The Dignity of the Working Man

It is perhaps not a bad time to devote a few thoughts to the dignity of work. Work is not always seen in a wholly positive light. Many of us don’t like going to work, and the rigors of labor are reflect in Adam’s curse, when after the fall he is told that he shall eat only by the sweat of his brow, struggling to win sustenance from an unfriendly soil.

Yet we also recognize that that is an essential dignity to labor. Through labor we meet the essential needs of life, and labor is frequently a service: Husbands and wives labor for each others’ sake, parents labor to support children, we share the fruits of our labor with our churches, with the less fortunate, with our friends and family. We rightly take great pleasure and pride in serving others this way. As a father, even the most tiresome or repetitive task can be a source of satisfaction to me when I know that by this means I am providing for the needs and pleasures of my wife and children.

It seems to me that human relationships are not merely fueled by affection, but also by this sense of being provided for. Children know their parents work to care for them. Parents love their children in part because they care for them. It is the action of providing for others and being provided for which gives strength to these relationships.

It is placing value on work, and on the web of relationships between those who provide for each other in some sense, that provides much of my conservative skepticism of social welfare programs. On the one hand, it is clearly in keeping with the common good to make sure that members of society are not without basic necessities. On the other, it concerns me when the providing of basic needs is systematically done through an impersonal means. In small societies, such as are arguably most natural to the human person, these kinds of assistance are easily provided without resorting to impersonal means. Some closed communities such as the Amish successfully continue this approach today — with each community of Amish maintaining an emergency assistance fund to which all contribute according to their means, and members of the community providing direct assistance when needed for smaller needs. But such approaches become much more difficult in a mass, urban society — and I fear that systems working along the lines of “All households making less than X may fill out form Y to apply for subsidy Z” end up sapping both the natural sense of responsibility the comes from providing for others, and any sense of community cohesion.

Clearly, compromises along these lines need to be made somewhere. It is essential that the most basic needs of members of society be met somehow, though hopefully in a way that preserves both dignity and work ethic. But the ideal most certainly is that through our work we provide for both our own families and for those nearest to us who are in need. Without work being tied directly to providing for those we love, it becomes drudgery of the most pointless sort. And without the sense of purpose that comes from providing for others, we too quickly become mere pleasure seekers.

4 Responses to The Dignity of the Working Man

  1. S.B. says:

    The odd thing is that some of the leftist Catholics around here will be completely impervious to anything you just said. It’s not that they’ll disagree with it, it’s that they won’t even comprehend that anyone could sincerely care about anything other than maximizing the amount of money transferred from one pocket to another. In their stunted view of the world (and of the Church), the only thing that matters is how much money people have.

  2. MacGregor says:

    Excellent article!!!

    I am a left-leaning Catholic and I agree very much with your words and sentiments.

    I particularly like how you (who ever the author is) describe the dignity of work. As a teacher I have found that almost to a person, all students from every background and socio-economic level enjoy the feeling of doing work, just like all people like enjoy and even have the need to learn useful things. They get trained and taught to see learning as worse than playing and the they get habituated to the idea that work is something to be avoided, but once they are in a situation where they are contributing and improving themselves, they have unbounded energy. Just as an example, practicing for football is not really that much more of an enjoyable exercise than weeding a garden. Yet our culture (liberal and conservative) cheer for the one on Friday nights while pretty much ignoring the other. This and the natural tendency to equate success with million dollar contracts for football for a very small group compared to the minor economic incentive for the millions who labor in fields, creates a message that kids understand.

    I believe you insightfully described the tension between the “common good” and “social welfare” between the relationships of a “closed community” and an open and diverse, larger society. These tensions are huge and the answers are not simple unless you, like the Amish consistently and consciously remove yourself in some ways from one or the other. Yet even Amish communities are advertising their products on the internet.

    I agree that federal government programs almost always oversimplify issues and local problems. The local and personal responsibility should always be the first step in dealing with any issue, including labor laws and regulations if needed. Yet corporations over the last several decades, have successfully gotten the legal standing to remove themselves from local responsibilities. I would rather unions and labor laws be few and weak; I’d rather welfare and regulations be unnecessary, but in a time when honest physical work and small businesses are being disadvantaged compared to large corporations, there does need to be some balance maintained.

    Your last paragraph is excellent and I think reflects my views and the views of most liberal and conservative leaning Catholics!

    Addendum: Globally industrialization and urbanization have created some of the most powerful pressures on families and societies. Both create greater physical dependencies upon populations for everything from food and water to social contacts. I think these changes have been far too rapid for most societies to adapt sensibly and are a major cause for why some conservatives feel the need to embrace cutthroat economic, objectivist views and some liberals to embrace socialist, “nanny state” views. Both are over-reaction to overwhelming changes and the I expect the best thing that we can do is to be realistic, respectful and compassionate in our debates.

    Addendum: Maybe some on the far liberal side are myopically focused on the idea that money by nature bad or that wealth needs to be constantly redistributed from the rich to the poor, but actually that is a pretty rare belief. To be progressive or left-leaning does not mean to be a socialist or a fascist as Glen Beck likes to claim. That is a form of propaganda, like the idea that dems are always “weak on national defense” and “tax and spend.” It is an example of delegitimizing an opponent by oversimplifying their position. (For example most of the legislators in the House of Reps who are ex-military, are democrats.)

    Last Addendum: I personally have worked as a member of a union and most of the time I haven’t even noticed them. I think they need to change dramatically. As Steve Jobs of Apple once said, I’d support teacher unions if they could tell me how to fire bad teachers.

  3. I’m not sure if I get some sort of consensus award for writing something that both SB and MacGregor like, or if that just means I wrote something incredibly general, but thanks, guys.


    For some reason the template only shows the author’s name in the footer on the home page, not when you click through to that article itself. Dunno how that looks in RSS if that’s what you’re using. But this one is mine. You can also see things by author if you click on the “Authors” links in the sidebar. We span a pretty wide spectrum politically, though I think everyone has a lot of respect for each others’ commitments to the Church.

  4. Patrick Duffy says:

    I serve on the board of a social enterprise (a more appropriate term for what we do than a “charity”) that serves people with disabilities. Our goal is to have work for them to do. I have to admit that before I began serving on this board, I wrote off the term “the dignity of work” as just blather. But being around people with disabilities, who are excited to be able to go to work, made clear to me what the term really means. Not being able to work, not being allowed to work is the great indignity.

    Virtually everyone can serve others, in some way, through what most of us call “work.” I am concerned about institutional barriers to that service and, frankly, have to question the morality of them. I’m thinking of minimum wage laws (if I can do something but not very much, minimum wage laws say that it’s better that I don’t have a job), work permits (why should I be prevented from working here because I was born in another country?) and the like.

    I remember seeing a video about the Irish American experience. They had an interview with the son of an immigrant who had worked in the hard rock mines of Montana. He said that “One day, I asked my dad, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you go down in that hole every day?’ My dad looked and me and said ‘Makin’ a better life for the likes of you.’ I never asked him about it again.”

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