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Should We Mourn the Loss of Work?

In this post, Caleb Althorpe (Trinity College Dublin) and Elizabeth Finneron-Burns (Western University) discuss their new open access article published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, in which they discuss the moral goods and bads of a future without work.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

It is an increasingly held view that technological advancement is going to bring about a ‘post-work’ future because recent technologies in things like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have the potential to replace not just complex physical tasks but also complex mental ones. In a world where robots are beginning to perform surgeries independently and where AI can perform better than professional human lawyers, it does not seem absurd to predict that at some point in the next few centuries productive human labour could be redundant.

In our recent paper, we grant this prediction and ask: would a post-work future be a good thing? Some people think that a post-work world would be a kind of utopia (‘a world free from toil? Sign me up!’). But because there is a range of nonpecuniary benefits affiliated with work, then a post-work future might be problematic.

What Won’t Be Missed

Take the following four benefits philosophers commonly associate with work: income, self-development and excellence, community, and meaningfulness. While we don’t deny that these are important, we note that these are only benefits of work thanks to contingent facts about the economies of today (viz., that we spend so much of our lives working). If efforts were made to ensure individuals had a guaranteed revenue stream (e.g., a basic income funded by an automation tax) then this income, along with all the increased discretionary time we’d have at our disposal, would mean that we would be able to achieve these benefits outside of work.

For instance, I could fully develop my skills and talents in my hobby, achieve community with my close friends, and derive meaningfulness from philosophical or religious reflection. You get the point: there is nothing special about the work process itself when it comes to our ability to attain these benefits. If anything, it seems preferable from the standpoint of liberalism to leave it up to people to choose for themselves the avenues through which they attain these goods, rather than the work process being the only available option as the means to their realization.

What Might Be Missed

There is one benefit that has a deeper connection to work: social contribution. This is because to simply say that a particular activity is work, is often to say that the activity contributes to the lives of others going well. You work when you volunteer at the local food bank; you don’t when you go for jog. Of course, in a post-work world we will still be able to contribute to our close friends and associates (we will play games with them, empathize with their struggles, etc.). But the social contribution inherent to work, and the value philosophers ascribe to it, often relates to contribution to unassociated others, to helping society’s members more widely. Examples of why contributive activity is taken as justice-relevant are arguments that link productive activity to living out a life that accords with our ‘human essence’, or as one of us has previously argued because productive activity is tied to our self-respect as participating members of society.

The fact that individuals in a post-work would miss out on this benefit might then give us a reason to object to it but we need to be cautious here because the prospect of technological advancement itself might undermine the premises used to support the claim that social contribution has normative value. If our labour is redundant because the robots can contribute more effectively to others’ lives going well, then why would productive activity be essential to our essence as humans, or our status as participating members of society characterized as a system of cooperation? Some further kind of argument needs to be advanced here for any objection to a post-work world to not just beg the question.

Sharing Affective Care Work

Even in this ‘post-work future’, some work will remain—what we call affective care work. This is the work of caring for the emotional needs of others and is often bound up with functional care work—caring for the physical needs of others (e.g., talking through your son’s break up while driving him to his soccer game). Although it’s likely that functional care will be automated, it’s not clear that affective care can or should ever be because part of what makes it care is that it lets the other person know they are valued by another person. Robots can’t do that.

The problem is that affective care is currently done predominantly by women, and we see few reasons to believe this would change in the post-work world, even after men are relieved of the burden of work. Men already have opportunities to perform affective care, but generally choose not to and lack of time does not seem to be the impediment. A world in which men live lives of leisure while women continue to do the vast majority of the remaining work would be unjust. So we need to find a way of dividing the remaining affective care work equitably. One option would be mandatory participation in something like a ‘Care Corps’ where each person is required to do their fair share of care work. This policy may or may not be freedom-limiting depending on whether or not we are right about men’s preferences. Even if it is coercive, however, it is only so because men have unreasonable preferences—to freeride on the care work performed by others. The policy may also have other positive effects on gender equality since children will grow up being cared for by women and men and girls and boys will be taught to care from a young age and will grow up with the expectation that they will do equal amounts in adulthood. These factors will likely significantly reduce the need for coercion over time.

An alternative procedure for allocating research grants

This is a guest post by Louis Larue, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Aalborg University.

Applying for external funding is an integral part of academic life. Universities dedicate huge amounts of resources, and often have entire teams of administrators and advisors, to help researchers obtain external grants and manage the immense load of paperwork required to administrate successful applications. Researchers and teachers, at all stages of their careers, spend considerable time and resources to write, read, revise, and submit applications. If successful, they will then have to write various reports and will be required to master the complex and often obscure language of funding agencies. At a more advanced stage of their careers, they will also dedicate a significant share of their time to reviewing and evaluating applications submitted by others and to sit in various selection committees.

In general, the evaluation procedure involves (in one or several steps) the evaluation of the scientific quality of the submitted application, by one or several peers. When all evaluations have been gathered, a selection committee usually selects successful applicants. The ideal behind this procedure (which I have only sketched here and which varies across countries and institutions) is to select, impartially, the “best” applications, that is, those with the highest level of scientific quality, properly defined.

I do not deny the value of this ideal, but it is far from realized in practice. The reform proposal that I defend below is meant to reinvigorate this ideal and salvage it from several threats.

What is the real problem with food deserts?

Hispanic Sodas Sabor Tropical Supermarket Miami” by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is a guest post by Emma Holmes (University of St Andrews/University of Stirling)

Why do some people choose to eat unhealthy food? Earlier this year, Kate Manne – Cornell philosopher and author of several books about misogyny – published Unshrinking, a fascinating and compelling critique of fatphobia. Throughout, she argues against moralising our food choices. There is nothing immoral about wanting to eat greasy, salty, delicious, processed food, says Manne. I agree – but I think she misses something. People’s food preferences are not just random – some people prefer to eat unhealthy foods because their desires have been shaped by an unjust system.

