Humanity on a Budget, or the ‘Value-Added’ of Being Human

This piece is dedicated to Stefan Stern, who picked up on – and ran with – a remark I made at this year’s Brain Bar Budapest, concerning the need for a ‘value-added’ account of being ‘human’ in a world in which there are many drivers towards replacing human labour with ever smarter technologies.

In what follows, I assume that ‘human’ can no longer be taken for granted as something that adds value to being-in-the-world. The value needs to be earned, it can’t be just inherited. For example, according to animal rights activists, ‘value-added’ claims to brand ‘humanity’ amount to an unjustified privileging of the human life-form, whereas artificial intelligence enthusiasts argue that computers will soon exceed humans at the (‘rational’) tasks that we have historically invoked to create distance from animals. I shall be more concerned with the latter threat, as it comes from a more recognizable form of ‘economistic’ logic.

Economics makes an interesting but subtle distinction between ‘price’ and ‘cost’. Price is what you pay upfront through mutual agreement to the person selling you something. In contrast, cost consists in the resources that you forfeit by virtue of possessing the thing. Of course, the cost of something includes its price, but typically much more – and much of it experienced only once you’ve come into possession. Thus, we say ‘hidden cost’ but not ‘hidden price’. The difference between price and cost is perhaps most vivid when considering large life-defining purchases, such as a house or a car. In these cases, any hidden costs are presumably offset by ‘benefits’, the things that you originally wanted — or at least approve after the fact — that follow from possession.

Now, think about the difference between saying, ‘Humanity comes at a price’ and ‘Humanity comes at a cost’. The first phrase suggests what you need to pay your master to acquire freedom, while the second suggests what you need to suffer as you exercise your freedom. The first position has you standing outside the category of ‘human’ but wishing to get in – say, as a prospective resident of a gated community. The second position already identifies you as ‘human’ but perhaps without having fully realized what you had bargained for. The philosophical movement of Existentialism was launched in the mid-20th century by playing with the irony implied in the idea of ‘human emancipation’ – the ease with which the Hell we wish to leave (and hence pay the price) morphs into the Hell we agree to enter (and hence suffer the cost). Thus, our humanity reduces to the leap out of the frying pan of slavery and into the fire of freedom.

In the 21st century, the difference between the price and cost of humanity is being reinvented in a new key, mainly in response to developments – real and anticipated – in artificial intelligence. Today ‘humanity’ is increasingly a boutique item, a ‘value-added’ to products and services which would be otherwise rendered, if not by actual machines then by humans trying to match machine-based performance standards. Here optimists see ‘efficiency gains’ and pessimists ‘alienated labour’. In either case, ‘humanity comes at a price’ refers to the relative scarcity of what in the past would have been called ‘craftsmanship’. As for ‘humanity comes at a cost’, this alludes to the difficulty of continuing to maintain the relevant markers of the ‘human’, given both changes to humans themselves and improvements in the mechanical reproduction of those changes.

Two prospects are in the offing for the value-added of being human: either (1) to be human is to be the original with which no copy can ever be confused, or (2) to be human is to be the fugitive who is always already planning its escape as other beings catch up. In a religious vein, we might speak of these two prospects as constituting an ‘apophatic anthropology’, that is, a sense of the ‘human’ the biggest threat to which is that it might be nailed down. This image was originally invoked in medieval Abrahamic theology to characterize the unbounded nature of divine being: God as the namer who cannot be named.

But in a more secular vein, we can envisage on the horizon two legal regimes, which would allow for the routine demonstration of the ‘value added’ of being human. In the case of (1), the definition of ‘human’ might come to be reduced to intellectual property-style priority disputes, whereby value accrues simply by virtue of showing that one is the originator of something of already proven value. In the case of (2), the ‘human’ might come to define a competitive field in which people routinely try to do something that exceeds the performance standards of non-human entities – and added value attaches to that achievement.

Either – or some combination – of these legal regimes might work to the satisfaction of those fated to live under them. However, what is long gone is any idea that there is an intrinsic ‘value-added’ to being human. Whatever added value there is, it will need to be fought for tooth and nail.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Social Theory, Sociologists of Crisis

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6 replies »

  1. Dr. Fuller,

    Interesting thoughts. I have a few questions.

    How can humans add value in a world where technology (AI, robots) can bypass them in almost every way? After all, the world only needs so many people working on “creative” endeavors. What happens to the people that can only do the repetitive tasks?

    Your phraseology “out of the frying pan of slavery into the fire of freedom” invokes a negative connotation of freedom? How can that be?

    Exactly what do you mean by the following “the term human can no longer be taken for granted as something that adds value to being in the world.” That seems to trivialize what it means to be human. What do you see as the ethical consequences of taking such a view? How does your comment stand against the possible ethical consequences of taking such a view of humanity? What does this do to human rights? Who gets to determine what is valuable? What happens to humans that dont prove their worth?


