Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ross Douthat on Leisure and Flourishing

You probably don’t spend too much time wondering where all the pundits get the ideas for their op-ed columns. I don’t either.

I am on occasion struck by the fact that a columnist picks up on a subject that I have posted about. Last Saturday, 2/16, I posted about, “The Pursuit of Leisure.” Today, Ross Douthat wrote a column about leisure in The New York Times.

I was not the first to address the topic.  As I duly noted, I found it on Lifehacker. It also appeared in the Harvard Business Review.

Douthat does not mention any of these sources, so I have to assume that it’s all coincidence, but still….

Currently, Douthat is the best of the New York Times op-ed columnists, so I am not surprised to see that he approaches the question cogently.

After observing that hard work has increasingly become the province of the wealthy, he moves on to describe blue collar work as pure drudgery. He adds that a society that has become very good at producing goods and services will also encourage people to indulge their taste for leisure. Then, in a twist, he concludes that when people spend their life pursuing leisure, society loses.

In Douthat’s words:

Those riches mean that we can probably find ways to subsidize — through public means and private — a continuing decline in blue-collar work. Many of the Americans dropping out of the work force are not destitute: they’re receiving disability payments and food stamps, living with relatives, cobbling together work here and there, and often doing as well as they might with a low-wage job. By historical standards their lives are more comfortable than the left often allows, and the fiscal cost of their situation is more sustainable than the right tends to admits. (Medicare may bankrupt us, but food stamps probably will not.)

There is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether, of course. But while pundits who tap on keyboards for a living like to extol the inherent dignity of labor, we aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart or hunting wearily, week after week, for a job that probably pays less than our last one did. One could make the case that the right to not have a boss is actually the hardest won of modern freedoms: should it really trouble us if more people in a rich society end up exercising it?

The answer is yes — but mostly because the decline of work carries social costs as well as an economic price tag. Even a grinding job tends to be an important source of social capital, providing everyday structure for people who live alone, a place to meet friends and kindle romances for people who lack other forms of community, a path away from crime and prison for young men, an example to children and a source of self-respect for parents.

It’s an excellent piece of analysis, though I would offer a slight objection. A life on food stamps and welfare payments might well count as a life of leisure, but it is certainly not desirable or fulfilling. Douthat would have done better to point out that living from hand to mouth is not anyone’s idea of a good life and that we still, like it or not, attach a stigma to idleness and sloth. The pursuit of sloth does not help your flagging self-esteem and does not make you feel very good. This form of leisure is really a poisoned gift.

All told, however, Douthat has done a very good job. But then, at the end of his article he trots out a trendy concept that you hear from everyone who wants to show that he belongs to the cognoscenti. The concept is: human flourishing.

Douthat writes:

In a sense, the old utopians were prescient: we’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.

But human flourishing is another matter. And it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work.

Contemporary philosophers have been telling us that flourishing is the goal of human life. The concept seems anodyne enough, so no one questions it. In fact, it’s a trap.

Philosophers believe that the concept of flourishing encompasses all forms of human excellence. It does not. When you privilege flourishing, you are also replacing other concepts like: excelling, achieving, accomplishing and even winning.

When a team wins the Super Bowl or a nation wins an award you do not normally think that they are flourishing. When you win a contract for your company you do not go out to celebrate your flourishing. When you work hard to compete in a math contest you will feel good about your success, but you will not think that you are flourishing.

Think about it. The term flourishing comes to us from the world of flowers. To flourish means to bloom or to blossom. It means opening out and expanding, and incidentally exposing beauty. You need not be a Freudian to understand that the term refers to one gender and not the other, that it privileges one gender over the other. Surely, you see that the concept is aesthetic more than ethical, that it privileges a natural process over human competition.

In a world that values high self-esteem, especially the kind that is doled out regardless of accomplishment, flourishing is exactly the right world. But the concept diminishes the importance of competitive striving. No one flourishes in the arena. Or better, if you know someone who says that he is flourishing in a competitive arena, you should bet on his opponent.


Lastango said...

"The concept (of human flourishing) seems anodyne enough, so no one questions it. In fact, it’s a trap."

I'll buy that. I remember when a psychiatrist wrote that patients who don't have a job are worse off after therapy than when they started because there's a sense of lost time. We are what we DO.

Recruiting Animal said...

Can you put a twitter icon that links to your page on your blog so I don't have to look up the name every time I quote you.

If you don't know how I can advise you.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Please do advise me. I'd be happy to do it if I knew how.

Feel free to write me via my email: