The work ethic and transferable virtues

by Emrys Westacott

The view that everyone who is capable has a basic duty to work and not be idle is the main tenet of what we call the work ethic. Closely related to this are two other ideas:

  1.  A person’s approach to work reveals something of their moral character.
  2.  The activity of working itself fosters certain important moral virtues.

The first idea, that moral character is expressed through work, itself contains two distinct claims.

First, workers are seen as morally superior to shirkers. Being willing to work hard, to take on difficult or unrewarding tasks, to do one’s fair share, to go “above and beyond” one’s basic obligations, are almost universally viewed as admirable qualities. To be sure, a couple of caveats are in order. The old saw that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, ” while not exactly a moral remonstrance, is a reminder of the need for balance in life, both for an individual’s wellbeing and for that of those closest to them. In addition, one can easily imagine some situations where a person’s zeal at work may be viewed by their peers unfavorably. “Swots” in school are often unpopular. Employees who look to impress their supervisors with how hard they work may be resented by their workmates for raising what is expected of everyone else, and for having embraced the values of capital (standing out and getting on) rather than of labour (solidarity). In general, though, and especially in any social setting–school, workplace, household, playing field, or voluntary institution–a willingness to work hard is typically applauded.

Second, how a person works is also widely viewed as revealing something about their moral character. Most obviously, diligence, conscientiousness, and the careful exercise of skills acquired laboriously are often taken to be morally significant. Just as such things as literacy, problem solving, or personnel management are considered “transferable skills” that can be deployed in many different contexts, so the qualities just mentioned are often viewed as what might be called “transferable virtues”: traits that will render someone valuable to have around and worthy of moral esteem. (By contrast, “transferable vices” would include sloppiness, lack of attention to detail, not being bothered to learn what is necessary for a task, and willingness to settle for second or third rate outcomes.)

How much validity is there to such inferences about transferable virtues?

On the face of it they seem plausible. We’ve all heard eulogies along the lines of: “…. and the same qualities that brought him success at work could be seen in the way he applied himself in the kitchen and in how he played with his grandchildren.” But further reflection should give us pause. One reason for questioning the idea of “transferable virtues” is that it is just as easy to call to mind counterexamples: a person who conscientiously pulls their weight in the workplace but not at home; a perfectionist who devotes days to crafting a poem or learning a guitar riff, but is a complete slob in other areas of their life; someone who is scrupulously fair in their business transactions yet blind to the injustice with which they treat their spouse or children. Virtues no doubt can be transferable, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be transferred.

A second reason for questioning the notion of transferable virtues is the fairly obvious point that what are normally viewed as fine and desirable qualities can be put to bad use. A painter of forgeries, a currency counterfeiter, or a malware designer may well go about their business with tremendous diligence, spending long hours acquiring rare proficincy and settling for nothing less than their very best when it comes to determining if the finished product is acceptable. Understood in a general sense, virtues are qualities or traits that enable a person to fulfill a certain function or achieve a certain goal. In many cases, though, perhaps even in most cases, they are value-neutral. Their moral desirability is therefore relative to the situational context in which they are exercised. Meticulous attention to detail is considered an excellent thing in a surgeon; it is viewed differently when exhibited by a concentration camp commandant.

Nevertheless, the idea that the quality of a person’s work says something about their moral character is still often implied in the way we talk. From a rational point of view, it is obviously absurd to blame a person for not delivering perfection, for being less than the best, or for simply failing to get beyond a certain level of accomplishment. Outcomes depend not only on luck and opportunity but also on one’s talents and abilities, so falling short in any of these ways can simply be outside a person’s control. Sensible people accept this most of the time, both with respect to themselves and to others. But we are often inconsistent. Thus, snobbish aesthetes will treat artistic deficiencies as moral failings, and Olympic champions will attribute their gold medal to their great determination to succeed (as if the silver medalist wasn’t equally motivated).. For regular examples of this way of speaking, one could cite any number of graduation speeches, or listen to the way sports commentators will interpret outcomes as indicators of players “wanting it more” or “not wanting it enough.”

What about the idea that work in general, and hard work in particular, fosters moral virtues? This proposition has had many champions. Thomas Carlyle viewed skilled work as promoting vigor, and confidence, a “response to the excesses of Romantic self-consciousness, idleness, ennui, religious doubt, intellectualism, freedom, independence, social unrest, and so forth.” The famous educator Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby, said that he “would sooner send a boy to Van Diemen’s Land [site of penal colonies in Tasmania] to earn his bread than to Oxford,” since the work required of him there would be more morally beneficial. Working as the majority of people do, and especially doing menial work, can foster humility, one of the reasons Tolstoy advised parents to let their children “do all they can for themselves: carry out their own slops, fill their own jugs, wash up, arrange their rooms, clean their boots and clothes, lay the table, etc.”

This belief in the moral benefits of work reached unsurpassed heights in the writings of Victorians such as Carlyle, Samuel Smiles, George Eliot, William Morris, and John Ruskin. Naturally, they don’t usually set about trying to prove their points in even a quasi-scientific manner (although Smiles certainly offers a sort of inductive justification for his claims by supporting them with countless examples in his best-selling Self-Help (1859). More often than not one finds the experience of work, a willingness to work hard, or a readiness to take on any sort of task, even if it be menial or tedious, is simply assumed to be associated with other virtues. Perhaps foremost among these is the virtue of self-denial, which is the precondition for self-control and hence for willpower. But there are many others, including punctuality, obedience, sobriety, temperance, orderliness, perseverance, cheerfulness, prudence (particularly in the sense of forward planning), and self-respect. Most of these are, of course, qualities that would be particularly valued by employers and others who live off the proceeds of capital rather than from their own labor.

We may like to think that we long ago left the Victorian frame of mind in the rearview mirror. But the work ethic, and the association of work with other moral qualities, is still deeply ingrained in the dominant ideology of many societies. The work ethic has certainly had its critics, both in Victorian times and since. It is possible, though, that its hold on our way of thinking will eventually be loosened decisively not by theoretical arguments but by the impact of the ongoing technological revolution on the workplace and the labour market.