Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Work, Pt 2

Some Thoughts about Work, Part 2

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.
Proverbs 6:10-11 (repeated verbatim 24:33-34)
(New International Version)

            I concluded part one of this essay by claiming that there is a universal moral law, recognized in every culture:

The “moral law of labor” (revised): Every person who is able ought to work.

Obviously, I have not gone round the world to survey existing cultures, nor have I scoured history and anthropology texts searching for counter-examples.  If I haven’t done the empirical research, how can I be so confident?  By engaging in what might be called “experimental philosophy”:  Try to imagine an historical culture that had no moral preference for labor.  Once you realize that it can’t be imagined, you realize it can’t be real.
Experimental philosophy is not new with me.  Philosophers have long used thought experiments.  Here’s one from the philosopher James Rachels: How do we know that every society on earth has a moral rule favoring truth telling?  Well, try to imagine a society in which people could lie at any time, in which there was no belief that other people should tell the truth.  Sometimes I ask students to imagine a society that had no preference for telling the truth, and I ask, “What time is it?”  Someone invariably says, “Four-thirty” (or some other incorrect time).  I then chide the class for not being creative.  If there is no preference for truth, someone could just as well say “Oranges” as give a time.
You see the point?  Our preference for truth telling is so deep in us that we struggle to imagine a society where that expectation is entirely absent.  Different cultures have different rules about exceptions, that is, times when it is right to lie—perhaps it is right to lie to outsiders, to save a life, to spare someone’s feelings, and so on.  But no culture says it is right to lie willy-nilly, at any time to any person for any reason.  If there were no expectation of truth telling, language would collapse.  We would grunt at each other.
            Enough about truth telling.  Let’s return to the moral law of labor.  Can we imagine a culture that denied it?  I believe that today we can, and I will explain below.  But for most of human history it seemed obvious to everybody that people needed to work.  Therefore, every culture has had a moral preference for labor over idleness.
            Why?  Why have we always believed that people have to work?  The saying I cited above (which occurs twice in Proverbs, an indication of its importance in the minds of the ancient sages) points the reason, an explanation obvious to everyone in the ancient world.  If you don’t work, scarcity will overtake you. 
            Remember Paul’s words to Titus, which I cited in part one of this essay.  He wanted Christians to work in order to “provide for daily necessities.”  We all recognize that people have needs.  Human life is impossible if these needs are not met.  For all human history (until very recently, as I will explain) it has seemed obvious that many human needs can only be met through human labor.  And it has seemed obvious that we need to work hard; in the story of the fall (Genesis 3) God tells Adam that he will wrest his living from the ground by the sweat of his brow.  We hear echoes of an agricultural society in both Genesis and Proverbs, but the value of hard work was just as plain in pre-agricultural hunting or gathering societies.  Mercantile and industrial societies experienced the same truth.  Throughout human history, for most people in most societies, the margin for error was small.  A bad hunt, a bad harvest, a bad year with fishing nets, a plague of locusts, a plague of germs, an earthquake—peasants (i.e. most people) always lived close to economic catastrophe.  People needed to work hard to gain even a small edge against starvation. 
            I hope I have done enough to defend my assertion that the moral law of labor has been widely accepted.  Now I need to address certain complications.  Later, I will ask whether it is true.
(1)  Immediately someone will ask about the difference between needs and wants.  Much of the work we do aims at getting things we want but don’t absolutely need.  At various times individuals have recognized this fact, and they have said, in effect: “Hey folks!  We don’t need to work so hard.  If we learn to be content with only the things we truly need, we can live better lives.”  Epicurus, St. Francis, the Buddha, and Jesus are among the voices that call us away from the unending pursuit of more.  If these voices are right, then the moral law of labor—Every person who is able ought to work—has to be balanced with other moral values.  When I say that the moral law of labor is recognized in every culture, I do not imply that it is the highest or sole moral value.
(2)  What about people who work, but not to procure necessities?  The vast majority of human beings have been peasant laborers (herdsmen, hunters, farmers, etc.), but the history books are full of rulers and conquerors, prophets and priests, poets and philosophers, musicians and scientists.  If there are some “jobs” that don’t aim at producing the necessities of life, does that undermine my proposition that he moral law of labor is universal?  No, it doesn’t.  Rulers, artists, and scientists all engage in work; to that extent they obey the law of labor.  But it is true that they do not work to procure necessities, an extremely important fact.  Some work aims at producing non-necessary goods.  Such non-necessary goods include things like statues built to honor conquering kings, new religious rituals, and philosophy books and novels.
(3)  What is the difference between needs and wants?  If I admit that some people work to produce daily necessities and other people work to produce non-necessary goods, shouldn’t I give a perspicuous account of the difference?  No.  As an example, consider transportation.  Transportation of human beings and material goods has always been a necessity of life.  Even in the most technologically primitive cultures people needed to go to work (the field, the lake, the forest) and bring the products of their work back home (the cave, the tent, the house).  Over time, human beings met the transportation need by walking; by using beasts of burden; by building rafts, canoes, and ships; by driving trucks, cars, and buses; by building railroads; and by many other methods.  Pretty clearly, transportation of some kind is necessary to human life.  But every time people invented a new means of transportation (e.g. sailing ships), they incorporated that technology into their economy.  New forms of labor appeared, such as sailor, and the overall productivity of human labor increased.  Over time the higher level of productivity made it unthinkable to go back to an economy limited to earlier kinds of transportation.  Therefore, a particular mode of transportation may be considered non-necessary, in that human life went on just fine before it was invented, and a necessity, in that later forms of life require the higher productivity made possible by that form of transportation.

