An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2005

Good work, from Homer to today

Harvey Goldman

Harvey Goldman is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. The author of “Max Weber and Thomas Mann: Calling and the Shaping of the Self” (1988) and “Politics, Death, and the Devil: Self and Power in Max Weber and Thomas Mann” (1992), he is presently working on problems of knowledge among contemporary French intellectuals.

Work has long been understood as an ethical practice within a more comprehensive moral economy. Yet students of the modern professions have often ignored the ethical aspects of work. One can therefore only applaud contemporary reform efforts like the GoodWork Project that attempt to understand the specific moral economy of the professions. Effective projects for the reform of work have generally needed to acknowledge not only professionals’ ideologies and practices, but also the social institutions and forces that inform them. Only in this way have reformers been able to determine the genuine nature of the problems that undermine good work.

In modern times especially, the challenge of work goes deeper than the moral formation of single individuals. As Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber well understood, we moderns live in a social climate that increasingly and systematically takes control over the conditions of meaningful and responsible work from those who work–even within the professions. One implication of their theories is clear: unless the social climate is transformed, merely exhorting students in professional schools to ‘do good’ is not likely to produce truly good work.

Advice on how to do good work has been part of Western culture since at least Hesiod’s Works and Days. The Greek notion of ‘excellence’–areté from Ares, the Greek god of war–dates back to Homer and an era when aristocrats, the aristoi, or ‘best,’ assumed that they alone were excellent in the profession that mattered most, that of arms. On the basis of its martial virtue, the Homeric aristocracy justified its superiority to itself and to the common people whose labor sustained its power and wealth.

Aristocratic power and self-conceptions did not go unchallenged, however, as economic growth and technological developments enabled the lower classes to assume an ever-more important role in the waging of war and the defense of society. During struggles over the arbitrariness of aristocratic rule in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., another ethical conception emerged among the Greeks, associated with diké, or justice. The new ideal introduced a conception of responsibility that went far beyond the tribal loyalty at issue in Homeric areté. Diké became a social rallying cry, changing the relations between the traditional ruling classes and those they administered.

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