Monday, September 10, 2012

Is Work Good Or Bad?

Another terrific article in The New York Times: What Work Is Really For:
We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake.  It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well.  But in our economic system, 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 has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)?  Doesn’t idleness lead to boredom, the life-destroying ennui portrayed in so many novels, at least since “Madame Bovary”?

Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing?  Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death).  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 — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.
I have to question this point, however:
[...] Suppose that in 1932, when Russell wrote his essay, we had followed his advice and converted all gains in productivity into increased leisure.  Antibiotics, jet airplanes and digital computers, then just glimmers on the horizon, would likely never have become integral parts of our lives.
Uh...what? Is he really implying that all these things were brought about because we spent forty hours at our cubicles with scant vacation? That long work hours, rather than human inventiveness, made these things come about? And isn't human inventiveness and creativity hindered by always having to have our nose to the grindstone and make a profit? Besides, look at what has happened to all of these things - antibiotics have led to CAFO's and drug-resistant bacteria, air travel has led to being packed onto a flying sardine can after being violated by security guards (and constant government bailouts), and computers are designed to obsolete in 3 years (and are increasingly causing unemployment with nothing waiting in the wings to replace them). Is the capitalist system really using these things for our benefit, and if not how can we say we would not have them if we traded in work for leisure?

Anyhow, the rest of the article redeems itself:
But capitalism as such is not interested in quality of life. It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the greater 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.  The system works at least as well if a product sells not because it is a genuine contribution to human well-being but because people are falsely persuaded that they should have it.  Often, in fact, it’s easier to persuade people to buy something that’s inferior than it is to make something that’s superior. This is why stores are filled with products that cater to fads and insecurities but no real human need.
And especially:
From our infancy the market itself has worked to make us consumers, primed to buy whatever it is selling regardless of its relevance to human flourishing.  True freedom requires that we take part in the market as fully formed agents, with life goals determined not by advertising campaigns but by our own experience of and reflection on the various possibilities of human fulfillment.  Such freedom in turn requires a liberating education, one centered not on indoctrination, social conditioning or technical training but on developing persons capable of informed and intelligent commitments to the values that guide their lives.
Pop on over - should be some interesting comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.