Is Being Productive the Highest Good?

Peter from Office Space (Picture from Rotten Tomatoes)

What happens when all we live to work. Let’s take a look at two shows that poke fun at the white-collar office worker. In the movie, Office Space, the main character, Peter, is disillusioned with the “rat race” of office life. His work is repetitive and unimportant, and therefore, he feels that his life is also repetitive and unimportant. His life is centered on his job. He lives to work, and because he does not have the right job, he is unhappy. The “happy ending” of the movie is not that Peter eventually learns that there is more to life than work and his identity is not wrapped up in his job. The happy ending is that he eventually finds a job that has the things he likes, being outdoors and working with his hands.

Jim

Jim from The Office (Picture from http://theoffice.wikia.com/wiki/Jim_Halpert)

In the television show, The Office (U.S. version), one of the characters, Jim, is apathetic about his job at a paper company, Dunder Mifflin. Jim has hobbies, like cycling and playing guitar, but we get the impression that he generally considers his job boring and one of those necessary evils of life (his views change as the series progresses). Dwight, on the other hand, approaches his job at Dunder Mifflin with enthusiasm, showing up early, leaving late, and always trying to be a team player. He also happens to live and work on beet farm, of which he is equally enthusiastic.

Both Office Space and The Office are written so that we relate to Peter and Jim. They represent the angst that most white-collar workers feel, even if we cannot put our finger on exactly what that angst is. Peter wants to be outside. Jim plays music. But are cubicles and paper-pushing really the problem?

Perhaps the problem has to do with how we prioritize our lives. Our Western culture has bought into the idea that productivity is the highest good, and therefore work should be an end in itself. Productivity is certainly one of many signs of a good employee or a well-run business, but it is not an end in itself. Being productive should not be the end-all-be-all of life. To live for productivity is hollow and dehumanizing. Machines are fine-tuned to be optimally productive. People strive for something more, and productivity helps us get there.

What is leisure?

In pre-modern times, people whose lives were centered on work were called slaves or laborers. They put in twelve or fourteen-hour days and spent their non-working time resting and recuperating so that they can work the next day. Their value is in their productivity. This is contrasted to the aristocracy. They engaged in leisure activities, but these activities are not what we think of when we think of “leisure” today. The aristocracy considered leisure activities important for cultural enrichment. Those that used their freedom to engage in diversions or hedonism were considered slothful.

Leisure, in the classical sense of the term, is different from restful activities to help recuperate from a long day or mindless activities to cope with the mental tedium of repetitive, labor-intensive work. Leisure activities consisted of the higher pursuits, like education, art, music, and sport. It is no accident that the word we use for “school” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word for leisure. Leisure activities often consisted of difficult things that required hard work to master, but these activities were personally enriching and culturally significant. They often involved creating or writing things that have aesthetic appeal and are good in and of themselves.

The Industrial Revolution

This two class system was turned on its head with the advance of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization, over the course of one hundred years, took menial, repetitive, undignified work and automated it. It also meant that people did not have to work as many hours, allowing all people to have a life that consisted of rest (including sleeping, eating, and bodily care), non-work, and work time. The non-work time was to be a time for leisure pursuits so that all men may cultivate a virtuous character and engage in culture-making.  This resulted in more people getting an education and engage in the arts and sciences.

But something happened that caused people to lose track of those priorities. Mortimer Adler, an early-twentieth century scholar, points out that while the Industrial Revolution did much to dignify work and rid of us a labor/aristocracy class system, it also skewed our understanding of work, leisure, and recreation.