  2. I’ll respond to your questions in successive paragraphs, corresponding to your own:

    It’s not clear that we need humans to do repetitive tasks or that we need so many humans in the first place. After all, what Marx and others called ‘dehumanization’ was all about people being reduced to repetitive tasks. So, if that’s all people were doing, that wouldn’t necessarily be a life worth living.

    I’m simply trying to show that the move from slavery to freedom doesn’t mark a straightforward improvement in the human condition. It has costs as well as benefits, though we generally take the benefits to be worth the costs. For example, one ‘cost’ of freedom is that you’re legally obliged to take personal responsibility for your actions. This is not necessarily the case under a slave regime, in which the master may be held accountable for a slave’s behaviour, just as the owner of a dangerous dog might be today.

    Actually I do not take what I’m saying here as especially controversial. After all, the concept of ‘human rights’ in its legally binding sense — as opposed to a philosophical or theological fantasy — came into being only with the 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights because prior conceptions of ‘civil rights’ were not adequate, for a variety of reasons, to safeguard our humanity. After all, civil rights can be both granted to and taken from individuals and groups by the state. Consider the case of Jews in Nazi Germany. In this respect, civil rights are not sufficient to safeguard humanity because to be ‘human’ is more than simply being a citizen in good standing with the state. Implied here is a ‘value added’ notion of what it means to be human.

  3. Dr. Fuller,

    I will follow your taxonomy with the paragraphs and answering questions…

    So what happens to those who only can do repetitive task type jobs? Or for that matter, those who technology simply passes up? What does that do to a job market based on repetitive tasks? What happens to people that have not previously done something or created something previously recognized as valuable?

    Why would it be necessary to explore the negatives of moving from slavery to freedom when civil freedom is the highest value we hold? I’m just a little confused why that is even part of the discussion. Are you entertaining the idea that people who don’t prove their worth be slaves?

    Regarding human value….Respectfully, I don’t see how your comment answers any of my questions. When you say that you don’t take anything here as especially controversial, that seems to say that there is some long standing tradition that has already recognized that humanity is something that has to bought and maintained through value. This seems to be a remarkable departure from western civilization where all humans are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. I’ve seen this line of thought in many alt right circles but under the guise of culturalism. What you are saying appears to be some form of that but only in a technological sense…or at least a sense in which no one can be human that hasn’t done something that someone somewhere with power and authority deems as valuable. I’m having trouble understanding why you think since civil rights are not perfect and can’t be protected from every type of assault that they shouldn’t exist as a basis for being human.

    Further questions or questions I didn’t see how your response in the third paragraph answered…

    Doesn’t making humanity based on value become something even worse than the nazis? What happens to humans who have not added value? Did you have a certain animal rights argument in mind as the basis What do you see as the ethical consequences of taking such a view? How would it play out to have a society where only people who have added value get human dignity? How does your comment stand against the possible ethical consequences of taking such a view of humanity? What does this do to human rights? Who gets to determine what is valuable? What happens to humans that dont prove their worth?

    Respectfully submitted

  4. I think I’ve already covered much of this. You perhaps don’t accept my answers. I’ll try to be more pointed.

    1. We have had this problem since the dawn of capitalism, as technology inherently targets repetitive tasks and hence periodically renders much of the labour force redundant. People adapt to the change, perhaps not everyone and many adapt only fitfully. This is what education — including mid-career retraining and lifelong learning — is supposed to be about. I guess I don’t believe that some people are just fit for repetitive tasks. In any case, people who do share you worry tend to support the idea of a Universal Basic Income, so you don’t need to prove your worth through work.

    2. If you really believe in freedom, then you also have the freedom to become a slave. Note that slavery need not be someone’s permanent condition. People have been able to buy their way out of it or have their slavery commuted in some other way. Not all slave societies are hereditary and irreversible. One advantage of being a slave is that someone else takes responsibility for your actions. Admittedly that might not be enough of a selling point to prefer a slave’s life, and of course both capitalist and socialist societies have placed taboos on slavery. My only point is that freedom doesn’t come for free — it imposes its own burdens, which are summed up in the word ‘responsibility’.

    3. Actually I did answer your question, and it has nothing to do with what alt-right people say these days. Civil rights are rights you have by virtue of being a citizen of a country. To be a citizen is to be ‘more’ than simply being a human being. It both empowers and obliges you in ways that non-citizens are not. If you leave your country or renounce your citizenship, your legal standing becomes uncertain. Of course, countries with good diplomatic relations normally host each other’s citizens — though you often need a visa. Now, what happens when you’re a refugee or for some other reason ‘stateless’? How does your humanity help you under those circumstances? The answer is unfortunately radically unclear, as we see in the never-ending refugee crises and ‘failed states’ around the world. My point is that even before we start talking about futuristic worlds where AI takes all our jobs, we have yet to accord the sheer fact of ‘being human’ all the much normative standing. We’re already looking for the ‘value added’ of a human life. It’s a disgraceful state of affairs, considering the endless talk about ‘human rights’. But we seem to live with it on a daily basis.

