The Philosophy Café

this month's topic:

What is Work For, and What is The Good Life?


October 17, 2012
7:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month at 7:30 in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

This month:


Why do we work? Is it a choice or a necessity? Is work good or bad? The goodness of work is a deep value in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday. What a person "does", that is, her "job" has become a symbol which represents  her  status and achievement; a reference on a person's worthiness.

But there's an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam's sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.

In our economic system , work is done for pay. It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  Most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn't make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle's answer: "we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends." So is leisure mere idleness, simply doing nothing?  No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.

We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake -  The point is that engaging in such activities - and sharing them with others - is what makes a good life. Reason dictates that leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.

However, our economic system as such is not interested in quality of life. It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the more profit the better.  If products sell because they improve the quality of our life, well and good, but it doesn't ,in the end matter  why they sell. As production increases and goods are available more cheaply it would seem that we would become less interested in work for its own sake and more interested in the benefits that work has provided. It would seem, then, that we should increase leisure - and make life more worthwhile - by producing only what makes for better lives. 

This raises an essential question: who decides what is of real value?  The stock answer, in a demand economy, is consumers , who are free to buy whatever they want in an open market.  .  This answer appeals to owners, managers and others with a vested interest in maintaining the system. But even then we must ask why our life satisfaction has not increased if we are doing what we want, Our system, with its devotion to profit and growth , may be at odds with the real life goals of its people. Would we really choose to work harder and consume more if the amount of work and leisure were entirely up to each individual?


The Good Life

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes published an essay he called “Economic Possibilities for ourGrandchildren" it had a simple thesis, as technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs until in the end they would have to work hardly at all : ,the permanent problem would then become how to use this freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest made possible for us, how to live wisely and agreeably well?

Keynes foresaw an era where we would reach a satisfactory level of material well-being and from thence forward in time we would devise new ways to spend the leisure that mechanical efficiency had afforded us. But that is not what has happened. Working hours have remained about the same even as productivity has increased several fold. Why have we not “cashed in” this productivity bonus for , leisure ,which is the time to pursue what we really want(remember that work is a means to an end)

GDP does not correlate with happiness. Our contentment does not increase as a result of our greater economic productivity. An economist named Simon Kuznets was the first to devise a way to measure economic activity back in the 1930's. He created the metric known as GNP (since changed to GDP due to increase in international trade). He made this comment on his own invention:“The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”. Another economist Jonathan Rowe created something he called the genuine progress indicator (GPI) in the 80's, which purported to show the quality of life in the United States rather than mere economic activity. He, noted, "Any measure that portrays an increase in car crashes, cancer, marital breakdown, kinky mortgages, oil use, and gambling as evidence of advance – as the GDP does – simply because they occasion the expenditure of money, has a tenuous claim to being reality-based discourse". So why are we so fixated upon work and the economy, and so tepid on achieving leisure?

  1. Why has life satisfaction remained level while GDP has increased?

  2. Why has leisure time not increased as a result of increased efficiency?

  3. Since work is a means-to-an-end, what is that end? The Good Life? Leisurely pleasure? Can we reach a consensus on what would make us happiest?

  4. Has the ubiquity of profit and markets convinced us that work actually is its own reward?

  5. Is there a moral component to work over and above productivity?

  6. The Book of Genesis says that work is punishment for Adam's sin. Do we still hold with that view in the 21st Century?

  7. Should we distinguish between types of work : toil or labor vs office or white collar work?

  8. Has mankind’s historical expectation of shortage and scarcity created a myth that needs correction.

  9. Does society need the pay-for-work dynamic to coerce people to get the job done?

Suggested Readings:

Holland Herald – Inflight Magazine of KLM» Magazine » A love of labour?

Alain de Botton on the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work -

Robert and Edward Skidelsky, How Much Is Enough?)

What Money Can't Buy:
The Moral Limits of Markets
/ Michael J. Sandel.                 

What's The Economy For, Anyway?:
Why It's Time To Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness
by John de Graaf and David K. Batker

Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

General Info
(617) 661-1515

Media Inquiries

Accessibility Inquiries


Author event updates +
book recommendations.
In your inbox, once a week.

Learn More »

Shipping & Delivery

Shipping rates
and options, locally
and throughout
the U.S.

Learn More »

Signed First Edition Club

A unique way for readers to create a wealth of great books—Get a membership for yourself or for a gift!

Learn More »