Studies: Christian ethics and the future of work

January 13, 2020 in Featured News, News

The changing face of work in the contemporary world was the theme for a workshop held in Trinity College Dublin in October 2019, and the current issue of Studies publishes the proceedings. The purpose of the workshop was to treat of the immense cultural and practical changes in the world of work from the perspective of Christian ethics. It was the brainchild of Mark Bell, Regius Professor of Laws in TCD. For this reason, apart from having a paper in this special issue (on EU labour law), he introduces the full set of nine papers from the workshop in a summary preface.

In his preface, Professor Bell notes the factors which were identified by the International Labour Organisation’s Global Commission on the Future of Work. Chief among them are technological innovation (especially the role of digital platforms), climate change (e.g., industrial restructuring for the sake of a low-carbon economy), and demographic change (increased life expectancy, ageing population, etc.). The purpose of the TCD workshop was to explore “the extent to which Christian Ethics could provide insight relevant for shaping law and policy”.

US theologian Christine Firer Hinze examines questions of justice in relation to labour and livelihood. She is convinced that modern Catholic Social Teaching and thought, for all its limitations, “provides a contemporary, Gospel- and tradition-based understanding of human flourishing, a specific orientation toward people and institutions, and a set of moral principles and base-points”. In effect, this conviction is shared by all the contributors to this volume.

For Firer Hinze, if the Catholic social perspective is “feminist-inflected” it will acquire a “needed corrective lens” in order to gain a truly ethical view of political economy, labour regulation, and economic disparities linked to gender, race, class, etc.

Social Catholics and social feminists concur on the need for a shift in the basic vantage point and priorities through which labour markets and economy are seen and shaped. Botyh favour a democratic, participative political economy centred on inclusive, sustainable livelihood. Both recognise that achieving this will require reordering and in some cases flipping the priorities of currently-reigning neo-liberal market orthodoxy and its supporting ideologies and cultures.

Kevin Hargaden takes a hard look at “the gift of work” in the light of Catholic Social Teaching. He queries the neoliberal presumption which has crept into standard discourse, that employers “give jobs”, and that workers therefore should show appreciation and gratitude by giving the job first priority in their lives. Catholic Social Teaching has a very different understanding of ‘the gift of work’. It proposes that every human person is engaged in a work of justice that transcends the transactional relationship between employers and employed. Work should free, not enslave, us.

Other papers in this volume include a paper by Boston College Professor Cathleen Kaveny which calls for clear distinctions between work and ordinary life, especially so as to resist the totalising tendency of the concept of work in the freer work environments of recent times. The remaining papers visit such topics as the tie between religion and labour law; freedom of association; justice and dignity in the sphere of temporary work – the gig economy, in which the connection between the worker and the company is slight; and issues raised by the lack of job security.

This issue of Studies may be purchased here »