Elon Musk doesn’t like people working from home. A year ago, carmaker Tesla announced the end of remote work for employees.
Now he calls the desire to make “laptop parts” from home “immoral”.
“You work from home and make everyone who brings your car work in the factory?” In an interview with the US news network CNBC:
It’s a matter of productivity, but it’s also a matter of morale. People need to get off their moral high horse with that homework bullshit. Because everyone is asking you not to work from home while you work.
There is a superficial logic to Musk’s position. But examine it closely and the argument falls apart. Although we have an obligation to share the workload with others, we must not suffer needlessly. And working from home has been common throughout most of human history. It is the modern factory and office that is strange.
Work from home and the industrial revolution
Before the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, the historian, working from home or close to home, was common for most of the world’s population. This usually involves skilled manufacturing workers working at home or in small workshops nearby.
For a skilled craftsman, working hours were what we call “flexible.” British historian EP Thompson reports the popular “illegality” of labor among the upper classes.
Things changed with the rapid development and focus of machines in the Industrial Revolution. These changes began in England and saw protracted and tense clashes between factory owners and managers over the new working hours and discipline.
Judgments of conditions for workers differed before industrialization. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class (ed.
But he mentions the grocer “with peas and beans in the garden, and a good barrel of humming ale,” and the linen-weaving quarter of Belfast with its “whitewashed houses and little flower-gardens.”
In any case, working from home is not a new invention of “laptop rooms”. Only with the industrial revolution, workers are needed under one roof and for a certain time.
Abuse of the concept of justice
Mook’s moral argument against working from home says that because not all workers can do it, no worker should expect it.
This is somewhat analogous to the “categorical duty” of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said, “If you want everything to be a universal law, act only accordingly.”
But act in the same way Principle Not that we all have the same options. For example, we want all employees to have as much freedom as their job allows.
The biggest mistake Musk seems to be making is misapplying what ethicists call distributive justice.
Simply put, distributive justice concerns how we share advantages and disadvantages. As the philosopher John Rawls explains in his book Justice as Fairness, distributive justice views society as a cooperative practice in which “we regulate the distribution of benefits that arise from time to time through social cooperation.”
Research on distributive justice at work specifically focuses on how fair wages are paid to workers, as well as the pain or “suffering” work required. But there is no compelling moral case for sharing the unnecessary suffering that work creates.
How to share more fairly
Clearly, professionals benefit from work in many ways that we might argue are unfair.
As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith humorously observed in The Economics of Innocent Fraud, those who enjoy their jobs the most are generally those who are well paid. “This is acceptable. Low pay scales are repetitive, boring and painful.
If Musk wants to share both the pay and the labor equally with Tesla, he has the means to do something about it. It could pay factory workers more, for example, with a 2028 wage package of $56 billion.
In order to fairly share the “labor” of the work, he will not just sleep at work. He goes down a production line or a mine in central Africa, hauling in the needed cobalt electric vehicle batteries for a few dollars a day.
Elon, the floor is yours.
Instead, Musk’s idea of fairness is creating unnecessary work, embarrassing workers who don’t need to be in the office to commute anyway. There is no compelling moral reason for this in mainstream Western moral traditions.
The fruits and burdens of work should be distributed properly, but unnecessary work does not help anyone. Commuting is the least enjoyable and most negative part of an employee’s day, studies show. Forcing everyone to do it does no good to those who have to do it. They are no better.
It is morally wrong to deny some workers the freedom to work from home because other workers do not currently have the same freedom.
Musk’s aversion to telecommuting is consistent with a long history of research documenting managers’ resistance to keeping workers out of sight.
Working from home, or “working from anywhere,” has been discussed since the 1970s, and has been technologically feasible since at least the late 1990s. However, when the pandemic hit, it became an option for most workers when managers were forced to accept it.
While this forced pandemic experiment led to an “epiphany” that working from home could be effective, the development of surveillance systems to track home workers confirms the continued skepticism of management.
There are real moral issues for Musk to wrestle with at Tesla. He can use his wealth and influence to do something about issues like modern supply chain slavery or executive pay inequity.
Instead, he was angry about working from home. To make work at Tesla truly fairer, Musk’s moral effort would be better spent on distributing Tesla’s profits fairly and alleviating the suffering and fatigue caused by industrial production systems.
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