18 December 2011

Caring only about your work

The philosopher Nel Noddings once (in 1984) wrote: "Most of us commonly take as pejorative, 'He cares only about money'; but we have mixed feelings when we hear, 'He cares only about mathematics' or 'She cares only about music.' In part, we react this way because we feel that a person who cares only about money is likely to hurt others in pursuit of it, while one who cares only about mathematics is a harmless and, perhaps, admirable person who is denying himself the pleasures of life in his devotion to an esoteric object."

I do think this is a fair general statement of the usual connotations of such sentences. In the spirit of expanding Noddings' comment, we might observe: Someone who cares only about mathematics may be a harmless drudge, or may end up discovering a mathematical anomaly in radio waves that in turn improves worldwide communications for the good of us all. Someone who cares only about money may obtain it by violence or fraud, doing active harm to others.

More generally, we often extend respect, even if it is a grudging respect, to anyone who is "married to" his occupation, especially if it is an occupation which may derive some of its appeal from the intellectually challenging nature of the work.  "He cares only about his work" said of a lawyer or an engineer, is no bad thing.

Still, I think Noddings goes a bit too far when she writes about how such a person is "denying himself" pleasures of life outside the job: suggesting that this is a praise-worthy sacrifice. If our mathematician prefers the blackboard and the computer lab to the pleasures of, say, sexual relations, child-rearing, neighborly comaraderie, adopting the former over all of the latter is no sacrifice.

OTOH, if a mathematician believes that he has a duty to stay at the blackboard hour after hour, because the human race needs better exploitation of radio frequencies, then I can imagine that his doing so would be a praise-worthy sacrifice. But in such a case, we would not in any case express the situation by saying that he "cares only for" the mathematics.  


Henry said...

I agree that the statement "He cares only about money" is commonly taken as pejorative, but I disagree that this is so because we feel that a person who cares only about money is likely to hurt others in pursuit of it. The reason, rather, is that we believe that excessive concern about money is shallow. This is reflected in the expression,"He who dies with the most toys win."

Christopher said...

Henry, there is something to that too, surely. But one person's toy is another person's deeply significant pastime.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.