European Meeting of University Professors, Rome, 21-24 June 2007
Ethical and rational underpinnings of work in the current economic context
Work, education and civil society: In need of a new paradigm
*†‡Joan Fontrodona, Manuel Guillén and Alfredo Rodríguez Sedano
Work is a human reality that has taken on key importance in today‟s world. The impact of human work on the world has increased considerably as a result of the technological advances of the last century. Moreover, from a more existential point of view, work also has a major impact on people and society.
However, precisely at a time when work plays such an important role, the concept we have of work may be losing importance compared to other moments in the history of thought.
Recovering all the aspects that make up a complete idea of work is important to be able to understand and value work in itself, and to define the educational process that takes place before and during our professional lives, as well as the social dynamics in which work takes place.
This paper will first describe work from a phenomenological and anthropological perspective and then discuss the different aspects of work and the information gained during each step of the learning process. We will then present an evaluation of the educational framework for the development of competencies that is currently being prepared in the European Union as an example of how the concept of work is losing sway and discuss the practical implications this may have on education. Finally, we will
* Associate Professor, Business Ethics Department, Academic Director, Center for Business in Society, IESE Business School – University of Navarre, Barcelona, Spain † Associate Professor, Business Organization Department, University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain ‡ Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Education, University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain
reflect on social dynamics and propose that “practical reason” and the “logic of truth” be recovered as factors that can help understand the concept of work in all its detail.
An Anthropological Look at Work
Human activity has a number of characteristics that distinguish it from the activity performed by other living beings. First of all, human activity forces us to make contact with the environment. Other living beings also make contact with their environment (Umwelt), i.e. the world around them that takes on meaning as dictated by their biological needs. But humans are capable of going beyond what is immediately significant and creating distance between what is around them and themselves. Thanks to this distance, they are able to give this reality a different meaning. Humans therefore not only have an Umwelt but a Welt (universe), to which they give their own meaning
while respecting reality for what it is. That is why art is such a quintessentially human concept, because it is the ability to turn reality into an object to be contemplated. Animals kill and eat. Humans have turned this biological need into a cultural event by creating gastronomy.
In their relations with the world, humans are “non-specialists”. All other living
beings specialize in one thing or another: some are designed to fly, others to spend their lives in water; some can withstand the cold, while others can tolerate tropical heat. However, humans are defined by their lack of specialization. Humans can adapt to any environment and situation, not because of their biological conditions, but because they are capable of coming up with solutions that allow them to survive in different situations. When they want to fly, they invent the airplane. When they want to move underwater, they invent the submarine. When they are cold, they wear warm clothes. When they are hot, they invent air conditioning or freeze water to make ice. Aristotle said that “humans have been given hands because they are the most intelligent of all animals”. In other words, humans make up for their lack of biological conditions with their intelligence and ability to create devices with their hands. Their ability to make things is strengthened by their ability to think.
A second feature is that when humans take action, it not only produces external results, but also modifies them and contributes to who they are. Human life is not only a biological process, but a profoundly biographical one: by their very actions, human
beings write their own history and that of all of humanity. In one of his discussions with his followers, Socrates asks if it is worse to suffer injustice or commit it. You might think it is worse to suffer injustice because the person who commits it gets something out of it, whereas the person who suffers injustice has to put up with unexpected and unwanted distress. And yet Socrates answers that committing injustice is worse because the person who commits it becomes less just. In other words, something inside the person who commits an act of injustice creates a change for the worse in that person. This is much worse than the positive results that person may gain from the unjust act.
It may not be that easy to understand this important aspect of human action. It might console us to know that even Socrates‟ followers had trouble grasping the
concept. When we evaluate the effects of our actions, we should not only think about the externally patent consequences, but also about the other consequences that remain inside the person who takes action. They may not have an immediate impact but more long-term effects, and their effects may be much more radical because they help shape our personality and determine who we are. Someone who commits an act of injustice is preparing to commit the same act in the future. The next time it will be much easier and this person will be much closer to committing even more unjust acts. To look at it from the opposite perspective, someone who commits an act of justice, a magnanimous, charitable, generous or friendly act, is more predisposed to continue in the same vein, thus making it easier to perform such an act again in the future. The Greek philosophers referred to these predispositions we acquire as virtues. When we take action, we acquire virtues (or vices if our actions are bad). We are not only doing things, but creating the person we are.
A third characteristic of human activity is that humans not only do things themselves, but do them with others. Humans are also capable of having others do things for them. Humans not only do things, but are able to manage others. Managing others involves getting other people to do the things one wants. Managing does not involve modifying inert materials (which is producing), but modifying someone‟s will so that the person (who is an equal) does what one wants. Objects and goods can be administered. People are managed. Managing is the hardest job humans can do because it does not merely involve informing others (communication is a major part of management, but management cannot be reduced to merely transmitting information), but having an influence on their behaviour (making them do what one wants them to do)
and at the same time respecting their condition as free, intelligent beings. When this is not respected, management becomes manipulation.
Managing people is an art that cannot be reduced to a simple set of rules. It is not the application of a technique, but calls for a specific mind set from the manager and the people being managed. Ultimately, management is based on the manager‟s ability to generate trust. This trust not only arises from the manager‟s technical knowledge (managers do not necessarily have to know more than the people they manage; in many cases, the opposite is true) or a kind of emotional collusion (managers do not have to be nice or share interests and tastes with the people they manage), but is based on the perception that when managers manage, they are thinking about what is best for the people they manage, who trust them and put themselves in managers‟ hands. To paraphrase Aristotle, we could say that “I put myself in his hands because he is the most trustworthy of living beings”.
These three characteristics indicate in one way or another the dimensions of work. In any job or professional activity there is an objective dimension, a result that is exteriorized and accomplished, and a subjective dimension, which is the result of the action in the person doing the action. This subjective dimension is present in the person who does the action, as well as in the people who receive the action. We change through work and the people who we deal with also change.
We can therefore say that a good job not only consists of doing what one should, but becoming a better person as a result and improving the other people one works with. When these three dimensions are borne in mind, they result in positive synergies that contribute to the development of society because we become better people and make the world we share a better place.
In his Encyclical on work, Pope John Paul II pointed out two senses of work which have some relation to the dimensions discussed above. He first mentions work in the objective sense, which expresses the divine mandate of control over the Earth, for which humans make use of technology. Technology is man‟s ally in that “it facilitates
his work, perfects, accelerates and augments it”, though it can also turn into his adversary (John Paul II, 1981, 5). With regard to work in a subjective sense, John Paul II indicated that the source of the dignity of work should be sought by the person actually doing the work. Moreover, the purpose of work resides in man himself.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, a saint of our days, understood work as the frame which supports the entire spiritual life of today‟s Christians. Using a description with a rather
ascetic tone, he presents the three dimensions discussed above when he says, “It is we,
men walking in the street, ordinary Christians immersed in the blood-stream of society, whom Our Lord wants to be saints and apostles, in the very midst of our professional work; that is, sanctifying our job in life, sanctifying ourselves in it and, through it, helping others to sanctify themselves as well” (Escrivá, 1977, 119). He concludes by
saying that “since Christ took it into His hands, work has become for us a redeemed and redemptive reality. Not only is it the background of man's life, it is a means and path of holiness. It is something to be sanctified and something which sanctifies” (Escrivá,
An Aristotelian approach to human action
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between theory and praxis.
Theory is the knowledge of what is universal and necessary, of that which cannot be in another manner. On the contrary, praxis is the knowledge of what is particular and
contingent. These two knowledge can refer to the same reality, but they do so in different ways, according to the well known example used by Aristotle: “[A] carpenter and a geometer investigate the right angle in different ways; the former does so in so far as the right angle is useful for his work, while the latter inquires what it is or what sort of thing it is; for he is a spectator of the truth” (Nic. Eth., I, 7, 1098 a 30-33).
Aristotle introduces a new distinction in the ambit of the contingent, when he affirms that “among the things that can be in another manner, is that which is the object of production and that which is the object of an action or an act” (Nic. Eth., VI, 4, 1140
a, 1-2). Aristotle distinguishes between the production of artefacts and a moral action, which the subject is responsible for. For this second type he reserves the name of praxis, while he gives the name of poiesis to the production (technical or artistic).
Therefore, we can say that for Aristotle there are three types of knowledge, each one of them with its proper object:
- Theory, which occupies itself with universal and necessary objects
- Praxis, which occupies itself with actions which morally make perfect the
subject. In Latin it corresponds with the terms “agere”, “actio” (to do).
- Poiesis, which occupies itself with the material production. In Latin it
corresponds with the term “facere”, “factio” (to make). The concept of
techne (ars in Latin) corresponds with this ambit. Therefore, both technical
actions and artistic productions would be included here.
