Meaningful Work

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 15, 2015. )

Victor Frankl claimed that creative, productive work was one of the three main sources of meaning in human life. (The others are human relationships and bearing suffering nobly.) If the most meaningful lives entail meaningful work a number of questions arise. What kind of work is meaningful? Is meaningful work an objective or subjective notion? Can we find meaningful work in a capitalist economic system? Can we find meaningful work in any conditions?

Consider that you are a hunter gatherer. You are walking along hunting and gathering.  This is work, but is it meaningful? Ultimately this question relates to the question of whether life is meaningful. If life is meaningful, then we would have to infer that hunting and gathering the food that makes life possible is meaningful.

Now let’s consider that the agricultural revolution has taken place. There is now excess food so one can be an artist, philosopher, priest, engineer, merchant or statesman. Are these occupations more meaningful than hunting and gathering? Here the answer is subjective. Some would prefer growing food; others prefer creating art or reading books or running governments. If you want to grow food and find that more meaningful than writing computer code or trading on Wall Street, then by all means do it.

Now let’s consider a complicated global economy. You could still write books or paint pictures, but you might make more money on Wall Street, practicing medicine, or writing computer code. Suppose you’re convinced that the former is much more meaningful (to you) than the latter? If you are equally capable of being a starving artist as you are of writing computer code then you must decide what’s more important—the money or the work.  Would you rather make $20,000 a year selling art or teaching school or $200,000 a year practicing medicine or being a software engineer? The answer seems to depend on the individual.  Most people would probably take the higher salary because of the security and freedom they gain from the extra income—an earlier retirement, less financial stress, more money for their children, etc. But many would choose differently. Perhaps the higher paying jobs have more stress or are less fulfilling.

Now if you think this global economic system is corrupt, that participating in it violates your values, then you could choose the less corrupt occupation. Perhaps practicing medicine or writing computer code exploits more individuals than teaching school or being a social worker. If you are convinced that any work makes you complicit in an immoral system, then you could move to a more socialistic country or, even more radically, you could move “off the grid” or, if possible, you could move to a new planet and create a new Eden. (More than one Star Trek episode has explored such themes.)

But is it necessarily more meaningful to live outside the world’s economic system or on a different planet? I’m not sure. Rousseau argued that we become human to the extent we participate in civilization. He thought that being civilized was better than being a “noble savage.” I do think we have more opportunities for meaningful lives in our present time, with our present technology, then we have had at any other time in human history. In the past few people read books, practiced medicine, designed the internet or received the goods and services that many of us now do.  Do these goods and services make our lives more meaningful? I think so. If meaning is emerging it is primarily because science and technology have created the conditions that make human flourishing possible. This doesn’t guarantee that everyone flourishes though, primarily because of flaws in human psychology, biology and in the flawed political systems human create.

Still this does not answer all our questions. Perhaps you would rather care for your child than advance your career; perhaps you would rather teach than write computer code. In the end each person must make the best choice they can … and then hope for the best. The tragedy is that we live in a world where such choices must be made. I must work multiple low paying jobs, sell my services as an athlete and damage my body for life, or do other work which isn’t meaningful.

Yet we should not curse this world; nor feel existential guilt in it merely by being alive, for there is meaningful work in the world. Maybe not perfectly or fully meaningful, but meaningful nonetheless. And with effort we can find it. Good luck. 

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation of his life. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. ~ Victor Frankl

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