Work, Dignity, and Disability: Toward an Inclusive Humanist Philosophy

Faculty Sponsor

Slavica Jakelic


Christ College


Social Theory

ORCID Identifier(s)


Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 4-29-2021


Many humanist thinkers in the Western tradition focus on productive labor as central to thinking about human beings. We find such focus in Marx’s historical materialism, Weber’s discussion of the Protestant ethic, Pope John Paul II’s theory of the dignity of labor, and Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. The problem with these humanist perspectives is that they dismiss the dignity of people unable to do labor, and they imply that disabled people - who comprise 15-20% of the population and are the largest minority worldwide - are unable to live a complete, good life. The importance of labor as a phenomenon cannot be understated - if work were not an important characteristic of human life, it would not be the primary focus of the humanist perspectives as diverse as Marxist ideology, Weber’s social thought, Catholic social teaching, and contemporary development economics. However, while work is a right, it is necessary to revisit the idea that the ability to work is essential to our humanity and dignity. In this research, I suggest that we can utilize frameworks such as the liberation theology of disability, universal human rights, and theories of disability studies to redefine humans not by what they produce, but by what they need in order to thrive. It is crucial to start from an inclusive philosophical perspective in order to make practical social justice and human rights available to all people.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Jenna Johnston is a senior environmental science & biology major with minors in Spanish and geography, and is a Christ College scholar. Jenna has previous research experience in environmental health, plant diversity, and ecology & sociology, and has researched disability scholarship & activism through work in multiple Christ College courses. After graduation, Jenna plans to pursue a career at the intersection of science & society.

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