I am going to go out on a limb here and assert, without statistical proof, that most Americans think that work, especially hard work, is praiseworthy.  They subscribe to what has been called the work ethic.

work ethic: a belief in work as a moral good : a set of values centered on the importance of doing work and reflected especially in a desire or determination to work hard  (Merriam Webster).

One reason that we shouldn’t be praising work in general should be pretty obvious, but it’s often difficult to see through the miasma of platitudes about the nobility of work.  There is a lot of work in this world that involves morally dubious, if not outright immoral, behavior.  No doubt some of the Nazis who helped design the concentration camps worked hard, and probably many of the SS guards.  (Regarding the guards, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, wanted us to believe that they worked hard, “No other service is more devastating and strenuous for the troops than just that of guarding villains and criminals.”  And of course the Nazis let us know what they thought of work—Arbeit macht frei, work makes you free, written over the entrance to Auschwitz.)  Or consider scientists who work long hours to develop deadly biological and chemical weapons outlawed by international treaties.  Or how about the torturer who also puts in long hours honing his or her skills as part of their job, and then actually works at torturing people.  In these cases we recognize that the work is poisoned by the goal.  The means and ends are so closely intertwined that it would be morally unacceptable to praise the hard work involved.  These are extreme cases, but the fact is that a lot of work is for dubious ends, and should not be valued or respected solely because it is (hard) work.

And here is a shocking thought: being lazy, or not working hard, is not inherently wrong.  In fact, it can be a responsible course of action.  How so?  Well, if I am being told by my boss to develop new and deadly biological weapons, then working as little as possible would be a more morally responsible course of action than working hard.  (Of course, refusing to work or sabotaging the project would be the truly right things to do.)  One could say that all things being equal it’s better to work hard than not, but all things aren’t equal.  And without the specific context, one can’t say without qualification that working hard is better than avoiding work.

Before proceeding I want to make sure that there is no misunderstanding.  I am not saying that work or working hard is inherently bad.  Whether or not work is a good depends on the goals and circumstances of the work.  Work is a means, not an end in itself.  If it is attached to the wrong end, not only will it not build character, but it may make one a considerably worse human being, for example, the individual who works hard at designing concentration camps.

Of course, forms of work can be rewarding and enjoyable.  In our culture these most often have an expressive dimension to them—composing a song, writing a story, creating your own business—and in this regard they fudge the line between work and play.  But let’s be clear.  Effort and work are not synonyms, although they are often conflated and confused.  There is much that we can put effort into that we wouldn’t define as work.  These activities are more like play, for example, biking from NY to Chicago, even though considerable effort is involved in the activity and the training.  A significant difference between play and work is that with play there would be little moral condemnation if one chose to stop.  Yes, one could be called a quitter, but the odds are people wouldn’t see it as a (serious) moral failing if you decided that you didn’t want to spend time training for a long bike ride or taking one.  On the other hand, if you were lazy at work—notice that we call a job, work—or quit your job because it was too much work, you could easily find yourself being criticized, and criticized harshly, for your poor work ethic.

In addition to the danger of confusing means and ends, there are other reasons that we should be skeptical about the idea that hard work is inherently good.  Here’s one.  Imagine, if you will, that everything is sufficiently automated in our society that scarcity no longer exists.  Work is no longer necessary due to scarcity.  There are enough material goods to go around.  There is nothing that we need to do to earn a living.  As a matter of fact, everyone is guaranteed a decent income.  We certainly would still have activities that we enjoy, and these may involve considerable effort, like long distance cycling, but they would not be work, or at least not what we typically describe as work.  If people lived in such a society for a couple of generations, do you think they would continue to say that working hard is intrinsically good?  I highly doubt it.  As a matter of fact, they might be suspicious that those insisting on the value of hard work were misleading people because it served the interests of someone or some group.

This all takes us to the doorstep of our own consumer society, where scarcity is no longer a driving force for large segments of the population, and artificial scarcity, or the next gadget syndrome, has taken its place.  We end up confusing manufactured desires with needs.  iPhone 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, etc.  Many of those who aren’t poor or middle class then justify the long hours needed to earn high incomes by invoking, or uncritically accepting, the notion of the inherent goodness of hard work.  They become cheerleaders for the idea that work is noble, when in fact it is their material desires, and desire for status, that press them beyond what is necessary for a reasonably comfortable life.  They then often look down on and condemn those unwilling to work as they do.

There is much more to be said about what we might call the productivity syndrome in America—work, work, produce, produce—but this takes us beyond the goal of this post: to challenge the notion that hard work, which the so-called work ethic promotes, is inherently good.  It’s not.

However, in lieu of a discussion of the productivity syndrome here, and the damage that it can inflict, as well as to provide some entertainment, I offer the opening scene from “A Thousand Clowns,” prefaced by a quote from Tolstoy, who apparently had a very different take on God’s intentions than religious champions of the so-called Protestant work ethic.

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Essays, Letters and Miscellanies  



*  Illustration: Ken Ellis And Robert Wuensche, Houston Chronicle.

2 thoughts

  1. Your points are all valid but isn’t the Protestant Ethic and its remnants one of the factors behind the cult of hard work– at least as an ideology,

    1. Brian, Thanks for your comment. I mentioned the Protestant Ethic at the very end. I purposely didn’t get into it in the piece because there are issues about Weber’s thesis in his famous book, and the story of the Protestant Work Ethic is complicated by the way in which religious ideas or ideals intermingle with the pressures of different systems of production. So I simply kept it general here by referring to the work ethic.

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