Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Living for Others

I’ve always been sympathetic to the socialist argument that fulfilling and enjoyable work is crucial to human wellbeing, part of our ‘species-being’, as Marx calls it. It’s a line of thought found in the work of those like William Morris, who believe that among capitalism’s most perverse effects is to turn labour, through which we should learn about ourselves and realise our potential, into drudgery which we seek to escape. Similarly, Oscar Wilde claimed that “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others”.

Today, as in Wilde’s time, most people live for others. They have a limited set of marketable skills, and so spend their working lives providing whatever service the market requires, regardless of how they would choose to spend their time. I have always felt incredibly fortunate to have a wide range of options open to me, to know that my career was a matter of choice, rather than something I had to do to get by. I have always felt lucky to be working as much for myself as for others, and that I should value this freedom because it is so unusual.

The concept of professional philanthropy turns this reasoning on its head. It suggests that as long as we live in a world so unequal that genuine career choice is a luxury, it is immoral to take advantage of it. For as long as we live in a world where money has the capacity to do such good – in terms of reducing inequality, preventing disease, providing education – it is self-indulgent to turn your back on it.

The uneasiness I feel about giving up my freedom to work only for myself reminds me of the argument my mother made to me as a child when I refused to finish my dinner (I’m sure many of you had similar conversations). ‘Think of all the starving people who are desperate for that food you’re about to throw away’, she would say. Her point, of course, was that if other people value it so much, so should I. To do otherwise would show a lack of respect and humility. My response was that if they wanted the food so much, they should have it – my eating it wouldn’t make them any better off.

As long as it was impossible for the food to be given to the impoverished my mother’s argument was valid, and mine invalid – the best way to respect the destitute would be to acknowledge my good fortune. But if (as was probably the case when we lived in Kolkata, come to think of it), it would be viable to transfer the food to the poor, then my argument surely makes more sense – it would surely show them more respect to feed them than to eat food in their honour.

I think a similar argument applies to luxury of career choice. For as long as we think that self-realisation is bound to be limited to a lucky few, then the appropriate response is to savour it. But if there is hope of extending it to others, then the best use of our good fortune is to sacrifice it.

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