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.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.