A Call to Work? Vocations and Intrinsic Value

This essay was shortlisted for the New Philosopher Essay Prize

The relationship between work and flourishing has been a vexed one in moral thought. Aristotle insisted, for instance, that time spent in leisure was essential to living the good life and that the ultimate life (eudaimonia) would consist entirely in leisurely contemplation of philosophy. By contrast, religious traditions – in particular, Christianity – insist that work is a necessary activity of a life well lived. For this latter claim to be true we would need to establish work as a source of moral value.

This seems easily done. Work, when it is not slavery, empowers men and women by providing them with income in exchange for their labour. This, in turn, allows them to pursue the goods and ends they truly desire. Without this income, men and women would not be able to achieve their ends. Work, therefore is freeing and dignifying for individuals.

However, this view of the extrinsic value of work fails to capture the sense of achievement and personal satisfaction one feels after a “hard day’s work.” There is something intrinsically rewarding about work that isn’t captured in the extrinsic model above. As the clichéd quote attributed to Confucius says, “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Whilst we can appreciate Confucius’ sentiment, the wording is confusing, implying that work is, by definition, something that a person does not love. In this essay I want to reject this conception of work, arguing that, at its best, work is something we love, can be a source of deep moral value, and even represent the fulfilment of one’s identity. The type of work I describe here is not just work, it is a vocation.

Vocation, stripped of its religious loading, is a concept that describes a way of life that a person feels “called” to follow. In one sense, it is similar to the idea of a career: it is a dedication to a particular set of skills and practices for an extended period of time. Originating from the Latin vocare – to call – has been closely connected in the modern era to the idea of professional work, and rightly so: a vocation is a call felt by an individual to live in a particular way for some transcendent reason such as religion, the common good, family or cultural traditions, or something else.

Philosopher Grady Scott Davis explains that the person who undertakes a vocation “chooses a worthy task and by persevering in that task becomes an example of greatness that creates not an obligation but an option for human striving.” Vocations thus are not intrinsic elements of eudaimonia, they are optional; not every person must have a vocation in order to flourish. However, for the person who does feel the call of a vocation, the successful pursuit of that vocation will be a necessary aspect of his or her flourishing.

Understood in this way, vocations are not simply choices one makes to do such-and-such as opposed to this-and-that; rather, vocations reflect a constitutive part of one’s identity: they are calls to follow a way of life that resonates with the skills, talents, and virtues that one possesses, or desires to possess.

Eudaimonia stipulates that there is a telos to which every human is directed, and that the most excellent life will be one lived in harmony with that telos. Vocations form part of the telos: a subjectively chosen project that one feels called to fulfil and whose satisfaction is necessary for the excellent life. For Aristotle, only one vocation genuinely satisfied the requirements of eudaimonia: the life lived in contemplation.

Whether or not a particular vocation is the best of all possibilities for flourishing, as soon as a person chooses a project or practice as his or her vocation, the achievement of that project becomes intrinsically valuable and necessary for their flourishing. It matters not if the vocation does not instantiate all the human goods; the person has made it his or her own good, and that is enough to make its success intrinsic to human flourishing.

Philosopher Bernard Williams argued that a person ought to be identified by actions “flowing from projects or attitudes which he takes seriously at the deepest level, as what his is about.” Were he writing today, Williams may even have extended the same argument to women. The point Williams makes, however, is that the practices and projects in which a person subjectively invests time and value. The success or failure of one’s chosen projects equates to a large extent to one’s whether one believes one’s life to have been a success or a failure.

This makes vocations risky things to have. Suddenly work is no longer merely a 9-5 proposition. Instead, my success in my chosen field of work becomes important to my own evaluations of the value and success of my life. I cannot be said to be living a eudaimon life absent a subjective experience of satisfaction that I am succeeding in my chosen field of labour.

It is even riskier when one considers that vocations, as Davis explains, “require the forsaking of genuine goods that remain available to others.” Thus, vocations pose a challenge to eudaimonia if and when one’s vocation requires the forsaking of other possible avenues of moral value and satisfaction. This is a point that Williams emphasised in his discussion of the painter Paul Gaugin.

Gaugin, a relatively successful painter decided to leave his family and travel to Tahiti to pursue his life as an artist. For Williams, Gaugin’s decision is not heartless; rather, he “is concerned about these [family] claims and what is involved in their being neglected [but] nevertheless, in the face of that, opts for the other life.” Williams’ point is that whether Gaugin’s choice is subjectively justifiable will depend on the success of his art. If his art had turned out to be the finest ever created (it didn’t), then his decision would – at least on Gaugin’s own terms – be justified. If his art turned out to be awful, he would have sacrificed his family project – a project of genuine moral value, for the sake of his vocation, and failed.

Success is not all there is though. 17th century philosopher John Locke argued that a person could never rightfully own an item of property unless he or she had invested his own labour into it. Critics disagree as to whether his view is an accurate description of property rights or not, but his view seems apt to apply to work and a sense of value. If I spend my days in sweat and toil for little to no return financially or otherwise, this time may not be wasted.

Albert Camus, writing about the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to push a stone up and down a hill for all eternity, still believed it possible for Camus to find intrinsic value in what he was doing. The lack of any external meaning or success does not immediately rob a task of the possibility of being meaningful or satisfying. Part of the value of vocations lies not in their success, but in their doing; a vocation is an activity.

One does not, for instance, extract value from parenting only if one’s progeny live good lives, are kind to others, and of benefit to society. Value is also available simply in the task of parenting. The task is emotionally taxing, at time feel unrewarding, and sometimes the end product may not live up to the standards originally hoped for (in these ways, parenting and writing have much in common). Nevertheless, the child is an object of intrinsic value, as is the project of raising her.

Confucius was wrong to describe work as the antithesis of enjoyment. If one’s lives a vocation, every second of every day is work. He would have been better to say “work at what you love, and you’ll choose to work every day of your life.”

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