For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Virtue and Meaningful Work"

by Beadle, Ron; Knight, Kelvin (2012)


This article deploys Alasdair MacIntyre’s Aristotelian virtue ethics, in which meaningfulness is understood to supervene on human functioning, to bring empirical and ethical accounts of meaningful work into dialogue. Whereas empirical accounts have presented the experience of meaningful work either in terms of agents’ orientation to work or as intrinsic to certain types of work, ethical accounts have largely assumed the latter formulation and subjected it to considerations of distributive justice. This article critiques both the empirical and ethical literatures from the standpoint of MacIntyre’s account of the relationship between the development of virtuous dispositions and participation in work that is productive of goods internal to practices. This reframing suggests new directions for empirical and ethical enquiries.

Key Passage

 As one of the principal domains in which experience is organized and self-under standing emerges (Gini 2001, Michaelson 2008), work is critical for agents' ongoing "search for meaning" (Frankl 1959). The question of whether and how work that is also paid employment can be experienced as meaningful in itself is debated within both social psychology and ethics, but largely in isolation from each other. Enquiries in social psychology are thereby denied the resources that might be provided by ethical enquiries for the critique of its findings, whilst ethics, as Aristotelians have long argued (Anscombe 1958), is hopelessly abstract if uninformed by psychology. To illustrate this contention, assume for a moment that we encounter Sayer's (2009) ethical arguments to the conclusion that academics should take out their own refuse rather than leaving this to university cleaners. Sayer argues that taking out rubbish is less meaningful to someone uninvolved in its production than some one who knows its content (perhaps early drafts of an article for Business Ethics Quarterly) and the reasons for its allocation to the bin. Should we be convinced by this argument or should we rather pay attention to Isaksen's (2000) finding that workplace relationships may make the experience of monotonous work meaningful? Should we retain the services of cleaners, reduce their number as a result of removing the refuse-collecting element of their role, or re-design their work so that their involvement in waste collection extends to training their academic colleagues in the principles of recycling, monitoring their sorting of refuse, and being responsible for the development of university policy on recycling, re-use, energy consumption and associated elements of sustainability? We cannot give an adequate answer to such questions without understanding both what is disclosed of meaningful work by the enquiries of social psychology and what is disclosed by ethical considerations that have been advanced about the design and availability of work.  (p.434)


Meaningful Work, Virtue, Business Ethics, Self-Determination Theory


Meaningful Work

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