I think everybody should be a machine.
We offer a precautionary account of why business managers should proactively rethink about what kinds of automation firms ought to implement, by exploring two challenges that automation will potentially pose. We engage the current debate concerning whether life without work opportunities will incur a meaning crisis, offering an argument in favor of the position that if technological unemployment occurs, the machine age may be a structurally limited condition for many without work opportunities to have or add meaning to their lives. We term this the axiological challenge. This challenge, if it turns out to be persuasive, leads to a second challenge, to which managers should pay special attention: the teleological challenge, a topic especially relevant to the broad literature about corporate purpose and governance. We argue that both the shareholder profit-maximization model and its major alternative, stakeholder theory, are insufficient to address the meaning crisis. Unless rebutted, the two challenges compel business leaders to proactively rethink the purpose of business for future society. Otherwise, businesses will be contributors to a major ethical crisis and societal externality in the coming society.
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We use the terms “accountability” almost interchangeably with “role” or “responsibility.” Our uses of “accountability” are close to Scanlon’s (1998) uses of his term “substantive responsibility,” when he writes, “[t]o understand the conditions of responsibility in the first sense [responsibility as attributability] we need to consider the nature of moral appraisal, praise and blame. Judgments of responsibility in the second sense [substantive responsibility], by contrast, are substantive conclusions about what we owe to each other.”
Textile workers who lost jobs due to machines during the Industrial Revolution attacked mills under the leadership of a supposedly mystical figure called Ned Ludd. The workers in the riots were called “Luddites” (Jones 2006).
Friedrich A. Hayek also supported a basic income. Hayek (1981/1979, 5) writes, “The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society…”
For details, see “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although the reports already take into account job creation, to respectfully invite skeptics into our discussions, we add an additional 5% of job creation.
How much will be offered as a basic income, and what effect such universal payments might have on the economy and inflation are thorny questions. In any case, we do not think the amount would make much difference to our argument. If the reader desires details, we tentatively propose adding the statistic that everyone over 18 years old annually receives a fixed amount of cash equivalent to the value of, say, $12,500 in 2017 and anyone under 18 receives a quarter of that amount (given that an often proposed amount of an annual basic income by advocates in the current public discussions in the U.S. is usually around $10,000–13,000 per person; e.g., Murray 2016). As another possible benchmark, a recent proposal that would provide a basic monthly income of 2560 Swiss francs, or about $2600, to every adult and 625 francs to those under 18, was submitted for a referendum. On June 5, 2016, the Swiss people rejected the proposal.
We authors are extremely uncomfortable with using this example. We discussed whether to replace it. We opted to keep it, because the example exemplifies how we should be accordingly uncomfortable with subjectivism, in contrast to a commonly held view that meaningfulness of one’s life is always subjective.
In a similar vein, Kauppinen (2012, p. 356) writes “the Voluntarist [Subjectivist] view is far too permissive, once we remember to disambiguate the notion of a life being meaningful for someone. Just as a food can be unhealthy for a person even if she thinks it is healthy, a life can be meaningless for someone even if she thinks it is meaningful.”
There may be hard cases, but when those are cases of reasonably informed disagreements, the framework above submits that the form of life activity in the disagreement must be respectfully admitted as objectively worthy to the extent that no one could reasonably reject the informed argument in favor of the worthiness of the life.
Similarly, Ciulla (2000, pp. 225–226) writes: “Work has meaning because there is some good in it. The most meaningful jobs are those in which people directly help others or create products that make life better for people. Work makes life better if it helps others; alleviates suffering; eliminating difficult, dangerous, or tedious toil; makes someone healthier and happier; or aesthetically or intellectually enriches people and improves the environment in which we live.”
In response to counter-examples to the fitting-fulfillment view, Evers and van Smeden (2016) proposed modifying Wolf’s account to replace “love” with “valuing.” We believe Wolf’s is already inclusive of the suggestion.
