Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the sixth episode of Breaking Bad Season 2 (AMC), Walter White, who (unfairly – to my humble opinion) resents his college girlfriend Gretchen Schwartz for becoming rich because of his researches, tells his class the story of H. Tracy Hall:
WALTER: Mono-alkenes, diolefins, trienes, polyenes… The nomenclature alone is enough to make your head spin. But when you start to feel overwhelmed, and you will, just keep in mind that one element. Carbon.
Carbon is at the center of it all. There is no life without carbon! Nowhere! That we know of in the universe. Everything that lives, lived, will live. Carbon.
(The assistant principal enters the classroom)
Carmen is carbon. Sorry. Assistant Principal Carmen.
(He asks her…)
Did you… Err…
(As she lets him know that he can procede, he continues his speech)
I like to think of it… I like to think that the diamond and the woman who wears it on her finger are both formed from the same stuff. Or, say the diamond and the man who invented it. Ha! That got your attention, right? The man who invented the diamond! All right. H. Tracy Hall. Write this name down. Dr. Hall invented the first reproducible process for making synthetic diamonds! I mean, this is way back in the ’50s. Now, today, synthetic diamonds are used in… oil drilling, electronics, multi-billion dollar industries. At the time, Dr. Hall worked for General Electric. And he made them… a fortune. I mean, incalculable!
You want to know how GE rewarded Dr. Hall?
A $10 US Savings Bond…
A Savings Bond printed on carbon-based paper paid to a carbon-based man for something he made out of… carbon.
This extract from Breaking Bad raises several metaphysical questions. We could have philosophised like Hannah Arendt did (in The Human Condition) about the worker, his labor and his work and talked about Nietzsche‘s eternal return (ewige Wiederkehr) from carbon to carbon. We would have mentioned Karl Marx who defined labor as the metabolism (Stoffwechsel) between human and nature (Das Kapital, 1867). Instead, we chose to focus on the question of worth and remuneration.
Walter White, the leading role of Breaking Bad, is an extremely briliant and an extremely underpaid chemistry professor. Thanks to his work in college, he could have become as rich as his university buddies, who were presumably not as briliant as he is, but who were resourceful enough to market the result of their common work. Adam Smith saw in labor the origin of wealth and adopted the physiocratic concept of productive and unproductive labor (Wealth of Nations, 1776). Unproductive labor was for him a labor the only purpose of which was consumption (for instance, Walter teaching chemistry in order to make ends meet) and labor becomes productive as soon as we “recycle” it to produce another work (for instance, Walter’s buddies, the Schwartz, who used the findings of their university studies to create a company).
Who deserves the money, the honor and the glory? The better (meaning Walter?), the stronger (the Schwartz couple?) or the superior? (in this case they were all equal, three students on an equal footing) But in Walter’s example of H. Tracy Hall vs. General Electrics, the question of who deserved the money, the honor and the glory remains.
In Gorgias by Plato, Socrates discusses with the young Callicles, Gorgias’ student, the nuance between being better, being superior and being stronger. As for Callicles, strong countries have to wage war with weak countries and dominate them, because if they are strong, they are also better. So Socrates asks:
SOCRATES: “And do you mean by the better the same as the superior? for I could not make out what you were saying at the time—whether you meant by the superior the stronger, and that the weaker must obey the stronger (…); or whether the better may be also the inferior and weaker, and the superior the worse, or whether better is to be defined in the same way as superior:—this is the point which I want to have cleared up. Are the superior and better and stronger the same or different?“
Have you ever felt smarter than any superiors at work? Or dumber than at least one person under you? It may not be about intelligence or skills or painfulness of work, it may be about merit. So what is merit about? Let me ask again: do you deserve your salary? Should you? I invite you to read that article based on Robin Williams’s last show The Crazy Ones: