Monthly Archives: August 2015

Rethinking Work

(Reprinted as “Rethinking Work: Wasting Half of our Lives is Terrible,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 3, 2015)

Swarthmore College Professor Barry Schwartz published an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled, “Rethinking Work.” The essay begins by noting that a “survey last year found that almost 90 percent of workers were either “not engaged” with or “actively disengaged” from their jobs.” So 9 out of 10 “workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.” But Why?

Perhaps human are lazy and just dislike work as Adam Smith maintained. This idea has been so influential that today most the structure of the workplace assumes we don’t really want to do our work. Thus workers are monitored to ensure they are actually working, and that they are as efficient and productive as possible. But Schwartz objects that this approach “is making us dissatisfied with our jobs — and it is also making us worse at them. For our sakes, and for the sakes of those who employ us, things need to change.” (Now doubt this attitude has also been informed by the Protestant work ethic.)

Schwartz believes that Smith was wrong. First of all, people want more from their work than money; they want challenging, engaging and, most importantly, meaningful work that makes a difference to others and makes us feel better about ourselves. In fact many people willingly accept less money for such work. Studies show that even workers in low-paying jobs do work without compensation in order to find  more meaning on the job.

About 15 years ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues studied custodians in a major academic hospital. Though the custodians’ official job duties never even mentioned other human beings, many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them. They would help family members of patients find their way around the hospital.

The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

Schwartz also cites studies that show how people work harder if they think their work is meaningful. (To be fair, Schwartz doesn’t mention that many work harder for more money too.) So there is a cost to what Karl Marx called alienated labor. “Too often, instead of being able to take pride in what they do, and derive satisfaction from doing it well, workers have little to show for their efforts aside from their pay.”

But is there an increase in efficiency that makes monotonous, unfulfilling worth the loss of satisfaction we might from our work, as Smith thought? Schwartz notes that the evidence doesn’t support this claim. For example, Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer’s has “found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.” (For more see Pfeffer’s book, The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Similar results were also found by Harvard Business School professor Michael Beer in his book, High Commitment High Performance: How to Build A Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage.)

So when employees like their work, they are happier, and they work better which is better for the company too. But as this is self-evident, Schwartz wonders why we embrace Smith’s view of work. Schwartz answers that Smith’s view creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The world of work is often so gloomy that people do hate it. Even highly skilled professionals like physicians, lawyers or professors may want to do good work, but find that only satisfying the bottom line matters to their employers. They are actively discouraged from spending time with patients, clients, or students. After a while, they start to work only for the money. But this is contrary to our nature.

Studies show that people are less likely to help load a couch into a van when you offer a small payment than when you don’t, because the offer of pay makes their task a commercial transaction rather than a favor to another human being. And people are less likely to agree to have a nuclear waste site in their community when you offer to pay them, because the offer of compensation undermines their sense of civic duty.

If people were always paid to load couches into vans, the notion of a favor would soon vanish. Money does not tap into the essence of human motivation so much as transform it. When money is made the measure of all things, it becomes the measure of all things.

Of course people do deserve adequate compensation for their work, so things like raising the minimum wage represent social progress. But we should still try to make work satisfying. We can do this by giving people more autonomy and the chance to learn on the job. Most importantly, we need to make work meaningful so that people feel good about doing it. As Schwartz puts it, “Work that is adequately compensated is an important social good. But so is work that is worth doing. Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste.”

Addendum – One can’t read this article without thinking about Karl Marx’s famous work “Alienated Labor.” And one can’t respond adequately to this without at least considering Marx’s insights. That’s what I’ll do in tomorrow’s post.

Oliver Sacks Died This Morning


(Reprinted as “Oliver Sacks Has Died in Peace,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 2, 2015)

I have written previously (here and here) about the impending death of the great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Now his death is no longer impeding. Sacks died this morning at his home in New York City. (Here is the link to the story from the front page of the New York Times.)

In both of my previous post I commented briefly on opinion pieces Sacks had written in the Times. His last piece, which I read with great interest, was published in the Times just a few weeks ago and I almost wrote about it yesterday. It had a simple and yet surprising title for an atheist. He simply called it “Sabbath.”

Sacks had an Orthodox Jewish upbringing so childhood memories of the sabbath were vivid. How special the Sabbath was, with the ritual of the evening meal and the sound of the Hebrew prayers in the Synagogue. How his entire extended family met after the service at an aunt or uncle’s home. But after the Second World War members of that extended family emigrated to other parts of the world or became more secular. “Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year.”

Sacks found that he too was losing his faith. And at age 18 made a shocking revelation to his father—he was attracted to other boys. He asked his father not to tell his mother.

He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” … The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

After becoming a doctor in 1960, Sacks moved to the United States where he eventually he found meaningful work in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx.  (He is referring to the hospital that he wrote about in his 1973 book Awakenings, which was made into ayhr wonderful film Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert Di Niro. ) As Sacks put it:

I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues … It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.

Many years he became good friends with his cousin Robert John Aumann who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005. Aumann spoke frequently of  how observing the Sabbath improved the quality of one’s life. When Sacks found out he had cancer that same year, Aumann came to visit. As Sacks recalls: “He … made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”

And then just last year “hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell.” She asked him to come to her 100th birthday and Sacks agreed, going back to his roots after almost 60 years.  He was embraced by all, as was his partner. The two were invited to the family Sabbath meal where he found a peaceful nostalgia. I’ll let the last few published lines from his prose speak for themselves.

In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Thank you Dr. Sacks for living a good life. Your well-lived life has enriched many others.


