Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
When I was young and reckless I took a psychedelic drug with a friend who I would subsequently learn cannot handle these kinds of drugs. The experience started out wonderful, we had a philosophical conversation for hours. Then I noticed something about her change. She began giving the same arguments over and over, as if her brain was a record player stuck in a single groove, spinning endlessly in place. Her voice got louder and louder as the words repeated more often. Not longer after, she began screaming, and it went down hill very quickly from there.
Just before that though, she had a moment of lucidity that stuck with me for decades. She asked, why can’t we pursue what we want in life? Why must we be forced to spend a life time struggling and suffering? If we only have this life, why are we collectively wasting it? Of course, these ideas are not new. The Buddha talked about this from the perspective of suffering, and various Utopian communities have rejected our work-a-day Capitalist mode of living, from the Christian Utopian communities of the 1800s to the hippies of the 1960s. Of course, even in the Utopian communities one had to work, and despite this, most would fail within a few years.
This pandemic and the subsequent stay-at-home orders across the United States have brought out a vocal minority who demand their right to frequent businesses and return to work. The discussion about this has largely been around whether they are correct to demand these rights, or whether they are behaving selfishly. It got me thinking about something else that is often argued against in selfish terms: basic income proposals in response to job automation and the freeing of the workforce. People are right to be concerned about job automation. It is already putting people out of work, and that will become even more drastic as AI improves and companies begin deploying it on a wider scale. Some jobs will be safe, many others will not.
However, job automation doesn’t have to result in the level of unemployment we are witnessing now as a result of the pandemic. The government can set up programs that rival, if not eclipse, FDR’s New Deal, to ameliorate the personal economic cost of job automation. This is where detractors say, “but how much will this cost? I don’t want to spend x dollars of my hard-earned money supporting people that can’t, or don’t want, to work! I earned that money!” That is what I call the Argument from Selfishness.
We are a society. As the popular turn-of-phrase goes: united we stand, divided we fall. If we give in to the baser individualistic urges inherent in American society, we will surely fall. We have already failed parts of society, particularly poor black communities (as the hip-hop duo Dead Prez, quoted above, often wrote about in their songs). We failed them due a series of Arguments from Selfishness that then became policy, and are now accepted beliefs by many. If we continue down this path, many Americans will end up destitute, struggling to survive, and may resort to drastic measures.
I think given the choice, many people would choose to work. The recent shut-downs in response to the pandemic, and the resulting protests, make it clear that some people don’t know what to do with their time if they aren’t working. Work gives these people meaning, and so they should be able to pursue it. I also suspect that some people would choose to not work if they could, and would be perfectly content pursuing hobbies, dreams, and life-goals. I count myself among that second group.
To be sure, I am vastly over-simplifying things. Human society is a complex system, with many component parts at different scales, from the individual to entire nations. Despite our differences, we all face many of the same issues. It will not be easy to solve most, or even many, of the problems we face. However, if we won’t even attempt to solve them, we will never improve the conditions in which billions strive daily, and things will get worse for most of us.
I don’t have a solution to these problems that will satisfy everyone. I don’t know how to effectively counter every Argument from Selfishness except to point out that it is indeed selfish, which people, understandably, don’t want to hear. What I do know is that my friend, before she slipped into temporary psychosis, was right: we have one chance here on Earth to make the best of things. We have one chance to exploit the self-consciousness and intelligence gifted to us by billions of years of evolution. We exist today because of the many billions of living things that preceded us, living, reproducing, and dying, endlessly. We exist today because humans of the past formed societies in which they agreed to work together for survival and common good. We have accomplished wondrous things, and also have done many terrible things.
We should not waste all that labor. Human society is an example of collective, purposive behavior with no clearly-defined end-goal. Probably, we formed societies out of short-term survival needs. However, cultural evolution has outpaced biological evolution. No longer do we have to worry about the predators stalking us on the plains. For most of the world’s billions, failing socially is death. In my mind, to look around at the suffering of fellow humans and shrug your shoulders and say, “well, I’ve got mine”, is not only selfish and cruel, it contravenes the purpose of having a society in the first place.
Ideally, people would have the absolute freedom to enjoy their time on Earth. There is enough money and resources on this planet to make that happen, it just happens to be distributed inequitably. Distributing it fairly would take either violent revolutions and despotic re-distribution schemes, or cooperation among nations, companies, and peoples the likes of which this planet has never seen. Countries have tried the former, with disastrous results. We’ve yet to try the latter. It certainly seems too lofty, given the world today. One day, that level of cooperation may very well become necessary.
I know one thing for certain: whether or not this remains a nice dream is up to us.