What Money Cannot Buy

A bumpy 1-hour ride on a straight bus to HarbourFront Centre has found me in the humble compound of Starbucks Coffee: armed with my Macbook, the thick whiff of caffeine and inspired by thoughts from my recent read, What Money Cannot Buy by Michael J. Sandel. Today, taking a break from work for family time and an intimidating interview with the scholarship board guised as a “tea session”, I am dressed in an effeminate fashion of ‘formal’. This afternoon’s thoughts encompass my preliminary thoughts in response to “what is in a ‘job’?”

Humans of Singapore’s recent post about a Singaporean’s saddest moment of his life has been shared numerous times on my feed:


The post made me cringe a little, accompanying this tinge of sadness was a trigger of continued reflection on “what is in a ‘job’?”. Perhaps it is our increased affluence that allows for the pursuit of ‘self-actualization’ in every aspect of life, so we increasingly attempt to find meaning in our professions. And then, we become confused to believe that the converse is always true – that one’s profession is telling of his/her source of fulfillment, or the extent of ‘self-actualization’ that he/she was able to achieve. There seems, also, to be an obsession with financial security. Understandably, in this age of rising costs and our putting-a-price-on-everything, the most idiot-proof ticket towards certainty would be savings. It is our defense mechanism. Therein lies the irony – that in our age of affluence and knowledge, we have only become more unsure; in this age where we have uncovered infinite possibilities, we have only become more afraid. The uncertainty and fear have culminated in our obsession with being ‘financially secure’: a moving goalpost in itself. We don’t know what we are working so hard for. Yet, we have been mislead to believe that what we spend most of our time doing (our jobs) is representative of our identity. One would expect more empathy since we are all in this age of uncertainty together, just trying to save up for a rainy day.

Since when, was “What do you do (as a job)?” synonymous to “Who are you as a person?”. At which point in our lives exactly, are we slowly taught to believe that our value as a person is proportional to the pay we receive? Why is salary taboo?

At this point, I wish to apply lessons from What Money Cannot Buy by Michael J. Sandel and present two main arguments to make sense of why we have to fight against the societal norm of confusing identity with profession: (1) The Corruption Objection and (2) The Fairness Objection.

Because it Corrupts our Values

I quote an alarming example from the read – “In Dallas, they pay second graders $2 for each book they read. To collet the cash, students have to take a computerized quiz to prove they’ve read the book”. The economic sense herein would be that the students benefit from the monetary profit if they accomplish a task and do not incur additional punishment for not accomplishing the task; they are in no disadvantage compared to before. Then, the school also succeeds in encouraging students to read more. A “win-win”, if and only if the moral good (in this case, the habit of reading) is not “corrupted” by the added monetary incentive. One might object to this practice based on the Corruption Objection because of how the reading habit is believed to be an intrinsic inclination – we read because there is joy in learning and acquiring knowledge or in imagining a story conveyed in prose.

In that same way, the association of a person’s value to their ‘job’ inevitably takes into account the salary one is paid. Then, we run the risk of corrupting the judgment of a person with the ‘economic value of a worker’.

Another alarming example quoted was that of a Utah woman who auctioned commercial access to her forehead. (I quote) “As a single mother of an eleven-year-old boy who was struggling in school, Kari Smith needed money for her son’s education. In an online auction, she offered to install a permanent tattoo advertisement on her forehead for a commercial sponsor willing to pay $10, 000.” There is something demeaning about this process of objectification (of the woman) by regarding her forehead as a billboard for commercialization. I would venture to propose that our judgment of one another as human beings based solely on one’s ‘economic value’ can be likened to this anecdote of the Utah woman. It corrupts.

Because it is not fair

One might defend the idea of ‘body billboards’ like in the case of the abovementioned Utah woman based on the argument that “she chose to auction her forehead”. Applying oneself to her situation of dire economic necessity would make us rethink whether or not she truly “chose” to do so.

In that same way, we cannot and must not regard one’s profession as an absolute free choice. The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton suggests that we will increasingly be picky about our professions in our search for meaning and fulfillment in our lives. This, however, is a luxury enjoyed only by some. The reality of economic uncertainty and technology replacing commonplace professions creates a real possibility for many to fall through the cracks. If you had chosen a job not for meaning but for financial survival, how then, would it necessarily be representative of your beliefs, values and who you are as a person. Sometimes, a job is only a job: “we are all here to make money and support ourselves,” I remember a Macdonald’s colleague sharing with me earlier on.

So maybe, until we have found a way to create a more level playing field where jobs are representative of our identity, let’s hold judgment about each other’s professions and let our salaries just be a number.

P/S Happy birthday Daddy!



One thought on “What Money Cannot Buy

  1. Pingback: I Am Deeply In Love: The Pursuit | frizzyhaired|musings

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