Discover more from New Work in Philosophy
W. Jared Parmer (RWTH Aachen University), "Meaningful Work and Achievement in Increasingly Automated Workplaces"
Forthcoming, The Journal of Ethics
What I really want to do here, in ‘introducing’ you to a recent paper of mine, is to contextualize it and extend it. Hopefully, this will show how I ended up in this little pocket of analytic philosophy, and why you may find the debates there more interesting than you initially supposed. It may even incite you to read my paper, despite the fact that I am also going to be upfront with my reservations about the argument I give there. Or, anyway, that is the rationale I offer. The truth may be more prosaic: I find summarizing previous philosophical work of mine rather tedious, and need to find some way of making it feel fresh to me.
1. Why a Robofuture is Worth Worrying About
Stunning advancements in AI and robotics present to us an issue of severe existential weight. It may be that, one day, artificially intelligent robots meet all our basic needs. So far, no problem. The deeper, but more inchoate, concern is that this technological advancement would also erode the projects on which we build our lives. It might turn out not only that robots will grow our food, but make art, plan cities, do science, write novels.
This is not just highly speculative philosophy, nor overweening techy hype. It is a highly speculative, to be sure, but it prompts a question we already face, in the real world, right now: what shall each of us do with our one and only life? Imagining (hoping for, fearing) such a future clarifies the question. It sweeps away considerations that cannot by themselves provide an adequate answer. In the real world, right now, most of our days are largely preoccupied with keeping ourselves and our fellows alive and basically okay, with much of the remainder given over to entertainment and recuperation. But none of this makes sense unless we have something to live for – something that makes all that toil, and rejuvenation for the sake of further toil, worthwhile. (And, as any philosopher will be quick to point out, enabling others to live at best defers this question, since those people would themselves need something to live for to make our investment in their lives worthwhile.) So imagine that, someday, we will not need to keep ourselves alive and basically okay anymore, because the robots will do that for us; and, what’s more, they will generate as much fiction, art, music, and scientific knowledge as we may care to consume for our own entertainment (or edutainment, as the case may be). What then? That’s the question, in stark clarity. And one worry here is that all that might be left to us will be pastimes – literally, agreeable ways to pass the time until we die.
Meaningful activities are supposed to provide an answer to this question. They aren’t simply activities that meet basic human needs and keep us, or our fellows, basically okay; nor are they simply agreeable activities with which we may pass the time we have. (They may do either, or both of these things; the point is that they do not only do one or both of these things.) Meaningful activities are suitable to be ground projects in our lives, through which we realize existential value – value that gives us reason to live.
Our post-work thought experiment does not just present to us a stark question about our lives, but also resembles in some respects actual changes to productive technology and to work. And so we’re now in a position to appreciate a natural idea. On the one hand, we can welcome the automation of work that merely ameliorates our basic vulnerabilities – work that simply produces food, clothing, shelter, and so on – or work that would only be an agreeable way to pass the time we have. On the other hand, however, we should resist the automation of meaningful work, work that is suitable as a ground project that gives people reason to live. Maybe we should not want a bona fide post-work future, just a future with less meaningless work.
This idea turns out to be much more complicated than it appears, of course. Consider, for example, a team running a beloved food truck in your neighborhood. This is work that is both ameliorative – it feeds you and your neighbors – but also plausibly gives those workers at least some reason to live, as they work together to craft a delicious, specific, irresistible range of offerings that you’ll find nowhere else. Indeed, many philosophers nowadays view work as essentially involving meeting human needs – food, shelter, and so on. So it is unlikely that we will find examples of meaningful work that do not have any ameliorative value at all. But, crucially, they also have existential value.
But so what gives work more or less existential value – what makes work more or less meaningful? In my recent paper, I explore this question in the context of increasing workplace automation. The hope is that an examination of meaningful work helps us think critically about what the future of work should look like.
2. Achievementist Striving, Meaningful Working
One answer goes like this. All else equal, work is more meaningful when, and then because, it culminates in valuable achievements. Call this thesis achievementism. It has some initial appeal. We do not typically want our work to be repetitive or boring, but rather for it to built up to, and climax in, discrete, exceptional moments of success. A book written, a patient nursed back to health, a solution to a hard engineering problem alit upon; these are the key moments in particularly enlivening, rewarding work. And, more than that, these moments make the work rewarding in the special sense that they make it meaningful. So the thought goes.
I think achievementism is wrong, and my paper is mainly dedicated to arguing for that verdict. The first thing to emphasize is that the only things we can achieve are completable tasks – activities that terminate upon success. Not all activities are completable in this sense: going for a stroll, for example, is an activity that does not terminate upon success. When I succeed in going for a stroll, I need not be done; I can simply continue my stroll. By contrast, when I succeed in walking to the store, it follows that I am at the store and done; I cannot simply continue to walk to the store (though I may walk to the store, on another occasion, again). When you’re doing an activity that is not completable, you’re also doing an activity that is not achievable: It does not conclude upon success, and so there is nothing that one could point to as the achievement you are supposed to have achieved. To be sure, non-completable activities tend to slough off completable tasks as their temporal parts: when you go for a stroll, there are any number of stretches of that stroll that amount to walking from point A to point B. And those you can complete and so achieve. But the larger activity of which they are parts is different.
