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Mixing flourishing with servitude, part 2

After writing about Josiah Ober’s thoughts on flourishing and servitude last month, I felt something lacking in the account of “service” I gave.

Many people, including me, take pride in the service we offer, and research argues for an association between being of service to others and personal satisfaction (though whether one causes the other is unclear). As I noted in my previous entry, much thinking about modern work comes from a viewpoint in which performing the proper sort of paid work is flourishing. Yet hardly anyone wants to be in the position of Aristotle’s slaves, compelled to provide services so that a few privileged philosophers are free to exercise their wills.

The obvious way out is to make a distinction between “service”, given freely in some sense, and “servitude”, which is not. The practical compromise is to do something in between: modern workers aren’t compelled into the service of philosophers or anyone else, yet the need to make money, together with the constraints of the organisation they work for, means neither are they completely free to choose the services they offer. The ABC recently even had “some GenZs and Millenials” considering that loving your job is a capitalist trap (never mind those of us old enough to have become suspicious decades ago).

Plenty of opportunities exist to offer service without paid work: I’ve just finished two years of service as a system administrator at the Society for Creative Anachronism; other people volunteer for humanitarian or environmental projects; parents care for children; and people just help each other out around the house. Automation might one day eliminate the need for system administrators and wealth might eliminate the need for humanitarian work, but people will continue to work in their gardens, care for their friends and relatives, and so on, simply because it gives them pleasure to do so.

Ober’s thought experiment aligns with the theme of this blog in the sense that automation, properly used, frees us to pursue our own goals—which might include offering service to others where we find pleasure or pride or community in such service. But the more service is performed because “the economy” says so, the more it looks like servitude.

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