Adler lists four negative consequences of the Industrial Revolution that contribute to our malaise:

  1. The Industrial Revolution eliminated the value of individual craftsmanship. Things that used to be made by artisans and craftsmen, like shoes, clothes, candles, or food, were easily produced in the factory setting, thus trivializing certain kinds of work.
  2. The Industrial Revolution changed our priorities such that producing more and more goods became the purpose of all of our efforts. Adler says that we ought to regard the increase in productivity only as a means and not as an end.
  3. As a result, people now think free time should be used only for recreation (or recuperation) in order to get back to work and produce more. It is no longer a time to engage in those things that are edifying and that often bring people joy. Instead, it is spent engaging in diversions which are not ultimately fulfilling.
  4. Classical, or liberal, education was replaced with training for the job so that a person can become a productive member of society. This perpetuated a kind of empty meaning to education that goes something like this: “Go to school and make good grades, so you can go to a good college, so you can get a good job, so you can be a productive member of society.”

Meaninglessness

By placing an emphasis on productivity, people live to work, and therefore, their free time is spent on things that are not tiring, but also not particularly enriching. This leads to a kind of boredom that philosopher-types like to call hyper-boredom. You get the sense of this hyper-boredom when you watch Peter in Office Space. However, hyper-boredom is more than “being in a funk” or not finding the right job. It is a malaise that is best described as operating as though everything was ultimately meaningless.

Why is a proper view of leisure important? Adler summarizes the classical concept of leisure as “consisting in all those activities by which the individual grows morally, intellectually, and spiritually, through which he attains personal excellence and also performs his moral and political duty.” Essentially, it is the things people love to do and would do whether they were paid or not.

Leisure is not the same has having nothing to do or “killing time” and it is not a diversion to cope with life. Adler points out that, based on the classical concept of leisure, the good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure.

A couple of caveats are in order, though. First, some people are blessed to be able to do the leisure activities that they love as their full-time job. Adler, a college professor, considered his job both work and leisure. But, as anyone who has ever been a full-time teacher, writer, or artist knows, there is still a labor aspect to their leisure activity. Most people do not consider grading papers, filling out tax forms, or making sales pitches leisure activities. These things tend to be compulsory, making them work rather than leisure.

Second, this is not to say productivity is bad. It is good to be productive as part of pursuing excellence in work. However, orienting your life around productivity is to enslave yourself. Recall that in The Office, Jim was apathetic about work, but Dwight was not. Their characters are meant to be comic foils of each other, but as always, comedy is funny because it contains elements of truth. Dwight had a beet farm, a leisure activity, while Jim had diversions. Jim’s character started to change when he engaged in a meaningful relationship.

We often think that our leisure, or non-work time, is unimportant, but in reality, it is very important. A proper view of leisure helps us orient our lives in a way that acknowledges the reality of having to earn a living to survive but that we crave more than merely survival and consumerism.

J. Warner Wallace on True Believers

Something to think about–Even Unbelievers Are True Believers.

I’m not foolish enough to think Christians are immune to misguided or improperly motivated beliefs. I’ve written repeatedly about the perils of “accidental Christianity” and the largely unthoughtful nature of the Church. If you’re a Christian, you might want to ask yourself why you believe Christianity is true. There are lots of “true believing” Christians who are just like my unbelieving atheist and Mormon friends; committed to a worldview not because it is evidentially true but for some other utilitarian or practical reason.

This Christmas season, let’s renew our effort to celebrate the life of the mind as Christians. When you’re about to begin a conversation with an unbelieving friend, keep this important truth in view: Even unbelievers are true believers. We sometimes present the case for Christianity as though we are talking to people who simply don’t know the facts, (as if we are speaking into an evidential “vacuum”). But this isn’t always the case. Everyone’s a “true believer”, and sometimes the challenge is in recognizing why someone is committed to their views.

To learn more about J. Warner Wallace, see this article about him and his work as a homicide detective as well as being an impressive apologist for the Christian faith.

HT: Mr. Wintery Knight

NFL and Prescription Drugs

The NFL is being sued by 1,300 former players for the way it distributed prescription pain medicines so players can get back in the game. The former players claim that they were not informed of the side effects of potent pain killers such as Percodan, Percocet, Vicodin, and Toradol. Percodan, Percocet and Vicodin are all opioid painkillers and Toradol is a strong non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug.

