It sounds like a recruiter’s, job applicant’s, employee’s, workplace inspector’s or HR manager’s question and nightmare: “What is the worst imaginable job?”
But, it’s more than that: It’s also a philosophical, even theological question in the same league as the question “Is there anything imaginably worse than evil?” or “Can the non-existence of God be imagined, if God is perfect?”
Non-philosophical candidate answers to the question, like the supremely awful jobs that inspire them, are easily imagined:
— the worst of the “4D” jobs: jobs that are dirty, dangerous, dull and demeaning
—jobs that combine unbearable “load” with zero “latitude”, i.e., intolerable burdens, with no flexibility in how to deal with them (e.g., when forced to work as a real slave). Jobs like that are known to dramatically increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
—jobs that impose extreme responsibility without corresponding authority (as a variant of the high load-low latitude mix that breeds heart disease)
—jobs that violate one’s most cherished or non-negotiable moral principles (as having to work in a slaughter house would for a PETA volunteer)
—jobs that assail the senses, e.g., soot-choked chimney sweep and stench-enveloped hide tanner working a vat in the 19thcentury, or being an attendant in any deafening Japanese pachinko parlor in the 21st , exposed to the jarring clatter of thousands upon thousands of jostling ball bearings pouring through countless rows of rattling machines.
—Jobs with always-shifting “goal posts”: This means working for somebody or something that is continually changing the big-picture mission or specific task goals, resources, rules, etc. The simplest example is that of being asked to dig a hole and then fill it in or, like Sisyphus, being condemned to and eternally push a rock up a hill only to helplessly watch it roll back.
Imagining such awful jobs is easy enough, so imagining the worst among all jobs shouldn’t be much harder, should it?
If you think so, you haven’t reckoned with what a philosopher will do with or to that challenge. Here’s a taste of what you’d be in for, if you foolishly asked a philosophy prof for an answer:
—”On analogy with a ‘perfect being’ (God) or ‘the perfect resume‘, the ‘worst imaginable job’ would have to be one that cannot be imagined not to exist, i.e., must be a job whose existence is necessary and impossible to end, like the divine punishment of Sisyphus in being eternal, but unlike his job in being impossible to even imagine ending.
—“Imagining the worst possible job is neither necessary nor sufficient as a test of any job’s demerits or its ranking. In the first place, it is only as relevant as the imagination is strong and informed and no more reliable than imagining the perfect spouse, which is likewise subject to the limitations of a limited imagination.
That means that any individual’s imagination may not be up to the task of evaluating jobs—i.e., isn’t sufficient to accomplish that.
Secondly, imagining must be distinguished from conceiving, which can actually be more complete yet easier and therefore more reliable as a test.
For example, try to imagine an object with 23,867 sides. You can’t, in the sense of visualizing it; but you can easily conceive it as a concept, since, unlike “square triangle”, it is not self-contradictory.
This means that being unable to imagine the worst possible job does not entail that you cannot conceive it. So, imagining the worst possible job is not even necessary for identifying it.”
—”The ‘worst imaginable job’ cannot be identified without distinguishing intrinsically worst from extrinsically worst.
Your job may seem like the worst because of the hideously long and irritating commute—a factor that is extrinsic to the ‘essence’ of the job, which comprises its on-the-job responsibilities, work conditions, etc., but not the job’s daily preliminaries, which, in this case, include getting to the job.
If you are going to even attempt to identify the ‘worst imaginable job’, you will have to specify whether you are talking about intrinsically worst or extrinsically worst.”
—”You must distinguish ‘the worst imaginable job’ from the ‘worst job imaginable’. These are not equivalent. The former specifies the set of all imaginable jobs and then identifying the worst one(s) among them.
The second requires identifying and listing all of the worst jobs that can be imagined, allowing that there are ‘ties’ for that dishonor and no clearly worst of the worst, while compressing the task into one step, viz., creating the initial and complete list.
The logically and psychologically less vulnerable interpretation is the former, since imagination and ranking are applied only after the list of possible and actual jobs is compiled, whereas the second approach—compiling the ‘worst job imaginable’ list jumbles the tasks of identifying all jobs, worst jobs and imaginable jobs into one super task, with all of its elements to be executed simultaneously.
The result is that if you misidentify the challenge as identifying ‘the worst job imaginable’, you will make the task much more difficult, if not impossible. On the other hand, if you try to identify ‘the worst imaginable job’, the previous critique of the limits and limitations of imagination will apply.”
—”You must resist the temptation to think of ‘the worst imaginable job’ as somehow special and unique. It may in fact be one of many perfectly worst jobs, rather than in competition with others for that title.
Moreover, you must distinguish being worst in one or some respects from being worst in all respects. The worst imaginable job will have to be worst in all, not in merely some respect(s).
That is to say that, like God, the worst imaginable job will be perfect in every respect and attribute that defines it, and impossible to imagine not existing.
Although all of the worst imaginable job’s ‘perfections’ are horrible, there is at least one consolation in contemplating having such a job.
You’ll never be unemployed.”