Is work a bad thing? Some philosophers think so
The case against work
I will be conducting this online salon on Anyone later today. Hope you can join in. It builds on the category of one article I wrote for HBR.
We have the Diwali dinner in London this evening. Join us.
Don’t forget the winter carnival we are hosting in Delhi on 18th.
In today’s newsletter, we will discuss some of the downsides of work highlighted by leading moral philosophers of our time. I do not agree with many of their conclusions but their arguments are worth engaging with.
What is work?
Moral philosopher John Danaher defines work as “Any activity performed in exchange for an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving an economic reward” (Danaher, 2019, p.28). It includes all kinds of paid work, some unpaid work, internships, and entrepreneurial activities. Economic reward or its possibility is the defining characteristic of work. Building an entrepreneurial venture our pursuing an unpaid internship may not lead to immediate economic benefits but people pursue them in anticipation of income in the medium to long term. That’s why they fall in the category of work.
Work has become a defining aspect of our identity and purpose. Most people attach their self-worth to the jobs they have. This could be challenging since the technological elimination of work is a realistic possibility.
Widespread automation and the creation of new technologies are likely to make most jobs redundant. 85% of jobs of 2030 do not exist today (Dell, 2017, online). It is clear that those seeking employment in the coming decades would have to upskill themselves to keep up. This is likely to put pressure on vast sections of society. In addition to joblessness, workers might have to grapple with a widespread lack of meaning.
Danaher nudges us to visualize a different scenario. Technological advancements are likely to augment productivity and lead to economic abundance. Even if they eliminate a large number of jobs, people can be protected through redistributive policies. To Danaher, work is important but humans don’t need to do it. Far from being something to be threatened by, technological elimination could be a welcome step to escape the structural badness of work (Danaher, 2019, p.73).