Bernard Suits (2005) argues that work can never be meaning-creating and that game-playing is the only worthy activity. We take the message seriously, especially as we live in a workaholic society. Nevertheless, we maintain that Suits’ thesis is too strong. Not all cases of game playing are objectively meaningful (e.g., urinating in snow to melt it). Our argument submits that game playing or any activity is meaningful only if it realizes and contributes to self-development and the good of society. Thus, employed work, when it becomes a vehicle that empowers individuals to capably realize their agency and contribute to others, is meaning-creating. Consistently, Thomas Hurka, who wrote the introduction to Suits’s book, argues that economic activity is itself often a process of intrinsic value-creating activity in the modern life (Hurka & Suits, 1978). We are indebted to Joanne B. Ciulla for pressing us to discuss Suits’ work.
Of course this is not to say that everything that pharmaceutical companies engage in can be seen as beneficial and meaningful. This point is actually immaterial to our argument—the axiological challenge does not require work that is invariably meaningful, but rather work that is sufficiently meaningful. The precise definition of sufficiently in this context is a difficult question and beyond the scope of this paper.
The venture was suggested by Dr. William Campbell—who discovered that a veterinary drug, once reformulated for humans, could easily cure onchocerciasis or “river blindness”—and executed by CEO P. Roy Vagelos to provide the drug to anyone who needed it for as long as it was needed, for free (Hanson & Weiss, 1991).
For a detailed analysis of “participant” in a chain of “collective value creation” see Donaldson and Walsh (2015).
Another salient example is provided by sanitation workers, who may be looked down upon in society due to the dirty nature of their work. But there are few other occupations that do more to ensure the public good or the public health.
Of course, paid employment is not the only form of work by which one can contribute to the good of society. Those who take care of housework and raise children significantly contribute to the good. We do not deny this at all. Instead, our argument is that for very many in society, paid employment is often the best potential option present for fulfillment.
Moriarty (2009, 15), in his analysis of Rawls’s works writes: “In identifying the OMW [the opportunity for meaningful work] as a social basis of self-respect in PL [Political Liberalism, paperback edition], Rawls abandons th[e] laissez-faire approach. His new view seems to be: we cannot merely hope that if people cannot find meaningful work, they can get self-respect from other activities, such as chess or softball…This has the effect of privileging the work association over other associations as a source of self-respect.”
As Nozick (1968/1974, 247) says, “The issue of meaningful and satisfying work is often merged with discussions of self-esteem…Such an individual, it is said, can take pride in what he’s doing and in doing it well; he can feel that he is a person of worth, making a contribution of value.”
Arneson’s primary claim in his broad project about meaningful work was a public policy thesis that there is no compelling argument for the government to intervene to increase the degree of meaningful work.
Conceptually, there can be two other categories: c) those who have economic roles but do not participate in activities outside of work and d) those who do not have work opportunities and do not participate in activities outside of the economic realm.
We think this is likely evolutionary—humans who derive utility from work that is societally beneficial are more likely to form strong societies. Similarly, animals in zoos often become neurotic, because they are denied the ability to roam the broad spaces they evolved to roam and to engage in the hunting and gathering activities they evolved to engage in. Zoos have recognized this, and now work to hide a polar bear’s food, for example, to give them some poor relative substitute for the “gainful employment” they would see in the wild.
We authors are once again extremely uncomfortable with using this analogy, but opted to use it, because in romanticizing the opportunities available through leisure activities we run the risk of ignoring the societal disadvantages those without employment opportunity may face. This is not to say that those without employment opportunities cannot find fulfillment, or even thrive, in our society. Rather, we argue that their opportunities to thrive may be curtailed, and we question whether this is just. Likewise, there are countless examples of those who are disadvantaged thriving in our society. But this does not mean that the barriers to their thriving that currently exist in our society are in any way just.