Many of the former NFL players involved in the lawsuit played during the 1980s and 1990s when practices for administering powerful painkillers, both opioids and NSAIDs, were cavalier. Today they are, in theory, more regulated. The players state that the “NFL medical staffs routinely violated federal and state laws in plying them with powerful narcotics to mask injuries on game days.” They also claim that medical staff was negligent by keeping important information on the players’ medical conditions from them, such as markers for kidney disease or broken bones.

At issue are 1) whether doctors and trainers violated the law by illegally administering prescription drugs, and 2) whether players were adequately informed of the side-effects of the drugs as well as informed of any medical issues that doctors found that might affect their decision.

Doctors Behaving Badly?

In an attempt to investigate whether illegal practices were going on, the DEA paid unannounced visits to several professional teams in November (2014) in which they questioned team doctors and trainers after the game. This investigation was to ensure that doctors were prescribing and distributing drugs appropriately, that they were handling controlled substances properly when crossing state lines, and that they had a license to practice in the state. Thus far, the DEA has not found evidence of illegal activities in their investigation.

However, an investigation from Vice Sports into how and where NFL doctors acquired such large amounts of prescription drugs, shows that, at least in the past, they were likely obtaining drugs illegitimately. From 2009 to 2010, several NFL teams, as well as other professional and college sports teams, acquired large amounts of opioids and NSAIDs from a company called SportPharm, an illegal drug distributor operating behind the legitimate company, RSF Pharmaceuticals. RSF Pharmaceuticals eventually shut down, and SportPharm was re-branded as a subsidiary of Champion Health Services, which is still in operation. Many teams would fill prescriptions in player’s names without the player knowing so that the actual quantities would fly under the radar.

Informed Consent

The second issue has to do with players’ rights, and whether they were adequately informed of what drugs they were given, their medical options given their current medical situation, and the long-term side effects.

Many of the players received opiate drugs without being told about their addictive nature, and were often told to take them for longer or in higher dosages than what is recommended by the FDA. Furthermore, many players were given prescription pain medicine without a doctor’s evaluation or monitoring. One former player reports that while playing for one team, an assistant trainer would pass out unlabeled manilla envelopes with pain medicine for any player that raised his hand and said he needed them. Another former player said that envelopes with prescription pain medicine would be waiting in the seats on the airplane for the players.

Player testimonies from the class action law suit website show that many players were given powerful pain medicine instead of being told that they needed rest and recovery or that the problem was actually much worse and required surgery. Several players said that NFL doctors knew of existing health issues, but did not inform the players. Two players’ testimonies state that NFL doctors knew that they had indicators of kidney problems but did not tell the players. Both former players now have renal failure.

Another former player, Rex Hadnot, said in a Washington Post interview that he was given Toradol pills and/or injections once-per-week for nine years. He was never told that Toradol should not be administered for more than five days due to risk of kidney damage, heart attack, and stroke.  He said that sometimes he would receive both a shot and a pill on the same day, a much higher dosage than the FDA recommends.

The Mountain Climber Problem

Part of the problem with discerning the ethics of safety for football players is exemplified in what H. Tristam Engelhardt calls “the mountain climber problem.” In general, climbing a mountain is more dangerous than not climbing a mountain, but we do not consider it unethical to allow a mountain climber to scale a mountain if he so desires. Similarly, playing sports is inherently more dangerous than not playing sports. Football players take on additional risks by choosing to play the sport. Therefore, what protections, if any, are football players owed?

There is a tension between restricting someone’s freedom and allowing them to put themselves in harm’s way. Typically, with the mountain climber problem, ethicists will say that it is unethical to allow additional harm to come to the person such that he or she could not accomplish the stated goal of climbing the mountain. For example, while mountain climbing is inherently dangerous, the climber should still use a harness and ropes. In the case of football players, while it is an inherently dangerous sport, one can enforce safety precautions to ensure that players are not injured in such a way that they cannot play the sport. This is the motivation behind stricter rules to prevent concussions, helmet design, and padding.

