Monday, June 20, 2016

The Nobility of the Labor

Following on my last (mainly) serious post, it occurs to me that it is worth emphasizing that some jobs probably are nobler than others.  In pointing out that many modern Americans are uncomfortable with the fact that women still gravitate towards nurturing, interpersonal occupations I suggested that—whether this is an outcome of innate personality differences (“women are generally nicer than men”) or the outcome of “an implicit conditioning bias” does not especially matter.

Let’s admit (for the sake of the argument) that men are encouraged to play with power tools and women with dolls, and that this leads to men who grow up to play with cancer cells and go out fracking and gamble on Wall Street, while the women are more inclined to change bed pans and teach the three Rs.

If so—if so—what’s the harm in that?  Why do we assume that being on Wall Street is inherently superior to being in a third grade classroom, or (oh cover your flaming ears for shame) staying at home with the children?  It isn’t better; we just act that way.

I truly believe that much of the discomfort with the differences in male/female work comes from this sense that stereotypically female jobs are somehow less worthwhile than stereotypically male ones.  But I do not mean to deny that some jobs are more worth doing than others—au contraire.  Rather, I would suggest that we need to reevaluate what jobs are actually valuable or, rather, which jobs are nobler.

The change from “value” to “nobility” actually matters a great deal.  “Value” is a monetizing word, leading its users to make all sorts of strange judgments, such as that pigs are more valuable than children.

But would a pig be less dangerous to the world than Peter Singer?

Mind you, our sense of “value” makes us concerned with buying things that last (“a good value for the money”) and conserving our financial resources for our children (so that we have “something of value” to pass on to them); and these are good habits.  We may also speak about the “value” of a liberal arts education, and mean that its graduates will themselves live happier, more humane lives for having engaged in a few years of thoughtful reflection with the great minds of the past.

But of course, more often these days the “value” of such an education seems to be based on the hope that future employers will shower these graduates with dough for their superior communication and analytic skills.  They will be living richer lives …

One meaning of “rich.”

And another.

And this shifty sense of the word “value” confusticates the way we talk about work as well.  We—often subconsciously—tend to see “valuable” jobs as those jobs that produce products which can be sold for money—preferably new products which will do things older products just didn’t do, or do them at least far better and in more exciting combinations, and therefore—again—be sold for more money.  Not more money individually, necessarily—much new technology over the last few decades has started out expensive for consumers and has decreased in cost to become affordable for the masses.

Which is why so many people below the poverty line have TVs,
and why even starving graduate students, can now afford 
a smartphone, if not their textbooks.

But for the company, it definitely is about having more money in totum, which translates into more money for this or that inventive or aggressive person’s paycheck and end-of-the-year bonuses.

The “value” of an employee, then, often becomes measured by how much they can increase a company’s profit margin and, more personally, on whether they have skills and traits which will enable the company to do so.  Does the employee, in other words, have something of value about them, where of value means “can be translated into dollars”?

It is certainly true that in this limited sense, traditionally feminine traits can actually be of more “value” than some in the past have supposed.  Women are frequently more attentive to interpersonal matters, for example; this trait, if channeled properly, can make them good at negotiating (contracts with clients, tasks with employees, etc.).

But is this not rather a debasing of interpersonal skills?  Here we are, taking something which can truly make life rich …

… and using it to make life Rich …

Er, rich?

That is why I propose that it is better to ditch the word “valuable” when considering the desirability of a given line of work, and to use instead the word “noble.”  Will this work make people better, or at least enable them to be better?  How many people will it affect?  How deeply will it affect them?  How difficult is it?  How much affection does it produce between the “worker” and the “client”?  How much use does it make of—or benefit does it provide for—those things we consider “highest” in the human being (the intellect, the soul)?

These are the sort of questions that indicate whether or not a work is “noble”.  And thus work like healing, nursing, teaching, pastoring, praying, parenting and even—if done in the right spirit—the production of hydroponic vegetables and iPhones—can be noble work.

But the nature of that list, with its traditionally feminine areas of labor, suggests that in terms of nobility, female work is often equal or superior to male work.  We may not pay nurses, childcare workers, and piano teachers abundantly, but they can deeply and positively affect many people, certainly on the physical level, and often on the intellectual or spiritual level as well.

I won’t even get started on parents.

The one aspect of human life traditionally associated with the noble in which women’s work may not always seem to participate is the area of intellect.  Women may teach, but they are far more likely to be found homeschooling or in K-through-twelve environments than in college teaching mathematics or philosophy.  Are women in this respect condemned (statistically at least) to a less-than-noble sort of career?  Ought we (to return to the previous post) to encourage more women to study STEM subjects (or at least SM subjects)?

Well, maybe.  Maybe we ought also to encourage more men to teach highschool (it would certainly help the boys).  But the disparity of men and women in STEM doesn’t actually bother me much.

I’m far more worried at the prospect of having a daughter drafted.

I think we largely admire people who take on STEM-related careers because of the difficulty (see comments on nobility above)—in which case we might as well admire miners (we should!)—and because of the intellectual nature of the work (again, see comments on nobility).  And this intellectual work is largely, despite the occasional tales of in-a-flash insights by scientists, a step-by-step kind of thing, based more heavily on the numeric and the visual.  If this is what we mean by intellect—something based in sight, number, and abstract proof—then indeed, the average woman is less naturally well-endowed for dealing with this kind of problem (not that this should prove a barrier to the exceptional woman who does have such skills).

But I am by no means convinced that this kind of abstract thinking is the most, much less the only intellectual activity that exists.  And if I am right about that, it is perfectly possible that women in “feminine” professions, who tend to proceed more intuitively, are doing work which is quite as “intellectual” as their male counterparts elsewhere.

But this is at the moment just an intuition; and the rest of the argument holds well enough, I think, without needing to prove it at the present time.

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