The ‘work ethic’ can be unethical (part 1)

You should always work hard and do your best. This is a moral obligation. Anything less that your best and most diligent effort is a deviation from your divinely appointed calling and responsibility. And it is a kind of theft. If you’re not working your hardest and doing your best, you are, in effect, stealing from your employer.

This is, more or less, the prevailing idea of a “work ethic.” You’ve probably heard some variation of this. One can find something like it in the teachings of Calvin and Luther and Wesley and Benjamin Franklin — in all of the major theologians who shaped American Protestantism, and thus it has been taught not just as a secular ethic, but also as a religious obligation. (Ever since Max Weber, we’ve talked about the Protestant work ethic, but in America this has never been an exclusively Protestant notion.*)

It seems reasonable. Who doesn’t think that working harder is better than slacking off? And who could possibly quarrel with something as uncontroversially wholesome as “always do your best”?

But this work ethic is misleading in at least two ways. Worse than that, it can be unethical. Immoral. Sinful.

The “work ethic,” as popularly promoted and understood, is a Bad Thing.

I want to consider two objections to this idea. The first suggests that our idea of a “work ethic” needs to be recalibrated and redirected, but that it might still be redeemable after such corrections are taken into account. The second objection, which is something I’ve only just begun to see and consider, cuts closer to the root of the problem.


I’ve written about the first objection before. See, for example, the 2011 post “Playoffs and rocking chairs” (which now reads as disturbingly prescient about my inevitable layoff from the newspaper business). This has to do with the mistaken notion that a worker’s primary obligation is to their employer.

That’s wrong. It’s wrong as in “inaccurate,” and it’s morally wrong. It’s wrongness is such that, if taken to heart, it will produce bad work.

The old post linked above considers the example of a hypothetical worker in a rocking-chair workshop. Because she is a good worker, she regards her first obligation as a duty to the people who will one day be sitting in the rocking chairs she is building. In corporate-speak, we would say that she puts her priority on her customers. But she, like most people who actually do that, wouldn’t think to use that word because she doesn’t think of them as people who will be paying for the chairs she makes, but rather as people who will be sitting on them — people who will be using them and enjoying them. To think of them only as “customers” would be to reduce them to the least-important aspect of their relationship to the chair and to the worker who created it.

The same is true for any worker in any given job or trade or profession. If they are to do their work well — if they are to work ethically — then they cannot and must not think of their employer or their paycheck-signer as being their first or their only obligation. Their obligation to their employer cannot even be their secondary consideration. It can only be, at best, a distant third — far behind their obligation to their don’t-call-them-customers and their obligation to their craft itself.

Whatever claim your employer has to your work — to your hard work and to your good work — must be subordinate to the greater, prior claims of the client/audience/end-user and of the craft itself. A good (in any sense) employer will understand this because they will share this same set of priorities.**

A bad employer will regard such proper subordination as in-subordination — as a perceived offense against their authority or rank or hierarchical power. They will demand that workers consider their concerns and desires and profits as having priority over the needs of the client and the needs of the craft. And they will thereby actively prevent their workers from doing their best — from working hard and working well.

This objection doesn’t directly challenge our idea of a “work ethic” — it simply refocuses its priorities. In a sense, this shifting of priorities only makes the obligation to work hard and do your best even stronger. That obligation is no longer tied to the moral claim your employer stakes by signing your paycheck, but to the much greater moral claim of the client/audience and of the craft itself. You should do your best, your most, your hardest not because failing to do so would be stealing from your employer, but because failing to do so would be like stealing from your audience. And it would be like stealing from, or eroding the value of, the craft itself.

If we shift our understanding of the “work ethic” in this direction, then, we’ll probably wind up working even harder and taking even greater care to do quality work. That this will likely get us viewed with hostile suspicion by our employers says a great deal about the pathological state of corporate America, but it’s neither here nor there as far as the ethics of our work ethic are concerned.

This strengthening of the work ethic, however, is on a collision course with the second objection I want to raise. That is, again, a more fundamental problem. This involves the recognition that always working our hardest and always doing our best may mean that we are stealing from our fellow workers — that we are, in fact, stealing from all workers everywhere.

This objection applies only given a specific set of circumstances, but those particular circumstances are disturbingly common. And if, like me, you find yourself in such circumstances, then you’re faced with this dilemma: In such a context, a “good” work ethic becomes ethically bad. In that circumstance, working hard and doing your best becomes immoral.

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* I suspect the particular emphasis on the Protestant work ethic isn’t entirely due to Weber, but also to a century’s worth of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment propagandizing the xenophobic idea that those people — those newcomers threatening our hegemony — will erode our bedrock all-American values of hard work and honest livin’. (This accusation is usually incoherently coupled with its opposite concern — that these lazy, indolent immigrants were somehow also going to steal our jobs.)

Of course, if I were a Robber Baron capitalist looking to exploit religious teaching in service of exploiting workers, I would consider most forms of Protestant Christianity as more useful than Catholicism, which has all those encyclicals and all that social teaching about the priority of labor. This is why one can still find examples of that remarkable species, the labor priest, but why labor pastors seem as mythological and rare as Bigfoot. It’s also why most Protestant pastors dress like bankers (or, in hipster mega-churches, like venture capitalists funding a tech start-up).

** They will understand their role the way that theater-producer Hugh Fennyman comes to understand his role in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love:

Hugh Fennyman: Uh, one moment, sir.

Ned Alleyn: Who are you?

Hugh Fennyman: I’m, uh… I’m the money.

Ned Alleyn: Then you may remain so long as you remain silent.

The producer is “the money” — the employer. He has an important role to play in the play and his concerns matter, but they do not matter as much as those of the audience and of the play itself.


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