The difference between the mountain climber and the football player is that collisions are part of the sport. Pain is a given. The former players who are suing the NFL claim that their health was sacrificed in the name of sales. But, other players criticize the lawsuit as nothing more than a money grab on behalf of former players because they knew what they were risking by playing the sport.

Despite whatever motivations are behind the lawsuit or the NFL’s medical decisions, it is unethical to de-humanize athletes, even if they willingly chose to engage in de-humanizing activities. Let’s take a non-football example: If a woman choses to trade sex for money, she is willingly commodifying herself and ultimately engaging in a de-humanizing activity. While this may have been her free choice, it does not mean that if she goes to a doctor, the doctor is no longer ethically obligated to treat her with human dignity. In other words, even if she chooses to engage in activities that are de-humanizing, that does not mean it is okay for medical health professionals to treat her as less-than-human.

In the case of football players, even if they may choose short-term returns at the expense of long-term injury, they need to be given the opportunity to make an informed choice on the matter because, ultimately, they are the ones that have to live with the consequences.

In the latest issue of Salvo Magazine (Winter, 2014) I cover the larger issue of prescription pain medicine addiction, what opiate drugs actually do to the brain, and how one becomes addicted. The former NFL players’ claims about the over-prescribing of prescription painkillers may be part of a larger national problem that saw a peak in opiate drug prescriptions during the years that many of the former players were active in the NFL.

A Review of The Principle

Copernicus Conversations with God (2)

Copernicus, Conversations with God, by Matejko. In background: Frombork Cathedral.

By Terrell Clemmons

Shortly before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in which he proposed that the motion of the planets could be better explained by assuming that the Sun, rather than the Earth, sits at the center of the universe (the Solar System being the extent of the known universe of his day). Up until this point, Western scientists had visualized the universe in accordance with Ptolemy’s geocentric model, which in turn traced its roots back to Aristotle.

Later, Enlightenment thinkers extrapolated the Copernican model into what is now known as the Copernican principle. The Copernican principle states that the earth is not in any specially favored or spatially central location in the universe. And although it has never been proven, and in fact is unprovable with current technology, the Copernican principle has become entrenched into an axiomatic presupposition of modern thought, as astrophysicist Michael Rowan-Robinson wrote in 1996, “It is evident that in the post-Copernican era of human history, no well-informed and rational person can imagine that Earth occupies a unique position in the universe.”

Baby boomers may remember Carl Sagan pontificating, “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” What the Copernican principle generalizes into is a philosophy which says human beings are nothing, and human life is ultimately meaningless. If Copernicus disabused us of the geocentric view, the thinking goes, then why should earth or its occupants be considered as anything special?

Leaving aside the obvious non-sequitur in that question, the Copernican Principle became something of a godsend for nontheists. Because before Copernicus, the general assumption of all philosophy had been that the earth and mankind were the product of some kind of creator, and therefore were objects of special focus in the cosmos. The Copernican principle became the tool by which nontheists (later called materialists) would kick God out of their universe. It was “theological dynamite” in the words of atheist theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. “There’s nothing special about humans,” he continued. “We are nothing, absolute nothing.”

Is the Earth Moving?
The Principle, an expertly produced film narrated by Kate Mulgrew and featuring physicists Kaku, Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing), MIT’s Max Tegmark, and many others, reexamines the Copernican principle in light of recent cosmological discoveries. At the risk of oversimplification, The Principle makes the following points:

