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Mixing flourishing with servitude

The June 2022 edition of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine reprints a speech from Josiah Ober explaining why he thinks human flourishing and servitude are incompatible. I suspect most people in liberal democracies would take this to be obvious, but one insightful description of a philosopher refers to someone who won’t take common sense for an answer.

Of interest to this blog, Ober speculates on the possibility that machines will free humans from the servitude mentioned in the title. He recalls Aristotle’s argument that human flourishing requires the capacity to exercise one’s speech and reason without the constraint of an external master. The practical problem for Aristotle was that, for he and his philosophical buddies to freely exercise their speech and reason, someone else had to do the menial work of providing food, shelter, and so on. He goes on to make an infamous assertion that some people are by nature suited to servitude, and that these people are (conveniently) available to carry out that menial work. Ober proposes that autonomous machines might enable Aristotle’s philosophical utopia without the need for human slaves.

I wrote Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia in part as a response to a view in which autonomous machines relieve humans from labour only so that humans can do other labour. Not philosophical labour of our own choosing, as Aristotle might have hoped, but whatever labour the economy will pay for. In that view, one might say that serving the economy is flourishing, and the grand hope of its proponents is that the economy will provide meaningful work for all.

To be fair, few modern jobs would constitute “servitude” of the sort experienced by Aristotle’s slaves; even the most menial modern workers have to be paid and they can at least in principle change jobs if they don’t like their current one. Workers who understand the philosophical rationale for economic growth and productivity might even perceive themselves as part of a flourishing economic society even if their own little contribution to it is dreary and mundane. Others who love their jobs might say they’ve found a practical compromise between flourishing and providing the labour required to support modern society.

I myself have taken the “practical compromise” position most of the time I’ve been in paid work, even if I’ve been vaguely aware that others do paid work that might not be so conducive to their personal “flourishing”. Yet even in the best of those positions I was very strict about working only my standard hours and leaving time in which to work on my own projects. Autonomous machines might conceivably free us from the need to compromise—but, to judge by public debate, only the inhabitants of philosophy schools are ready for it.

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