Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the third episode of the first season of How To Make It In America (HBO), Rachel (Lake Bell, Childrens Hospital, Boston Legal) reconnects with a friend (Caitlin FitzGerald, Masters of Sex) who works for Peace Corp and returns from Africa. It makes her rethink her own future and she decides to quit her job in New York as an interior designer. She tells her boss and friend, Edie Weitz (Martha Plimpton, Raising Hope, The Good Wife):
EDIE: The desk bed looks amazing, you little rock star. And these two gorgeous carpenters told me they have crushes on you. What do you think?
RACHEL: I quit.
(Later, on the roof)
RACHEL: My freshman-year roommate is singlehandedly stopping the spread of Aids in Africa. And I’m– I’m picking up pillows?
EDIE: Rachel, I’m only going to say this once, so listen up.
EDIE: First and foremost, I love you very much. You are an incredibly talented designer, and if you don’t quit and move to Africa, you’re going to be a huge success.
RACHEL: Thank you.
EDIE: Secondly, any ambitious do-gooder with airfare can feel like they’re making a difference in Africa. It’s Africa! Parts of it are, unfortunately, very fucked up.
EDIE: Okay! Obviously they’re doing very important work. But think about this: Who can make a difference in the lives of the people of New York City? Every day we help hard-working Americans squeeze the most out of their tiny apartments. We keep siblings from killing each other with room dividers. We give a divorced single dad a shot at joint custody by transforming his walk-in closet into a second bedroom. So don’t tell me that we don’t make a difference. We are saving this city 300 square feet at a time.
RACHEL: Are we heroes?
EDIE: We’re design superheroes.
RACHEL: Oh, can I have my- can I have my job back?
EDIE: Yeah. I mean, I still want you to go to Africa and help out!
EDIE: Just do it on your Christmas break.
A famous quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner says: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth, or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter so the world will be at least be a little bit different for our having passed through it.” A famous philosopher also said: ” The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; but the goal is to change it” (Karl Marx, in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach)
It looks like wanting to change the world is an unquestioned noble motive. Well… is it? The Marxists have criticized the petits bourgeois, those people in the mainstream of life, who contented themselves with their everyday business, by taking the world as they find it, instead of having the imagination or the courage to (come up with an idea that would) change it. But the Marxist revolutions did show that by trying to make a difference, people often focus on the positive aspects that their change will bring about, turning a blind eye to the negative consequences that their action might cause. Many an ideologist in the history of social and political revolutions, has intended to change the world, to make a difference. We can cite the example of Lenin (1870-1924) and the Bolsheviks who wanted a revolution and did nothing but wreck the economy and the social happiness of Soviet Russia. On the opposite, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) tried his best to forestall a revolution and implemented a series of reforms. He sensed that radical change could be harmful. So you’d better watch out, in your challenge to make a difference, and be prepared to hear counterarguments like “you have to break some eggs if you want to make an omelette” or “the end justifies the means” (read Is the violence of war more justifiable than the violence of terrorism?).
In the above-mentioned substract of How to make it in America, Rachel’s boss depicts her job of interior designer as a job that makes a difference. Through her speech, Edie conveys the idea that any profession plays a role when you look at the big picture. The following quote is attributed to the German philosopher Lichtenberg (1742-1799): “So what can a man do where he sees so clearly that what lies before him is not the whole plan? Answer: No more than work faithfully and actively on that part of the plan which lies before him.” You cannot be everywhere, and like the terrorist in my Homeland article said: “We fight with what we have”. Enough to get oneself off the hook, isn’t it? Why go to the other end of the world to save people from starvation when there are people right next to you who need your cooking skills for a fancy dinner or a TV show?
Humanitarian jobs, jobs to save the planet or “such like” are not by definition worth doing. Rony Brauman, former president of Doctors without Borders, co-directed a documentary about the trial of the nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, entitled A Specialist (1999). He was among the first to think critcally about the opinion outbursts and the limits of humanitarian action. He considers for instance his own intervention in the mid 1980s during the great famine in Ethiopia as a manifestation of the “banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil – 1963). The Ethiopian government was, under the pretext of the humanitarian emergency and of the rebalancing of the population, carrying out forced deportations. And just as Adolf Eichmann, the medical staff of Doctors without Borders would keep on working, avoiding to ask themselves whether they are a part of a non-ethical or inhumane bigger plan. They would bury their heads in the sand and focus on the idea that whatever they are doing is good for their career. Arendt wrote about Adolf Eichmann (1963):
“From a humdrum life without significance and consequence the wind had blown him into History, as he understood it, namely, into a Movement that always kept moving and in which somebody like him – already a failure in the eyes of his social class, of his family, and hence in his own eyes as well – could start from scratch and still make a career. And if he did not always like what he had to do (for example, dispatching people to their death by the trainload instead of forcing them to emigrate), if he guessed, rather early, that the whole business would come to a bad end, with Germany losing the war, if all his most cherished plans came to nothing (the evacuation of European Jewry to Madagascar, the establishment of a Jewish territory in the Nisko region of Poland, the experiment with carefully built defense installations around his Berlin office to repel Russian tanks), and if, to his greatest “grief and sorrow,” he never advanced beyond the grade of S.S.”
The motivations behind our career choices appear to be purely selfish. Arendt’s conclusion is that during his trial, Eichmann proved that his was neither an anti-Semite nor a lunatic but that during war he was just doing his job and seizing the opportunity to climb up the career ladder. This is how Rony Brauman felt too: he was doing his job as a doctor, regardless of whether he supported the massive deportations of Ethiopians. This is probably how workers in the corporate world (finance, industry or whatever) would feel if ever they dare question themselves and their career choices. Whether you save lives or manufacture bombs to protect your country, your career choice seems to be decided for your own good. Charity begins at home, people say. In the dialogue above between Rachel and Edie, Edie describes how the lives of New York citizens are changed for the best thanks to interior designers, which is exactly what Rachel needs to hear to stop feeling guilty. Rachel wanted to convince herself that she was useful, that her life had a point. The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) named it ego-altruism: thinking that she is being altruistic makes her feel good about herself.
Considering all that, what is a job worth doing? A job that does not rouse any cognitive dissonances, that does not make you feel guilty? A job that makes you happy or that does not make you unhappy? Does the worth of the job thus depend on the person who does it?