The War on Work

January 19, 2011by

Many treatments of professional ethics make a distinction between trade labor and professional labor. The trades refer to more manual labor work, like plumbing, carpentry, electrical, etc., while the professions are the jobs that typically require a higher degree of education, like doctors, lawyers, business managers, etc. The service industry is also typically not included among the professions.

For the concerns of moral philosophy, however, this distinction is rather arbitrary. Moral issues and dilemmas are present in every kind of work, and the pressures, incentives, and public functions of the trades are not so much less important than the classical professions that they can be dismissed from the classroom of professional ethics. The social role of manual laborers and service workers is foundational for most cultures, and the moral dimension of these jobs deserves greater attention.

Possibly the most influential spokesman for today’s worker is Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. In the following talk he discusses a pivotal moment in his own work, which led him to develop a theory that there is a War on Work in contemporary American culture.

After realizing he was wrong about a fundamental assumption regarding the moral treatment of animals, Rowe asked an important question: What else might I be thinking wrongly about? Pursuing an answer to that question, he has developed a persuasive critique of our culture’s valuation of work.

Here are a few questions for further reflection:

  • Should you base your life on “following your passion”?
  • What does it mean that the people with the dirtiest jobs are the happiest people?
  • To what extent do culture, economics, marketing, politics, and technology shape people’s view of what kinds of jobs are desirable?
  • How have these things shaped your view of life and work?
  • What do you think can be done about the war on work?