"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, June 8, 2007

Livelihood, right?

Irene observed that the question of right livelihood is much harder than it once was. It is very difficult to know that what one does for livelihood is actually contributing to the world. It is easy to think of moral arguments against almost any sort of job or profession. It is hard to think of a job or profession that is exempt from moral question.

Most people don't think about right livelihood, I replied. They just think "livelihood, alright"!

This all ties into the sense that for all our talk about democracy and the consent of the governed, we have lost control of our world. We no longer can distinguish between actions for good and actions for evil. When we think about who gets what, we find ourselves in a frenzy of blaming others and rationalizing ourselves.

The world is in an era of plenty and of a new crowdedness. The right behavior for all of us, on the whole, is laziness, idleness, and satisfaction. We have designed a system than punishes laziness and rewards ambition, but our circumstances require more laziness and less ambition. We have no idea how to readjust our behavior because we have lost control of our reward systems.

This is an oversimplification, yes, of course.

We need people to do unpleasant jobs, and we need heroes, and we won't have either if we don't reward them somehow. Those are the exceptions, though.

On the whole, in the advanced countries we need to learn to be satisfied with less. We need to learn to respect people for who they are, not just what they do or what they own. To do this, we need to reconsider what wealth is, what livelihood is, what rightness is.

Update: Fergus examines how the G8 is adamantly oblivious to the real issues.

Another update: More interesting ideas about the growth quandary on the GlobalChange list.


coby said...

I agree with what you are saying as far as what is required in the long term, but I think there is a much simpler way to address your own moral concerns without awaiting the Revolution. That would be by judiciously controling how you spend your money.

IMO, the only truly democratic voice we all have is in how we spend our money, this is the only vote that really counts and the only vote that is by and large free and fair.

Clearly it is correct that some livelihoods are obviously and unequivicolly immoral but as you say it becomes very hard to discern the many shades of grey between economic hit man and humanitarian aid worker. But perhaps it matters less how your dollars are gotten than how they are subsequently spent.

Michael Tobis said...

Thanks for your comment, Coby.

Hmm, I don't want a revolution; I don't think we can afford to rock the boat, and there's a lot about the current structure I quite like. Any change has to be built around the current system the way the internet was built around the telephone network.

Yes, we can as individuals learn to consume less and want less, but it's not going to be enough. We have to find the least intrusive way to weigh motivations toward sustainability and away from excess. A cultural shift is necessary but not sufficient.

What I'd like to try to get people to think about is what the top-down decisions we need are.

coby said...

Just to clarify and not to quibble: I don't think consuming less is the only/best/what-I-meant way of using your dollars to exercise democratic rights. Actually, that would be more analogous to abstaining. I mean much more in the think globally, act locally sense. Vote with your dollars for healthy, environmentally sustainable, low carbon intensity goods and services.

In the end that is the best way to keep dollars out of the hands of the greed-head planet-destroying evil-doers. It will also show us all what is possible without the tremendous sacrifice some would have us believe is required.

Michael Tobis said...

We have created an environment where very few of us get income in a way that isn't tainted or dubious in some way or another.

How we spend what we get is equally an issue, and is also harder than it needs to be. Each of us should do our best on both sides. That isn't the main issue though.

Everyone seems so hung up at the individual level, as if the whole system weren't completely under our control.

We have tuned our economy to perfection for circumstances that no longer exist:

1) labor scarcity
2) capital/accumulated wealth scarcity
3) resource surplus

All of these are reversed now.

These create pervasive incentives for behavior that used to be constructive and is now destructive.

That's what makes everything hard to figure out. If our system were set up right, we would know what luxuries we could afford and plan accordingly. Now we just have excess and guilt.

Sometimes it all seems so silly...

Unknown said...

There are far too many issues to deal with comfortably here, so I'll focus on Michael's original question: what makes for a 'right livelihood'?

If you make use of a broadly 'Levinasian' approach to ethics/living in the world, you can evaluate the work you do in terms of how much the output is 'self-directed' or 'other-directed'. In other words, a 'right livelihood' would be one in which the intended (directed) beneficiary would be 'others'. This encompassess charity work, education, pastoral and social work, and occupations which are intrinsically other-directed.

But even within these livelihoods, as in those which are not overtly 'other-directed', what counts most is the individual's attitude prior to the work. If you are self-directed, in that the primary object of your labour is to enrich yourself and acquire power over others, then that attitude will affect all that your labour touches. The converse, if the primary object is to contribute positively to the lives of others, means that many occupations can be 'right livelihoods' if the individual engages in them with a 'moral', 'other-directed' attitude.

