For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Meaningful Work"

by Schwartz, Adina (1982)

Key Passage

In the opening pages of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes how pins are made in a factory: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it,"' and so on to eighteen distinct operations. Some workers may perform two or three of these tasks; many repeatedly execute only one operation. In contemporary industrial societies, many people work at analogues of Smith's jobs: jobs in which persons are hired to perform series of set actions such as assembly line work, keypunching, or being a clerk on an automated checkout line.2 These routine jobs provide people with almost no opportunities for for- mulating aims, for deciding on means for achieving their ends, or for adjusting their goals and methods in the light of experience. Smith's workers and their modern counterparts do not design the overall goals of the factories, offices, or service operations in which they are employed. More important, individual workers do not decide how to perform their particular jobs. Instead of being hired to achieve certain goals and left to select and pursue adequate means, workers are employed to perform pre- cisely specified actions. Even the order in which they perform those opera- tions, the pace at which they work, and the particular bodily movements they employ are largely determined by others' decisions. When these job consists of such mechanical activity, workers are in effect paid for blindly pursuing ends that others have chosen, by means that they judge adequate. The existence of these jobs is of little concern to contemporary social and political philosophers. This paper will argue, however, that this unconcerned stance is fundamentally at odds with the widely held view that a just society respects all its members as autonomous agents. If we care about the free development of all members of society, I will show, we must demand that no one be employed at the sorts of jobs that have just been described. We must also advocate a certain alternative to the current arrangement of industrial employment and must ask for government measures to effect this rearrangement. (p.364)


Adam Smith, Autonomy, Ethics, Meaningful Work, Meaningless Work, Capitalism, Industrial Society, Paid Labour, Hired Labour


Psychological Centrality of Work, Autonomy, Meaningful Work

Links to Reference



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