[act-ma] philosophy cafe

Aria Littlhous aria at littlhous.net
Sat Oct 13 12:22:47 PDT 2012

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Dr Edward Skidelsky - *Happiness and Economic Growth

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*October Topic:*

What is work for?

What is the 'good life'?

**When: *Wednesday, October 17 at 7:30 pm

*Where:* Harvard Book
1256 Mass Av, Harvard Sq, Cambridge

Why do we work? Is it a choice or a necessity? Is work good or bad? The
goodness of work is a deep value in our culture. We applaud people for
their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work
with a national holiday. What a person does, that is, her job, has become a
symbol which represents her status and achievement; a reference on a
person's worthiness.

But there's an underlying ambivalence. We celebrate Labor Day by not
working. The Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam's sin. Many
of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as
the only reason for working.

In our economic system, work is done for pay. It is what philosophers call
an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can
use it to achieve. Most of us inevitably see our work as a means to
something else. It makes a living, but it doesn't make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle's answer: "we work to have leisure, on
which happiness depends." So is leisure mere idleness, simply doing
nothing? No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity
enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.

We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly
enjoyable for their own sake. The point is that engaging in such activities
- and sharing them with others - is what makes a good life. Reason dictates
that leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.

However, our economic system as such is not interested in quality of life.
It is essentially a system for producing things to sell at a profit, the
more profit the better. If products sell because they improve the quality
of our life, well and good, but it doesn't, in the end matter why they
sell. As production increases and goods are available more cheaply it would
seem that we would become less interested in work for its own sake and more
interested in the benefits that work has provided. It would seem then that
we should increase leisure and make life more worthwhile by producing only
what makes for better lives.

This raises an essential question: who decides what is of real value? The
stock answer, in a demand economy, is consumers, who are free to buy
whatever they want in an open market. This answer appeals to owners,
managers and others with a vested interest in maintaining the system. But
even then we must ask why our life satisfaction has not increased if we are
doing what we want. Our system, with its devotion to profit and growth, may
be at odds with the real life goals of its people. Would we really choose
to work harder and consume more if the amount of work and leisure were
entirely up to each individual?

*The Good Life*

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes published an essay he called *Economic
Possibilities for Our Grandchildren*. It had a simple thesis. As
technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per
hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs
until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. The permanent
problem would then become how to use this freedom from pressing economic
cares which science and compound interest made possible for us, how to
occupy the leisure, how to live wisely and agreeably well? Keynes foresaw
an era where we would reach a satisfactory level of material well-being and
from thence forward in time we would devise new ways to spend the leisure
that mechanical efficiency had afforded us.

But that is not what has happened. Working hours have remained about the
same even as productivity has increased several fold. Why have we not
"cashed in" this productivity bonus for leisure, which is the time to
pursue what we really want (remember that work is a means to an end).

GDP does not correlate with happiness. Our contentment does not increase as
a result of our greater economic productivity. The economist Simon Kuznets
was the first to devise a way to measure economic activity back in the
1930s. He created the metric known as GNP (since changed to GDP due to
increase in international trade). He made this comment on his own
invention: "The welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred
from a measurement of national income". Another economist Jonathan Rowe
created something he called the genuine progress indicator (GPI) in the
80s, which purported to show the quality of life in the United States
rather than mere economic activity. He, noted, "Any measure that portrays
an increase in car crashes, cancer, marital breakdown, kinky mortgages, oil
use, and gambling as evidence of advance - as the GDP does - simply because
they occasion the expenditure of money, has a tenuous claim to being
reality-based discourse". So why are we so fixated upon work and the
economy, and so tepid on achieving leisure?

*Questions to Consider*

   - Why has life satisfaction remained level while GDP has increased?
   - Why has leisure time not increased as a result of increased efficiency?
   - Since work is a means-to-an-end, what is that end? The Good Life?
   Leisurely pleasure? Can we reach a consensus on what would make us happiest?
   - Has the ubiquity of profit and markets convinced us that work actually
   is its own reward?
   - Is there a moral component to work over and above productivity?
   - The Book of Genesis says that work is punishment for Adam's sin. Do we
   still hold with that view in the 21st Century?
   - Should we distinguish between types of work : toil or labor vs office
   or white collar work?
   - Has mankind's historical expectation of shortage and scarcity created
   a myth that needs correction.
   - Does society need the pay-for-work dynamic to coerce people to get the
   job done?
   - Is work "what other people want us to do" or is it "what we want to


A Love of Labour<http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?e=001y-eiItmwEuVaGvrsPgtEeLaVdbF7WT_4W99MRhZauP2xmAO6ioHgA2cSSikKKz6k8FWmPQbe4_o-vTot5S-mQLJnWI22ssHbGHjDO0abZ_J28lVC_OL2kNan2gTXYWl0hrIFkhi7BREVyowoLdvNM9-umBHUfrUn>
with philosopher Alain de Botton.

Review of Alain de Botton: Pleasures and Sorrows of

Robert and Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is

Richard Easterlin: When Growth Outpaces

John Maynard Keynes: Economic Possibilities for Our

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