However, and this is a key point of my argument, many of the intuitively most meaningful activities we do look more like going for a stroll than walking to the store. Homemaking, caregiving, doing good philosophy, excellent carpentry, and making singular art are not activities we can complete, so not activities we can achieve, either. (Of course, stretches of these activities will be completable, achievable parts, such as writing this book of philosophy, or building that chair, or decluttering this room to make it a study.) Achievementism thus cannot explain the meaningfulness of such activities, and this is the first serious strike against it.
You might object at this point: Surely these non-completable activities must be comprised of at least some completable parts if they are to be meaningful. You can’t be doing good philosophy if you never put together any particular arguments, or finish writing any books, or whatever; you can’t be making singular art if you never complete any artworks; and so on. (Though the art example ought to prompt second thoughts. Telling artists they cannot do something is often the quickest way to get them to do it. Philosophers have, now and again, exhibited a similar contrarianism.) So achievementism might still have an explanatory role to play.
The mistake embedded in this objection is that it gets the explanation the wrong way around. Doing good philosophy, for example, is not meaningful because of achievements you achieve along the way – the books you might write, the debates you might win, the arguments you might construct. Rather, putting together all those arguments, books, and so forth are meaningful because of what, in putting them together, you will be doing: good philosophy. The non-completable activity in question explains the meaningfulness of such achievements; the achievements do not explain the meaningfulness of the non-completable activity in question. This is the second strike against achievementism.
3. Class and Meaningful Work
I am already not entirely happy with this argument. One reason is that, to be frank with you, achievementism sometimes strikes me as just a preoccupation of the professional class, rather than a thesis that reveals anything deep about meaningful work. One could, with Bourdieu, read achievementist striving at work as a way of distinguishing oneself from the leisure class, who do not work at all, but especially and also from the working poor, for whom work can rarely be much more than necessary economic activity. But if that is right, the argument of my paper looks somewhat myopic, missing the real significance of achievementism.
This somewhat cynical view is aided by the fact that, among philosophers who have thought about the value of achievements, it is virtually a consensus that achievements must be somehow challenging for the person who achieves them if they are to have any distinctive value as achievements – she must, whether by physical work, psychological effort, time, or whatever, commit herself to accomplishing her goal by outlaying substantial resources. No goal easily accomplished could amount to an achievement of hers that makes her life more meaningful for her, over and above whatever value there is in the thing achieved. It will not do to offer a beggar on the street a very small portion (cents, really) of your middle-class income, or (able-bodied as you are) to dash for ten meters. Such acts can be valuable, of course, but no, they are not achievements that, in being achievements, make your life more meaningful for you. Rather, giving away a substantial portion of one’s wealth to charity, or training for and then running the 100-meter sprint in an international competition, are the stuff of valuable achievement. Achievementism of this stripe elevates go the hard damn way to a life motto.
But so what Bourdieu did for aesthetic taste, we may do for the commitment to achievementism: In greatly committing ourselves with our toil, effort, money, or time, we signal to our fellows that we have such resources to spare for ancillary endeavors, over and above meeting our basic needs and recuperating from the daily grind. (It is striking, after all, that the challenges faced by the working poor in making an adequate living, by people with disabilities in navigating our public spaces, and so forth are not the kinds of examples of challenging activities that achievementists trot out to motivate their view.) Achievementists can do, and do do, hard things at least partly because they are hard. So whereas achievementism touts the place of valuable achievements in meaningful activity – that is, of costly endeavors that have value over and above whatever valuable thing they achieve, because those endeavors are costly – we might instead view the commitment to achievementism as a way to signal (cognitive, human, social) capital. In the world of work, these are plausibly, and more specifically, signals of social class.
Whether such a signaling view of achievementism makes sense, and is empirically well supported, of course cannot be so easily settled. Nevertheless, I find this hypothesis fruitful for inquiring not only into meaning in work, but the meanings of work, and how the latter might shape the former. This kind of inquiry stretches us well outside the traditional boundaries of analytic-philosophical work on meaning in life and in work.
 This way of putting the idea draws on Bernard Williams’ interrelated concepts of ground projects and categorical desires; see, especially, “Persons, Character, and Morality”, in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); and “The Makropoulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”, in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973). The concept of existential value is taken from Kieran Setiya’s wonderful book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
 Though one ought to be careful here. It is one thing to say that the work meets some important human needs, and another thing to say that working meets them. David Graeber draws our attention to bullshit jobs, and offers a theory for why they proliferate in the late-stage capitalist world we live in, in his Bullshit Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018). Bullshit jobs are forms of employment in which the work itself serves no purpose at all, but having that job does serve a variety of purposes – most immediately, it gives you a paycheck to pay the rent and buy the groceries. These are cases in which the work serves no human needs, but working does. It is hard to see how such a job could be meaningful.
 For examples, see Gwen Bradford’s “Achievement and Meaning in Life”, in The Oxford Handbook of
Meaning in Life, ed. Iddo Landau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022); John Danaher and Sven Nyholm’s “Automation, Work and the Achievement Gap”, in AI and Ethics 1.3 (2021); and Laurence James’s “Achievement and the Meaningfulness of Life”, in Philosophical Papers 34.3 (2005).
 Compare this with Pierre Bourdieu’s argument in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, translated by Richard Nice 1984; originally published 1979).
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