Meaningful Work and Achievement in Increasingly Automated Workplaces

The Journal of Ethics (forthcoming)
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As automating technologies are increasingly integrated into workplaces, one concern is that many of the human workers who remain will be relegated to more dull and less positively impactful work. This paper considers two rival theories of meaningful work that might be used to evaluate particular implementations of automation. The first is achievementism, which says that work that culminates in achievements to workers’ credit is especially meaningful; the other is the practice view, which says that work that takes the form of an open-ended practice is especially meaningful. Of the two, the practice view is the better tool for assessing the future of meaningful work, because achievementism is explanatorily inadequate in two ways. Moreover, the practice view can explain why the most meaningful forms of work cannot be automated. A procedure can only be automated as long as the steps are defined, whereas, in such work, which steps to take is indefinitely open to redefinition. This reveals the real threat to meaningful work to be a political-economic one. The relevant ethical questions there have to do with how much creative control workers retain in crafting their own jobs, when those jobs involve meaningful work in collaboration with machines; and how to liberate workers from jobs that do not involve meaningful work, which should be left to machines anyway.



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W. Jared Parmer
Aachen University of Technology

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