A recent rabbinic council was asked to rule on the request of a woman wishing to divorce her husband, dying of incurable Alzheimer's, for the technical purpose of preserving their remaining joint financial assets. The ruling was 'no'.

Rabbinic councils and talmudic scholars are concerned with the application of religious teachings to everyday life. One question many readers might ask is 'who cares whether rabbis are able to reconcile two thousand year old teachings with contemporary life'?

I don't propose to answer that, my question is tangential, and is the subject of this article: whether specific new religious teachings are needed for the contemporary world, not just revised interpretations.

The rabbis would argue that there is nothing new about this Alzheimer problem, incurable illness and financial disaster have always been with us. They may be right, on the other hand the social systems of family and community support are drastically different in urban America, than in any prior period or other geographic location. The poor woman, (poor' meaning deserving of compassion,) who wanted a divorce many have nothing around her that resembles a family or an active community, and her dwindling resources may be much more vital for survival than they were in a rural or ghetto community.

The subject of Alzheimers, rabbi's and modern families is merely an introduction to warm you up to the topic of a more universal religious teaching called rightlivelihood. Most religions include the concept of rightlivelihood, as pointed out by Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy.

Historic Meaning

The concept, as summarized by Huxley, is that a morally proper life includes work which is rewarding specifically because it serves other people, specifically because it deepens the person through continual learning experience, and that it does both of these with as little 'harm to others' as possible. Buddhists would add that it should encourage moment to moment awareness, and several other religious teachings suggest that it be a 'path with heart'.

Make sense? Even if it doesn't, lets move on because these concepts are in fact too weak and too imprecise to be useful to ordinary people in ordinary livelihoods.

Relating this vague concept to contemporary life, right off the bat I would say that 95% of all jobs come close to total failure on each of the main points. Salaried jobs are usually rotten, to put it mildly, and most others aren't much better.

The relevant religious question is not 'What is rightlivelihood?' but 'How to measure the failure of most jobs to have any rightlivelihood at all?'

Here I depart from tradition and offer my suggested numeric approach.

A Zero Job

I propose here to measure the degree of rightlivelihood failure for any job.

Let us take the worst job imaginable and give it a zero. This would be an 800 number telephone operator, who sits at a computer, in a warehouse in Iowa, taking orders for Time magazine subscriptions from customers who heard the 'get a free Walkman with your new subscription' ad on TV.

This job falls down completely on each of the three dimensions that are proposed herein for contemporary rightlivelihood measurement. The three d's.

The Three Dimensions of Measurement

The first is the Pace Control dimension, the second is the Consequences dimension and the last is Vulnerability.

A slight diversion on the way to understanding the pace control dimension. The way we handle time is very relevant to how we lead our moral and ethical lives. If we schedule everything tightly and crowd each appointment very close together, we leave little time for the unexpected intense conversation of a desperate friend, or time to free a butterfly from a plastic barb. A life filled with hectic movement would not meet even modest humane measurements.

The human in religious terms requires a personalized sense of time. The slave must accept the time of the master, the prisoner his jailer, and the religious response to these circumstances throughout the history of religious zealots being enslaved and put in jail, is to focus on the slave's and the prisoner's internal time schedule. We have been taught that the uncontrollable slave/jail circumstances can be used to free the internal clock. Once freed, the internal clock permits the slave/prisoner to contemplate moral issues to achieve satori, grace and nirvana. (Picture Jesus, the mythic image of a jailed slave, forgiving his tormentors)

Enough! The point of all of this discussion about time and the pace control dimension is to point out that our time, our pace becomes less and less ours, in many working situations particularly where we interact with machines.

Pace controlled by machines

When I write this on a computer my pace is directed by the machine, my sensibilities are kinesthetically directed by the keyboard-screen interactions. Picture a nine year old trying to do the same thing. They couldn't do it because they have not trained their muscles, their motor energy (that makes them want to jump up and run to open a package in the mail) nor their emotional temperament to do it.

The most obvious machines that dictate our pace and focus are a chain saw and an airplane. Imagine using either one while in a genuinely intense mood of sorrow; you'll cut off a leg or neglect to tell the airport control tower that you are making a right turn on take off. These machines obviously dictate our pace, our focus and timing. So do other machines to different degrees. A bulldozer driver is kinesthetically clumsy and ferocious, such a person can not be directly sensitive to the small plants it backs over that a hand shovel operator might notice.

Insofar as we work with machines that take away our own personal sense of time, our fundamental humanness, to the extent that they dictate our timing, and to the extent that they shape (read 'direct' if you really understand this issue) the pace and focus of our daily life, to that extent they determine how much of a failure our work is on the 'pace control' dimension.

Using a scale of 0 to 10 for this dimension alone, the job of a dentist, crane operator, airline pilot and truck driver would get close to zero, while a university administrator, trial lawyer, Tupperware salesperson and minister might get closer to a 10.

