Monday, April 11, 2011

The Dignity of Work and the Evils of Unemployment

Labor or work is very important in one's development as a person. Here is a snippet from a paper I am writing on labor, this particular piece is from CST's perspective:
The Catholic Social Thought view of labor centers on the nature of man. To CST, man is created in the image and likeness of God, the Creator. Man is placed in the visible world to subdue it, or in other words, to work. It is his work that distinguishes man from the rest of creatures. As Pope John Paul II puts it, “Only man is capable of work, and only man works” (LE Intro).

CST defines work as “any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances” (LE Intro). As we will see, it is both a right and a duty, personal and social, and has subjective and objective elements.

Pope John Paul II turned specifically to the concept of work in his encyclical “Laborem Exercens” to examine its meaning including the task of uncovering its new meanings in the context of societal developments. He places work at the center of the social question.

The Catholic understanding of work is rooted in the book of Genesis. It is in this source where man is said to be made in the image of God, including partly through the mandate to subdue the earth. Through this mandate given by God, humans reflect the Creative action of God by directing their activities toward dominion over external objects. This process of subduing the earth is universal and takes place within each human being.

Work may also be understood in an objective and subjective sense. Technology, widely defined as improvements in the uses of external objects, is the best example of the objective sense of work. The things that men produce and the technology that they develop to help them produce more things are the objective aims of work. This technology facilitates and accelerates his work, but may become an enemy if this technology supplants his incentive to creativity and responsibility. In some cases, the technology replaces the worker altogether and makes man, who is always the subject of work, the slave of the machine.

The subjective sense of work must always be primary to the objective sense of work. Persons are the subjects of work, as Pope John Paul II writes, “as a person he works, he performs various actions belong to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity” (LE 6). The purpose of work is man, “work is for man and not man for work” (LE 6).

In opposition to this view of work, the modern trends of materialism and economism have treated work as a sort of merchandise. This error of treating man as a mere means of production or a commodity to be bought and sold distorts the purpose of work and subordinates the subject of work to the object of work. This error was especially prevalent in the 19th century, but continues today.

The irksomeness of labor described by mainstream economists is what CST refers to as the toil of work. This toil that accompanies much of our work is a result of breaking the original covenant with God, but it does not alter the fact that work is a good thing for man. It is good because it is useful, sometimes or even often enjoyable, but most importantly because it expresses man’s dignity and increases it. Through work man transforms nature and achieves fulfillment as a human being. Work enables man to increase the virtue of industriousness which enables a man to become “more a human being” for “virtue is something whereby man becomes good as man” (LE 9).

Work is not just a good for man, but also a duty. It is an obligation on the part of man because “the Creator has commanded it” and because of the necessity to obtain the means of subsistence. Work is a foundation for the formation of family life, a natural right and vocation for man, for it is through his work that man obtains the means required to found and maintain a family. It is also intimately connected with education, for the main purpose of education is exactly that of work, to fulfill one’s humanity. Indeed, it may be described as the intellectual side of work. Because the family is the basic unit of society, work also “concerns the great society to which man belongs” (LE 10). Man must work out of regard for the entire society “since he is the heir to the work of generations and at the same time a sharer in building the future of those who will come after him in the succession of history” (LE 16). Work is personal because it is how man expresses and fulfills himself but it is also social because it is the primary means of obtaining the necessities to provide for one’s family and the entire society.

Pope Jon Paul II adds to his analysis on work in the encyclical Centesimus Annus by commemorating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, an encyclical written on the conditions of the working class. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II observes that work has become increasingly important as a factor of wealth and that the interconnectedness of the labor process has grown substantially since the end of the 19th century making it more and more “a matter of doing something for someone else” (CA 31). He also observed that alienation, a reversal of means and ends as defined by CST in its most general sense, is rampant in today’s society of consumerism because labor is often organized “so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, grows or diminishes as a person…in which he is considered only a means and not an end” (CA 41).

More recently, Pope Benedict XVI noted in Caritas in Veritate that poverty often results “from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited or because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family” (CV 63). He called for a greater effort to provide decent work for all members of society the characteristics of which are that it is freely chosen, expresses the dignity of man, develops the community, is free from discrimination, enables the provision of the physical needs of one’s family and all of society, permits the workers to organize freely, and to receive a decent standard of living upon retirement.

These are the reasons why it is so important and necessary to make sure those who want or need work can find it. Unemployment is a much greater evil than the material poverty it causes, because it also hinders our development as persons and as an entire human family.

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