For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Meaningful work and workplace democracy"

by Yeoman, Ruth (2012)


My thesis examines moral and political responses to the character of work through critical evaluation of the work we do to sustain a stable social order suitable for human acting and being. My original contribution rests upon my application of Wolf’s (2010) distinct bipartite value of meaningfulness (BVM) to the structure of action in work, which integrates the objective and subjective dimensions of meaningfulness when subjective feelings of attachment are united to an assessment of the objective worthiness of the object. Work which is structured by the BVM is a fundamental human need, because it addresses our inescapable interests in autonomy, freedom, and social recognition, which are met when work is non-alienated, non-dominated and dignified. To realise the BVM, each person must possess the capabilities for objective valuing and affective attachment, in addition to their equal status as co-authorities in the realm of value. Being able to participate in creating and sustaining positive values through meaning-making alleviates concerns that meaningful work is a perfectionist ideal which undermines autonomy. But meaning-making gives rise to interpretive differences over values and meanings which often remain as pre-political potentials unless brought into public deliberation through deliberative practices. I argue that realising the BVM in work requires a politics of meaningfulness generated by a system of workplace democracy, where democratic authority at the level of the organisation is combined with agonistic democratic practices at the level of the task. Furthermore, capability justice requires the satisfaction of two principles –the principle of egalitarian meaning, such that all persons must be able to experience their work as meaningful, and the threshold of sufficient meaning, such that work is sufficiently meaningful when constituted by the values of autonomy, freedom and social recognition. I conclude that the relevant capabilities for meaningfulness are realised, indirectly, through institutional guarantees for the Capability for Voice.

Key Passage

I aim to show that to engage in the conceptual evaluation of meaningful work is not simply an exercise in remote abstraction, but directs us toward the pragmatic political possibility of ensuring that all work possesses the structure for meaningfulness. Furthermore, not only can the value of meaningfulness in the concept of meaningful work be described, but social institutions can be arranged according to normative principles conducive to enabling all persons to attribute meaning content to their lives because of the work they do. Following Kovacs (1986), I take work to be ‘a basic mode of being in the world’, where ‘to work means to humanise the world and to produce something’ (ibid: 198). In this sense, work functions to create and to sustain values and meanings beyond the realm of its economic productivity: work is a mode of being in the world which transcends the employment relation to include all the activities which contribute to producing and reproducing a complex system of social cooperation (p.10)


Meaningful Work, Autonomy, Freedom, Alienation, Dignity, Capabilities


Workplace Democracy, Meaningful Work

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