Unfortunately, in beginning this essay, I did not understand how its tendrils would lengthen.  It may become the blogger’s equivalent of the blackberry bush.  I will continue my examination of the morality of labor in part three, next week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Work, Part 1

Some Thoughts about Work, Part 1

Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good,
in order that they may provide for daily necessities
and not live unproductive lives.
Titus 3:14
(New International Version)

            In “Driverless Cars” I speculated that someday driving would be illegal.  Maybe that won’t happen; after all, people like to drive.  But even if human piloted cars remain legal, this much is almost certain: computer-driven vehicles will prove safer, more efficient, and cheaper to operate than human driven cars, trucks, and buses.  Some people disagree; they say a driver has to be able to respond to ever changing conditions on the road, and no computer program will be able to replicate human intelligence.  Further, even if a computer could be made smart enough to replace a human driver, it would be prohibitively expensive.
            I’m not going to wade into philosophical debates about artificial intelligence.  Whether or not computers can be built and programmed to achieve “true intelligence,” my driverless cars prediction can be treated as simply that, a prediction.  Just wait and see if I’m right: Sometime in the 21st century, perhaps in my lifetime, computer-driven vehicles will surpass human piloted vehicles in terms of safety, convenience, and cost.
            Consider one implication of my prediction, i.e., that in America in the 21st century, perhaps in my lifetime, nearly all driver jobs will disappear.  Taxi drivers, bus drivers, long-haul truckers, bus drivers, airport shuttle operators, forklift drivers, delivery truck drivers, and many heavy-machinery operators will disappear from the workforce.  I’m no expert, but I guess that amounts to several million jobs, and at least some of them are prime examples of a vanishing species, well-paying blue-collar jobs that require no college education. 
As I write this in 2015, many of our politicians and policy leaders worry greatly about income inequality.  Since World War Two, America has lost huge numbers of blue-collar middle class jobs as manufacturers have moved their operations from the United States to countries with lower labor costs.  Is this a problem, even a crisis?  If so, political leaders disagree dramatically about what to do about it.  If I am right about driverless cars, the elimination of most driver jobs will only exacerbate the debate.
            The advent of driverless cars is thus one more example of technology eliminating traditional job categories.  Economists often point out that this has been going on ever since human beings started inventing things.  Perhaps we only became aware of the disruptive force of innovation in the last few centuries, as the pace of technological change has grown ever faster. 
            Many economists are pretty sanguine about the phenomenon.  They speak of “creative destruction.”  Someone invented machines that can weave cloth from thread, which threw the cottage weavers of England into unemployment.  The children of the peasant weavers were forced to move into industrial cities where they had to find jobs in factories, jobs that their foremothers could never have imagined.  No doubt, the economists say, many people suffered in the transition.  Workers were abused, cheated, robbed of their traditional way of life, and for a time many of them experienced material conditions (crowded tenements, polluted water, urban crime, etc.) undoubtedly worse than their parents.  But, the economists say, eventually the overall greater productivity of new technology permitted a higher standard of living for everybody.   Our 21st century political leaders have adopted this attitude.  In the face of ever-changing technology, they urge better education and re-education for the workforce.  We can’t stop technological change, policy leaders say; but we can shape society so that people suffer less from economic disruption.  Leaders on the left say public policies can be found that will more quickly spread the benefits of greater productivity to all people.  The right replies that redistribution schemes (through taxation and social welfare policies) interfere with creative destruction; we should trust market forces to spread wealth around.
            I’m not going to wade into that debate either, at least not now.  Instead, I want to reflect on “creative destruction,” the technological elimination of jobs, from a philosophical and theological standpoint.  I think there are profound questions about work, questions that may have revolutionary implications for human life and morality.
            In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul said that Christians needed to provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.  In context, it seems that Paul wanted the new Christians in Crete to win a good reputation for the Jesus movement.  (In the 1st century all Christians were new Christians.)  The believers should be law-abiding, self-disciplined, honest, kind, and hardworking.  In every way they ought to live so as to make outsiders think well of Christianity.
            Now, there have been and still are interpretive debates about Paul’s letter to Titus.  For example, in the 19th century, Christians disagreed whether Paul’s instructions in chapter 2—“teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything”—was an authoritative endorsement of slavery.  Again, I’m not going to discuss such disputes.  I’m not interpreting Paul here; I want to use him as an example.  Paul’s words exemplify a very nearly universal belief about the morality of work, a belief that I think must be critically examined.  Here is the belief in a raw, unrefined form:

