On the wisdom of the grasshopper

Elon Musk wants you to be the ant. But make room for the grasshopper, too

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2023

Elon Musk recently suggested it is “morally wrong” to work remotely. He said it wasn’t fair for “the laptop class” to work outside the office while others toil in the factory. In the same interview, Musk said that he works seven days a week, sleeps six hours a day, and only takes a couple of days off per year.

A workaholic boss is not the best source of wisdom about the morality of work. Is there a virtue in toil? Or is the laptop class wise to phone it in?

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper comes to mind. This allegory can help us clarify our intuitions about the morality of work. The grasshopper spends the summer fiddling, while the ant labors under the hot sun. When winter comes, the anthill is stocked with food. And all the grasshopper has is memories of the music of summer.

Of course, human beings are not insects. We invent technologies to make work easier and more efficient. Repetitive tasks are mechanized. Robots do the heavy lifting. Computers and AI will make it possible for us to have even more free time.

Almost a hundred years ago, the philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed that human beings should work about four hours per day. Some work is necessary. But Russell argued that work is not an end-in-itself. The higher goods of civilization such as music, art and science are products of leisure. Russell said that only a “foolish asceticism” would make anyone insist on working in “excessive quantities.”

We should also question the distribution of leisure, income, and wealth. The mechanization revolution is uneven and unfair. While the laptop class sits at home, calloused human hands pick our food, and millionaires live off interest income. The hardest manual labor is often paid the least. The ants and grasshoppers of modern capitalism show us unfairness in the system.

Forcing folks to return to the office won’t solve the fairness problem. But the shift away from the office does create other economic problems. There are empty office buildings. And the ancillary workforce of janitors, parking attendants and coffee shop workers will lose jobs. But if office work is not necessary, we could repurpose those empty buildings, and find other jobs for those workers.

Another concern is about the social aspect of work. Laptop laborers don’t chat at the proverbial water cooler. Nor do they care about office parties or lunch meetings. There is some value in those informal chats. But the technology revolution now allows creative conversations to occur on Zoom or email.

The biggest question here is about the value of work in our conception of a good life. This takes us back to Elon Musk’s own work life. Even before his recent interview, Musk bragged about how hard he works, often sleeping at his Tesla factories. When he acquired Twitter, he slept in the office there, as well.

Some entrepreneurs may see Musk as a model to be emulated. But his life seems sad, frankly. What about family life? Or taking a hike in nature? Or a day at the beach, or a weekend music festival? And what about a summer afternoon lounging by the pool with a good book? Most of the best of human life occurs outside of work, in our free time.

Ants build impressive anthills. But the work of the creative imagination is done by grasshoppers. Humans play and sing. We don’t aspire to the drudgery of the anthill. Our playful, creative spirit gives us architecture, art, literature, music and a sense of justice. These human goods are leisure activities. It is in our free time that we are most fully human.

When the mind wanders and explores, we dream of a world beyond the anthill. These dreams led human beings to invent technologies that make life and work easier. We also imagine a world that is fairer, and more humane.

As summer approaches, it’s worth considering the value of play and free time. There is no sense in working for the sake of work. And while the workaholic bosses in the anthill may warn against the idleness of the grasshoppers, it’s worth pointing out that human beings are not insects, and that human life is richer than work.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article275806896.html#storylink=cpy

Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.


But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.


Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.

The Evil of Nuclear War

Despite U.S.-North Korea war of words, never forget that nuclear war is evil, immoral

Fresno Bee, October 13, 2017

Nuclear war is immoral. Strategic nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that target innocent people. They are evil.

In 1955, Albert Einstein and a group of prominent scholars drafted a manifesto calling for nuclear disarmament and the end of war in the nuclear era. They warned that nuclear weapons create a stark and dreadful choice: “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

Since 1955 the world’s nuclear arsenals have grown. There are 15,000 nuclear weapons on Earth. Luckily, no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, when 80,000 people were killed by one bomb in Nagasaki.

Unfortunately, we are forgetting the moral problem of nuclear war. We are closer to a nuclear war than we have been in decades. President Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” with “fire and fury.” He recently described this as “the calm before the storm.” North Korea has nuclear and missile technology that could hit American targets. North Korea has threatened to “sink Japan” and reduce the U.S. to “ashes and darkness.”


One need not be Einstein to understand how dangerous and immoral this all is. The mainstream of moral thinking about war—the just-war theory—condemns weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

Strategic nuclear weapons are terroristic weapons. They do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians. They rain terror down upon innocent people. And they leave contamination and devastation in their wake. They are fundamentally immoral.

Some Americans may claim that the people of North Korea are not innocent and so deserve to be killed. North Koreans may also claim that the people of the United States are evil and deserve to die. Such claims are obviously false and obscenely immoral, regardless of which side is making them.

A nuclear attack would deliberately kill children. Children have no responsibility for the evils that their governments perpetrate. The fact that a nation’s military leaders are aggressive and immoral does not excuse atrocity committed against innocent children.

Nuclear war remains evil, no matter which side starts the war. It would be wrong for either side to launch a nuclear first strike. It would also be wrong for either nation to retaliate against a nuclear first strike with a nuclear weapon, since doing so would deliberately kill children.

Evil is woven into the very logic of nuclear deterrence and retaliation. In a nuclear exchange, each side would be guilty of atrocity and war crime.

The moral morass of nuclear deterrence is built upon the ethical quicksand of intending retaliatory massacre. Deterrent strategy threatens atrocity in order to prevent it. But that is morally repugnant. A reprisal that targets innocent children is as evil as a first strike that targets children.


Retaliatory strikes also risk futility. Killing millions in retaliation would accomplish little of positive good. Once millions have already been killed, what good does it do to kill millions more? We teach our children that “two wrongs do not make a right.” But the strategy of nuclear deterrence and retaliation is built upon that premise.

There is also the risk of escalation. Once a rogue nation such as North Korea faces existential defeat, what would prevent it from unleashing chemical and biological weapons against all of its perceived enemies?

Perhaps the most alarming problem has to do with breaking the nuclear taboo. Since 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons in war. That taboo is a remarkable sign of global moral consensus. Until recently, no nation wanted to risk breaking it. But once the nuclear taboo is broken, we are on the brink of a slippery slope to Armageddon.

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The prize recognized ICAN’s work on a recent international treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. ICAN released a statement this week saying, “Nuclear weapons threaten the very survival of humanity and our entire living planet.”

From Einstein to ICAN, the moral consensus is that nuclear war is evil. Let’s hope that sane, rational and moral leaders understand this. For the sake of our children and our souls we must never break the nuclear taboo.