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Alfred North Whitehead – on vocation and economics

July 21, 2008

via Homebrewed Christianity:

One of the great fallacies of American thinking is that human worth is constituted by a particular set of aptitudes which lead to economic advancement.  This is not true at all.  Two thirds of the people who make money are mediocre; at least one half of them are morally at a low level.  As a whole, they are vastly inferior to other types who are not animated by economic motives; I mean the artists, and teachers, and professional people who do work which they love for its own sake and earn about enough to get along on.  This habitual elevation of the type of ability that leads to economic advancement is on of the worst mistakes in your American thinking and needs to be unceasingly corrected by people who speak to the public.

– Alfred North Whitehead

Personally, I think Whitehead was a bit generous in his assessment, but I’m more pessimistic than he was.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2008 9:38 am

    Did I read this right . . . people who speak in public are motivated to do so out of their need for economic advancement??

    Well . . . I’ve been preaching / singing / playing guitar in public for 20 years . . . and I still can’t afford $4 a gallon gas.

    Wait a minute . . . maybe if I tried to get people to pay me to STOP preaching, singing and playing guitar!!!!

    Nah! I’d still do it for free.

    “Music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy, and it made him feel so good. He sang from his heart, and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole.” – Mr. Tanner by Harry Chapin.

  2. July 23, 2008 10:56 am

    I think you misread something somewhere. He is saying that people who choose vocations based upon financial gain are inferior to those who choose it based upon what they love. Americans tend to view economic success as a reflection of a person’s true worth.

    Remember the part in It’s A Wonderful Life where Mr. Potter tells George Bailey that he’s “worth more dead than alive”? That was true only in purely economic terms – and the rest of the movie makes the point that friendships and relationships trump economics in terms of human worth.

    The mortgage crisis, Enron, etc. should be a powerful reminder to us that many “successful” people are morally low, and financial success alone is a poor thing for us to admire.


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