dirty work

Ammpol recently made a comment about unemployment and the “Protestant Work Ethic”, which set me thinking...  I probably have only a vague grasp of the concept – but I assume it has to do with (or descends from) a salvation-by-something-or-other angle on religion as distinct from a supposed earlier (Roman) Catholic salvation-by-something-else.  Itʼs always puzzled me as I had the impression that Catholicism allowed for salvation-by-good-works whereas most varieties of Protestantism seem to be more about salvation-by-grace.  But thatʼs a whole other boring topic, and not one Iʼm qualified to speculate about.  I doubt itʼs really germane to economics, or more to the point, itʼs not the actual “work ethic” we appear to have in contemporary society.

The actual contemporary work ethic – which arguably is germane to economics – appears to be “you can only have any status or any right to self-esteem if youʼre paid” (including self-employment).  (The extent to which different people actually accept that will vary, and they will have their own qualifications or extensions to add.)  Note that “being paid” is not the same as “working” – though obviously different definitions of both could be used in different contexts.  It might be more viable to suggest that we have an “employment” ethic rather than a “work” ethic.  (Either way, there are exceptions – some people are quite comfortably off with neither work nor employment.)

Underlying that though, thereʼs a question about whether either “employment” or “work” should, or even can, be a valid justification for our existence.  There are a series of obvious points which could be raised to show that even in our employment-obsessed society, this is not really the case – the positions of children, pensioners, wives, wealthy people, severely disabled etc.

However, an objection could be raised against any revision of this “work ethic”, that if you donʼt require people to work, things wonʼt get done, and so on.  Leaving aside the question of whether people might just choose to do things which would qualify as “work” out of sheer interest – which arguably doesnʼt matter because it doesnʼt cover a potential class of uninteresting but necessary actions – Iʼd observe that no dispute over the relationship of wages to activities is going to change the following facts for humans and most other mammals:

  1. life requires sustenance, care and shelter,
  2. pleasant life requires more of each than does mere survival, and
  3. humans and closely related animal species are more dependent on social interactions not limited to care than most species, so point 2 is far more the case for us than for, say, Otocolobus manul – and this would be true even if we hadnʼt evolved a technologically complex society with extraordinarily high infrastructure-maintenance requirements, thereby exposing ourselves to an astonishing degree of vulnerability to systems change.

It may be (some have suggested) that our complex society will be successful enough that we can reach the point where the uninteresting but necessary tasks can be entirely delegated to automata.  I for one doubt this, and it would appear to me to be short-sighted to the point of insanity to continue to develop in such a way as to leave our populations with no fallback to clearly sustainable means of producing essential sustenance, care, and shelter.

However – whether Iʼm right or wrong about the possibility of automation, I would argue that existing, and any possible future human society, does require something akin to a work ethic, as an inevitable consequence of being a society.  More to the point, it is inevitable for a social species.  At its most basic, we require each otherʼs care in order to live.  We do not hatch from untended eggs and wriggle around eating everything we come across (and consequently we are not mostly eaten in the process).  So: in the absence of something which fulfils the same function as a “work ethic”, who shall do the caring?  And for a hypothetical fully-automated society which is sane enough to build in graceful systems-degradation, who shall be trained to take over the functions of automata at need?

While alternatives could be suggested (and are practiced), I think the egalitarian principle is a useful guide, so the answer I would propose is “everyone who can”.  This work ethic would not allow for idle aristocracies in either the traditional or present-day sense, but would allow flexibility for those who, for one reason or another, canʼt.  Drilling into that a bit further, I would suggest that we have a shared responsibility to ourselves (including each other).  One of the biggest problems with the phrase “work ethic” is that it implies there is a distinction between matters pertaining to “work” and plain ordinary ethics; but there isnʼt.

That being said, it is essential to note that the activities which are required to meet our needs and supply some degree of additional comfort are not necessarily those which people get paid to undertake.  Given that people who are unpaid or unemployed may nevertheless be doing useful work some or most of the time, I am rather less bothered by unemployment than by the useless activities which people actually get paid to carry out as part of “work”.

A classic case from my experience is a girl I met once at a conference in Perth in the 1980s who was paid to stand holding a tray of drinks for a couple of hours.  I cannot believe that substituting for a table was the limit of her abilities.  But in order to ensure the extra comfort of the guests at this event – predominantly Labour Councillors and their friends as I recall – she was required to dress “appropriately”, stay silent, smile, and hold the wine steady for the elite.  (Otherwise they might not have turned up, I suppose – or theyʼd have had to gone through to the bar for the poison of their choice.)  I asked her what she thought of this, but it seems she wasnʼt being paid to think. :-(  There are forms of dirty work which someone will have to do for the foreseeable future, but this isnʼt it.