Consequences are downstream

The second dimension is Consequence. As in 'what are the consequences of this work?' Do people down stream get poisoned by our factory's discharges, do soldiers use our product to kill non-combatant villagers, do we perpetuate the eviction of elderly widows from their homes?

Most wise people, and even some ordinary folks recognize that we can not KNOW the consequences of our actions. 'Doing good' can unpredictably result in bad outcomes. A generous gift of a house to a poor person results in their welfare check being cut off, helping a woman get the job promotion she desperately wanted makes her cocky enough to divorce her husband and leave their children for a handsome man in her new department.

So if we can't know consequences what can we know?

We can know consequences as far as we can see downstream in our lives. If we can see several stages of future consequences, the effluent going into the river, the fish downstream dying, and the people eating the fish getting sick, then we can see pretty far. And we might be able to act with some knowledge of our consequences.

Compare our ability to view with our own eyes the consequences in a situation :

- where we are in top management reviewing technical reports on effluent and interrogating the expert

- verses a lower level job that we leave at 5PM where our bosses tell us that 'the effluent is clean, the Company Experts know there is nothing to worry about'.

The ability to see down the stream of consequences further gets a higher mark on this dimension of rightlivelihood. It is assumed that being able to see longer range consequences is in itself a sufficiently positive measure because it gives the moral individual greater OPPORTUNITY to change behavior. A very moral person, locked in a metaphorical corporate closet, who can't see the consequences of their own actions can make far more harmful decisions than a morally weak person who can see quite far down the stream of consequences.

Looking carefully at typical jobs, at the companies and institutions in which they are mired, we can readily find a simple rule of thumb.

Consequence and management structure

An employee's ability to see the consequences of their own actions increases in direct proportion to (1) the openness of the institution, (2) the availability of reports on what management is doing, (3) the degree of decentralization in management, and (4) the closeness of the institution to its final customers, community and suppliers.

The ability to see consequences decreases in circumstances of secrecy, where there is a lack of financial and management information, highly centralized, pyramidal, hierarchies of management (such as the military or CIA), and isolation from other workers, customers and related peers involved in the final use of the institution, product or service.

High scoring jobs in the Consequence dimension would be top managers who work directly with customers, dentists again (on this dimension they score high because they see the consequences of their work), residential care nurses, accountants who have their own businesses. Jobs with close to zero scores in 'consequence' would be a low level machine operator manufacturing an un-recognizable part in a secret project, a clerk who spends full time checking signatures of check endorsements against signature cards, and a truck driver carrying unknown cargo for a large company.

Companies with job rotation, a practice that increases employees knowledge and experience do well on this dimension, as do companies where a broad base of employees are involved in decision making, and where many people deal directly with customers.

You're fired!

The third dimension is the easiest to understand but not so obvious at first glance. Vulnerability. Job vulnerability.

Why? Because when a moral person see's something going wrong in their work environment, acid pouring down the drain, that person has to have the freedom to act positively or stop doing what they are doing AT THEIR OWN DISCRETION. If what they are doing is polluting the river, then they need the right to argue with management to stop doing it, the option to do more research, and even to report it to the local press WITHOUT BEING FIRED OR PUNISHED.

Vulnerability is a dimension that measures how much freedom to exercise moral choice exists in any institutional circumstance. If the employee can raise strong objections to working conditions and retain their job and their own dignity it is obviously desirable from a rightlivelihood vantage point. If they can be fired for even the slightest question raising, then it scores poorly. Nearly 50% of all workers in the U.S. can be fired on the whim of their boss and many more can see their wages and opportunities for promotion frozen for the slightest criticism.

I recall a farm worker who was told to set the gage on a pesticide dispensing implement much higher than was reasonable, and after protesting about it to the field manager was told to 'forget it an get back to work'. Knowing he would be fired for even mentioning it again, he didn't.

Unions are a big help in this respect as is Civil Service. This dimension does well in companies with grievance and internal appeals processes.

Grim picture

All in all, having looked at these three tangible measurements of rightlivelihood in contemporary society, the reader can understand why most work comes off poorly. As we said in the beginning, 5% of all work might do alright. Might allow the possibility of being considered for rightlivelihood.

Few jobs would score 10 in each of the three dimensions to get a total of 30 but some would. Most self employed occupations that involve direct contact with customers and little machinery would do well: masseuses, mid-wives, and stand-up comedians. Their great advantage is the very direct feed back in their business. They can readily see many of the consequences of their actions as well as retaining the morally valuable discretion to change or stop any behavior they wish to.

Good scores would also go to jobs in companies and institutions that stay small, are completely open in every way (financially and otherwise), that rotate employees, give them significant decision making power, and have good job protection rights.

By adding this three dimensional measurement to the concept of rightlivelihood an old and wonderful religious idea becomes meaningful in contemporary life.


Michael Phillips, 1988


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