The busi­ness of earn­ing your daily bread is really sad and weari­some. Peo­ple come up with the most pious lies about work. It’s just another abom­inable form of idol­a­try, a dog lick­ing the rod that beats it: work.” (Luther Blis­sett, 2004 [2000]: Q. Arrow Books: 28).

Recent sto­ries about work have got me think­ing about the pious lies we tell each other. The eth­i­cal conun­drum in these three cases is the way appar­ently solid and valid oppor­tu­ni­ties to work dis­guise the pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion of inequal­i­ties of income and oppor­tu­nity.  Moral argu­ments about the rights and wrongs of ways of arrang­ing work should not rely solely on the cal­cu­la­tions of worth mea­sured by $£€.

Neigh­bours help­ing neighbours

If there’s some­thing that can be val­ued then there’s some­one who will assign it a value. Whilst the Time­banks use non-monetary value (an hour of iron­ing is worth an hour of gar­den­ing), taskrab­bits are there to make money – by under­bid­ding their taskrab­bit neigh­bours for the right to do your chores. And indeed, they will – if one of them is to be believed – find it pleasurable:

I try to approach many tasks you may find tedious as med­i­ta­tive so will attempt to make data entry and dishes a zen like expe­ri­ence. I feel good about the fact that this job affords me oppor­tu­ni­ties to per­haps lessen the daily stresses that may be attack­ing your psy­che or at least make them less over­whelm­ing” (Eliz­a­beth, task rab­bit from San Francisco).

Task rab­biters will also set up your wire­less net­work, pick up your dry clean­ing, and orga­nize a party for you – using their design skills on that party invi­ta­tion. As an old boss of mine would say dur­ing busy times ‘and stick a broom up my arse and I’ll sweep the floor as I go’. Task rab­bit­ing sounds full of pious lies that claim there’s virtue in subservience.

Lol­cats

A few weeks ago, ‘Bob’, a com­puter pro­gram­mer for Ver­i­zon caused some amuse­ment in the media for out­sourc­ing his job to a Chi­nese pro­gram­mer in order to free him­self some time to be on social media, watch­ing videos of cute cats. That’s an idea, you might think. Bob was no-one’s idea of an imag­i­na­tive entre­pre­neur, or cun­ning anti-hero (the inves­ti­ga­tor described him as a “fam­ily man, inof­fen­sive and quiet. Some­one you wouldn’t look twice at in an ele­va­tor.”) One fifth of Bob’s income went on pay­ing some­one else to do his job for him.

For as long as there’s some­one with the money to pay and some­one with the need to be paid, these things seem like an inevitable appli­ca­tion of mar­ket prin­ci­ples. As Sandel (2012) gets part way to argu­ing, just because some­thing can be mar­ke­tised, doesn’t mean it should be: there are moral prin­ci­ples at stake. Here, that prin­ci­ple is one of recog­ni­tion for the work, the skill and the exper­tise that a per­son has.

Mod­ern slavery

A sim­i­lar eth­i­cal prin­ci­ple of effort lead­ing to reward is vis­i­ble in the recent dis­cus­sions of work­fare, and com­pa­ra­ble eth­i­cal ques­tions about recog­ni­tion and redis­tri­b­u­tion arise. The court case taken out by Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wil­son against the UK gov­ern­ment scheme of forc­ing the unem­ployed to work for no pay was – in part– suc­cess­ful. ‘Vol­un­tary’ work­fare schemes are unlaw­ful. But the shame­ful attempt to avoid return­ing ‘sanc­tioned’ ben­e­fits taken from the 231,000 forced onto the work­fare schemes is a reminder of how deeply felt is the pious belief that such cit­i­zens were get­ting ‘some­thing for noth­ing’, and how pow­er­ful is the dis­course of the infer­nal alter­na­tive (the nation’s finances are at stake, after all, there is no alternative).