I’ll focus on Manne’s discussion of food deserts to make this point. A so-called ‘food desert’ is a place where there is nowhere nearby or affordable to access healthy food. The term ‘desert’ makes it sound as if this problem is naturally occurring, which it is not – food deserts are the result of urban planning decisions and they disproportionately affect poor people and people of colour. I argue that people who live in food deserts are done an injustice because they are influenced to prefer foods which are bad for their health.  

The climate justice debate has a baseline problem

Humanity faces a number of daunting challenges in the 21st century. Climate change and socioeconomic injustice figure prominently on this list. When it comes to tackling these challenges, two possible strategies divide policy makers.

On the one hand, there are those who point out that addressing either of these problems on their own is a mammoth task, and that taking them on simultaneously is simply utopian. This view sometimes comes with a dose of optimism about technological solutions to climate change. On the other hand, an increasing number of voices argue that climate action can’t be separated from social justice. In particular, advocates of the latter position highlight the “triple inequality of climate change”: The global rich tend to pollute disproportionately and thus bear a heightened responsibility for climate change, the global poor are more vulnerable to its effects, and poor countries have fewer resources available for mitigation and adaptation. In political philosophy, we find a parallel divide between “isolationists” and “integrationists” respectively.

My point here will be to suggest that the case for integrationism is even stronger that even most of its ardent supporters acknowledge. To see why, consider the first of the inequalities mentioned in the previous paragraph. Studies suggest that, across countries, the top decile of polluters are responsible for about 50% of emissions, while the bottom 50% of polluters are only responsible for about 10% of emissions. Wealth strongly correlates with carbon-intensive activities – think everything from private jets and yachts, via mansion-size homes, to multiple trips by airplane per year or multiple cars in a single household.

Community Wealth Building

Beyond the Ivory Tower interview with Martin O’Neill

Not only are there more democratic and egalitarian alternatives theoretically, but also policies being pursued successfully at the city and the regional level, in many places, that do give people a sense of control in the economic sphere. It’s not just wishful and abstract thinking; there is abundant proof of concept. We have to remain hopeful; we have to shine a light on those examples and talk about why they represent elements of a different kind of settlement, a more justifiable and more human political and economic system, that we ought to strive to see realized more widely and more deeply.  

(This interview took place at Alma Café, a beautiful family-owned café in York, England) 

Why the economic whole is more than the sum of its parts

Contemporary Western societies are often criticized for being excessively individualistic. One interpretation of this claim is that their citizens mainly care about their own well-being and not so much about that of others or about communal bonds. Another, complementary interpretation that I develop here argues that our ideas in economics and about justice overestimate the contributions individuals make to economic production. Recognising the extent to which our productivity and thus our standard of living depends on the cooperation of others has a humbling effect on what income we can legitimately think we are entitled to.

Is it justified for firms to offer prestige based rewards to some employees?

Consider the following excerpt from an article written by a former student at the University of Oxford –

“The green and lush lawns of the colleges you observe are due to the policy Oxford has maintained for centuries of allowing only professors to step on the grass. Everyone is obliged to keep walking along the concrete path, even when talking to a professor who may be walking through the grass. The rule is indeed odd one since it creates a certain one-manship between the professors and other teaching and supporting staff, as well as students.” 

I argue that this rule, which I refer to as ‘restrictive lawn policy’ henceforth, is not merely odd but it is also morally objectionable. 

How Should We Understand NIMBYism?

In this post, Travis Quigley (U. Arizona) discusses his article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy  about the issues at stake and justifications for and against restrictive zoning policies.

You might think that zoning policy should be politically boring. Instead, there is a high-stakes and high-intensity debate between defenders of restrictive zoning regulations, which currently set aside huge swaths of land for single-family houses, and those who wish to abolish most such restrictions. Defenders of restrictive zoning often are called NIMBYs, for Not In My Backyard; reformers are then called YIMBYs, for Yes In My Backyard. As such things go, each term can be an insult or a point of pride, depending on who’s speaking. In the housing context, the rationale of increasing supply to decrease prices is pitted against neighborhood preservation; the climate context pits ecological conservation against large-scale climate change mitigation projects. The two issues intersect: new, dense housing is far more energy efficient. I focus especially on residential zoning here.   

Attribution fallacy, incentives, and income inequality

It is difficult to read anything on the justification of high salaries these days without running into catch phrases such as “the hunt for talent”, “attracting the best people to this job”, or “retaining human capital.” The core idea underlying this kind of discourse is one that has got a lot of traction in political philosophy in recent decades, too: It is justified to pay certain individuals – be they neurosurgeons, lawyers, or CEOs – financial incentives, because the productive contribution they will make in response benefits us all.

Why justice requires mandatory parenting lessons and therapy

In this post, Areti Theofilopoulou (Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences) discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the range of wrongs that can occur in problematic parent-child relationships.

We know that our upbringing massively affects the way that our lives go. This is partly because, in our unequal societies, the socioeconomic status of our family determines the education and connections we have access to. But our upbringing would still affect the rest of our lives even in fairer societies, because the ways our parents treat us determine our future mental health and the kinds of people we become. Often, the upbringing people receive leads to the development of mental illness or personality traits that disadvantage them in all spheres of life (such as their career and relationships), and that is undeniably unfair. In my recent paper, I argue that states should intervene heavily in the family via mandatory parenting lessons and therapy to prevent these harms and disadvantages.

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