On Philosophy

July 5, 2007

The Absurdity Of Work

Filed under: Society,The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

The economy, at least for the most part, is a pointless waste of time. Which is not to say that we can get rid of it or replace it, a capitalist economy is one of the best ways to keep society at nearly full production (or at least about as close as you can get), which is important because as society becomes less productive you tend to end up with increased poverty and shortages. However, by itself production is meaningless.

But before I argue that production by itself is absurd let me first illustrate the exceptions to this rule. The exceptions are when the economy brings forth something new, something that gives people more power and opportunities, often in the form of better health, increased access to knowledge, or a new tool which allows them to do new things and live in new ways. Examples of such things are: libraries, the radio, the automobile, the internet, penicillin, and so on. The work people put into developing those things, and the advances that made them possible, are real contributions to society. These are the things that make us better off.

However for the most part the economy only leads to the creation of slightly improved versions of older things. And what value is that? Of course they are better by some standard. Perhaps they work better or last longer. But do they really make our lives better? Although many people credit the things they have for making them happy I think that is a mistake on their part. Simply compare people now with people who lived in the 50s. I think it is reasonable to say that on average people were about as happy then as they are now, and where there are substantial differences in happiness it is due mostly to better medicine, education, and a decrease in racism and sexism. It is not because we have better stoves and mattresses. If this claim doesn’t strike you as true then I can appeal to my theory about what makes a life good, namely that it is one in which a person’s important desires are satisfied. And important desires can be hindered by ill health or racism, but the quality of your stove doesn’t have much of an impact.

Now the fact that the economy is mostly pointless doesn’t really have much of an impact on our attitudes towards it. After all we need it to guarantee that we have working stoves; the fact that it gives rise to a pointless never-ending quest to make better stoves is simply a mostly useless byproduct. But what it may have an impact on is our attitudes toward our own lives. Many people desire to be important or to make a difference. And thus some people tell themselves that what they do in their job is important, that by making widgets they are a valuable part of society. But upon realizing that most production is simply a pointless red queen’s race it becomes impossible to defend one’s own importance by participation in it. I think that subconsciously many people realize this, and that in part it, along with the fact that we have so much leisure time, is responsible for the modern obsession with TV and games as a form of escapism.

But it is not possible to change things so that everyone is important, or recognized as important. Not everyone can make a real and lasting contribution to society, because it requires talent, inspiration, and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Nor can we make everyone feel special by recognizing them in some way; to make everyone special in this way would be to make no one special. The best way out then is simply to give up the desire to be important or special. But that is only a solution that a few people can adopt. For one thing it is natural to want to be important, so to motivate people to give up that desire would require us to reshape society so that no one is recognized. Not only is that eerily like 1984, but taking away people’s drive to be recognized would substantially slow down the progress of society. That desire motivates people to try to do great things, even though most of them don’t succeed, and so without that motivation there would be a lot fewer people trying, and so fewer successes. There is an analogy here to the desire of people to own goods. The desire to have things simply to have them (and not because they aid some other desire) is not a good desire; few people can have everything they want, and so the desire is often frustrated, leading to unhappiness. However if everyone gave up their desire to own things we would be in trouble, because the economy would suffer, and we would be unable to obtain even the things we wanted for some other purpose. In both cases the “cure” is worse than the disease, both from the standpoint of its effects on individuals and on society as a whole.

I don’t really have a solution for either problem. If we could find some way to motivate consumption without the desire for things, and to motivate achievement without the desire for recognition, then we would be in good shape. But it doesn’t seem like human nature permits such a solution. In a sense then society will always be partially failing most people. It helps fulfill most desires, but it can’t make most people important, despite their desire to be important, a desire that society is structured to perpetuate (just as it can’t give everyone everything they want, despite the fact that society does its best to give people the desire to consume).

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1 Comment

  1. Hmm, it seems like when we design a society, we want to maximize certain values, namely we want society to be harmonious (strife and violence don’t hinder our pursuit of goals), prosperous (our goals are achievable with a modest amount of effort), and virtuous (our goals are goals we “should” have and our actions conform to our goals).

    The trouble with capitalism is that it maximizes the second value without any attention paid to the third. Accordingly, it becomes a race to the bottom, where A says, “I want money. I can get it by making B want the crap I churn out.” then A uses advertising, peer pressure, hype, etc. to make B want A’s product. B then wants more money to buy A’s product and so B begins to engage in a similar process of manufacturing and selling crap. Before long, everyone is working fairly industriously in order to get money in order buy crap. True, A and B would both be better off if they thought, “I want only what I need,” and only did what’s needed for achieving their higher aims. Instead everyone has the aim of being middle class bourgeoisie, and it makes us all sort of miserable.

    But not totally miserable! There are natural limits on the cycle of desire induction. There’s some crap that’s just so obviously bad that you just can’t sell it. If propaganda really worked well, Communism would still be a potent global force, since the people under Communism would mistakenly believe themselves to be well off. Furthermore, there comes a point when people naturally look at their lives and realize they would be happier by accepting what comes of working less.

    The libertarian in me says the natural limits on the cycle of bad capitalism are enough to keep everyone relatively satisfied, even if they are, for all practical purposes, over-producing and over-consuming.

    The statist in me says that the government should do more to limit the induction of desire and direct people to useful ends.

    The religious person in me says, “See, Marx had it exactly backwards. As an opiate, religion is really a force for less economic activity, not more; thus it actually works against the interests of the elite upper class!”

    Comment by Carl — July 5, 2007 @ 3:41 am


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