Does everyone really need a job? Why we should question full employment

Does everybody really need to work? What three philosophers have to say about our dedication to finding everybody a job.

The idea that diligence is a virtue and that a person who doesn’t work full time is morally suspect is a common one. Phrases like “idle hands are the tools of the devil” suggest to us that work is inherently good and that if we don't work full-time then we have somehow failed. For many people, unemployment is as much something to be ashamed of as it is an economic problem.


It is no surprise then that we rarely ask — “do we all need to work?”

Think about it. The advance of technology over the last century and the increasing threat of automation have made many jobs obsolete. We have more wealth than at any other point in human history, we've created machines by which we can be more productive than any other point in human history, and have more things to do in our spare time than ever before. Why should we all work full-time jobs if we can afford to work part-time for the same economic output? 

This is the question Andrew Taggart has asked for years. Taggart, a practical philosopher, understands that people have a need to contribute and often find meaning in work, but questions if our society can offer jobs that fulfill these needs to everybody. He points out that full employment schemes have historically focused on short-term, unskilled and labor-intensive employment that often fail to satisfy our need to contribute meaningfully to the world.

So, how do you solve the problem of a lack of meaningful work?

Saying that "[our] modern society lacks imagination", Taggart points to alternative models of assuring material needs are satisfied without everybody having a full-time job. He highlights schemes like Local Exchange Trading Systems which can offer the same material and psychological satisfaction to the individual outside of the traditional employment structure. 

In systems such as this people still work “jobs” in that they produce goods and services, but their production is geared for use, often paid in kind, and you are under no obligation to work any more than you want to-provided that you can pay your bills. In his Big Think interview, he discusses more causes of, and solutions to, our obsession with work. 


Similarly, Professor David Graeber has written entire books on why we work jobs that we know are bullshit. He thinks it is a problem of design, with the economy purposely organized to employ people in jobs that don’t need doing. For Graeber, the idea that we all need to work jobs that we think are pointless defeats any non-material purpose that work has.

While he agrees that there can be dignity to labor, the idea that a clerk who thinks their job has no worth gets any dignity from it strikes him as laughable. Given the seeming illogic of people being paid to do pointless work, Dr. Graeber can only find a political explanation for why the working class still works 40-hour weeks. He points out that:

“The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).

He suggests that we cut down on our bureaucratic systems, both public and private, as a means of getting rid of most of the pointless jobs. 


Of course, it must also be said that some of us do want to work a job that stinks just for the money. The counterargument that we want more money over more free time has frequently been offered over the last fifty years. (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

Are these two just postmodern crackpots? Has anybody with unquestionable stature reached the same point?

The philosopher Bertrand Russell would have sided with both men. In his essay In Praise of Idleness, Russell argues that a key reason for both overwork and unemployment is the unequal distribution of leisure time. Russell suggests that a more scientific organization of the economy, he was a committed democratic socialist, could both end unemployment and overwork by removing the pointless tasks and dividing the work that remains more equitably.

Russell has a strange element to his views, the idea that leisure time is inherently good. He goes so far as to say that “Leisure is essential to civilization.” He then posits that “with modern technique, it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.” 

He gives an example of how our desire to have everybody work full time hurts us. He asks us to imagine that two large factories make pins. These two plants produce all the pins the world needs and employ many people. However, one day an invention comes along that doubles production rates. Russell suggests that:

“In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

So, do we all need to work full time? From an economic standpoint, we don’t. Everything that everybody needs can be produced by a fraction of the population working full time or by everybody working part-time. Many jobs that we still keep around really don’t require doing at all, like telemarketing.  Great minds of ages past dreamed of a world where we all worked a fraction of what we do now and enjoyed more time with friends, family, hobbies, and education. The question is, why don’t we? After all, if we can afford a basic income, like Chris Hughes suggests we are, why can't we afford to work part-time?

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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