Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Just Work
by Russell Muirhead
Harvard University Press, 224 pp. $24.95

That work is essential to human life, few will doubt. Whether it should also hold some more exalted place in life”whether, rather than just working to live, we should also live to work”is less clear. It is an issue to which almost all of us give some thought, yet it is by no means a question easy to unpack and explore. Russell Muirhead, who teaches government at Harvard, undertakes this needed task in Just Work . The book is clearly written, if occasionally repetitive, and its argument unfolds in a nicely structured way.

Muirhead affirms the “democratic faith” that “work supports and expresses our dignity.” Although there was a time when “progressive” thinkers hoped to abolish work, we now believe that properly ordered work”fitting work”is good for us. Both democratic culture and a market economy push us in the direction of fitting work”that is, freely chosen work which both forms and expresses who we are.

Both the importance for human beings of meaningful work and the pitfalls of that ideal are acknowledged in the concept of fitting work that Muirhead develops. On the one hand, fitting work accentuates our freedom, since it gestures toward work that we ourselves have chosen. But, on the other hand, it also accepts limits, since there may be work for which one is simply not suited, however desired and freely chosen the work may be.

Moreover, especially in a democratic community, there may be work which, even if freely chosen, seems unsuited for democratic citizens”the man (of whom Studs Terkel wrote), for example, whose job was to stand in the washroom of a hotel and distribute hand towels. And in any community there may be work, such as sweatshop work, which is troubling even when done voluntarily. The problem with such jobs is not that they are useless, nor that the workers do their work involuntarily, but that the job is in “conflict with democratic pride” or destructive of human dignity.

One of the thoughtful features of Muirhead’s discussion is that, having offered such examples, he does not immediately conclude that these jobs should be eliminated. The concept of fitting work instead “serves to interrupt the complacency that a premature satisfaction with the fact of consent” might give. It forces us to consider the complexity involved in work, the manner in which work absorbs our attention and energy while at the same time, almost always, constraining us as well.

Having explicated and defended the concept of fitting work, Muirhead must then defend it against a taint that might seem to cling to it: its connection to fixed roles within a hierarchical, aristocratic society. That is to say, if we think of “fit” solely in social terms”that society needs people to do the work for which they are best suited”we may begin to push people in the direction of work they would rather not choose and in which they find little fulfillment.

At least part of the answer to this problem is economic. “The success of markets at solving the problem of social fit without recourse to brute coercion is a crucial part of their legitimacy.” Of course, the market is not a perfect solution. It can deform work in a different way, inviting us to think of our work in instrumental terms”not, that is, in terms of its internal satisfactions but in terms simply of the income it provides. Nevertheless, it is “the productive capacity of modern economies” that has made at least some peace between the social meaning of fit (which requires that society’s needs be met) and the more personal meaning of fit (for which work is integral to one’s sense of self). A practical illustration of this, developed at some length by Muirhead, is the history of “domestic service,” a form of work that became increasingly hard to reconcile with democratic equality in America. Many reforms”“abolishing, sharing, and restructuring work””were proposed to deal with “the servant problem”; yet the real source of progress here has come not so much from these reforms as from technological advances that have made the need for such service less pressing.

Having developed his general approach to work in the first four chapters, Muirhead uses the last four to examine the possibility of”and desire for”what we might call an “optimal fit” between the person and the work, a fit in which work is at the heart of one’s personal identity. One approach to this that has been very influential in our cultural history is the idea of “the calling,” which came to prominence especially in the thought of the Protestant Reformers.

I suspect there was less concern for “personal fit” in the theological idea of vocation than Muirhead imagines. After all, in describing the satisfaction work in one’s calling brings, Calvin writes, “Each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God.” This is not exactly a man in search of fulfillment or concerned chiefly for his sense of personal identity. As a matter of historical description, Muirhead similarly makes too much, I suspect, of Weber’s use of “salvation anxiety” to explain the rise of the concept of vocation. But he is not mistaken to see that, if belief in the Caller becomes less pervasive in our culture, the work ethic will lose “its deepest purposive dimensions” and devolve into little more than the search for a satisfying and fulfilling career.

Muirhead devotes a chapter to John Stuart Mill in order to discuss what it might mean to think of a career as fulfilling. There are better ways to do this; indeed, the use of Mill and Rawls in Just Work , however understandable from a professor for whom they are undoubtedly staple items, is often less helpful than moments when Muirhead moves farther from the center of his discipline. The salient point, though, is clear: In a democratic world for which ” has become “career,” the idea of fitting work becomes far less a social ideal and far more an individual aim. It is something each person seeks on the path to fulfillment.

A thoughtful chapter on the twists and turns of Betty Friedan’s attitudes toward work gives Muirhead a way to develop this point insightfully. She begins, on his account, with an exaltation of freely chosen work, which fits and expresses one’s identity, as the avenue to personal fulfillment: “As the solution to emptiness, work assumes the roles of religion and philosophy.” Muirhead notes the irony that, at the very time Friedan was recommending “paid careers as the antidote to women’s emptiness,” other thoughtful observers”
C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, William H. Whyte, and Daniel Bell”were examining how personally stifling many careers had actually become.

It took several decades for Friedan herself to absorb these lessons, but, when she did, her view shifted. Rather than seeing free choice as the avenue to something else that made work fitting for a person, she simply made choice the standard. “Friedan’s movement from fitting work to chosen work,” Muirhead writes, “suggests the danger that the ideal of fitting work imposes.” If one asks too much personal fulfillment from work, one raises the bar so high that no work can satisfy us. And then, positioned to be disappointed, we miss the genuine, if limited, ways in which work can still be meaningful and worthwhile.

Muirhead’s own attempt to give meaning to work without inflating our expectations comes from development of the idea of goods internal to a “practice.” Ever since Alasdair MacIntyre turned to the concept of a practice in his extraordinarily influential book After Virtue , this concept has been used to solve almost every problem imaginable. Still, it does give Muirhead a way to show how sometimes goods can be embedded within work itself and not simply imposed from the outside (whether by a calling from God or merely by an alluring salary). Nevertheless, Muirhead has to grant that there is much work that must be done but which, lacking internal goods, cannot really be understood as a practice. So the tension between the social and the personal in the concept of “fitting work” remains and cannot be fully overcome.

A sober realization of this truth is perhaps the best lesson Muirhead has to teach his readers. Wisely, he wants us to see that work may be very important to human life, but it is not everything. “Even when it fits, work does not engage our whole self.”This leaves, of course, an enormous question which Muirhead does not address. What might engage that whole self? That is, of course, well beyond the scope of Muirhead’s book, and we cannot ask it of him. Nonetheless, one wonders whether anyone interested in thinking about such a question might need to begin by examining critically the picture of “democratic pride””opposed, on Muirhead’s account, to “selflessness””that he so readily endorses.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.