Julia Galef's podcast is back

Julia Galef’s podcast is back. It’s nice to hear a lady from the rationalist community articulating their perspective. Her show disappeared through most of 2020, but it came back suddenly and she tours through four different areas of interest.

The most interesting episode is the one with the philosopher Michael Sandel, where they talk about the issue of work that undermines the human spirit, work that lacks dignity.

She says:

I want people to have more of what they want, and less of what they don’t want. There can be exceptions to that, like when people want something that harms them, or when people want something that harms other people.

But all I can say is, that’s the thing I care about. I don’t think I can make a principled argument, from first principles, that you should care about what other people want.

So yeah, I guess if you care about something that you call human dignity, I can’t tell you that you shouldn’t care about it… I’m just confused about what it is and why you care about it.

You can almost hear a rationalist object: What units do you measure dignity of work in?

As Niels Bohr said: “Nothing exists until it is measured.

In fact if a rationalists does find this they won’t even see what’s funny about the preceding.

But then — I have to admit — I emailed the clip to a friend of mine who is very much an activist of the au curant variety. True he’s a little more focused on identity politics most of the time than the issues that made the American Left great, but he has sympathies with economic concerns.

And he said: “Well, people do throw the concept of the dignity of work around so much that it’s hard to say what it really means.”

Which is fair.

A discussion with another rationalist is helpful here, I think. Aella, the entrepreneur and sex worker beloved by West Coast tech Twitter, appeared on the podcast for previously canceled journalists Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal, Blocked and Reported, recently and made a point that I think is really helpful for thinking about this question of human dignity.

(I don’t think this is the first time she has made this point but that’s the easiest citation of it that I can find)

When people start talking about work that isn’t dignified, I think a lot of times their minds turn to sex work as a first example. In fact, it does for Sandel, in the prior conversation. The fact that it is so intimate seems like it is making an exceptional demand on the (mostly) women that do it. And that instinct is fair.

Setting aside that there are all kinds of levels of intimacy to sex work and all kinds of levels of working conditions, Aella makes a compelling delineation.

In her telling, everyone is doing something that they don’t want to do for money sometimes. She had a tough childhood and a difficult break with her family. She struggled for a while to find a way to make ends meet and before she found sex work she worked in a factory doing extremely difficult work for crazy long hours.

She says she found herself drinking hard every night just to get over the stress.

With sex work, she works far less, often enjoys it and doesn’t feel insanely depressed all the time. The money is vastly better too.

Does she have sex with people sometimes that she would not have otherwise? Yes, but she says on the show that she doesn’t see a reason why that is especially different from other difficult work.

It’s a good point. I mean I can see some caveats but she could no doubt counter those caveats with caveats. So it washes out.

The most obvious thing is time. Would you rather be very miserable for an hour and make a ton or maybe even just as miserable for 8 hours and make very little?

Seems like an easy call.

Even if the sex is really bad (I don’t know a gentler way to put this), at least it usually doesn’t take that long, right?

So let’s take some of the sheer torture of some jobs aside and just ask this: Is a dull office job undignified?

I have two thoughts about the idea of undignified work that I want to make to sort of set the table on this concept.

  1. If work and workers and working conditions are something that you care about, then you probably have a decent idea about what it means for work to lack dignity, but it’s not defined well. You know it when you see it.
  2. If you don’t care in particular about workers as a class, but you do have a different social agenda, there’s a decent chance that you will cheapen the conept of work with dignity by using it in bad faith.

Crucially, here’s a thing I think: it’s no good to get preoccupied by definitions.

We exist in a world with a lot of amorphous concepts that we apply to the real world, but we have a decent idea of what the dignity of work is. More than that, though, there’s this:

If we overcorrect for the dignity of work by finding ways to make sure people have more options in their work and their work is generally more lucrative, even at the low end, we’ll do a lot of social good. Sitting around quibbling about precisely what is and isn’t dignified work isn’t especially helpful.

It’s like avoiding pollution. We shouldn’t have to delineate each and every chemical that might happen to be a pollutant. It should be enough to say: don’t put nasty shit in the common water and you know what we think you know what nasty shit is. In fact, you’re probably going to invent some kinds of it, don’t put that in there either.

Our fixation on definitions isn’t super useful.

Rationalists way of being nitpicky and precious about them isn’t particularly appealing either. Behavior like that makes thoughtful discussion and the practice of thoughtfulness (philosophy) unappealing to a lot of the people it’s unappealing to.

Okay but define ‘appeal’ then?