            The “moral law of labor”: Every person ought to work.

Even a little reflection shows that as stated the “law” overstates the case.  Some people—infants, infirm old people, people suffering from certain diseases; in short, anyone who is unable to work—have no duty to work.  Their “daily necessities” must be provided by others; that is, by those who are able to work.  So we modify the raw form:

The “moral law of labor” (revised): Every person who is able ought to work.

In his letter to Titus, Paul takes this maxim, or something like it, for granted.  He assumes that everybody knows that people ought to work.  He wants Christians to win a good reputation for the movement by living up to a commonly accepted moral platitude.  The fact that it is a moral platitude shows that some people disobey it; that Paul had to instruct new Christians to obey it shows that some of them were tempted to disobey it.
I said above that Paul’s words express a very nearly universal belief about work.  Not just in the first century, and not just in the West.  I’m confident that the positive moral value of labor is a universal judgment found in every culture throughout human history. 
At this point some readers want to object: Give me a break!  You are a philosopher and “wannabe” novelist, not an expert in anthropology.  How could you possibly know that every culture endorses some version of the moral law of labor?
I will answer that question in part 2 of this essay.  After that, I will move on to a more important question: Is the moral law of labor actually true?


Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Driverless Cars: a very short story, except that it's not a story.

As silly as this piece may be, I think it has interesting implications.  Maybe I'll dig beneath the surface next week.

Driverless Cars

            Some day it will be illegal to drive cars.
            Don’t believe me?  The timeline will be something like this:
2014-2015: The first serious experiments with computer driven vehicles occur.  Sebastian Thrun, the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, teamed up with Google to build a working test model.  The driverless vehicles successfully traveled hundreds of miles on California roads without mishap.
2017: Volvo sells at least 100 driverless cars (a prediction the company made back in 2015).  Other auto manufacturers jump into the market.
2019: Amazon starts using computer driven forklifts at many of its delivery centers. 
2020: The first big lawsuit: Mrs. LaDonna Macready of San Francisco (where else?) sues Chevrolet for damages, alleging that a self-driving Chevy struck and killed her husband while he was crossing the street.  Eyewitnesses to the accident disagree whether the stoplight was green or not.  The jury endures 500 hours of testimony from Artificial intelligence scientists, including Sebastian Thrun, on both sides.  Chevrolet settles out of court shortly before the jury was to reach a verdict.
2022: The second big lawsuit, a Texas case, makes its way to the Supreme Court.  In Hinkelberry v. Honda, he court rules against the plaintiff, citing the lack of convincing evidence of computer malfunction in Mr. Hinkelberry’s car and the many scientific studies demonstrating the overall safety superiority of computer driven vehicles. 
2020-2035: Traffic fatalities decline steadily in the U.S., even as the number of cars, truck, and buses goes up.  Traffic engineers repeatedly document the superior safety numbers of driverless vehicles.
2027: Bus drivers in Portland, Oregon go on strike, protesting the use of driverless buses.  The transit authority, Trimet, threatens to fire the striking drivers.  In arbitration, the two sides agree that half of all buses will be human driven—for the next two years.  After that, the agreement specifies that as human drivers retire, computer driven vehicles will replace them.
2029: Nationally, one third of all vehicles on the road are computer driven.
2033: Pennsylvania is the first state to designate a “CVO” (Computer-driven Vehicle Only) highway, a high-speed connection between Pittsburg and Philadelphia.  CVO lanes had been adopted in metropolitan Atlanta, Washington, and Los Angeles the previous year.
2037: The third big lawsuit: Jennifer Sohappy, of Des Moines, sues Ralph Olds for damages to her computer driven car.  Testimony in court alleges that Mr. Olds had been piloting his car continuously for more than 55 minutes, and that he was distracted when he plowed into Sohappy’s car.  The jury awards Ms. Sohappy $105,000 to replace her vehicle and $2 million for emotional trauma.  Shirley Newwoman, famous co-host of This Minute America, denounces Olds for his selfish behavior.  “Mr. Olds told our correspondent that he, and I quote, ‘Likes driving.’  It is outrageous that 20th century attitudes still endanger people on our highways!”
2039: Three fourths of all vehicles on the road are computer driven.
2044: A referendum in Hawaii declares all state highways and roads to be CVO routes.  A year later, the state legislature outlaws all human driving (except on private property, the so-called “golf cart” exception).
2047: The fourth big lawsuit: the Supreme Court rules, in Stoneface v. Hawaii, that there is no constitutional right to drive cars.  Charles Stoneface had tested the Hawaii law by driving his lawnmower between his primary residence and his son’s house, a maneuver that led him to drive 150 feet on a public road.
            2051: Wyoming is the last state to outlaw human driving on public roads.  Nevertheless, the picture of a rugged cattleman, riding his all terrain vehicle across the windswept Wyoming countryside, is still a common feature of beer commercials during National Football League holovision programs.  Of course, football fans know that real Wyoming ranches use computer guided drones to move cattle from place to place, but the image of the rugged ATV rider still sells more beer—certainly more than pictures of computer programmers sitting at their desks.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Vices Opposed to Hope

