Our Moral Compass Is Broken

Last month I applied for food stamps in the state of Massachusetts. Food stamps are great, but they're not perfect. Among other drawbacks, food stamps come with a job search requirement. This is unsurprising. We naturally expect people to do their best to pull their own weight. It is an expectation as fundamental as it is pernicious.

Soviet Propaganda: Who doesn't work doesn't eat
"Who doesn't work doesn't eat"
Soviet Propaganda Poster, Uzbek, Tashkent, 1920

It's reasonable for us to feel that individuals ought to contribute. After all, humanity would have died out long ago had we not worked to further our collective well-being. But, in modern times, automation technology has taken much of that work out of our hands.

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest.
— Buckminster Fuller
"The New York Magazine Environmental Teach-In" by Elizabeth Barlow
New York Magazine 30 Mar. 1970, (p. 30)

Fuller said that in 1970 and his words are no less true today. As I outlined last April, we no longer need labor from everyone. How, then, are we expecting people to contribute? What is it that we're expecting people to contribute to? What is humanity's collective purpose? What should it be? Even though we continually require less work, it still feels morally wrong to allow people to go jobless. Why?

In his book, Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene examines the nature of morality. He contends that our moral instincts evolved both biologically and culturally as a cooperative survival mechanism. This makes sense. Morality is a set of rules that keeps us on the same page. But in expecting people to have jobs, we're on the same wrong page.

We can use our big brains to rationalize our intuitive moral convictions, or we can transcend the limitations of our tribal gut reactions [i.e. moral intuitions].
— Joshua Greene Moral Tribes (p. 16)

When we're all making the same mistake together, getting on the right page is easier said than done. Even Greene himself fails to transcend the limitations of work ethic morality. The moral controversies he explores involving collectivism vs. individualism only make sense in the context of a labor-based economy. But when the collective wealth generated by technology can serve to promote individual freedom, these controversies evaporate.

Greene focuses on these issues for a reason: much of our political landscape is shaped by the tension between collectivism and individualism. We constantly argue over how much we should distribute money "earned" by individuals. To what degree do the animosity and bickering in our politics stem from outdated moral convictions about the value of work? How much longer will it take for us to transcend those convictions? How much damage have we already inflicted upon our society by failing to do so?

Yes, this is one of the big dangers, one of the big problems with technology. It develops much faster than human society and human morality, and this creates a lot of tension.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
"Death is Optional" Edge.org 4 Mar. 2015

In his popular Humans Need Not Apply YouTube video from this past August, CGP Grey attempts to raise awareness of technology lessening the need for human labor:

However, Grey carefully avoids any mention of strategies to address the resulting widespread wage stagnation and joblessness. He later commented on why:

I often saw people undo changing their mind about technological problems because it disagreed with their politics.
— CGP Grey Hello Internet #19: Pit of Doom (69:36)

In other words, after becoming convinced of the reality of technological unemployment, people then quickly unconvinced themselves. That's morality kicking in. When our thought process leads us to conclusions that contradict our moral values, we reflexively self-correct lest we fall out of step with the social norms that allow us all to live together in harmony. When we imagine a world in which people aren't contributing their labor to the economy, we panic. Our gut reaction tells us that society will fall apart if we allow people to be jobless.

When we have computers that can do more and more jobs, it's going to change how we think about work. There's no way around that. You can't wish it away.
— Larry Page, CEO of Google in an interview for Financial Times 31 Oct. 2014

We can't stop automation. We must therefore turn our attention to the challenge of re-evaluating our social expectations. We must learn to accept that it's normal not to contribute labor to the economy. Only once we transcend our work ethic morality will we stop trying to prevent people from "free riding." Only then will we allow people to offer value beyond labor.

Because my government has yet to accept joblessness as normal, I reluctantly fulfilled their job search requirement. In doing so, I wasted a small amount of their time, a small amount of my own time, and small amounts of 18 different employers' time. Not a big deal. The process was far less wasteful than actually getting a job would have been.

What is a big deal is that these types of requirements are endemic to social welfare programs. What is a big deal is that institutionalized work ethic extends even further into our laws. Even the U.S. Federal Reserve has a mandate to promote maximum employment.

These laws need to change. But we can't change them without first changing the minds of our lawmakers. And we can't change the minds of our lawmakers without first re-evaluating our own moral intuitions about joblessness and the jobless.

We need to de-stigmatize particular feelings about the unemployed. And that's a big issue, because right now most people I talk to . . . have very negative feelings towards the unemployed.
— CGP Grey Hello Internet #19: Pit of Doom (71:53)

Teach a man to fish and he'll fish for a lifetime. But give a man fish for a lifetime and he's free to do something worthwhile. When you give people freedom, they'll sometimes make choices you don't like. But that's the price of freedom. Freedom is worth it.

Not everyone can brush off job search requirements as easily as I can. There are people out there being forced to take any job they can get. These are valuable people with valuable human minds whose value is being squandered.

What should humanity's collective purpose be? It can be to enable and encourage individual self-actualization. How do we contribute? We contribute not by wasting our lives on meaningless jobs, but by taking advantage of the resources that technology provides.

Morality may be a survival mechanism, but the world we're surviving in has changed. We evolved in small groups out-competing other small groups through coordination and careful management of scarce resources. We must now learn to share abundance peacefully in a global community.

In my last post, I asked what was worth fighting for. This is it. We should be fighting to embrace joblessness as a positive force for humanity. This is the single most important social issue of our time.