Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 41–64

Will Life Be Worth Living in a World Without Work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life

Original Paper

Abstract

Suppose we are about to enter an era of increasing technological unemployment. What implications does this have for society? Two distinct ethical/social issues would seem to arise. The first is one of distributive justice: how will the (presumed) efficiency gains from automated labour be distributed through society? The second is one of personal fulfillment and meaning: if people no longer have to work, what will they do with their lives? In this article, I set aside the first issue and focus on the second. In doing so, I make three arguments. First, I argue that there are good reasons to embrace non-work and that these reasons become more compelling in an era of technological unemployment. Second, I argue that the technological advances that make widespread technological unemployment possible could still threaten or undermine human flourishing and meaning, especially if (as is to be expected) they do not remain confined to the economic sphere. And third, I argue that this threat could be contained if we adopt an integrative approach to our relationship with technology. In advancing these arguments, I draw on three distinct literatures: (1) the literature on technological unemployment and workplace automation; (2) the antiwork critique—which I argue gives reasons to embrace technological unemployment; and (3) the philosophical debate about the conditions for meaning in life—which I argue gives reasons for concern.

Keywords

Automation Technological unemployment Antiwork Freedom Egalitarianism Meaning of life Transhumanism 

References

  1. Ackerman, B., Alstott, A., & Van Parijs, P. (2006). Redesigning distribution: Basic income and stakeholder grants as cornerstones for egalitarian capitalism. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  2. Agar, N. (2015). The sceptical optimist. Oxford: OUP.Google Scholar
  3. Atkinson, A. (2015). Inequality: What can be done? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Autor, D. (2015a). Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 3–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Autor, D. (2015b). Polanyi’s paradox and the shape of employment growth’. In Re-evaluating labor market dynamics. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.Google Scholar
  6. Autor, D. (2015c). The paradox of abundance: Automation anxiety returns. In S. Rangan (Ed.), Performance and progress: Essays on capitalism, business and society. Oxford: OUP.Google Scholar
  7. Beck, A., et al. (2011). Systematic analysis of breast cancer morphology uncovers stromal features associated with survival. Science Translational Medicine, 3(108), 108–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Black, B. (1986). The abolition of work and other essays. Port Townshend, Washington: Loompanics Unlimited.Google Scholar
  9. Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2012). Race against the machine. Lexington, MA: Digital Frontiers Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. WW Norton and Co.Google Scholar
  11. Campbell, S., & Nyholm, S. (2015). Anti-meaning and why it matters. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1(4), 694–711.Google Scholar
  12. Carr, N. (2015). The glass cage: Where automation is taking us. London: The Bodley Head.Google Scholar
  13. Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58, 10–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cowen, T. (2013). Average is over: Powering America beyond the age of the great stagnation. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
  15. Crary, J. (2014). 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  16. Cskikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  17. Cskikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  18. Cskikszentmihalyi, M. (2007). Experience sampling method: Measuring the quality of everyday life (p. 2007). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.Google Scholar
  19. Danaher, J. (2016). The threat of algocracy: Reality, resistance and accommodation. Philosophy and Technology. doi:10.1007/s13347-015-0211-1.
  20. de Brigard, F. (2010). If you like it, does it matter if it’s real? Philosophical Psychology, 23(1), 43–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Denning, S. (2015). The “jobless future” is a myth. Forbes 4 June 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/06/04/the-robots-are-not-coming/.
  22. Dworkin, G. (1981). The concept of autonomy. Grazer Philosophische Studien, 12(13), 203–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fleck, S., Glaser, J., & Sprague, S. (2011). The compensation-productivity gap: A visual essay. Monthly Labour Review, January 2011, 57–69. http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2011/01/art3full.pdf.
  24. Ford, M. (2009). The lights in the tunnel: Automation, accelerating technology and the economy of the future. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing.Google Scholar
  25. Ford, M. (2015). The rise of the robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  26. Frayne, D. (2015). The refusal of work: The theory and practice of resistance to work. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  27. Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation. Oxford Martin School, Working Report.Google Scholar
  28. Gheaus, A., & Herzog, L. M. (2016). The goods of work (other than money). Journal of Social Philosophy. http://philpapers.org/rec/GHETGO. Accessed February 13, 2015.
  29. Gilbert, D. (2005). Stumbling on happiness. Vintage.Google Scholar
  30. Gilbert, D. T., Lieberman, M. D., Morewedge, C. K., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). The peculiar longevity of things not so bad. Psychological Science, 15, 14–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Gorz, A. (2011). Critique of economic reason (2nd ed.). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  33. Graeber, D. (2013). On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. Strike! Magazine. http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/.