  • According to Isaac Newton, neither the sun nor the earth sits at the center of the solar system (or universe). The smaller body doesn’t revolve around the larger, but rather, both bodies revolve around whatever point is the center of mass. “So even in the heliocentric system, it’s not the earth going around the sun. Scientifically and technically, we would say that the earth and the sun are going around one point called the center of mass,” said Robert Sungenis, producer of the film.
  • Physicist Ernst Mach proposed considering the earth as the pivot point of the universe and said that if the universe were orbiting around the earth, it would create the exact same forces that we today ascribe to the motion of the earth. In other words, Mach’s principle said that we would see the same effects whether the earth was rotating in the universe or the universe were rotating around the earth. Mach’s ideas would influence and give way to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  • Einstein’s special theory of relativity said that the length, time, and mass of objects changed as those objects move through empty space. Echoing Mach, Einstein wrote, “The struggle, so violent in the early days of science, between the views of Ptolemy and Copernicus would then be quite meaningless. Either [coordinate system] could be used with equal justification. The two sentences, ‘the sun is at rest and the earth moves’, or ‘the sun moves and the earth is at rest’, would simply mean two different conventions concerning two different [coordinate systems]” (The Evolution of Physics, 1938).

From these and other points, the makers of The Principle suggest that we cannot definitively ascertain that the earth is in fact moving.

Is Earth the Center?
thePrinciple800x600v2From that basis, The Principle moves on to relate two aspects of Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discoveries. First, the universe is far more vast than had been previously believed – what astronomers had heretofore thought were stars were actually galaxies. And second, the universe is expanding – all those galaxies are moving away from the earth. In every direction, galaxies appear to be flying away from us, and the farther away they are, the faster they’re moving.

Could this discovery of galaxies moving away from earth in all directions argue in favor of a geocentric universe? Hubble found the thought most abhorrent. “Such a condition would imply that we occupy a unique position in the universe, analogous, in a sense, to the ancient conception of a central Earth,” he wrote. “This hypothesis cannot be disproved, but it is unwelcome and would only be accepted as a last resort in order to save the phenomena. Therefore we disregard this possibility … the unwelcome position of a favored location must be avoided at all costs … such a favored position is intolerable.”

Krauss was a lot more flippant about it, but he holds the same view. “Of course, that makes us look like we’re the center of the universe, but it’s not true. It just means the universe is expanding uniformly.” Perhaps it is. Or perhaps that conclusion is required in order to maintain the Copernican principle maxim of, “We’re nothing special.” In any event, The Principle and Einstein fairly well establish that motions are relative and must be spoken of in reference to some arbitrary fixed point.

The Principle touches on other concepts – dark matter, dark energy, quantum foam, the multiverse, and baby universes popping in and out of existence, hypothesized but thus far undetected entities put forth to explain observational data – and suggests that the need for some of these proposed entities could be eliminated by dispensing with the Copernican principle. A geocentric model, with the earth at the center of a spherically symmetrical universe, is a possible alternative, the filmmakers say. This, at the very least, is an intriguing thought.

Is Geocentrism the Central Question?
But is it a hill worth dying on? I don’t think so. The Copernican principle is a bad idea. It’s also a pet materialist concept, especially in its more generalized form implying that earth and human life are nothing unique. So it’s refreshing to see it reexamined in fresh light. Science advances by doggedly following data this way and asking tough questions.

But The Principle ventures needlessly into nuclear-reactive territory by positing a geocentric universe. Not only does this invite extreme derision from the scientific community (a snarkfest already underway), but a literal geocentric paradigm is not necessary to establish that the earth and human life are uniquely special.

The real divide isn’t between those who hold a geocentric view of the universe and those who hold some other non-geocentric view. The real divide is between those who adhere to philosophical naturalism – or materialism, the view that matter and energy are all that exists, and those who allow for the possibility of non-material causes. In simpler terms, the real divide is between atheism and non-atheism.

Look again at the quotes by Kaku, Krauss, and Hubble. Even in their denials of earth-exceptionalism, they give something away. Notice that they don’t argue against geocentrism in any physical sense, but against the view of earth and humanity as “unique,” “special,” or “favored” in a qualitative sense. This is a different kind of assertion. If earth and human life are uniquely special, there are certain theological implications that, for some, are “intolerable.” And therein lies the divide.

