good outcomes from meaningful work for employees (job satisfaction, engagement, well-being) and for organisations (increased job performance, organisational citizenship, organisational commitment and identification, occupational identification and customer satisfaction) with business ethics approaches which argue that meaningful work is of moral concern.

  3. 3.

    Drucker (2010) points out that, whilst work organised on Fordist principles may have been experienced negatively by any individual worker, the system as a whole required elevated levels of skill, particularly social skills. Drucker argues that, by confining workers to routine tasks, Ford was motivated to ‘free workers from arduous toil’ (ibid., p. 163), thereby releasing them for active community life and for citizenship beyond the workplace. I am grateful to anonymous reviewer for directing me towards Drucker’s essay.

  4. 4.

    Margalit (1996) identifies limits to what justice would demand with respect to meaningful work in a decent society. He argues that, to be called decent, a society is not obliged to guarantee meaningful work, but it is obliged to provide the opportunity for engaging in meaningful activities: ‘A decent society is thus one that provides all its members with the opportunity to find at least one reasonably meaningful occupation’ (ibid., p. 254). Prospects for supplying meaningful occupation are much enhanced when the work of social cooperation is understood more broadly than paid employment, and includes the diversity of unpaid work which sustains and reproduces our common life.

  5. 5.

    See Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office (2004).

  6. 6.

    One objection to this claim is that for some people meaningful work may not be a fundamental human need. And indeed, many people get by without their work being meaningful. However, it is possible that people, through disappointment and socialised expectations, may no longer come to desire the goods of meaningful work. Political theorists would call this a manifestation of ‘adaptive preferences’, where, faced with ‘inaccessible options’, it is rational to adjust one’s preferences to the available choice set (Elster 1983). In the case of the fox who desires the out of reach sweet grapes at the top of the tree, his desire is modified so that, not only does he learn to like the sour grapes at the bottom of the tree, but he loses awareness of the existence of the sweet grapes.

  7. 7.

    Adopting a liberal perfectionist framework means giving up strict neutrality. The value of neutrality lies in the space it provides for individual autonomy and freedom of choice. Since these are also constitutive values of my concept of meaningful work, then construing meaningful work within a liberal perfectionist framework would seem to introduce a contradiction. If we specify the good life as characterised by autonomy, then do we not thereby diminish autonomy by restricting non-autonomous forms of living. However, the variety of positive values and meanings which my concept of meaningful work would allow preserves wide discretion for individuals to select the meanings that have value to them (see Roessler 2012). Furthermore, I draw upon Sen’s capability approach to specify two capabilities relevant to experiencing the value of meaningfulness which requires that, to be complete, any capability must include the freedom not to turn that capability into a functioning (Sen 1999). Applied to the capabilities for objective valuing and affective attachment, this means that people retain the freedom to choose not to experience meaningful work, or even to engage in meaning-making with others.

  8. 8.

    Alfes et al. (2010) report that ‘the two most important drivers of [employee] engagement are meaningfulness of work and employee voice’ (ibid., p. 36).

  9. 9.

    The objective/subjective distinction has been identified by several writers (Ciulla 2000; see also Laborem Exercens 1981). Ciulla (2000) describes the intrinsic objective dimension of meaningful work as follows: ‘meaningful work, like a meaningful life, is morally worthy work undertaken in a morally worthy organisation’ (ibid., p. 225). I make a distinction between worthy objects and the objective dimensions of the work activity, which in my conception of meaningful work are autonomy, freedom and dignity. A worthy object might be a material object, a person, an animal, an idea, a practice, a project, an eco-system, or some set of institutional arrangements which order the human world. However, this does not mean that we attend to the interests of these worthy objects in ways which render harm to ourselves, through whom the activity occurs (since we are also worthy objects). Instead, to be consistent with the value of meaningfulness, our actions must be structured by the objective characteristics of autonomy, freedom and dignity. In my application of Wolf’s bipartite value of meaningfulness, I am concerned to describe how objectivity and subjectivity are to be integrated. Hence, being attentive to worthy objects requires an emotional engagement which is both satisfying to us because we are able to experience the objective features of meaningful work, and represents an appropriate response to the nature of the object. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to clarify my distinction between worthy objects and the objective features of meaningful work.

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Yeoman, R. Conceptualising Meaningful Work as a Fundamental Human Need. J Bus Ethics 125, 235–251 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1894-9

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Keywords

  • Capabilities
  • Human need
  • Liberal neutrality
  • Liberal perfectionism
  • Meaningful work
  • Meaning in life