  34. Gunkel, D. (2012). The machine question. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  35. Gunkel, D. (2015). Resistance is futile: Cyborgs, Humanism and the Borg. In D. Brode & S. Brode (Eds.), The Star Trek Universe: Franchising the final frontier. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  36. Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  37. Hughes, J. (2014). A strategic opening for a basic income guarantee in the global crisis being created by AI, Robots, desktop manufacturing and BioMedicine. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 24(1), 45–61.Google Scholar
  38. International Labour Organisation. (2013). Global Wage Report 2012/13: Wages and Equitable Growth. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_194843.pdf.
  39. Kaplan, J. (2015). Humans need not apply: A guide to wealth and work in the age of artificial intelligence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Keen, A. (2015). The internet is not the answer. London: Atlantic Books.Google Scholar
  41. Krugman, P. (2012, December 9). Robots and Robber Barons. New York Times.Google Scholar
  42. Krugman, P. (2013, December 13). Sympathy for the luddites. New York Times.Google Scholar
  43. Kurzweil, R. (2006). The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  44. Lafargue, P. (1883). The right to be lazy. London: Charles Kerr and Co.Google Scholar
  45. Levine, A. (1995). From fairness to idleness: Is there a right not to work? Economics and Philosophy, 11, 255–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Luper, S. (2014). Life’s meaning. In S. Luper (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to life and death. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Maskivker, J. (2010). Employment as a limitation on self-ownership. Human Rights Review, 12(1), 27–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Menary, R. (Ed.). (2010). The extended mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  49. Metz, T. (2010). The good, the true and the beautiful: Toward a unified account of great meaning in life. Religious Studies, 47(4), 389–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Metz, T. (2013). Meaning in life. Oxford: OUP.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mokyr, J., Vickers, C., & Ziebarth, N. (2015). The history of technological anxiety and the future of economic growth: Is this time different? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 31–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state and utopia. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  53. Packer, G. (2013, March 4). Upgrade or die. New Yorker.Google Scholar
  54. Pasquale, F. (2015). The black box society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Pearce, D. (1995). The Hedonistic imperative. http://www.hedweb.com/.
  56. Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Pistono, G. (2012). Robots will steal your job but that’s OK: How to survive the economic collapse and be happy. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing.Google Scholar
  58. Pratt, G. (2015). Is a Cambrian explosion coming for robotics. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 51–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Ridley, M. (2011). The rational optimist. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  60. Rifkin, J. (1997). The end of work. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books.Google Scholar
  61. Rifkin, J. (2014). The zero-marginal cost society: The internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of capitalism. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.Google Scholar
  62. Roth, A. (2015). Who gets what and why? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Google Scholar
  63. Russell, B. (2004). In praise of idleness (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  64. Sachs, J., Benzell, S. G., & LaGarda, G. (2015). Robots: Curse or blessing? A basic framework. NBER Working Paper 21091—April.Google Scholar
  65. Schermer, M. (2009). The mind and the machine: On the conceptual and moral implications of brain machine interaction. Nanoethics, 3(3), 217–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Schwartz, A. (1982). Meaningful work. Ethics, 92(4), 634–646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Smuts, A. (2013). The good cause account of meaning in life. Southern Journal of Philosophy, 51(4), 536–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sönmez, T., & Unver, U. (2013). Market design for kidney exchange. In N. Vulkan, et al. (Eds.), The handbook of market design. Oxford: OUP.Google Scholar
  69. Srnicek, N., & Williams, A. (2015). Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  70. Taylor, R. (2008). The meaning of life. In E. D. Klemke & S. M. Cahn (Eds.), The meaning of life. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  71. van Parijs, P. (1995). Real freedom for all: What (if anything) can justify capitalism? Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  72. Vulkan, N., Neeman, Z., & Roth, A. (Eds.). (2013). The handbook of market design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Weeks, K. (2011). The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wertheimer, A. (1988). Coercion. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Widerquist, K. (2013). Independence, propertylessness and basic income: A theory of freedom as the right to say no. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Widerquist, K., et al. (Eds.). (2013). Basic income: An anthology of contemporary research. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  77. Wielenberg, E. (2005). Value and virtue in a godless universe. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Wolf, S. (2010). Meaning in life and why it matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  79. Woodcock, G. (1944, March). The tyranny of the clock. War Commentary for Anarchism.Google Scholar
  80. Zarsky, T. (2012). Automated predictions: Perception, law and policy. Communications of the ACM, 15(9), 33–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Zeckhauser, R. (1973). Time as the ultimate source of utility. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 87, 668–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawNUI GalwayGalwayIreland

Personalised recommendations