The Principle raises good questions, but simpler answers exist. The earth is already clearly special in that it has so many rare and unique properties that make it suitable for life. See The Privileged Planet. And life is special because it’s made by God. See also The Privileged Species. For the atheist that might be a revolutionary thought, but if you ask me, atheism is long overdue for a revolution.

Related:

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What Does Death Have to Do with Having a Happy Holidays?

Two Christmas stories that have stood the test of time are Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both stories invite the main character to suppose he were dead. In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas future asks Scrooge to look at how people will talk about him once he has died. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is taken to an alternative world in which he sees how things in his town would be different had he never lived.

Additionally, both main characters must look into the face of death, confronting their own mortality, before they are ready to see that their problems originate in their own hearts. In A Christmas Carol, before Scrooge faces his own death, he encounters Marley’s ghost who warns Scrooge that if he continues in this path, he will end up like Marley, chained to his idol.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George sinks into such deep despair that he ends up standing on the edge of the bridge considering suicide, but instead rescues another jumper from the bridge. Incidentally, the other jumper was Clarence who, similar to Marley, was once alive but now is dead, and whose mission is to help George live a better life. Scrooge and George Bailey are vastly different characters, yet both are miserable because of the same seed of discontent growing within them, and both are cured through similar means.

Interestingly, what is different about George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge is telling. Scrooge is the lonely wealthy man who seeks to rob others of joy because he cannot feel it himself. George is the sympathetic family man who begrudges his tender-heartedness because it has left him poor and stagnant. Both the rich man and the poor man struggle with discontent, and both the rich man and the poor man believe that money is the key to their happiness.

Both men are plagued by the same disease, discontent. When a person is discontent in poverty, he does not see the mercies and blessings he has been given, but only his lack. Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, points out that a man who is discontent in this estate will think even bitter things taste sweet. We see this when George Bailey considers compromising his standards and partnering with Mr. Potter, the town tyrant.

When a person is discontent in wealth, he can never accumulate enough to satisfy his true needs. Scrooge hoarded his wealth as a kind of security. Marley warns that rather than a security it is a fetter. The discontented wealthy man can never acquire enough, and we see this in Scrooge’s bitterness. He left his loved ones to pursue wealth, but wealth proved to be a burden rather than a companion.

By the end of the story Scrooge and George Bailey are not in a different place than they were when they faced their supernatural reminders of their mortality. Yes, George got the lost money back, but his town didn’t change, his house still had the broken bannister, and he still had four children to feed.  Scrooge still lived in the same dark house and Bob Cratchit was still his employee. What changed was their state of mind. And that is the lesson. Contentment is a state of mind, not some perfect combination of annual income, a home’s square footage, stock investments, luxury car, or vacation experiences.

George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge may not be characters in our time and place, but their lesson applies now as it did then. Ours is a culture that thrives on us never having enough. There are noble things that we should not be content to endure, like children dying from leukemia, or grandparents whose mind has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s, or diseases that destroy the body and injuries that result in loss of function.

However, wanting to rid the world of innocent suffering is not the kind of discontent that haunted George Bailey or Ebenezer Scrooge and it is not the kind of discontent that is endemic in our own time. Ours is a discontent that says “You deserve the best.” It is a discontent that comes from a sense of entitlement and a lack of thankfulness.

Many people blame our cultural sense of discontent on commercials that tell us that you will be happier driving a particular car or technology industries selling newer and better products before the warranty is out on your old one or magazines with air-brushed models sporting impossibly perfect bodies. But George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge didn’t have Cadillacs, iPhone 6s, or Photoshop. These industries are not the problem; they just make a profit from it. The problem is as old as human nature. We are dissatisfied with what we have and instead of addressing the root of our dissatisfaction, we would rather strive for more and more like Scrooge, or sink into despair like George Bailey. Their lesson strikes a chord with us because we are like them, and perhaps, like them, our focus on our lack robs us of our joy in what we have.