Saturday 26 May 2012

The only jobs worthy of respect - according to W.H Auden


From an essay by WH Auden in I Believe: the personal philosophies of twenty-three eminent men and women of our time. London: Allen & Unwin 1941.

The only jobs known to me which seem worthy of respect, both from the point of view of the individual and society, are being a creative artist, some kind of highly skilled craftsman, a research scientist, a doctor, a teacher, or a farmer.


This discusses a big problem for many people - I mean the problem of trying to find and work-in 'a job worthy of respect from the point of view of the individual and society'.

As a mid-teen the above passage by WH Auden made a big impact on me, since I was thinking about jobs. I agreed with the above list, more or less, at the time I read it - these were worthwhile jobs, others were not.

But now...

1. Creative artists. Not even trying, highly professionalized ugliness-makers.

2. Highly skilled craftsman. As a hobby, yes; but as a job?

3. A research scientist. A docile and dishonest bureaucrat.

4. A doctor. Dying species, salesman for Big Pharma.

5. A teacher. State propagandist?

6. A farmer. A subsidy-farmer.


My point is that all of these few jobs which used to be 'worthy of respect' have been thoroughly infiltrated by the state, bureaucritized, made into cogs in a machinery that does harm. It has become, ahem, a challenge to do respectworthy work in any of the above categories.

This means that nearly everybody is doing work which is not worthy of respect.

(And of those who imagine they do, then this is a delusion or dishonesty.)

Which means that (being honest and clear-headed) we all are beavering away busily at despicable activities which tend to make things worse...

And the situation seems inescapable.



Chris said...

Hi Bruce.

There is nothing wrong with any of the jobs on Auden's list, honestly done. The tradesman, by the way, includes the plumber, the electrician, and the other sons of Martha who keep the nuts from coming loose.

What has happened, however, is that the dead hand of bureaucracy has made doing each of those jobs honestly a lot harder.

There are artists doing great, beautiful art. Successful ones. Then there are the fashionable ones -- bought by Saatchi, who subcontract their work to craftsmen.

There are doctors who are not shills for pharma: but the only people (at least in my experience) who will fund drug trials are pharma companies. (try running a trial without money. The best you can do is a pilot with under 100 people. Doing that with a non medication intervention right now).

And there are good farmers and then farmers who push the EU rules to the limit.

There are good ethicists, philosophers and theologians, and then there is dreck. Peter Singer is an example of the latter.

Nothing new here, if you know your Orwell ("have you sanded the sugar yet? ).

I prefer Luther's comment that the work of a cobbler is as worthy as the prayers of a monk. All can be done honestly and well, and doing that is worthy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris - obviously I disagree, or I wouldn't have written this post!. I have been doctor, research scienctist and teacher and write from experience there.

"I prefer Luther's comment that the work of a cobbler is as worthy as the prayers of a monk. "

But they are not equivalent. A monk can prgress through various stages to become a Saint, not a cobbler. Of course the monk can be corrupted as anyone else, often is. but he can go higher.

"All can be done honestly and well, and doing that is worthy."

What about a torturer in a concentration camp? Clearly there are jobs which, to do well, means to do harm. And most jobs are of that type - especially bureaucratic jobs.

This really is a much bigger problem than you admit Chris!

I know several doctors, good doctors and good Christians, who feel that their jobs in the UK are not worthwhile and seek something else - often by going abroad (wisely or not).

Chris said...

I agree that there are differences in jobs, and some jobs are simply evil. Taking the medical example -- without comparing H factors (you probably have a better one than mine -- we have had to work these out for something called PBRF in New Zealand) -- is there the ability to still do an honest job within the system?

Or, is the NHS evil to the point we should disassociate from it? I am aware that the NHS does things that are wrong -- terminations of pregnancy, enforced laicism of Christians while allowing other religions free reign, over regulation of medical decisions

(I assume that the people who named NICE have never read their Lewis).

Some days I think we should just separate from society. But this removes the good that we do -- and we are called to be in an evil world (the Romans were not, by any measure, saints), but not part of it.

In the Antipodes, to practice my craft, private work is not an option. There is no real insurance for mental health (NZ, in Australia there is but the Medicare system has issues around moral hazard). I'm a clinician with pretensions of research, not the other way around... and I can influence others (keeping them from the Freudian error, for instance).

Taking the cobbler as an example -- what used to be a craft is now items made in a factory, often in China. I think I have one pair of shoes that were made locally...

Yes, there is a problem. Now, what is the solution?

Because there I am stumped.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris - I don't have a solution; but perhaps we should try and stop thinking in terms of good jobs (worthy of respect) versus bad jobs. I personally find it hard to stop doing this, but I think I probably should stop.

The most obvious problem is that some jobs force you to lie, frequently and strategically; others force you to destroy beauty and create ugliness; others force you to encourage or even coerce immorality (others merely to subvert and mock virtue).

How to be Christian? Maybe it is not possible under such circumstance - maybe we are being called to martyrdom (of various types)?

Bruce Charlton said...


You are letting your pessimism get the better of you, Mr. Charlton. You seem to be saying that to participate in this world in any way is inherently corrupting, and this is simply not true. All of the jobs you listed can be practiced with dignity and honor even today, and I could cite you examples to prove it. Sometimes, you seem to be verging on a functional manichaeism, believing that all that exists in this world is evil. I can assure you that it is not, but I appreciate your feelings, I feel that way myself sometimes. Remember, despair is a sin. I'll pray for you, and I'm not kidding. You have a lot to contribute, Dr. Charlton, don't let the bastards grind you down. Our Faith, and our world, have been through worse than this.


Bruce Charlton said...


Thanks for your concern. I think, however, that I am trying here to analyse a general problem rather than a specific one. I use Auden (the young Auden, pre-Christian) as an example of the still normal middle class hope of finding a job which can be the focus of life, and which to do well is to be respect-worthy. My view is that insofar as a job is bureaucratized, it is not respect worthy - since responding to incentives is not itself respectworthy and the purposes of modern bureaucracies are not traceable to any personal (hence Good) decision.

Adhering to the outcome of a vote or a committee decision simply on the basis of obedience to proper procedure is not respectworthy.

Bruce Charlton said...


What would you say to someone about to embark on a career in scientific research (about to start on a top PhD programme, already published while an undergraduate) who wants his work to be worthy of respect?

It depresses me that almost all scientists and scientific institutions are both creatures of the state and the left. However, what is a truth-seeker who is scientifically talented to do but partake in these admittedly corrupt institutions?


bgc answers

I wrote a posting on this a few weeks ago:

Anonymous said...

You can be a good person, and an example to others, wherever you are and whatever you are doing. The best job is whatever makes the best use of your personal gifts. Better to be a good cobbler than a bad monk, and vice versa.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - Well... There are limits - there is the torturer example above; or an affirmative action bureaucrat...

But, in general, it is a shame if your hard work, intelligence and creativity are being deployed to make the world a worse place: the better you do your job, the worse you make the world.

It's a real problem, not just a product of over-scrupulosity.