For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Moving Towards a Capability for Meaningful Labor"

by Weidel, Timothy (2018)


Martha Nussbaum argues that the capability approach to human development is grounded in an intuitive conception of what a life worthy of human dignity entails. This image is coupled with a conception of truly human functionings as a measure for development. It is not enough to establish what goods people require, but rather to consider what they can actually do or become with those goods. Nussbaum acknowledges that the philosophical grounding for her list of central human capabilities is influenced by Aristotle through the early Marx. Despite admitting this influence, I argue that Nussbaum's incorporation omits a central facet of Marx's image of truly dignified humans: the importance of meaningful labor. This omission seriously undercuts the possibility of the capabilities approach providing persons with a life worthy of human dignity. In this paper, I develop and defend an argument for including a capability for meaningful labor in Nussbaum's list of central human capabilities. After an explication of Marx's understanding of a fully human life, I will discuss the limits of Nussbaum's capabilities list with respect to the topic of meaningful labor. I also consider how Nussbaum's discussion of a capability to hold property elucidates both the necessity and feasibility of a capability for meaningful labor. Lastly, I consider some potential political implications of this proposed capability.

Key Passage

A central characteristic of meaning for meaningful labor is creation, as distinguished from passive consumption. This does not create an equivalency with actions in general,as there are actions that may not involve labor in any real sense (such as interpersonal relationships).9 The object generated by meaningful labor may be considered more ethereal than substantive (such as a song, or perhaps meeting a physical need of a care charge), but it is produced rather than consumed. Admittedly this capability as I have proposed it entails a broad categorization of what counts as “labor,” but this is an advantage, not a liability. The benefit lies in the fact that such a concept can go beyond mere paid employment in the context of a marketplace. Whereas Nussbaum’s current discussion of labor only focuses on a right to seek employment, my capability for labor is sensitive to concerns such as unpaid care work and the informal economy, a large portion of which is performed globally by women. These arenas of labor are thus subsumed under the capability for meaningfullabor in a way that opens them up as avenues for such activity, insofar as they facilitate the self-actualization of those who perform it. To be sure, a woman would have to freely choose to perform such labor, and perform such activities in a way that was meaningful, for it to be in accordance with one’s capability for meaningful labor. Meaningful labor as understood through my capability laid out above is to be contrasted with what we might call meaningless labor. Hsieh (2008) defines meaningless labor as “work that citizens would see no reason to undertake from the perspective of their conception of the good apart from the purpose of obtaining some minimal level of primary 80 T. Weidel goods” (80). Such a definition hearkens back to Elster’s claim that some labor is performed only to obtain what is necessary to satisfy a need directly. There is no possibility for selfactualization or development of one’s potential through said act of labor, and is thus devoid of the meaning component. At best, it is labor that people would choose solely for instrumental reasons; at worst, it is dehumanizing in the sense that it actively undermines one’s capacities. (p.80)


Marx, Meaningful Work, Political Economy, Nussbaum, Dignity


Meaningful Work

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