Thompson suggests (p. 33) a thought experiment (based on an old parable of masons) to explore the motives people have for their work and the meanings they ascribe to it.
In Thompson's parable, seven commercial bankers are hard at work, each developing a separate aspect of a complex financing arrangement for the construction of a new and much-needed regional hospital. Imagine asking each of them, “what are you doing?” and getting these answers:
“I’m trying to keep my boss off my back. If I don’t finish this project by the end of the day tomorrow, I’m toast.”
“I’m pulling down eighty thou' a year.”
“I’m trying to make my family financially secure. They are all-important to me.”
“We're working on a genuinely creative financing arrangement for this hospital deal. My team and I can put together a construction package that's five basis points lower than anyone else in the industry.”
“I’m providing a service to my company and community. That’s my obligation.”
“I’m helping to build a hospital; something that will positively affect the health and well-being of the whole community for many years to come.”
“I’m serving God and humanity the best way I know how. Oh, yeah, and I agree with what most of the others said, too.”
Thompson suggests that the seven answers are increasingly spiritual responses because the speakers are placing their work within ever larger frames of reference. Because these are concentric circles of meaning, the latter answers do not exclude caring about the concerns raised in the earlier answers. Thus, there is nothing wrong with answer 1 as far as it goes. Wanting to avoid pain and punishment is one of our most basic human impulses. But life and work can be much more than this. Working from an exclusively authoritarian and self-preservation orientation is a poor prescription for meeting the human desire for a fulfilling life.
For Thompson, the seventh answer places work within the highest level of transcendent meaning by viewing it as service to God. However, while that connection to divinity is very meaningful to many people, it isn't for everyone. For the atheist, this seventh concentric circle of meaning doesn't exist -- it's a fantasy. But that simply means that the sixth circle becomes the level of ultimate, transcendent meaning.
Now a question. Is there good reason to think that professionals who view their work from the perspective of one of the larger, more "spiritual" circles of meaning will be more productive or ethical in their work?