…For even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that’s not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.
The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hard-working or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification. This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?
The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class…
…Today, the work ethic still serves as a guiding value from one end of the political spectrum to the other…it seems that the poor can only justify their existence and their access to benefits and transfers if they can somehow be portrayed as “working.”…
Such appeals to the moral superiority of work and workers are often rooted in producerism: the notion that the fruits of society’s wealth and labor should return to those who directly perform productive labor. Producerism is hostile both to parasitic elites at the top of society and to the allegedly unproductive indigents at the bottom, hence its relationship to the political Left and Right is ambiguous. But in post-industrial capitalist society, “work” has come to be disconnected from any conception of directly producing something or contributing work with any specific content. Work is increasingly defined formally: as whatever people do in return for wages. With this elision, the material foundation of the work ethic is gradually undermined, and today the absurdity of the work ideology becomes readily apparent. For while it has never been the case that labor was rewarded in proportion to its contribution, it is now quite obvious that wage work is not identical to productive activity, and that the rewards to labor have lost any connection to the social value or desirability of the work performed.
Indeed, it sometimes seems that the distribution of wages is, to a first approximation, the exact inverse of the social utility of work. Thus the workers closest to our most fundamental needs—food and shelter—are non-unionized residential construction workers and migrant fruit pickers, lucky to even earn the minimum wage. At the same time, bankers are given millions for the invention and trade of sophisticated credit derivatives, even though most of their work is equivalent to—and as we’ve now discovered, quite a bit more destructive than—betting on the outcome of the Super Bowl. This perverse reversal of values has a fractal quality, as well, so that even within individual occupations the same inverse relationship between wages and social value seems to hold. Plastic surgeons have easier jobs and vastly greater earnings than pediatricians, and being a celebrity pet groomer is more lucrative than working in an animal shelter.
Whether his art is any good or not, my artist friend on food stamps contributes more to society than the traders at Lehman brothers, by simply not wrecking the global financial system…
In this context, it seems impossible to speak of the value of hard work without questioning both the equation of useful work with wage labor, and of high wages with high social value. But the ideology of the work ethic is nonetheless powerful, because it reassures people that their lives are meaningful and valuable, so long as they participate in waged work. And ideologies can stumble along in zombie form for a remarkably long time, even when the historical conditions that gave rise to them have completely disappeared. The work ethic, in all its morbid forms, may have already degenerated from tragedy to farce, but that alone will not be enough to abolish it. We need an alternative to erect in its place.
If it is increasingly impossible to disentangle the productive and unproductive parts of human activity, then we can reconstruct the old producerist dogma in a new way: everyone deserves to be provided with the means to live a decent life, because we are all already contributing to the production and reproduction of society itself. The kind of social policy that follows from this position would be very different from the narrow, targeted, programs like Food Stamps, whose very narrowness make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic—whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the 90s or hipsters on food stamps today. Rather than the “deserving” or “working” poor, with its connotations of moral judgment and authoritarian social control, it is time to begin speaking the language of economic and social rights. For instance, the right to a Universal Basic Income, a means of living at a basic level that would be provided to everyone, no questions asked. Against the invidious politics of the work ethic, it’s time to argue that some things should be granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.
The ethics of care – Starting with family and friendship when building moral frameworks – Virginia Held
VH: I don’t find it satisfactory merely to add some considerations of care to the traditional moral theories for reasons similar to why it is not enough to simply insert women into the traditional structures of society and politics built on gender domination. Feminists should understand that the structures themselves have to change. The history of ethics shows it to be a very biased enterprise. Very roughly, what men have done in public life has been deemed important and relevant to moral theory, and what women have done in the household has been considered irrelevant. I think it plausible to see Kantian ethics and utilitarianism as expansions to the whole of morality of what can be thought appropriate for law and for public policy.
I have come to see, in contrast, caring relations as the wider network, and the ethics of care as the comprehensive morality, within which we should develop legal and political institutions. Caring relations should be guided by the ethics of care, which we can best understand and which is most applicable in contexts of families and friendship. But we can and should also have weaker forms of caring relations with all persons, and within these, the more limited institutions of law should be guided, roughly, by Kantian norms, and the more limited political institutions by utilitarian ones. Yes I see the legal and political as importantly different, and both as significantly different from the contexts of family and friendship. This is a very oversimplified statement of a complex position but I try to clarify and delineate these matters in my written work.
VH: …I think caring relations should form the wider network within which we should develop various more limited ties that give priority to justice. But care is more fundamental. We need to care enough about distant others to care that their rights are respected. Justice should be the primary value for interactions that are primarily legal ones, but many relations should not be interpreted as primarily legal. Our relations with our children, for instance, are primarily caring ones and only legal in a minimal sense. Justice, or fairness, should not be absent in these relations, but it doesn’t have priority here.
VH: …The ethics of care has fundamental implications for economic activity – that it ought to be structured and engaged in to promote the well-being of all, not primarily the economic interests of those with economic power. And it implies that markets and market values should be appropriately limited, and that market values should not be increasingly the dominant values, as in the U.S., in areas where other values should have priority, such as in childcare, healthcare, education, and the production of culture.
3:AM: An alternative to your care ethics position is the ‘civic friendship’ ethic proposed by Sibyl Schwarzenbach. Why is your approach preferable?
VH: I think care is a more fundamental and a wider concept than friendship. No one can exist without having been cared for. So I would see civic friendship as a more limited kind of caring relation, relevant especially to political life. It’s closer to the social contract model of agreements between equals voluntarily entered into, a model that plays such a central and often misleading role in political theory and then is expanded, often wrongly in my view, to the whole of moral theory. Care is more of a contrast and I think there are good reasons to make this contrast for understanding human relations and the moral questions involved. Caring relations are often unchosen and between those of very unequal power, and lots of other human relations than family ones are more like this than like voluntary contracts between equals, so it’s illuminating to explore this contrast even if we want to conclude by supporting social contract models for legal matters.
Kant didn’t just screw us with aesthetics, but ethics as well – Wisdom and the particular vs. Knowledge and the universal
Godless yet good – Troy Jollimore [I am happy to see Murdoch get some well deserved attention, but surprised that her friend and colleague, Mary Midgley ‘s work isn’t mentioned. See this for example. And what about Nel Noddings?]
This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour. Together they embody a critique of moral views, such as Kant’s, which rely on inflexible ethical principles allegedly derived from logic itself. In the work of McDowell, this critique is developed into a position called ‘moral particularism’, which rejects altogether the idea that we might one day compose or possess an ethical rulebook that would define the right thing to do in any conceivable situation. After all, what can count as a moral reason in one context might fail to be a reason in another, or might even be, in certain contexts, a reason pointing in the other direction.
…However, more recent investigators tend to prefer a picture in which several distinct and perhaps incommensurable factors make contributions to a person’s happiness. This fits in well with the particularists’ view that evaluation is always a holistic matter. It is worth remembering, too, that Aristotle understood eudaimonia, which is frequently translated into English as ‘happiness’, as something considerably broader and less subjective than pleasure or momentary satisfaction. Instead, it has to do with the general quality of one’s life as a whole.
For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.
Particularism re-opens the door to the idea of wisdom. It is an idea that Kantian and utilitarian ethics — and, for that matter, the modern world in general — have great trouble taking seriously. Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’) The modern desire to replace individual wisdom and judgment with more objective, scientific methods of decision-making and evaluation has had profound effects on many aspects of our lives. In the field of education, where I work, it has led to ever-increasingly complex systems of rules and standards for professional conduct, for assessing teaching effectiveness, for making promotion decisions, even for designing courses and course curricula. The prevailing attitude is that we need a system of rules and principles to make and justify every decision, because we cannot trust the individuals involved enough to leave it up to their good judgment — even when the individuals involved are highly trained experts and just the sort of people capable of discerning how rules and principles should be implemented, and when they should be ignored or adapted. Similarly, the current plague of standardised testing inflicted on students leads to the slighting of skills and traits that are difficult to quantify: artistic talents, creativity, and moral attributes, among many others. This prevailing attitude is one that many Kantians and utilitarians would applaud, and one that Aristotle would deplore.
“Central to Dewey’s approach is that ethics is understood as the art of helping people to live richer, more responsive, and more emotionally engaged lives.”
“…the central goal of education is nurturance of a child’s social curiosity into a communicative democratic faith.”
“Sequestering art and the aesthetic from everyday reflection, far from celebrating imagination, is a recipe for moral sterility, fragmentation, and alienation. Imagination cannot be democratic when it is ‘flat and toneless and lifeless,’ it has historically turned to radically individual pursuits, or to promotion of authoritarian control.”
[quoting Dewey] “Conversion into doctrinal teachings of the imaginative relations of life with which great moral artists have dowered humanity has been the great cause of their ossification into harsh dogmas; illuminating insight into the relations and goods of life has been lost, and an arbitrary code or precepts and rules substituted.”
“The moral production is not a dress rehearsal for a ready-made play, as it appears to be in many rule theories. Dewey’s moral stage is atypical. Scenes are actively co-authored with others and with a precarious environment. The acting is improvisational, the performances open-ended. The drama is experimental, not scripted.”
“What is most at stake in moral life is not some quantifiable pleasure or pain, but ‘what kind of person one is to become’ and what kind of world is to develop.”
“As a capacity to engage the present with an eye to what is not immediately at hand, imagination is more than a niche for fictional embellishment, as when someone has an ‘over-active imagination’ or is ‘imagining things.’ Nor is it the exclusive possession of fine artists. It is integrated with everyday life and learning.”
“Reason is embodied, evolving, and practical, and as such it is subject to physical, conceptual, and historical constraints. Further, reasoning is contingent upon perspectives and is characterized by an educated aesthetic response that can emerge from trust in a situation’s potentialities.”
[quoting Peirce] “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”
“…pragmatist ethics urges that moral reflection must begin where all genuine inquiry begins: in media res, with tangle of lived experience. Dewey in particular argued that moral deliberation is not disembodied cerebration…but is a form of engaged inquiry touched off by an uncertain situation.”
– Steven Fesmire in John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics
“The one-caring, then, is not bored with ordinary life…the one-caring finds new delight in breakfast, in welcoming home her wanderers, in feeding the cat who purrs against her ankle, in noticing the twilight. She does not ask, ‘Is this all there is?,’ but wishes in hearty affirmation that what-is might go on and on…Now one may ask just how the celebration of everyday life contributes to the maintenance of the ethical ideal. First, of course, as we have seen, such celebration turns the one-caring in wonder and appreciation to the source of her ethicality. It is for the most part in ordinary situations that we meet others for whom we shall care and who care for us. Second, celebration of ordinary life requires and is likely to enhance receptivity. The magic of daily life may be missed by one who constantly seeks adventure and ‘something new.’ Celebration of daily experience provides opportunities for engrossment, for complete involvement in living”
“It is not necessary that I, a concrete moral agent, actually attain my ideal – surely, I shall fail repeatedly – but the ideal itself must be attainable in the actual world. It must be possible for a finite human being to attain it, and we should be able to describe the attainment. The attainment must be actually possible; that is, if I am faithful and energetic and fortunate, I should be able to attain in my actual relations with actual persons. I should not be diverted into abstraction and the endless solution of hypothetical problems.”
“…moral problems not as intellectual problems to be solved by abstract reasoning but as concrete human problems to be lived and to be solved in living.”
“The father might sacrifice his own child in fulfilling a principle; the mother might sacrifice any principle to preserve her child.”
“If rational-objective thinking is to be put in the service of caring, we must at right moments turn it away from the abstract toward which it tends and back to the concrete. At times we must suspend it in favor of subjective thinking and reflection, allowing time and space for seeing and feeling. The rational-objective mode must continually be re-established and redirected from a fresh base of commitment. Otherwise, we find ourselves deeply, perhaps inextricably, enmeshed in procedures that somehow only serve themselves; our thoughts are separated, completely detached, from the original objects of caring.”
“In part, our approaches to creativity and care are induced by the dominating insistency on objective evaluation. How can we emphasize the receptivity that is at the core of both when we have no way of measuring it? Here we may ultimately decide that some things in life, and in education, must be undertaken and sustained by faith and not by objective evaluation.”
“There are times when we must stop thinking in order to make sensible connections with the object field. Neither the joy nor the receptivity of which we have been talking is passive; both are active but not manipulative, not assimilative. They do not strive to impose structure, but they open all channels to perceive it. They represent an opening-up and a taking-in.”
– Nel Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education