  5. Dr. Fuller,

    Thanks again for you response. It’s not that i don’t accept your answers. It’s just that i don’t see your answers recognizing certain issues that are bound to arise. Nor do i see your answers adequately refuting certain preconceptions.

    1. How can even middle class wages pay for college throughout their life? I attend college due to a law passed in Texas for veterans. This allows me to not pay tuition. However, if it wasn’t for this, which I daresay is not the case for most individuals, it would be impossible for me to attend college and support my family. I can see your criticism of repetitive tasks and I can see automation freeing humans up from this labor as a good thing. However I think most would rather choose freedom and a job of repetitive tasks than slavery.

    2. Which brings me to my next point….I actually don’t believe that people have the freedom to become slaves. Liberty is an inalienable right which means that no one, not even yourself, can take that away from you. I don’t often agree with the Alabama State Constitution. But it has a section entitled declaration of rights….the very last declaration is a section that the previous rights are inviolate which means they can’t be taken away. So, since I don’t think people have a right to sign away their freedom, and am no fan of Nozick’s ideas that contracts form the basis of ethics and society, I can’t accept your conclusion since I don’t agree with you premises. Freedom very well doesn’t come free. But that doesn’t mean freedom is worse than slavery….

    3. You seem to be undercutting the idea that human beings have basic dignity. But your examples seem to be in the context of real life situations. I have in mind the theory. Perhaps that is where we are speaking a big incommensurably. Sure there are many examples where humans have been discarded….to our failure as a race no doubt. But that doesn’t mean we should just double down in theory on what exists due to politics of certain regions. Also, I think your perception of states as failed is another point of departure. I don’t see countries that exist today as failures. They just have issues they need to solve. In some cases, they have severe issues they need to solve. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw out Locke and build another slave culture. I appreciate you taking the time to make your point more clearly. For me it’s all about learning more and understanding more. In saying that I have in mind the point you made where you view the work we still have yet to do on making being human a much more dignified situation. We definitely have some work to do there. But is rejecting the theory of human dignity because human practice has work to do really the answer? Maybe that’s not what you are explicitly saying. But it seems that’s the tree around which you are beating around.

    Once again…I very much appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.



  6. I think I now see the assumptions of your argument. Let me respond in sequence.

    1. I don’t believe that there is a future in which humans are both free and doing repetitive tasks. Freedom will be increasingly tied to creative capacity and may return to the preserve of elites – that is, unless the state regains its proactive character, which in the modern period was tied to ‘progressive’ parties and legislation that ensured that people were provided with the health and education boost that is necessary to be effectively free. But a failure to revive the state doesn’t mean that people will necessarily suffer if they are not free. That part will be different this time round. In fact, with a little help from Silicon Valley-styled capitalists, they may even get Universal Basic Income, which will permit a relatively idle sense of survival. The current wave of populism is interesting on this point because working class people detect that they’re losing their freedom but they don’t see that their freedom had been always tied to something that potentially had an expiration date, namely, the value of their labour. Trump’s talk about reviving dead rust belt industries is at best a temporizing move. Hillary was right that the old jobs won’t come back and if you want to ensure effective freedom, a massive re-training programme of the working class will be necessary. In short, I see a world in which freedom is increasingly seen as an acquired skill rather than an inherent right.

    2. I agree that freedom is worse than slavery but it’s more important that people are given the option to choose between the two – a ‘meta-freedom’, if you will. This is what I take Nozick to be aiming at in his libertarian utopia, whereby a free choice to become a slave would amount to the agent finding it too burdensome to take responsibility for his/her own actions. (In real world terms, this might look like opting to be recognised as severely mentally/physically disabled.) In contrast, starting in the seventeenth century, capitalists pushed through legal reforms that created ‘free labour’ markets which eventually destroyed regimes of serfs and slaves. But they did this only because they believed that more wealth would be produced in the process. In short, capitalists are interested in freedom mainly as a vehicle to increase wealth creation, which is why they have been historically less concerned with the fate of people who end up in bad jobs. Socialism was originally about redressing this problem but its solutions increasingly compromised the freedom of those who they were trying to promote. And that’s where we stand today.

    3. My main objection to the fixation on dignity as a mark of the human is its implied territoriality. In other words, dignity ties what it means to be human too closely to a particular bodily form that can only be treated in a certain range of ways. I know this sounds scary. But now think about all those who object to, say, vaccines, medical treatments, nutritional regimes, etc. even in life-threatening situations. They typically appeal to a natural/unnatural distinction based on world-views that actually identify the human very closely to the body. Yet, the law tends to regard such complainants as outliers if not outlaws. In other words, the law itself is already open to forcing people to have things done to them that violate their bodies in the name of redeeming some sense of ‘humanity’ that transcends how they might otherwise exist. This suggests to me that the law ultimately regards the default human body as a platform for the promotion of some normatively desirable sense of humanity. The question then is how to reinstate some meaningful sense of ‘dignity’ in a world where unwanted physical interference is already given legal standing.

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