Sunday, March 16, 2008

Making a Living, Honorably

A student recently wrote to me to raise the following interesting issue:
I'm writing to ask you about a question my friends and I have been discussing for some while. One of my friends is going into sports broadcasting, and I remarked to another friend that I would feel like I was wasting my life if that were all I accomplished, since I feel I could do a great deal more to benefit society (as, I would argue, could my friend). This eventually evolved into a discussion of whether there are some jobs that are more "valuable" than others, and it seems that there must be, when we compare, for example, a doctor and a fashion consultant. Having doctors benefits the populace considerably more than does having fashion consultants, and so we agreed that a standard for determining the value of a career may be the detriment to society created by its absence.
Such a standard is simply an application of "utilitarianism," the idea that what makes things right and obligatory is the good of society as a whole. I'm against it, especially as it applies to choices as intensely personal as that of one's life work. So applied, it means that you are working for the collective, for masses of strangers. Society has no right to be given such a massive gift. Your life is yours by right. Hang on to it.

My own standard would be something like this: that providing something of value to others in exchange for pay is always honorable. Further, this condition is always met when one sells one's labor in a free market (assuming there is a legal system that enforces individual rights). After all, if your clients freely paid you for what you did, then they would rather have your services than the money they are paying for it. This clearly shows, at any rate, that the service you provided had value for them. Of course, this standard is met by a working as a sportscaster.

Still, I admit that there are deeper issues about how valuable your services really are, and whether the mere fact that other people value them enough to pay for them shows that they are valuable enough. What if the product the consumer is happy to pay for is pornography, or psychoactive drugs?

I'm willing to carry my standard pretty far, but there is a dimension to the issue here that is very personal. I guess I would give it over to the deathbed standard: how will you feel about your career as you look back at it in the end? This is one that will get different answers from different people. You may find that working as sportscaster or storyboarding animated TV shows (which is what Uncle Eddie Fitzgerald is doing in the picture, above) is not sufficiently meaningful for you. Then don't do those things. Fortunately for sports fans, or fans of animation, there are others who will feel differently.

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