This is not a book review. I haven't yet read the new book by one Arlie Russell Hochschild. But I want to address the same subject: the striking trend toward paying strangers to do things once thought too personal to entrust to another: what she calls "outsourcing the self."
Just how personal are these things? That depends. On the more prosaic side, there's the unremarkable delegation of tasks that are too onerous or time-consuming to attend to oneself: you could call it "outsourcing" when an assemblage of villagers would arrange a division of labor to avoid duplication of everyone's efforts. Nothing revolutionary here.
At the other extreme is the futile attempt to pay someone to do on your behalf something so properly personal that it cannot truly be delegated at all--like the fictional merchant who wanted to save his soul but had no time to pray all the novenas he thought would get the job done. So he hired a servant to say his prayers for him. The details escape me, but, as you can imagine, it didn't end well for him.
Between these two extremes--things that have always been outsourced, and things that can't be outsourced at all--are oodles of possibilities (and oodles of prospective profits for the enterprising young huckster). Here are a few, in approximate order of outlandishness:
Holiday gift buyer
"Nameologist" (to choose your baby's name)
Mourner for hire
"Wantologist" (to help you figure out what you want)
Friend for rent
Grandma for rent
Womb for rent
So, some things just can't be outsourced.
Some things can be--but should they? (Hint: NO!)
And plenty fall somewhere in between.
Paying a professional for help or advice is no novelty, but the trend to delegate every little thing to an enterprising "expert" is plainly running amok. What are we to make of its moral status? What does it mean about how we see the person?
I would answer with a resounding "It depends."
Of course, for most of us, it's a moot point. Who has the luxury of agonizing over whether to pay the wantologist or the water bill? But must we attend to every single aspect of our complicated lives personally, if it's feasible to do otherwise? Of course not. If something's unpleasant, are we forbidden to delegate it? No, not necessarily.
It's good to be on the lookout, though, for luxuries masquerading as necessities.
Let's please be aware that the army of smarmy marketers paid to create "felt needs" in our hearts are not our friends.
Some of the outsourcing craze just comes of our addiction to convenience, our lack of once-universal domestic skills, (planting a potato, replacing a zipper) and our extreme mobility: we may live too far away from Grandma to depend on her for babysitting or emotional support, but human beings don't need these "commodities" any less than they ever did.
Some of the in-between cases are a matter of the prudent weighing of obligations and circumstances. For example, you're not outsourcing childrearing itself if you hire a babysitter once a week. But what about all day, every day? When we lived in Barcelona, I knew of a woman who was worried about her daughter's "speech delay," only to discover that she was speaking fluent Tagalog with the Filipina maid who was always around when her mother wasn't--which was just about always. She hadn't intended to delegate motherhood itself, but for all practical purposes--at least from her little girl's point of view--she had.
Is there anything wrong with some of the other options the book details: relationship advisers, wedding planners, or hired "friends"? Are these morally neutral, intrinsic evils, or just dumb ideas?
It's a big subject, but here are some starting points:
VOCATION, IDENTITY AND DUTY
Which actions, exactly, are central to your very identity and purpose in life? The question, "What if I outsourced that?" can be a useful thought experiment to clarify what we might already know intuitively. What if I pay a local teenager to help me organize my kitchen? What if I hire a tutor to teach my own teenager calculus? What if I hire a stranger to visit my elderly parents? What if I outsource the composition of my college application essay? What if I pay an Indian woman with mixed feelings and no other job prospects to carry my unborn baby to term?
The question often answers itself.
DELEGATOR AND DELEGATEE
Some transactions shouldn't exist at all, but the moral culpability of exploiter and exploited may vary. I wouldn't tolerate my son buying that application essay, but I would object more vehemently to the one who marketed it to him.
THE FINANCIAL ANGLE
Some object to the outsourcing craze out of a distaste for capitalism in general. But buying and selling aren't intrinsically evil. In a better world, we'd all be surrounded by generous (and highly qualified) friends and family with whom we could freely exchange all manner of help and advice. If that isn't the case, though, we can hire a babysitter or therapist without any qualms of conscience.
On a larger scale, the trouble is, the rich have the ability to treat everything as a commodity, including the lives of the poor.
They can delegate everything, even the starving and the praying. (There, I knew I'd find a way to fit Credence Clearwater Revival into this post.) But we shouldn't envy them for it. They're rich in convenience and luxury, poor in human rapport and camaraderie.
AVOIDING PERSONAL CONNECTION
This brings up an interesting question, though. Do we really want personal connection? Aren’t we sometimes seeking an excuse to avoid it? In The Sun Also Rises, protagonist Jake Barnes, recently returned from a harrowing sojourn in Spain, revels in the simplicity he finds in France:
“…I overtipped [the waiter]. This made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France….No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities….It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.”
If outsourcing fosters this kind of thing, we can safely label it unsavory.
So tell me: have you read The Outsourced Self? Do you have some savory or unsavory experience with outsourcing to share? What do you think?