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Human Dignity and How to Destroy It

Early in the debate about what activities and businesses were essential during a pandemic, one question that arose on social media was, “why are churches non-essential while liquor stores remain open?” My answer – tongue firmly planted in cheek – was, “even Lenin was smart enough not to close both the churches and the liquor stores at the same time.”

Yet, that’s exactly what happened in Fayette City, Pennsylvania according to a 2019 Washington Examiner article. The Examiner reported on the steady decline of the town in the absence of any economic drivers that would provide jobs for the local population. The steel mills had shut down decades ago. The Catholic church wasn’t far behind. Nor was the First Methodist. “Tom & Vic’s, the bar on Main St, was sometimes open, but usually not,” said the Examiner.

A racist trope a few decades ago characterized inner city, black communities as unable to maintain healthy communities because African-Americans are inherently flawed. Now, as we have seen, when job opportunities are removed from rural, white communities, they are subject to the same failings: crime, family breakdown and drug abuse. The problem isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of job opportunities.

The concept of human dignity and what constitutes it has been the subject of much debate since the beginning of civilization. Many people attach achievement and position to human dignity -- sort of a LinkedIn world view. But this concept was challenged at least as early as ancient Roman civilization when the philosopher Cicero advocated that dignity was derived from behavior rather than position. In the 19th Century, Immanuel Kant asserted that all human beings were born with dignity and could not be separated from it. It’s a concept that has been embraced in the definition of human rights codified by the United Nations.

I’m not high-minded enough to challenge either Kant or Cicero. Rather, I offer this observation: dignity derives from the ability to support a family. This notion is not peculiar to western society. It is present in Eastern Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Remove the opportunity to work and support one’s family, and communities decline along with individual dignity.

In my new novel, The Awakening of Artemis, those opportunities have been removed by the pervasive presence of artificial intelligence in businesses across the industrialized world. In the fifteen U.S. cities that remain as viable economic entities, the 60% who are unemployed are supported by government benefits. The rural communities that remain suffer in squalor – much like Fayette City today!

By the 2030’s, jobs lost to artificial intelligence had exceeded 40% of the workforce. First it was long haul truck drivers, journalists and accountants. Then it was low-level engineers, medical assistants and call center operators. The first attempt to implement a Universal Basic Income came in the late 2025. But the opposition to a massive transfer of wealth to the unemployed was too fierce to overcome. By the 2030’s, the economic damage was too robust to ignore. Now, in 2049 with nearly 60% of the population depending upon UBI to make ends meet, Oobies, as they were not-so-affectionately called, were marching in the street demanding more.

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