Tuesday’s Discourses post “Let’s All Go on the Dole” featured a wide-ranging discussion centered around the concept of a Universal Basic Income. As with all of our Discourses posts, we posed a series of questions to prompt debate and discussion in the comments. In one of my replies, I mentioned the spiritual and moral degradation that results from severing the link between work and survival, prompting this reply from user mashav:
Why is work spiritual and moral?
That question really got me thinking, I suppose because it was a concept I took for granted, one that is pretty fundamental to how I see the world. It was apparent by mashav’s question, and by other cynical comments in that thread, that this view is not as widely shared as I must have assumed. So with this assumption challenged, I felt obligated to make a case for why work indeed has a deep moral and spiritual dimension.
I’m not sure why the concept is so controversial. After all, we humans are clearly moral and spiritual creatures, possessing a depth of experience that, to the best of our knowledge, is unique among all creatures. We dream about the future and wrench in agony over losses long past. We bond with others in ways that transcend the physical. And we deeply feel pain and guilt from our transgressions, or as a result of others who’ve wronged us.
We are also social creatures, inextricably linked with our fellow man. “No man is an island” said John Donne. Even the proverbial hermit in the wilderness was at some point raised, nurtured, or educated by another. The entirety of our civilization rests on the necessity of cooperation, the vast superstructure of knowledge, culture, technology, and health built upon it. Economies grew ever more sophisticated, relying on man’s ability to cooperate with one another as individuals specialized more and more.
And what has driven this unending project? The need to survive and desire to thrive. It’s an ascent up the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
And we humans must have learned pretty quickly that our best way to scale this pyramid is to cooperate. It starts with simple exchange of basic physiological goods, the resulting surplus of which is able to support securing of goods higher up the pyramid, and onward and upward we go. The priest depends on the farmer’s surplus to survive. Through the principle of comparative advantage, this eventually results in someone being able to survive and thrive by making dramatic voice-overs for film and TV, exchanging that talent for all one needs in life.
So if we are spiritual and moral creatures, and work is such a fundamental part of our existence, how could it not be said that work is spiritual and moral?
It’s easy for the philosopher to recognize the inherent meaning in his work, but what about the garbage collector? It shouldn’t be too hard to see even then. He performs a service for others through his profession. There is an inherent nobility to work that, while primarily performed to meet one’s own needs and desires, contributes to civilization in some way.
And that contribution is not just in the direct service provided, it is found also in the way in which one’s income provides for others. The surplus generated through specialized work supports those who are unable to survive on their own, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled. The commonwealth of man has been built such that, for the most part, true poverty (i.e. that which results in death) no longer exists. Layers of support from the personal to the societal ensure this, but require the surplus to be maintained.
Nobody “deserves” food, water, shelter, health care, or anything else. No, all we deserve is to die. Those who expect “society” to provide basic needs have to recognize that such provision only comes through the hard work of the individuals that comprise it. Much like the assumption that “national income” is actually a thing to be disbursed and rerouted at will, rather than a statistical abstraction to understand the aggregate of individual actors, “society” is not actually a thing in and of itself.
This is where we reach the question of the morality of work. Those who are able to work are obligated to work. Generating a surplus is a moral obligation if one has the ability.
Selfishness, cynicism, tribalism, and bigotry are but some of the threats that have the potential to destroy it. Too much leeching off of others diminishes the surplus, as taking overtakes contributing. And you know who is hurt first/most in this downward spiral? Those who truly depend on others for survival.