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Making a Habit of Respecting Workers

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) argued that a healthy imagination is essential for political and social reform because it allows us to envisage what is possible despite the current conditions and conventional wisdom. Science fiction is one example of how the imagination helps to spur on new ideas relating to technology and what it means to be human. Utopia is another example since, as Ricoeur notes, it allows us to see the “no-where” of what can be and perhaps what even ought to be.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

During the pandemic, there has been a great deal of praise for those workers who keep our society functioning on a day-to-day basis—rubbish collection, food services, postal services, etc. These tend to be jobs that do not have a great deal of social esteem attached to them and can in fact be seen as jobs that we would rather not do.

So Post-Pandemic Utopia Idea 2 is about being able to maintain this newfound respect for the workers on a continuing basis. But I fear that with any resemblance of normalcy returning, we will slip back into old habits.

This blog is about clarifying what these old habits are and what a potential quick fix for them might be.

The Economic Habit of Thinking

Let’s begin with a story to help set the scene.

I used to be claims adjuster, who would spend most of the 40-hour workweek arguing with claimants and attorneys about negligence and damages. Unfortunately, the arguments were mostly combative. I found this to be soul-destroying, but I did learn a great deal about negotiation and the pernicious effects of liability, especially when it involves claims for pain and suffering. I even promised myself that if I went back to academia, I would try to publish a philosophical criticism of liability insurance.

I mention this experience as a way to question how we, as members of the public (note that I refuse to use the terms “customer” and “consumer”), treat the workers we encounter on a day-to-day basis when we go about our routines.

As a claims adjuster it becomes pretty apparent that you get into the habit of treating other people as a means to an end—i.e. a fair settlement. Claimants, despite their pain and suffering, are just financial “features” of a claim waiting to be closed. I think this kind of habit, though perhaps extreme, is indicative of how we tend to treat workers—that is, as means to ends. This is what economists of a certain ilk call utility seeking (satisfying our preferences).

Let’s call this tendency “the economic habit of thinking”. It is something alluded to in a recent podcast featuring Dana Lewis from Back Story, the BBC’s Jo Phillips, and me.

What I intended by using this phrase was a proposal: in order to respect workers as valuable members of the public, we have to stop thinking about “valuable” in purely economic terms—that is, workers as means to our own ends of buying, consuming, and possessing.

Economists of an ilk, other than the one I mentioned above, have tried to argue that we need to introduce the idea of mutuality into economic exchange—where one sees the worker as like oneself. Call this perspective “another as oneself”.

But given how narrowly focused economic theory tends to be, introducing more substantive conceptions of human agents (as other than utility seekers) is much like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I would not presume to tell economists how to do their job; but as a philosopher, I can make a certain public plea. And that is, let us prioritize a non-economic way of thinking over our economic habits. This is not to say we ignore economic necessities—a need to earn a wage, etc. Rather, the idea is to stop us from seeing workers as means to our own satisfaction. Perhaps then, when engaging with those helping us, our speech and actions will no longer be purely driven by concerns about utility and means-to-ends thinking.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

A Way to Break the Economic Habits

In the interview with Back Story, I mentioned virtues and trying to see a worker as a “who” and not a “what”. These were sort of textbook philosophical responses derived from my research interests (i.e. hermeneutics, meaningful work, and virtue ethics). One such virtue that may help us to respect workers on a daily basis is hospitality.

But the problem with virtues is that they need to be cultivated within and by a community to have traction and longevity. I think this is why a good place to start with the cultivation of virtues is within businesses. We spend most of our time working, and if businesses can learn to develop virtuous cultures, that would mean most of our time might be spent practicing and exercising virtues.

But something more immediate is needed which doesn’t require a communal or organizational effort. At the risk of devolving into self-help, I am thinking of a catch phrase to change one’s habit and instill a moral sentiment of empathy for the other person. Catch phrases can work very well. And let me try to make this bit sound more like philosophical counseling than self-help.

The key is to be able to evoke empathy for the worker as a fellow human being. So the emphasis is not on you as the point of comparison (another as like me), but rather the emphasis is on the other as the point of comparison, or what is called "de-centering". I am like the other person.

The catch phrase to say to yourself when encountering those who provide services and goods:

Oneself as another.

I have lifted this phrase from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. (It’s the title of his main work on ethics.) The phrase is odd-sounding enough to cause a bit of a shock that can disrupt any engrained economic habits. How?

The phrase allows one to re-imagine the relationship to another person. One can momentarily walk in the shoes of another person. And that moment, no matter how short, may just be enough to provide a cue for interacting respectfully.

It is true, nonetheless, that there is a larger issue lurking in the background of this concern to treat workers with respect. And this has to do with whether or not the place and environment in which the workers do their thing is a good one. What does “good” entail? I’ll return to this in the next installment of Post-Pandemic Utopia Idea. Let me just say for now that it calls for developing virtuous businesses.

About Me

Todd Mei is Senior Lecturer and Head of Philosophy at the University of Kent. He runs the public philosophy website and is a keen windsurfer and recovering rock climber.


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