Why You Might Not Want a ‘Strong Work Ethic’

Why You Might Not Want a ‘Strong Work Ethic’ May 4, 2016
Sisyphus: patron saint of strong work ethics.

We’ve all heard about how important it is to cultivate the illusive Work Ethic. And it seems it should be as “strong” as possible–moderation is not a virtue in this framework.

But what exactly is the Work Ethic? Max Weber defined it by citing Benjamin Franklin who said:

“Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”

A better statement of “economism” would be hard to find. And this is really what’s at the heart of Work Ethic, at least as I’ve seen it presented throughout my life as an ideal to strive for. It refers to a very specific mentality and hierarchy of values that aim at maximizing economic gain through constant labor. Now, someone who knows more than me about Benjamin Franklin might say that this is not what he meant; but what he meant is not what matters, since what he says encompasses the mentality of the Work Ethic as we often find it today. We are using his words, not for the sake of his intent, but for the sake of how appropriately they describe a certain mentality.

So that’s the Work Ethic.

As children we were taught how important it is to cultivate a good Work Ethic, and today we are never short of public lamentations about how many people have failed to do so–about how the Work Ethic has faded from American culture.

Now, I think the Jeremiahs are right. I don’t think very many people–young folks in particular–have the Work Ethic that previous generations viewed so highly. The difference is, I think it is wonderful.

I say this for two reasons:

1) The first is practical.

Our society no longer benefits from the mentality of the Work Ethic as enunciated by Weber via Franklin. It is debatable whether or not we ever did benefit from it; but regardless, the fact is that today it actually hurts, rather than helps, those who continue to cultivate it.

In the words of French philosopher André Gorz:

“The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life.

“The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.”

The values associated with the Work Ethic have come to be not only in conflict with the private good of the worker, but they have begun work against the common good of society as well, which is really a double-blow to the worker, since he needs both.

2) Now for the second reason, which is moral.

In religious terminology, whenever you divorce a part of the truth from the whole you get a heresy. And so we should be suspicious from the start of any sort of “_____ ethic,” since you don’t need the “_____” if you’ve already got the “ethic.”

What I mean is this:

When you adopt seriously the values of the Work Ethic, you get a truncated moral framework that emphasizes  a certain set of values which you are to apply to the economic activities in which you engage–and not even the whole of your economic activities, but only a very specific part: the part you play as laborer or wage-earner. Other aspects of economic life, such as consumption and final distribution of goods, are de-emphasized and unaccounted for.

And the massive sphere of non-economic values? Those don’t factor in either.

Next thing you know, you’re talking about Work Ethic as if it were an autonomous value system that operated separately, with its own purpose–its own teleology–and its own means of operation.

The problem is, a person can only have one teleology at a time. One cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Man’s real end is supposed to be God, and the means of realizing that end are found in the Good Life and all of the higher values the Good Life entails, including Ethics as a framework that encompasses all of life’s activities.

But what is the end offered by the Work Ethic? Well, Benjamin Franklin made that pretty clear: Profit. And what is the means of realizing one’s union with Mammon? Well, that would be work. And so, once the Work Ethic displaces Ethics, then Work becomes the Good Life, and Labor becomes the only sacrament.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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