Suppose that sometime in the future technology would evolve to the degree that it would be unnecessary for people to work at all. Computers, robots, and other machines would be so developed that they would do all the work that people do now. Some futurologists hold that this is indeed very likely to happen.
Could lives still be meaningful in such a workless future? John Danaher considers this question in his paper “Will Life Be Worth Living in a World Without Work?”
One argument Danaher presents for the view that life would be meaningful in a workless world emphasizes that today, most people’s work undermines meaning. The work of most people in the world is repetitive, uninteresting, emotionally degrading, intellectually dulling, and exposes them to intimidation by supervisors and coworkers. Many people leave work at the end of the day feeling emotionally and physically drained. And most do not autonomously choose to work; they work because they must, and they wouldn't work if they had the means to avoid it. In all these ways, work seems to diminish life’s meaning for many, and freeing them from it may well free them to have more meaningful lives.
Another argument Danaher presents for the view that life in a workless world would be meaningful is based on Bertrand Russell’s claim that the people responsible for the scientific, cultural, and political developments that made their lives meaningful have traditionally been of the “leisure class” that didn’t have to work for a living. Russell concludes that freeing more people to the “leisure class” will allow more people to have meaningful lives. His claim suggests that in a workless world, where all will be members of a kind of a “leisure class,” life could be very meaningful.
However, Russell’s claim seems historically incorrect. Rembrandt, Mozart, Newton, Kant, Shakespeare, Einstein, and almost all other pillars of culture and science didn’t belong to the "leisure class." They worked for a living, and it is unclear whether they would have developed what they did if they didn’t have to work.
Above were two of the arguments Danaher presents for the view that life in a workless world would be meaningful. But Danaher also considers some arguments for the opposite view, namely, that it would be difficult or impossible to maintain life's meaning in a workless world. One argument for this second view points out that work is what allows many people to cultivate their skills, to achieve excellence, to be effective, to contribute, to be part of a professional community, and to make a difference in the world. All these are aspects of meaningful lives, and a workless world may well severe people from these sources of life’s meaning.
However, Danaher replies that perhaps many of these sources of meaning could also be maintained in a workless world. People can also be effective, make a difference, and accomplish excellence, skill, and community when engaging in leisure activities (such as sports or the arts). Again, it is unclear whether, free from the necessity to work, people will use their time to engage in leisure activities that enhance meaning or will just idle their time away.
Another interesting argument Danaher presents for the claim that it would be difficult or impossible to maintain meaning in life in a workless world relates to Thaddeus Metz’s claim that meaningfulness inheres in three main domains. Metz discusses the domains of the good (having much to do with morality), the true (having much to do with intellectual effort and achievement), and the beautiful (having much to do with art or aesthetics).
Danaher argues that in this super-technological, workless world it would be harder, or impossible, to find meaning in the domain of the good. For example, there will be no need for charity for the hungry. Likewise, robots will take excellent care of the sick. And kidney donations will be unnecessary thanks to stem cell manipulation and 3D printers.
The same holds for the domain of the true. In such a super-advanced technological future, highly developed computers with huge databases will also render redundant much of the intellectual work that makes life meaningful, as in science. Computer technologies are likely to be so developed that they will maintain, upgrade and develop themselves, and will solve better than people can most intellectual problems.
Thus, it seems that at least in two of the main domains of life’s meaning, much of the work that we now do and endows life with meaning will not exist. This can pose a real problem for life’s meaning. Perhaps meaning could still be had in the domain of the beautiful.
Danaher’s article is of course more intricate than the few arguments presented here suggest. All in all, however, although he recognizes the great advantage in ridding humanity of the types of work that are widely prevalent today and undermine meaning, he is somewhat pessimistic about life’s meaning in a workless world.
I am a bit more optimistic here than Danaher. I think that in such a super-technological, workless world people could find a lot of meaning not only in the sphere of the beautiful (creating and enjoying art and beauty) but also in religion and in interpersonal relations such as love or friendship. But I suggest that people can also find meaning in developing themselves in the intellectual sphere of the true, even if not for the sake of work and although computers could "think" better, just as today people find meaning in becoming excellent chess players although computers can "play" chess better than humans. Further, this super-technological world, where the good is no longer necessary, would also be free from difficulties such as depression and anxiety that, today, diminish meaning in so many people's lives.
Hence, if the super-technological, workless world Danaher discusses would be realized, I suspect that meaning in people's lives would be on average higher than it is today.
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Danaher, J. 2017. “Will Life Be Worth Living in a World Without Work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life.” Science and Engineering Ethics 23:41–64. DOI 10.1007/s11948-016-9770-5
Metz, T. 2013. Meaning in Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Russell, B. 2004. In Praise of Idleness (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.