Accordingly, the competing intellectual camp attempts to show that many of the jobs essential for human society are so complex in perception and manipulation that even advanced robots cannot automate them.
For instance, Frey and Osborne (2013, p. 43) write, “labour saving inventions may only be adopted if the access to cheap labour is scarce or prices of capital are relatively high. We do not account for future wage levels, capital prices or labour shortages. While these factors will impact on the timeline of our predictions, labour is the scarce factor, implying that in the long-run wage levels will increase relative to capital prices, making computerization increasingly profitable.”
For our interpretation of libertarianism, we are indebted to Jason Brennan, who writes, “Many libertarians believe that property rights—including the right to run our businesses as we see fit—can be justified only if they systematically benefit everyone who is asked to respect those rights. If property rights end up systematically leaving some people behind, it may be unreasonable to demand that those left behind respect those property rights” (Brennan, 2012, p. 204).
In a relevantly similar manner, Tomasi writes, “Rather than being simply derivative from the public norms in a liberal society, this [the criteria of good citizen conduct] is a substantive or eudaimonistically directed understanding of liberal good citizen conduct…to be a good citizen means far more than being merely just, or law-abiding, or consistent in the performance of one’s politics duties. Liberal citizenship imposes far heavier burdens: citizenship involves the very center of one’s life” (Tomasi, 2001, pp. 67, 70).
According to the Stanford Research Institute’s memorandum, from which the theory was originally developed, a stakeholder is defined as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist” (Freeman and Reed, 1983, p. 89).
A similar challenge was made to the stakeholder theory by Orts and Strudler (2002), who argued that stakeholder theory is futile for sustainability because the natural environment cannot be a stakeholder.
Macey and Miller (1993) criticize the stakeholder theory’s lack of a rigorous balancing procedure, because without such a tool, managers “can justify virtually any decision they make on the grounds that it benefits some constituency of the firm.” We do not accept this type of anything-goes criticism against stakeholder theory but acknowledge that stakeholder theory as it is does not have clear resources to prove its usefulness to address the axiological challenge.
Donaldson and Walsh (2015) added what they call the “Dignity Threshold” to the stakeholder framework. The Threshold demands minimum ethical respect to participants in collective value creation. This is a promising step forward for businesses to pay more attention to the axiological aspect of humans, and it deserves further discussion. Does business’ minimum respect for a person’s intrinsic worth mandate business’ accountability to pay attention to the challenge of meaning? Are those who seek work opportunities to contribute to the good of society participants in collective value creation?
It is possible this is just coincidence. It is also possible that these sessions are contemporary echoes of ancient Aristotelian ideals; ideals that still resonate with us and that will continue to resonate into our machine-age future.
Although the anticipated rise in Massively Open Online Communities—MOOCs—has yet to transform education as first anticipated, it is clear that crowdsourcing, community ratings sites, and, yes, Facebook have transformed how we as a society gather and transmit information, form beliefs and make decisions. We think it is important that our proposal—the corporate agora—be flexible enough to adapt to these changes.
Our premise is that some of the technologically unemployed will desire fulfilling engagement in meaningful work. Thus in our vision membership in an agora would be competitive—it presumes that members would actively want to exert effort within their community to help their “team.” Participation could be further motivated through the distribution of tokens from their agora community—Pepsi or Nike gear could serve the same identity-fulfilling purpose as a Steelers or Yankees jersey does now. This could be supplemented by distributing small shares of the company to the most productive and loyal members of the agora.
Reflecting on this example, one could argue that firms already have sufficient incentive to initiate the formation of agora. As society becomes more able to form virtual communities, and in the face of increasing technological unemployment, firms may find still more value from a dedicated band of followers. Thus forward–looking firms might be well served to explore the formation of agora presently.
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Kim, T.W., Scheller-Wolf, A. Technological Unemployment, Meaning in Life, Purpose of Business, and the Future of Stakeholders. J Bus Ethics 160, 319–337 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04205-9