For Aristotle these are not only three ways of knowledge; they have to be understood in a much more vital way. They are three ways of life. Theoretical life, proper of the philosophers, is a life of contemplating the eternal and the inherent. Practical life is expressed in a proper way, in the participation in public life, as in the case of politicians. The technical life corresponds with manual work, carried out by those who in the Greek civilization did not really have the condition of citizens.
Hannah Arendt has warned about the danger of this vision that devaluates the world of human action (the vita activa) subordinating it to the life of contemplation (the vita contemplativa). The task she set herself was to reinstate the life of public and political action by systematically elaborating what this vita activa might be said to entail
(Yar, 2006). Arendt argued for a tripartite division between the human activities of labour, work, and action (Arendt, 1958):
- Labour is that activity which corresponds to the biological processes and
necessities of human existence (animal laborans), the practices which are
necessary for the maintenance of life itself.
- Work corresponds to the fabrication of an artificial world of things,
distinguished by its durability, its semi-permanence and relative
independence from the individual actors and acts which call it into being.
Homo faber’s representatives are, for example, the builder, the architect, the
craftsperson, the artist and the legislator, as they create the public world both
physically and institutionally by constructing buildings and making laws.
- Action is defined by freedom, that is, as an end in itself and so as
subordinate to nothing outside itself. To act means to take initiative, to begin,
to set something in motion. So, intrinsic to the human capacity for action is
the introduction of genuine novelty, the unexpected, unanticipated and
unpredictable into the world. Arendt‟s theory holds that actions cannot be
justified for their own sake, but only in light of their public recognition and
the shared rules of a political community. Action is therefore the proper
activity of the social character of the human being (zoon politikon) and
requires a public space in which it can be realized, a context in which
individuals can encounter one another as members of a community (Yar,
Here we arrive at a certain paradox. Greek philosophy situated theory as the
highest form of life. On the other hand, Arendt wants to underline the value of active life, and states that man is only free when he moves about easily in the ambit of action (praxis). Finally, nowadays the idea of production (poiesis) has acquired an important
relevance. Is there any way of relating all these three ambits? Can theory and praxis
(action) contribute something to poiesis (technique and art)?
When defining the three types of knowledge, the differences between them have been underlined. The first difference is that theory moves in the ambit of the universal,
while praxis (action) and poiesis (technique and art) move about in the ambit of the particular. The second difference is that theory and praxis are inherent operations, i.e.
actions of reason whose results revert on the subject. On the other hand, poiesis refers to
transitive operations, whose results are modifications of exterior material (Table 1).
Universal Inherent Theory
(production or art)
Table 1. Differences between the three types of human knowledge
Therefore, praxis (action) is equally far apart from the technical or artistic skill (poiesis) and the sure knowledge of universal truths (theories). Praxis shares with
poiesis an interest for particular questions and is not interested in knowledge in itself,
but unlike poiesis, its activity does not translate itself in exterior results. Praxis asks
how one knows what is alright, how to decide at every moment what has to be done, and what methods have to be used in order to achieve this.
Now, the question is not only how to distinguish these three kinds of knowledge, but if they are related in any way. If these three kinds of knowledge are understood not as excluding, but in categorical terms, the hypothesis that the three kinds of knowledge could be found in one same action can be taken into account. Aristotle contemplates this possibility when he alerts that through action the flute player‟s art improves, as well as that of the sculptor and all who produce or work on some thing, and which reveals a certain inherence of the act (Nic. Eth., I, 7, 1097 b 23-1098 a 20). In terms of the subject
at hand, what we are interested in is the relationship that poiesis has with the other two.
Poiesis (technique and art) needs theory. The homo faber cannot be understood
only as that who executes or transforms the material in virtue of the perfection of his corporal organs. He is also homo sapiens, because without knowledge, technique or art
is impossible (Chirinos, 2002). In order to produce artefacts, human being needs both, the sensorial knowledge of the material which is the object of the transformation process as well as the scientific knowledge of the laws of the process (Chirinos, 2002).
Poiesis (production) needs praxis. Poiesis has to be understood as an action which
intervenes in the course of a process. Arendt underlines that work has essentially an instrumental character. Work is essentially a means to achieve the thing which is to be
fabricated (be it a work of art, a building or a structure of legal relations) and so stands in a relation of mere purposiveness to that end. Therefore, the activity of work is not an end in itself, but is determined by prior causes and articulated ends (Yar, 2006).
