Tuesday, January 31, 2020

What's So Good About the Work Ethic?

Many people believe in the importance of a powerful work ethic. Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish philosopher, summed up this view in a speech in 1866, when he said:
Work is the grandest cure for all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind.
An attachment to the virtues of hard work and close family ties is often seen as basic to traditional values. In a country like the US, this viewpoint has been further strengthened by waves of poor immigrants, all seeking a better life they could achieve only by arduous labor to escape the poverty that drove them from their original homelands.

Certain politicians in countries where social welfare is generous complain that such payments encourage a generation of "slackers." Conservative thinkers worldwide believe hard work can save young people from "decadence" and a slew of supposed moral ills. And it's common to hear older people complain the young lack their dedication to work; that they're too keen to find easy ways to survive without making appropriate effort—whatever that's assumed to be.

I suspect Roman grandfathers complained the youth of their day were lazy and addicted to watching gladiatorial combats. Ancient Egyptian conservatives probably went around telling people that slaving day by day on another pyramid was good for the workers and kept them from wasting their time in immoral pastimes. Hard work has long been seen as a virtue in itself—especially by those too old or too rich to need to do it for themselves. It's worth thinking about this idea more fully, especially since it's often used even today to justify long hours and the supremacy of work over leisure.

What is it about hard work that's so virtuous?

People tend to glorify effort in most walks of life. There's a natural assumption that what costs most—whether in terms of money, sweat or years of training—must be most valuable. If something is easily obtained, it's judged to have little worth. This has no logical basis, of course, but it seems deeply rooted in human thinking. Climbing a long flight of stairs is seen as trivial, because almost anyone can do it; climbing Everest is praiseworthy because it's so hard only a few even make the attempt.

This way of thinking has little to commend it. Some praiseworthy actions are indeed hard, but their value doesn't come from their difficulty; it comes from what they achieve for good or noble ends. Other valuable actions are extremely easy—like showing small acts of kindness to the people you meet—but no less worthwhile because of that. Of course, our media focus on the unusual and difficult, but that's because they're seeking news, and what anyone can do isn't newsworthy. The value of an action doesn't arise from how hard it is; it comes from the usefulness or benefit of the act itself.

If hard actions aren't intrinsically valuable because they demand effort, maybe their value comes from their effect on character?

This is a very common belief and dates back, at least, to the days of the first Protestant reformers in Europe. In their reaction against medieval notions of buying forgiveness from sin by donations to the church, they stressed a belief that forgiveness couldn't be bought: that God wasn't in the business of selling grace for money or favors. Even the other approach to winning salvation—facing the effort and danger of a long pilgrimage—was discounted, perhaps because of its association with the "worship" of saints. What was left was simple: to accept protestant teachings and live a good life. And their definition of a good life, since most were serious, conservative people, included hard work and independence.

During the Victorian era, the building of "character" became a fetish, especially in the rarified atmosphere of English upper-class public schools. Physical exercise, cold baths and proper attention to sportsmanship were valued aristocratic pursuits. If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, as The Duke of Wellington claimed, it was because of the devotion to character-building typical of the British Empire. Nowadays, such ideas are seen as quaint—even laughable. Yet the belief that hard work builds an estimable character lives on, creating our modern worship of the self-made, millionaire entrepreneur.

Does hard work build good character? Or do people of good character show a willingness to pursue valuable goals, even if it takes hard work to achieve them? Human thinking is riddled with errors caused by assuming causation where none exists.

Let's be clear. Many worthwhile enterprises demand hard work, but their value does not come from the need for work itself. People of good character are willing to make great efforts to achieve their goals, yet the effort is incidental to the goals themselves. Hard work doesn't create goodness. Many criminals work hard at their crimes; they turn to crime because they believe it pays better than honest work. We've seen plenty of recent examples of hard-working, dedicated entrepreneurs and executives engaged in all kinds of swindles. Nor does hard work prevent vice, anymore than cold baths suppressed sexual desire in Victorian youth. Some of the hardest working, most savagely disciplined and punished people ever were the sailors of the British navy in Nelson's time. But they were also notorious for gambling, drunkenness and sexual excess (when they could get it).

Hard work is, sometimes, a necessary means to a desirable end. Sometimes, with luck, the same end can be achieved without it. Neither situation affects the value of what is being done. You can work long hours, ruin your health, disrupt your relationships and amass large amounts of money in the pursuit of morally and ethically dubious goals—or ones that stand as beacons of light in a darkened world.

It's the result that counts, not the way you achieve it.

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James Shewmaker said...

This article has been added to the Reading Assignment for CohesiveIntegrity.com and the feed address is http://feeds.feedburner.com/readingassignment .

12:17 PM  
Tillerman said...

Excellent points.

8:38 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, guys.

7:19 AM  
satorimedia LLC said...

Or, as Heinlein put it: "Progress is made by lazy people finding easier ways to do things."

8:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

that was super duper and i loved the oints in ti thanks so much!!!

5:29 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...


9:52 PM  

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