On the Move: A Life

The Mind’s Eye

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

A Leg to Stand On


Oaxaca Journal


Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

Essays of the Dying: More From Oliver Sacks

I have written previously about the impending death of the great  neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. Recently he published another moving piece in the New York Times. In it Sacks writes of a most profound experience when “…  far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” … My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.”

And while he has been soothed by hundreds of letters from well-wishers,  none comforted him as much as seeing those stars. Sacks attributes this to the comfort he has always found in the non-human. As a little boy, numbers were his friends, and later the periodic table became a source of good cheer. I have never read anyone who wrote about the periodic table with such affinity.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket …

NEXT to the circle of lead on my table is the land of bismuth: naturally occurring bismuth from Australia; little limousine-shaped ingots of bismuth from a mine in Bolivia; bismuth slowly cooled from a melt to form beautiful iridescent crystals terraced like a Hopi village; and, in a nod to Euclid and the beauty of geometry, a cylinder and a sphere made of bismuth.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.

I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table — my periodic table — I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.

For Sacks molecules transcends our ephemeral lives—for him molecules are Platonic forms. Sacks has found solace in something real but eternal, in the very elements of our universe. This is a great insight.

I only hope that I can face death with such equanimity.


[Books by Oliver Sacks]

On the Move: A Life

The Mind’s Eye

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

A Leg to Stand On


Oaxaca Journal


Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

The Supposed Dangers of Techno-Optimism

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, August 21, 2015)

In his recent article, “Why Techno-Optimism Is Dangerous,” the philosopher Nicholas Agar argues that we not should pursue radical human enhancement. (Professor Agar has made the same basic argument in three recent books: 1) The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything; 2) Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits; and 3) Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement.)

Agar says that when we imagine a better future, assuming that there is one, most of us believe that better technology will play a key role in bringing that future about. Agar dubs such believers techno-optimists, and their ranks include: Matt Ridley, David Deutsch, K. Eric Drexler and Peter Diamandis. Techno-optimists acknowledge the dangers of technology, but they believe that technology’s potential to improve human life makes them worth the risk.

Hedonistic Normalization

Agar is skeptical of the power of new technologies to improve individual well-being because “hedonic normalization aligns our subjective experiences to our objective circumstances.” Humans living a thousand years ago were hedonically normalized to live in their environment, as will beings living a thousand years hence be normalized to theirs. From our perspective living in the middle ages seems terrible, and living in the far future seems incredible, because we are normalized to life today. But that does not mean that individuals living in the past were more unhappy than we are, says Agar, or that individuals living in the future will be happier than we are. So even if technology in the future is great from our vantage point, our descendents will take such things for granted.

Agar also argues that “overlooking hedonic normalization leads us to exaggerate the joyfulness of the future and to overstate the joylessness of the past.”  We would hate to go back in time before dentistry and inedible food, he says, but for our ancestors bad dentistry and food were normal. Our descendants may look back with horror at our death and suffering, but we don’t feel that level of disgust. Now Professor Agar is correct that we become accustomed to the technology that surrounds us. I don’t think daily about how modern medicine eliminated many childhood  diseases, that antibiotics cure my infections, and that the dentist can fix my teeth, whereas people of a century ago would be unimaginably happy at those prospects.

But Agar is mistaken that we become completely normalized to the advances that technology provides. I am happy that dentists use Novocaine, that I can communicate instantly over long distances, that I can be warm when it is cold outside, and that antibiotics treat infections and enabled me to forgo amputation! I may not be as awed by such things as people from the past would be, but I am happy to have these technologies nonetheless.  It only takes a bit of reflection about the past and I’m counting my lucky stars. So Agar’s “your descendants won’t be as happy as you think they will” argument doesn’t provide sufficient reason to abandon the pursuit of new technologies.

Objective Goods

It also does not follow from Agar’s argument that preventing physical pain or  infant mortality aren’t good things. They are. It is better from an objective perspective not to live and die in pain. The fact that we become somewhat accustomed to modern medicine may cause us to overestimate how happy our descendents will be when technology improves their lives even more, but those descendents will still be thankful that we pursued those technologies that helps them live better and longer lives. I know I am happy not to die young and miserable.

Technology Is Risky 

Agar’s other main argument against techno-optimism is “that technological progress comes with risks.” There are many unintended consequences of advancing technology, he says, and we can’t just assume that future generations will be able to solve the problems we leave them. We may even destroy ourselves.

Agar is correct, new technology poses risks, but there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. If we don’t pursue new technologies, then asteroids, nuclear war, environmental degradation, climate change or deadly viruses and bacteria will eventually destroy us. We should not be reckless, but we should not be conservative either. For if we are too timid, we will die just as surely. In the end, only science and technology properly applied have the power to save us.

35th Wedding Anniversary


My wife and I on August 9, 1980

I was married 35 years ago today. My wife and I were both 25 years old. We believed we had unending time and joy in front of us. It turned out we had neither. Time is finite; joy real but impermanent, oftentimes quickly morphing into its opposite. My father used to say that “life was a series of joys and sorrows.” I have found this to be true.

We began naive in the ways of love. At our wedding we dance to a popular song which captured the feelings of both young and mature love with its beautiful melody and romantics lyrics:

Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I’ll be in love with you, I’ll be in love with you

Music adds much to lyrics, but words sometimes say more. Here are the words penned by Will Durant, when thinking about Ariel, his wife of almost 70 years.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station.[i]

Yet there is something beyond both words and music … action. Loving is doing things you sometimes don’t want to do, because that’s what your beloved wants. I hope I can do that, because I know my wife can. Thank you Jane for all these wonderful years.

Oh, and here’s a silly song one for you:


[i] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.