It is also relatively easy to see that certain occupations can never be 'right livelihoods', in the sense that there is no possible product or outcome of the labour which is of net benefit to others.

My argument here, then, is that labouring in a 'moral' way is, first and foremost, about what you are labouring for; it is attitude-driven.

That's what I think, anyway. Oh, and thanks for the NCs!


Michael Tobis said...


Unknown said...

Emanuel Levinas, French-based philosopher of the phenomenological school, after Husserl and Heidegger, and also a Talmudic scholar. The summary in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy is admirable.

He believed in love, justice, equity and non-appropriation as the foundation of the ethical being. Some of his work can get a bit 'mystical', or metaphorical at times.

Michael Tobis said...

Yes, but you know about the road that is paved with good intentions...

One point I am trying to make is that each of us tries very hard to convince ourselves of our own best intentions, our own ethical stance, while we more or less abdicate taking an ethical stance toward the system in which we live.

(This abdication is cast as deference to high principles of "conservatism", "reason" and "decency", to make matters all the more absurd!)

I think good intent is necessary, but I suggest it is insufficient. Witness that you will often find mortal enemies each believing in the righteousness of their cause.

Our problems are systemic. Our solutions begin within our individual hearts but they cannot stop there.

Anonymous said...

For most of my varied life I was a 'Squaddie' (a 'Grunt' in American English) and then I was a second-hand car dealer.

Somehow, I don't think I can contribute much to this breat-beating conversation except to say that absolutely zillions of very poor people depend utterly on our conspicuous consumption. We stop - they die!

Michael Tobis said...

David Duff identifies the problem exactly.

This "we stop, they die" is a fact of culture, not of nature, and we absolutely need to fix it. Because it is a fact of nature that if we continue, they die. We can change our culture more easily than we can change the laws of nature. That doesn't mean we will do it, and the re will be members of the priesthood to which David Duff ascribes will fight it every step of the way.

Reading the chapters in Jared Diamond's _Collapse_ about Polynesia and Easter Island sheds considerable light on this matter if one reads carefully enough.

Unknown said...

This isn't the right place to do a Levinas forum (I might do something in the cave soon), but it's important to say that there's a lot more to Levinas than good intentions. The ability to accept the absolute otherness of the other without appropriation in the event of the face to face (yeah, I know, it's philosobabble), is a precondition to goodness; think of it as the way to avoid acting in bad faith, if you like.

Levinas' work also takes in the relationship with the state and one's society, so is quite detailed where it matters. In this approach to life, one must unequivocally accept the moral nature of one's existence and accept personal responsibility for the persistence and furtherance of goodness.

I completely agree that personal attitude is the starting point, not the goal, but this particular starting point (Levinas) is the most authentic and engaged philosophy I have yet found. But it is hard work.

In this version of reality, the problem we face is that our leaders are clearly acting in bad faith, and we need to find ways to let them understand the importance of accepting others, not dusting them under the carpet.

I think David Duff's interpretation is wrong: yes, there is a chain of relationship between our consumption and the dollar-a-day poor in the developing world, but sometime the chains are shackles, and the relationship is of master and slave. Our continued wealth depends on the availability of human bondage, even it is the economic form, rather than the traditional one.

Too much, again,

Michael Tobis said...

Fergus, I know what you mean about too much. The trouble with a posting like this one is it starts too many conversations if it starts any at all.

Regarding your disagreement with David Duff, which is the age old dignity of trade vs the indignity of colonialism dichotomy, all I can say is it's a candy mint and a breath mint. (OK, both of you are in the UK, so you might not recognize the advertizing campaign, but I'm sure you can imagine it; it's based on an argument between twins about the attributes of a certain product.)

Whether or not our trading partners are happy with the current relationship, they would be even less happy with its abrupt termination. Consider how Palestinians feel when they are cut off from trade with the Israelis as a clear example often in the news.

I think we have many more choices about how to organize ourselves than have been tried. The idea that it is Marxism, unfettered capitalism, or some half-baked compromise between the two has never really seemed self-evident to me.

I absolutely agree that any changes must be taken with great care. On the other hand the likelihood that we will be able to avoid changes altogether is vanishingly small.

This is where "all the ingenuity we can muster" comes in, and I hate to see the conversation short-circuited by stubborn ideologies and ancient resentments.

Anonymous said...

"there is a chain of relationship between our consumption and the dollar-a-day poor in the developing world, but sometime the chains are shackles".

