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

Work Hard and Do Well


Fresno Bee, May 22, 2022

Find good work and do it well. That’s useful advice for graduates. Work is an important part of life. This does not mean that you should toil like a slave. But you should avoid the fantasy of living without working.

As with most things, moderation is crucial. Drudgery is dehumanizing. So too is idleness. Our lifelong task is to engage in meaningful activity. We do that by building, learning, and creating.

Our culture confuses us about this. On the one hand, the overachievers brag about how busy they are. They boast of their exhaustion and gloat about their stamina. These folks spin their wheels, making the rest of us feel lazy and incompetent.

On the other hand, the underachievers prefer the sofa to the treadmill. These are the folks who dream of a life of loafing. Some clever slackers manage to make malingering a way of life. Their indolence makes the rest of us wonder why we bother.

Each extreme undermines our humanity. The rat race turns human beings into rodents. And the lazy loafers are called couch potatoes. A good life is lived in the middle, with enough work to provide us with purpose and enough leisure to provide enjoyment.

Inequality can cause us to misunderstand the value of work. The fortunate few live luxurious lives without breaking a sweat. The eager beavers dream of joining that elite. But most will slave away, feeling that the golden ring is just out of reach. Meanwhile, those at the bottom live a precarious existence. There are a few safety nets. But a crisis or emergency can create a vicious spiral that ends in despair.

In the background is advertising that tell us that wealth is about luck rather than labor. Billboards promote casinos. Online betting is common. And every convenience store sells lottery tickets. Casino fantasies fuel the stock market, cryptocurrency, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). This is a world where wealth is disconnected from work. The recent decline of stocks and the collapse of crypto reminds us that bubbles burst.

The housing crisis reveals a similar problem. The affluent own vacation homes, while the unhoused sleep on the streets. The value of a house is not determined by its usefulness in providing shelter. Rather, it is determined by a market based on borrowed money.

The credit industry loves this, of course. Debt becomes a way of life. And interest payments chain us to the treadmill.

A further problem is the fantasy of “the dream job.” In reality, there is no such thing. Some jobs are better than others. But the grass is always greener somewhere else. It is wiser to stop dreaming. Put down roots and bloom where you’re planted. Unfulfilled desire breeds resentment.

In a way, the animals have it easier. The bee makes its honey without asking questions. The bird builds its nest without complaint. But we compare our lives to others. We want sweeter honey and a bigger nest. And we are quick to complain.

But complaining does not produce happiness. This is a central idea of ancient Stoicism. Everyone has a job to do. Take pride in doing your duty. This is not always pleasant. Rather, the happiness of work comes from a sense of achievement.

The Stoics said that the only bad jobs are those that exploit and degrade humanity. Prostitution comes to mind as an example. Good work, on the other hand, helps us develop our human capacities.

Artists and scientists can easily find meaning in their work. But so too can gardeners, plumbers, and accountants. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to live a good life. You only have to contribute to the common good. At the end of the day, you want to be proud of your work. And at the end of your career, you want to be able to say that I did my job and left the world better for my efforts.

The quality of our lives is not determined by how much we earn or what we own. Happiness is not produced by running on the treadmill. Nor does it come from loafing on the couch. Rather, happiness is created when we find good work and do it well.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261627322.html#storylink=cpy

Thanksgiving Religious Liberty

On Thanksgiving, be thankful for liberty

Puritan Thanksgiving

Fresno Bee, November 14, 2014 

We should be thankful that the Pilgrims are not in charge of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims condemned sports and other recreations along with idleness, gluttony and drunkenness. They celebrated modesty, frugality and hard work.

One Pilgrim, William Bradford, recounted an incident in which some men refused to work on Christmas Day. Those slackers spent Christmas playing “stoolball” — an ancestor of cricket. The governor of the colony condemned them for playing while others worked.

Richard Baxter, a Puritan preacher of the 17th century, wrote, “Set not your hearts upon your belly or your sport.” Our Thanksgiving rituals would make Baxter’s heart sink. Baxter was obsessed with the idea of redeeming time from vain pursuits. He thought that since our time on Earth is short, we ought not waste time on “needless sports, and plays, and idleness, and curiosity, and compliment, and excess of sleep, and chat, and worldliness.”

Our Thanksgiving myth celebrates the proverbial work ethic of the Pilgrims. We picture them toiling in the fields. We forget that they were uptight about sport, play and idle talk. We picture them sharing the bounty of their harvest with Indians. But we forget that they eventually slaughtered their Pequot and Wampanoag neighbors.

The Pilgrims were religious fundamentalists. They fled Europe in the name of religious liberty. They were also glad to escape the indolence of European culture. They saw labor as a religious calling. Hard work could prove worthiness for eternal life. Lazy idlers were not going to make it to heaven.

Few Puritans remain. Few see hard work as a religious duty. Even fewer believe that we should avoid playful amusements. Ironically, one of the most common places to hear the term “work ethic” is in sports, where we praise an athlete’s “work ethic.” How odd, to Puritan ears, that we have turned sport into ethical work!

The Puritans were ultimately focused on another realm of value — beyond work and recreation. For many of us, however, life simply is a round of working and consuming. And Thanksgiving has become a celebration of overeating, sports and consumerism.

The Pilgrims would be appalled. But one does not have to be a Puritan to recognize that there is something sad about a holiday devoted to eating, shopping and watching TV.

One of the fundamental problems of human life is that we are never satisfied — either with our work or with our play. When we are busy, we dream of vacation. When we are on vacation, we are anxious to get back to work. All November long we dream of Thanksgiving. But after four days of football, family and fattening foods, we are ready to get back to work.

Philosophers have long wondered about this paradoxical feature of our lives. Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the 19th century, argued that life was either incessant toil or boring leisure. We slavishly work to create leisure. But when we have free time, we quickly fill it up with trivial games and amusements that are not worthy of human dignity. We work like dogs. And when we are not working, we behave like dogs.

The solution, of course, is to find work that you love and to fill your leisure with uplifting activity. There is something to be learned from the Puritans’ idea that work is a religious calling. If we discovered meaning in our work, then work would be something valued for its own sake, rather than a means to an end.

But the Puritan ethic has limits. There is menace in the missionary zeal of Puritans who condemn sports and other amusements in the name of redeeming time. The goal of finding meaningful work and uplifting recreation is important. But meaning cannot be imposed. It is created under conditions of liberty.

If there is something to work hard to defend, it is the idea that our time is our own. We redeem it according to our own best judgment. Some play; others pray. It’s up to each of us to decide how we want to spend our time. The idea of liberty led the Pilgrims away from Europe. We should be thankful today that we are free of the Pilgrims — free even to waste our time on pigskin and pumpkin pie.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/11/14/4235743/ethics-on-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy