Years ago, Aleksandra used to joke, ‘I’m a person; I get things done.’ It’s a perfect, timely joke. The joke could be translated into the terms of formal logic. If someone is a person, then he gets things done. And the contrapositive would be: if he doesn’t get things done, then he isn’t actually a person.
What is remarkable about these conditional statements is the fact that someone’s personhood is identified with his completing tasks. He can’t not do anything, and also he can’t simply start something and leave off it. He can’t fail at things either. For if he doesn’t get things done (for whatever reason), he is not (or ceases to be?) a person. Notice how the anxiety over the invention of robots would indeed be warranted were this conception of personhood to be true. If humans are doers and if there is something that can outdo us at doing, then why not replace humans with that outdoing something?
Of course, what makes the joke amusing is that no one would possibly grant that persons are essentially doers; we would want to say that there is something more, as well as more basic, to being a person. (A soul? Ah, but materialists and humanists don’t want to say this. Freedom? Neuroscientists beg to differ.) True, this is a simple example of a ‘category mistake.’ And yet, even though the arguments for this view are not good ones, I submit that most people today believe an only slightly less stringent version of this: namely, that persons are chiefly doers. How else to explain the first questions people ask each other in order to get to know one another:
- So, what do you do?
- What do you do for a living?
- So, what are you working on?
- Have you been keeping busy?
- What have you been doing (since we last spoke)?
- What have you been up to?
A possible answer which could not be heard: ‘Following Aristotle’s conclusions in the Nichomachean Ethics, I have, with the divine element of human beings, been contemplating the unmoved mover.’
What must be underscored is how very strange these questions are. Indeed, they are strange, erroneous, and ‘flat.’ Given that these things are the case, why then would most people today believe that these are the questions to ask of themselves and each other?