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The Grasshopper in Suits (5)

Posted in Friendly Philosophy

As we’ve been working through the central argument of chapter 1 of Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, it would seem we have actually encountered two different points:

1. The end of work is to not work (to stop working)

We work because we are prudent; we recognize that we have needs and that work is the only way we can meet those needs. But prudence requires us not to waste things that are valuable. If your time, energy, and resources are limited, it would be prudent to preserve them.

So, consider method A and method B of doing your work. Imagine that both methods will meet your needs equally, and are equally ethical. However, imagine that method B requires less of your time and energy, and fewer of your resources. If you go with method A instead, you will have less time, energy, and resources left over to meet future needs. You will have acted wastefully.

No prudent person, therefore, would choose a less efficient method of completing their work over a more efficient method (assuming the two methods are otherwise equal). And if a third, more efficient method arises, they will adopt that third method in turn.

So, consider the ultimate result of efficiency-prefering prudence. The “limit” it “approaches” as it seeks less and less wasteful ways of working, is . . . doing no work at all. As it tries to spend less and less time and energy, consuming fewer and fewer resources, prudence “tends toward” spending no time, energy, or resources at all.

That is, the goal of work (it’s “end”) is not to work at all. That most of us never get there is irrelevant; it is destination toward which prudence directs us.

2. The end of work is not to work (is something other than work)

There is a second sense of “end” in philosophical discussions, however (see Francis Slade, “On the Ontological Priority of Ends and Its Relevance in the Narrative Arts,” in Alice Ramos, ed., Beauty, Art, and the Polis [American Maritain Association, 2000]). In addition to the fact that the destination toward which work aims is its own termination, there is the fact that the purpose or point of work — its “justification,” in the Grasshopper’s words — is something other than itself.

Consider: work is only good, important, or worthwhile because (a) humans have needs, (b) it is important to fill those needs, and (c) work is the only way that most of us can meet those needs (at least currently). But that means that work only matters because meeting our needs matters.

Contrast this sort of “extrinsic” value with intrinsic value. Instead of deriving its value from something else — because it is useful for getting or achieving something else — a thing with intrinsic value is good, important, or worthwhile all by itself.

Money, for example, has extrinsic value. You only want it because you can use it to get ice cream. We treat ice cream, in contrast, as if it had intrinsic value. You don’t eat ice cream in order to gain weight, or attract partners, or win competitions, or make your enemies jealous. You eat ice cream because eating ice cream is awesome, in and of itself.

Two Points in One

It seems to me, therefore, that the Grasshopper has been making two different points: (1) that the goal of work is to not work, and (2) that the value of work derives from something beyond work. But if that is true, why does Suits write as if the Grasshopper has been making a single argument?

I think the word “leisure” (Suits, The Grasshopper, ch. 1, p.8) helps here. In English, “leisure time” refers to a period in which you have no obligations — especially no obligation to work. Similarly, “leisure activities” refers to the sorts of thing that are typical of how people spend their leisure time: rest and recreation (both in the sense of fun or play, and in the sense of creativity).

Insofar as leisure means the absence of work, therefore, the goal of work is leisure. But the value or work derives from the value of leisure activities. That is, importance of work is that it enables us to engage in things that have intrinsic value — the sorts of things that you can do when you aren’t working.

Meaningful Work

“But what if you enjoy your work?” you might ask. That is, what if you find your work meaningful, worth doing in and of itself?

If that is the case for you, then you surely know how lucky you are. That is not, I expect, how 99.9% of people have experienced work. And thus, that is not what people normally mean when they talk about “work.”

But you’re right to request nuance. And that is what we will see one of the Grasshopper’s disciples do next time.

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