The technical action has a relative purpose, the production of something, but this end is accompanied by another absolute objective, which defines not only what we do (production), but for what we are doing it (action) (Metaph., V, 1013 a. 32). This final
objective of the acts is characterised by Aristotle as something perfect and autosufficient (Nic. Eth., I, 7, 1097, b 20-22). This „for what‟ is what corresponds to praxis. For that
reason Aristotle underlines in Politics that human life is basically praxis not poiesis.
(Politics, I, 2, 1254, a 7). Spaeman (1991, 254) has insisted on this point by underlining that “all poiesis is inscribed, in fact, in a praxis”.
Any human action worthy of the name has a theoretical side, a poietic side and a praxis side. Let‟s use the example of John, who is building a house. To build the house,
John will need to know a number of things about the use of materials and will have to make calculations and follow a set of more or less accepted rules. All this is theory. Then, if it is something John thinks is important, he will think about the needs of the people who will live in the house or how the construction of the house will affect the environment. He will also have to deal with the people who help him build the house. He will have to negotiate, give orders and accept advice. All this is praxis. Finally, he will make use of a series of technical and artistic skills that will ultimately finish off the house and make it all come together. This is poietic activity.
The reflection oriented towards an end (praxis) is what puts human action in
movement, and therefore praxis governs the technical production (poiesis), because
everyone who does something does it with a view to an end (Nich. Eth., VI, 2, 1139 a
31 – 1139 b 6) (Chirinos, 2002).
We are mistaken if we think that all we do when we work is to make things. The external results of our professional activity are an important effect of our work, but not the only one. As a result, when we think about performing a professional activity and its impact on society, we cannot simply think that our work is transforming the environment in which society advances. People have only an incomplete vision when they think that all they have to do when they perform their role as professionals is to worry about doing the technical things as well as they can and that there will be other areas in which they can put other sides of their personality into play. This is because all essentially human activities have a technical side (poietics), as well as a practical side, which is related to the values of the subject and her significant vision of the world and herself. A good professional is someone who does not only do things technically well, but who does them for a reason that is worthwhile. She should not only worry about “what” she does, but “why” she does it.
Focusing on the subjective dimension of work, could be of interest to ask about what are the learning outcomes that we obtain through our work.
The three types of activities are related with the faculties of the human being, inasmuch that the human being uses his faculties to carry out the different activities. In the exercise of his faculties the human being acquires some dispositions through which he finds it easier to carry out similar actions in the future. These dispositions receive, in
classical philosophy, the name of „habits‟. Therefore, the concept of habit as a disposition of the subject to act is very much related with the idea of learning. Learning
is, in Aristotelian terms, the acquisition of habits through actions. In a more
contemporary language, is “a cumulative process where individuals gradually assimilate increasingly complex and abstract entities (concepts, categories, and patterns of behaviour or models) and/or acquire skills and wider competences” (European Commission, 2005b).
Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics states: “We divided the virtues of the soul and
said that some are virtues of character and others of intellect” (Nic. Eth., VI,1, 1139 a 1-
2). Thus, the faculties that are subject to habits are two: understanding (or apprehensive faculty) which is the faculty which allows us to know the things, and the will (or the appetitive faculty), which is the faculty which inclines us to look for good things and to act well.
Within the faculty of the intellect, Aristotle distinguishes two parts, “one by which
we contemplate the kind of things whose originative causes are invariable, and one by which we contemplate variable things”. He calls one of these parts “the scientific and the other the calculative; for to deliberate and to calculate are the same thing, but no one deliberates about the invariable” (Nic. Eth., VI, 1, 1139 a 6-14). Continuing with the
distinctions, Aristotle affirms that “in the variable are included both things made and things done” (Nic. Eth., VI, 4, 1140 a 1-3), which corresponds with the distinction that has been previously made between praxis and poiesis.
Therefore the habits of the different faculties are the following ones:
1. The habits of the scientific or theoretical intellect are three: understanding or
the habit of the first principles; wisdom, which facilitates the knowledge of
the last causes in general; and science, which is the knowledge of the last
causes of the different kinds of being. Commenting on these three principles,
Thomas Aquinas affirms that there is a certain order in these three habits:
“science depends on understanding as on a virtue of higher degree: and both
of these depend on wisdom, as obtaining the highest place, and containing
beneath itself both understanding and science, by judging both of the
conclusions of science, and of the principles on which they are based” (S.
Th., I-II, q. 57, a. 2, ad 2).