The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice

By Chris Higgins | Go to book overview

3
Labour, Work, and Action:
Arendt’s
Phenomenology of Practical Life

Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it,
because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of
what sort it is (I Corinthians 3:13)


INTRODUCTION

No study of the relationship between work and human flourishing would be complete without consideration of the singular theory of Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition (1998 [1958]) Arendt offers us an ethics of practical life, one closely related to that of her fellow neo-Aristotelian, Alasdair MacIntyre. In the last chapter, we explored MacIntyre’s idea that practices (including vocational practices) constitute ethical sources, sites of our ethical education. One of the interesting features of this view, we noted, is its studious agnosticism toward the question of the relative worth of each practice. The key question about practices is not the worth of them but the worth in them, their ability to disclose new aspects of the good and enrich our vocabularies of valuation. This does not mean that MacIntyre holds a Pollyanna view of practical life, as if any and all forms of doing are equally enriching. Not all activities, as we have taken pains to show, count as practices in MacIntyre’s special sense. Further, we noted MacIntyre’s view that it has become increasingly difficult to sustain any practices in late capitalism. Western modernity has largely obscured the key distinctions of practical ethics: between practices and institutions, internal goods and external goods, excellences of character and technical skills.

Arendt too is deeply concerned by the modern transformations of practical life. But in marked contrast to MacIntyre, Arendt wants to develop a hierarchical model of practical activities, which she divides into three broad categories: labour, work, and action. Though each is inescapable, given our human condition, they contribute unequally to our flourishing. A life of sheer labour would not be a fully human life. A life of work, while more humane, would still be incomplete. Only a life that makes a significant space for what Arendt calls action fully expresses our humanity. (I unpack the meanings of labour, work, and action in detail below.)

This division of practical life into three basic modes makes Arendt’s theory, in one sense, less fine-grained than that of MacIntyre.1 After all, Arendt

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