How to Not Hope

            Hope looks forward to some good future.  The excess of hope is presumption; the deficit of hope is despair.
Aristotle taught that moral virtues fall between two vices, a vice of deficit and a vice of excess.  For example, the virtue of generosity is somewhere between stinginess, an unwillingness or reluctance to give in situations where giving is appropriate, and prodigality, unreasonably giving too much.  One can miss the virtue of courage through cowardice, too little willingness to face danger in situations where facing danger is appropriate, and through foolhardiness, an irrational taking on of risk and danger.  This idea is often called the doctrine of the golden mean.  Aristotle warned that virtue should not be thought of as a numerical average, as if courage was exactly balanced between cowardice and foolhardiness; he thought courage was more often closer to rashness than to cowardice.  It takes good judgment to know how a virtue should be expressed in a particular situation. 
            It’s important to notice the role of good judgment, or reason, in Aristotle’s doctrine.  Actually, the word he uses is phronesis, usually translated “practical wisdom.”  Aristotle thought the intellectual virtue, practical wisdom, had a role in guiding and nurturing moral virtues, such as courage, moderation, or generosity.  It is only by phronesis that one recognizes that this is a situation requiring courage or that this is a situation requiring generosity.  And if it is a situation requiring generosity, it is phronesis that helps one judge how much and in what way one ought to give.  Someone who woodenly follows rules for giving (e.g. “Always give ten percent of your income to your local church”) may find herself creating trouble whereas the giver with practical wisdom effectively blesses those around her.
            For Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle was “the philosopher.”  On most topics, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s teaching as far as he could; up to the point where Aristotle contradicted the Bible or the creeds of the church.  For example, Aristotle wrote that the world might be an eternal creation of the unmoved mover (God), or the mover may have caused the world at some point in time.  Aquinas could not simply approve this conclusion, since scripture and creed say that God created the world at a certain point.  So Aquinas said that philosophically, Aristotle was right; though reason demands the existence of God (unmoved mover), it does not say whether God creates the world at a time or continually creates the world.  It is only by revelation that Christians know what Aristotle did not know, that God created the world at a time.
            Aristotle did not identify hope as a virtue.  Guided by the New Testament, Aquinas had to acknowledge hope not only as a virtue, but also as a particularly important one.  (1 Corinthians 13:13: “These three remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.”)  Aquinas called these virtues “theological” virtues, in that they focused on God and were “infused” in the believer by God.  Since “the philosopher” did not know the Christian gospel, he could not be faulted for not discussing the theological virtues.   Aristotle’s ethics was not wrong, merely incomplete.
Nevertheless, Aquinas adopted Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, and he applied it even to hope.  Christian hope—the theological virtue—has the same structure as natural hopes.  A person can go wrong about hope in two ways, through despair and presumption.
Let’s imagine a case of hope as a natural virtue.  Suppose Nancy would like to gain a promotion at work.  Obviously, the promotion is a future outcome that Nancy desires.  It is not a mere fantasy; if it were, Nancy might wish for a promotion, but she wouldn’t hope for it.  Nancy’s case fits Aquinas’s description of natural hope: a desire for a future good that is possible but not certain.  (Aquinas says that even animals can display natural hope; the hound chases the hare only when he thinks he may catch it and gives up the chase when it is impossible.)  On Aquinas’s analysis, the fact that Nancy wants the promotion does not guarantee that she hopes for it.
First: despair.  Nancy may think that her supervisor unfairly favors Edith, who also works in the department.  Perhaps Nancy is convinced that she lacks the necessary qualifications.  Maybe she thinks that she never gets a break.  And so on.  Though I just said that Nancy “thinks” or “is convinced” of certain things, the elements of despair do not have to be consciously cognitive.  Nancy may just see the world (or the office) as disallowing her promotion.  Her feelings of inadequacy may play a role.
Vice can be just as complicated as virtue.  In another post, I adopted Adrienne Martin’s suggestion that hope is a syndrome.  Despair may also be a syndrome.
Second: presumption.  Perhaps Nancy believes the supervisor despises Edith.  Maybe Nancy has recently attended a seminar on positive thinking and she willfully repeats her hourly mantra: “I am qualified, I am ready, and I will succeed.”  Or maybe Nancy’s Uncle Fred, a vice-president in the company, has taken to visiting the department every afternoon and Nancy sees his presence as her lucky charm.
Aquinas would say that in neither case does Nancy truly hope for the promotion.  A person doesn’t hope if she can’t see herself getting the good thing she desires.  Nor is it hope if she thinks the good outcome is a sure thing.
Aquinas would apply the same analysis to theological hope.  What is the good outcome the Christian desires?  Ultimately, the Christian desires the “beatific vision.”  One way to express this is to say that the Christian desires to know God as an intimate friend.
Even a little reflection marks this good as a very high goal indeed.  How can a finite person, someone who lives a few decades on Earth, hope to be a friend, a companion, of an infinite, transcendent God?  How can a sinner who acknowledges his moral faults—yet knows that his self-knowledge is at best partial (he probably has forgotten most of his sins)—be comfortable with a perfectly holy God?  The more one contemplates the ontological gap between an infinite Creator and a finite creature, the more one can fall into despair. 
But that isn’t the whole story.  To escape despair, the Christian must remember grace.  The incarnate God has done all the heavy lifting; by his death and resurrection, Jesus brings us into fellowship with God.  Christians, Aquinas says, must recognize despair as a temptation.  It is a vice.  If we persist in it, it is a sin, and a particularly dangerous one.  The person who despairs will not repent, because he somehow believes that not even God’s grace can save him.
Sometimes Christians go to the other extreme.  Perhaps they reflect for a time on God’s love and grace to sinners, and they conclude that the great good of friendship with God is a “done deal.”  In fact, God is already their pal.  There really is nothing to hope for.  This is the vice of presumption, and it has its own dangers.  In its worst case, presumption sees no need for the atoning work of an incarnate God, since God’s love always conquers all.
Hope is a virtue.  Like other virtues, it can be improved by habituation—by practice.  Part of practice is to recognize and reject despair and presumption.