But only, Fergus, if you view it from the patronising, conscience-stricken top of the chain down to the bottom. You should consider that the view from the bottom looking up is much the same as man being pulled up by a rope from a flooded river - it is a life-line.

If that is a difficult image then look at our own western heritage. My forefathers (and mothers, come to that), just like yours, were 'exploited' (your terminology) over the preceding two centuries but because wealth was created we today have benefitted. You seem to believe that you can go round the Monopoly board with a "get out of jail free - collect £200" card without passing through the hard places.

Dump Levinas, I bet he never made anything, or bought and sold anything, in his life. I prescribe a stiff dose of Adam Smith!

Unknown said...

Hi, David; it's okay tha we disagree, but 'patronising' and 'conscience-stricken' are a bit rich; you're attributing attitudes unfairly here.

I don't disagrre that any work is good work for a starving man, if it feeds him, but I'm thinking more on the lines of the fair trade principle, where either a proportion of the profits or a higher wage are paid by the (Western) corporate entity (e.g., Tesco), back into the community. This way, we pay a few pennies more for something, some of that goes to the producer, and the corporation can sell it 'ethical stance' as a brand virtue; win-win.

I'd also suggest that it is only a matter of time before at least some of the dispossessed start to realise that they are being exploited and get p8888d off enough to do something about it. It's hardly a surprise under such circumstances that Marxist ideology often gets a keen audience in developing nations.

I'm not reaaly being totally serious, but one could argue that it's that damned man Smith who started the whole economic thing in the first place, so its his model of society which needs to be looked at.


Anonymous said...

Fergus, I apologise, perhaps "patronising" was not in order, although giving what amounts to hand-outs to people carries the risk of appearing so.

There is only one 'fair trade', and that is where a buyer and a seller get what they want at a price they can live with! The main obstacle to this happy state of affairs is when an outsider, almost always a government, sticks it's oar in and says, in effect, that it knows best what is best for everyone and goes on to interfere with, or distort, the free exchange of goods and services. (Our genial host is moving in that direction, if he hasn't already arrived! He seems to think 'experts' can do it all so much better than you and me, and also from the highest of high motives. Start counting your spoons!)

As far as the good Master Smith is concerned it is as well to remember that he did not invent capitalism, in the way, say, that Karl Marx invented Marxism. All that Smith did was to analyse what was going on around him. This difference, betweeen being economically *descriptive*, as opposed to *prescriptive*, is absolutely crucial.

I suppose I should add, that I am not one of those ultra-libertarian loons. All governments have a duty to care for the 'weak and feeble' in society but they should take the greatest care before they invade the private economic sphere.

Dano said...

If I may, Wendell Berry asks and answers many of these questions and continues down the direction of this thread in his book What are people _for_?.

Secondly, I agree with Fergus in the attitudinal point, and I address it with the personality traits of "self-regarding" vs "other-regarding".

This is a fundamental fact in my profession and we must bridge the dichotomy daily to make the world run. Some folks just don't care about acting in an other-directed manner, but their actions affect others, hence regulation. Other folks think that regulation is the answer to everything, but you get self-regarding people enforcing regulations and unless people are compelled in some way to change their behavior, nothing happens.

This fact is why I like hitting people in this country in the pocketbook to change their behavior. We'll have to step in to help the bottom quintile, sure.



Michael Tobis said...

Our David Duff (presumably not the same chap as the professor David Duff in Toronto who writes about greenhouse gas policy) seems a nice enough fellow, but aside from ths occasional snippet of personal information, everything he says is remarkably predictable.

Consider "There is only one 'fair trade', and that is where a buyer and a seller get what they want at a price they can live with!" True enough, when the buyer and the seller are the only people affected by the transaction This is simply no longer a good approximation of the world we live in.

I'd like to see David admit that there are some problems on the horizon that the marketplace will have trouble dealing with. I can think of so many examples, but I wonder if he can think of even one.

Anonymous said...

"I'd like to see David admit that there are some problems on the horizon that the marketplace will have trouble dealing with".

Michael I can think of several without even trying. For example:

The market will not ever solve problems of personal morality, nor will it ever solve the square root of pi, nor will it ever solve global warming (if indeed there is any) and last but not least, nor will ever solve the problem of some people being richer than others.

As to the last, what it will do, if it is left alone, is make *everyone* richer than they were before! In an imperfect world, that has so far defied all efforts at Utopian planning by 'experts', that's as good as it gets!

Michael Tobis said...

If David were thinking rather than repeating revealed wisdom, he might have replied as follows, just as an example: