Archive for April, 2009

The Future of Work

April 27, 2009

     There was a commentary in the 4/9 Albany Times-Union by Philip Lord, “Jobs? For All? Says Who?” (Here’s a link.) Lord worries that we’ll never again have full employment because businesses are figuring out how to provide more and more goods and services with ever fewer workers. He sees a need for some sort of radical change in our whole economic model.


     We’ve been hearing such foolishness for at least two centuries. From its beginnings, the Industrial Revolution was fought by Luddites fearing that people would become redundant. Every technological advance has encountered the same dire predictions that human beings would have no place in the future economic landscape. And meantime Malthusians have perennially warned that population growth would outrun food production.


     Of course none of these fears has ever come true. The opposite has happened. World population has exploded – but human productivity has grown even faster, so that living standards have risen, not fallen. Rather than depriving people of jobs, technology frees them to do different jobs, and always creates needs for those different jobs. Luddites like Lord never learn this. A growing population does not impoverish us because, thanks to technology, most people produce more than they consume. World average incomes today, in constant dollars, are five times greater than a century ago.


     Lord’s commentary rhapsodizes about the pre-industrial hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a supposedly halcyon Eden where the environment provided people’s needs “free for the taking.” Money was a convenience, not a necessity, Lord says; people worked but did not have “jobs.”


     Nor much else, one might add. Nature provided, but it was the equivalent of living on less than a dollar a day. To use Hobbes’s famous line, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Its average span was around twenty years. That picture actually didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution, enabling humanity to harness energy in our service as never before.


     That has brought with it some problems, to be sure. But the bigger picture is human betterment on an almost inconceivably vast scale. And that has not come to a screeching halt in 2009. I am excited about the human future.


The Secular Conscience

April 19, 2009


            I recently attended a talk by Austin Dacey, of New York’s Center For Inquiry. He has a Doctorate in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy. His book, The Secular Conscience – Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, was published in 2008 and has received wide attention.


            Dacey began with a Bible reading: the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham prepared to obey. Isaac was saved in the nick of time by an angel who said, “Never mind, it was just a test.” This story is usually read as one of faith and obedience. But Dacey takes a different lesson: to be pleasing to God, Abraham’s action would have to have been not just obedience qua obedience, but a reflection of Abraham’s judgment that obeying would be the right thing to do. And this must mean there is a source of rightness outside God’s command.


            Some people ask, “What would Jesus do?” But Dacey suggests the right question is “Why would Jesus do what he would do?” That, he said, is what Socrates would have wanted to know. He noted that when confronted with a proposed action deemed holy and loved by the Gods, Socrates asked his best question: is it holy because the Gods love it, or do the Gods love it because it is holy? Anyone who thinks morality is based on faith gets into trouble whichever way they try to answer that question.


            The better solution, per Dacey, is that conscience comes first; and its source must be secular, not religious. Any religious notion of ethics must actually proceed from a deeper underlying secular moral sense. If you do follow the commands of religion (as in Abraham’s case), you do so because you have made a judgment that that is the right path; and that initiative judgment must stand apart from religion. You can’t get it from religion; that would be circular logic.


            Dacey’s book mainly concerns his view that secular liberals are being undone by their own idea that religious matters ought to be kept out of the public square, and that matters of conscience should be separated from state power. Thus, they are inhibited from directly challenging the public assertiveness of religionists, while religionists themselves feel no such inhibition. We see the problem most vividly in issues concerning Islam. The Islamic world has mounted a forceful campaign to delegitimize anything critical of Islam as defamatory and an impermissible abuse of freedom of expression. And, to an appalling extent, Western secular liberals are knuckling under to this. Thus, for example, the UN’s human rights panel has now instructed its press freedom watchdog to be concerned not with curtailments of press freedom but, rather, “abuses” of press freedom.


            The point here is that human rights are the rights of individuals. Religions do not have such rights; and the Muslims are trying to subordinate the human rights of individuals to asserted religious rights. This is the kind of argument that has been used throughout past centuries to deny human rights. It must be fought.


            Dacey concluded his talk by pointing out that we Americans actually have our own “testament” – consisting of texts such as Tom Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and, of course, the United States Constitution, which invokes its own set of moral objectives: to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Now that’s holy – gods or no gods.


Social Change in Vermont

April 12, 2009

     Vermont has become the first state to enact gay marriage through democratic processes – not judicial edict. (Vermont has always had a quirky individualistic streak. Vermonters also think it’s cute to elect a “socialist” Senator.)

     There are a few big lessons here.

     One is that social change of this kind can, indeed, be achieved democratically. Efforts to attain such ends through judicial processes, insulated from democratic control, are misguided and asking for trouble. That was the problem with Roe v. Wade – not just a bad decision from the standpoint of legal reasoning, but exceedingly bad social policy. I’m talking not about abortion policy but, rather, the policy of forcing this sort of thing down people’s throats without a grounding in democratic process. The result has been 36 years of ugly abortion wars. European countries, in contrast, liberalized their abortion laws through the democratic process, with the result that those who lost the debates have peacefully accepted the outcome. Gay marriage advocates seem intent on repeating the Roe v. Wade mistake, trying to do an end-run around public opinion through the courts. Thus we see, in California, judicial efforts to nullify a referendum in which voters made clear their views. Bad idea.

     Achieving gay marriage is not about changing LAWS. It’s about changing MINDS. Changing laws without changing minds is a recipe for conflict. Vermont has shown the way to go.

     The second lesson is that minds can indeed change; societies, and cultures, change. We should remember this whenever we are told that we should not contemplate change for this or that other foreign culture, that we should respect their traditions, and so forth. Segregationists in the American South made this exact argument too. But of course there has been enormous social and cultural change in that regard. So when you hear, for example, that democracy is out of the question for Slobovia, because they’ve never had it, and it’s incompatible with their cultural traditions, and so on, don’t buy it.

     In fact, not only can cultures change; they must. The world is always changing around us, and we continuously have to adapt. Our vast human ability to do this is the glory of our species.


The Business Ethic

April 5, 2009


“Business ethics” is a phrase some might deem an oxymoron. They would say the only aim of business is to make profits – by any means necessary, fair or foul.


Yes, making money is a primary purpose of business. But having this particular purpose does not free a businessperson from any of the normal constraints upon human conduct, any more than does any activity or purpose render such constraints inapplicable. Not even war. Whatever one does, moral rules always apply. Businesspeople do violate them, but that’s no more true of business than any other class of human activity. There isn’t anything particular about business that makes its practitioners more prone to breach norms of conduct than is the case for any other types of activities.


If anything, there is reason to expect business conduct to exceed such norms. Because business is not just about making money – it’s about making money in a particular way. If money were the only object, regardless of moral consequences, then robbery might be better. And, yes, some “businesses” do operate by effectively robbing people. But those are not really businesses, they are scams. What defines a business is an enterprise that generates profit by supplying goods or services that make people better off, in relation to what they pay. (If you aren’t getting something which, to you, has value exceeding its price, you wouldn’t knowingly buy it).


What this means is that generating value for customers is just as much the purpose of business as is profit. Only that generation of value makes the profit legitimate; this is an essential feature, not a peripheral one. And the businessperson does this by way of filling a societal role, it’s the source of meaning in his or her life. Asked to identify himself, he will not say, “I’m a money-maker,” but, rather, “I’m an accountant” (i.e., one who provides accounting services, presumably valued by customers), or “I’m a baker” (ditto for providing baked goods), etc.


This is what may be called the business ethic; the ethic of business. It is the fundamental idea that one’s societal role is to provide something to others, which results in recompense to oneself. It’s the idea that profits are not something gathered or taken; rather, they are earned. And earning profits in that way is virtuous.


Providing value to customers may be self-serving to the extent that it’s calculated to gain repeat business and thus greater eventual profit. But a person possessing this genuine business ethic will strive to make sure his customers get value, even if he’ll never see them again. That is why a restauranteur, for example, will work to give good meals and service, even to strangers just passing through. That is the integrity of his societal role; by fulfilling it, he goes home at the end of the day feeling good about himself. And it is precisely this that has built our whole civilization.