In case you missed it: a look back at the 2020 Moffett Lecture

Feb. 1, 2021

Many of us – at least in the pre-pandemic era – spent a third of our daily lives, or half of our waking hours, in what we consider to be work.  If we were lucky, our work not only provided us with a source of income but was a source of many other things including relationships, significance, esteem, self-esteem, and even identity. Then the pandemic hit and, suddenly, we found ourselves either unemployed, underemployed or forced to work remotely.  

It was in this environment that New York University Professor of Philosophy and Law and Princeton's Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values, Emeritus Kwame Anthony Appiah presented the (virtual) 2020 James A. Moffett '29 Lectures in Ethics last September, aptly entitled “What about the workers?”  While the discussion focused on the challenges to workers posed by globalization and automation and the changing ways in which work fits into what Appiah refers to as the main ethical project – the making of a life – much could certainly apply to workers displaced by the current pandemic.

Borrowing a term from the philosophy of mind, Appiah identified what he considers the “hard problem” of social justice today: to find ways of involving people in meaningful activities and, at the same time, both distribute the social product fairly – giving everyone a satisfactory income and access to the necessary services – and also produce the goods and services we need. And he posed the question “What - if anything - can philosophy say about the appropriate social response?”

“Given the centrality of work in our lives,” Appiah said, “it’s odd how little space it takes up in contemporary ethics and liberal political philosophy.” He acknowledged that there is discussion within political philosophy of some of the proceeds of work, like income and wealth and esteem or respect, in terms of distributive justice and equality, and that the character of our relationships is central to ethics and moral philosophy. But he pointed out that the focus of such philosophical interest is more likely to be on relations with our fellow citizens rather than on how we react to others in the workplace specifically.

To redress what he sees as the silence about work among philosophers, Appiah presented three recognizably philosophical tasks in what he calls the philosophy of work.

The first task is to answer the question “What is work?” Appiah explained that, because work develops along with technologies and institutions, this exploration is in part historical and in part sociological. “In any conversation about these questions you need to draw on history and the social sciences as well as on ethics and moral theory. Work and the concept of work develop together.”

“Once we’ve understood what work is,” Appiah continued “there follows an ethical inquiry: How does work fit into making a good life, advancing eudaimonia, helping humans flourish?”

The third set of issues Appiah presented as critical to the philosophy of work is socio-political. How should work be constrained or constructed by law and other social norms and how should opportunities and rewards for work be distributed?

Appiah identified four important things that good jobs provided in an industrial society: producing goods and services; providing employees (and shareholders) with income; creating new forms of community; and providing a source of significance and identity. He then traced the evolution of work and working conditions that followed the industrial revolution and its effect on those four elements of work. “In that historical development,” he explained “there’s a kind of dialectical relationship between institutional and technological change and normative understandings that is evident in the changing conceptions of what it is for work to be rewarding and how it fits into the project of making a life.”

While an automated economy still makes the things that are at the core of production in the old economy – as well as making more and better things – Appiah contends that it can leave income, sociability and significance unattended to.  Citing a recent British poll that asked “Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?” he reported that “astonishingly, more than 37% said that their jobs did not make a meaningful contribution to the world.”
Appiah suggested that we need new ways of combining the four important things that good jobs did in industrial society which, he says, is an intellectual and imaginative challenge as much as an institutional one.  “How do we produce the goods and services we need and want while providing people with income, sociability and significance?... Can we do this by changing the ways we construct and provide jobs – such as is the job of re-imagining work – or by meeting these needs for many or most people without their having jobs as a self-styled post-work movement suggests? And whose job is it to meet these challenges? The state, corporations, schools and universities, and private philanthropy all have a role to play.  But what is the proper division of responsibilities?”

“At the heart of these reflections,” Appiah concluded, “is the recognition that, just as the industrial revolution produced new conceptions of value – like the equation of time with money – so, in our modern economy, changing institutions will have to be accompanied by conceptual and institutional innovations that will take imagination to shape and to share.”

It’s impossible to know exactly what work will look like in the post-pandemic era. But as many of the challenges, questions and possible solutions presented in this lecture will likely apply, there will no doubt be a need for continued discussion on the philosophy of work.  
Watch the 2020 Moffett lecture here.