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A Working Definition of Work
Three forms of activity are fundamental to the human condition:
Labor corresponds to the biological life of the human individual as animal. The fruits of labor are immediately consumed as part of our biological life cycle. Hunting, foraging, and subsistence farming are examples of laboring activity.
Work corresponds to the artificial world of objects that human beings build upon the earth. The products or work are not immediately consumed as part of the productive-consumptive life process but are durable: By making things we not only ease the pain of labor but create a world that outlasts us as individuals.
Action corresponds to our plurality as distinct individuals. Action refers to the human capacity to start something new.1
Necessity as a Defining Aspect of Work
While labor and work are driven by necessity, action arises from the innate human capacity for freedom.
Our ability to survive as individuals and as a species has been contingent upon our capacity to labor and work. We have had no choice with regard to this fact: our bodies, minds, and societies have evolved largely in response to it. The fact that survival cannot occur without work constitutes work’s defining feature. Work can be characterized as an “Unconditional Imperative”,2 a necessity, or a condition that “cannot be otherwise”.
Labor and Work are defined as activity driven by necessity. This feature of Labor and Work differentiate it from other types of activity.
Insofar as necessary activity is compelled by forces that are beyond our control, work is experienced as an external constraint imposed upon us. Force is to this extent a defining feature of work insofar as individual and group survival compel work. Conversely, Labor and Work – on an experiential and conceptual level – seem to oppose freedom.
Necessity: God and the Reality Principle
For the Ancient Greeks Necessity was embodied in the God Ananke. While other Greek Gods were widely depicted in works of art and had priests and temples who were dedicated to them, Ananke had none of these because “no prayers, offerings, no sacrifices could change what was necessary”. Why pray or make sacrifices to a God whom one was powerless to sway? “What could one ask of she who does not listen?”3 Ananke embodies not only work but other aspects of the human condition over which one cannot escape, such as the steady march of time, death, and the everyday necessities that determine one’s activities.
The condition incarnated by the Greek God Ananke corresponds to the twentieth century concept of the Reality Principle. The Reality Principle is distinguishable from conditions that are wished for (i.e., fantasy and pleasure) but that which do not exist apart from such wishes.
Many of the problems to which work gives rise can be traced back to our reactions to the existential fact that that work is necessary. Work has been a nearly inescapable part of the human condition: Work forces itself upon us.
Infinite Abundance: The Twilight of Necessity?
When you extrapolate the consequences of automation and AI on the set of GOOD outcomes – forget about the dystopian ones (for the moment) – the good outcomes entail an ability to produce wealth of a sort that has never been imagined before, and, commensurate with that, the cancellation of the need for many forms of human labor… Then the question is: what are humans good for when the machines do all of the necessary work?SAM HARRIS4
If automation and AI does lead to the cancellation of the need for work, what type of activity would best engage the physical and mental functions that have historically served work-related purposes?
Arendt recognized that there were other distinctly human forms of productive activity that lacked work’s defining attribute. She defined “Action” as freely pursued activity (i.e., activity that is not driven by necessity).
Action: The Capacity to Start Something New
With (action) we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth…This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work…its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative. To act….means to take an initiative, to begin…to set something into motion….”HANNAH ARENDT5
The character of “startling unexpectedness” is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins. The human capacity to start something new impresses us as miraculous: It is analogous to the origin of life from inorganic matter and the origin of consciousness out of organic matter.
The fact that we are capable of action means that “the unexpected can be expected from us.” The fact that we are capable of performing what is infinitely improbable is possible only because “each (person) is unique.”
Action – the capacity to start something new – has several characteristics that differentiate it from labor and work:
- While work needs nature for its material and a world into which to place its finished product, action needs the surrounding presence of others.
- Action establishes relationships and therefore has an inherent tendency to force open all limitations and cut across all boundaries. Action is never possible in isolation.
- One can never know the ultimate consequences of action. Action sets things in motion, and one cannot foresee the effects of one’s own initiatives, let alone what happens when they are entangled with other people’s initiatives. Action’s results can turn out to be different from what the actor intended. One can never fully know what one is doing, and one can never undo what one has done. Unforeseen consequences can befall any action, even the most well-conceived. One’s capacity to initiate action is also contingent on the always unpredictable capacity to engage the cooperation of others.
- Forgiveness is the only way to reconcile ourselves with the unpredictable consequences of our actions. Forgiveness is the only “possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility.” The faculty of forgiving is the “remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future.” Faced with the wearisome sequence of revenge for past wrongs that only provokes further revenge, forgiveness can break the chain. (There are limits on the degree to which Forgiveness can break the chain of action set off by action, however. Forgiveness works only for human consequences: The extinction of species and of nature cannot be forgiven. Some evils are, in addition, “beyond forgiveness”).
- Work supersedes labor by creating a durable world. Work fabricates a world that lives on after the individual and thereby redeems us from the pain and seeming futility of labor (insofar as the products of labor are immediately consumed). Just as work redeems labor, Action – the capacity to create something new – redeems work.
The “Infinite Improbability which Occurs Regularly”
If, left to themselves, human affairs can only follow the law of mortality, which is the most certain and the only reliable law of a life spent between birth and death. It is the faculty of action that interferes with this law because it interrupts the inexorable automatic course of daily life…The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin. …action, seen from the viewpoint of the automatic processes which seem to determine the course of the world, looks like a miracle.HANNAH ARENDT6
Arendt described Action as “the one miracle-working faculty of man”. Arendt invokes Jesus when describing action, not only because action’s unforeseeable consequences require the faculty of forgiveness, but also because action impresses us as miraculous. Action is the “miracle” that can save the realm of human affairs from ruin. Action is the fact of Natality, the fact that something new can be born. Like forgiveness, it is also within reach of humankind. The birth of something new implies a new beginning. It is this faith in and hope for the world that is proclaimed in the “Glad Tidings” of the Gospels: “A child has been born to us.” 7
1. Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press. 1958.
2. The concept of the “Unconditional Imperative” was developed by Karl Jaspers.
3. Young, Damon. Distraction. Acumen. 2008. page 50. Young quotes the Italian author Robert Calasso.
4. Harris, Sam. “A Good Life”. Harris makes these remarks in conversation with Scott Barry Kaufman.
5. Arendt. The Human Condition. Page 176.
6. Arendt. The Human Condition. Page 247.
7. Arendt, The Human Condition. Page 247.