Is work a virtue? November 13, 2018
Yesterday I came across Bertrand Russell's essay In Praise of Idleness in which he persuades the reader that the idea work is virtuous and is an end in itself is a fabrication by powerful people who want convince others to do work for them and maintain their power.
Having grown up in a family that prided itself on hard work and in a society that praises the sacrifice and dedication of those who rose to great success and fame, it's difficult to see outside the prevailing cultural narrative that work is a virtue and ought be encouraged no matter the cost.
"Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do"—this sounds reasonable, doesn't it? I know from my own experience that, when presented with nothing to do, I tend to gravitate toward my vices. But is this a symptom of idleness, or of our cultural discomfort with the idea of not working? Is the tendency in idleness toward self-destructive behaviors like drinking, indiscriminate sex, or gambling actually a manifestation of our shame and guilt surrounding our prevalent cultural narrative that work is good, and if we're not doing it, we're bad?
For me personally, it's been a struggle to see that doing work for work's sake is not virtuous. It is not a virtue to toil for a cause you don't believe in for sake of a higher "standard of living", if your current living standard is satisfactory. I'd enjoy the security of financial independence and that's the main reason I work as much as I do, but at the same time, spending all of one's time in pursuit of a secure tomorrow discounts the beauty and spontaneity available only in the present moment.
This isn't to say that the causes one advances through work are not virtuous. But if the same causes, through technological per-capita productivity increases, can be advanced at the same rate with less work, how is it virtuous to continue working at the same pace? Isn't our eventual goal in productivity increases to permit everyone to have abundant leisure time? Why have we instead decided work ought fill a specified amount of our day, instead of a specified quota of productive output?