Some Thoughts about Work, Part 2
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.
Proverbs 6:10-11 (repeated verbatim 24:33-34)
(New International Version)
I concluded part one of this essay by claiming that there is a universal moral law, recognized in every culture:
The “moral law of labor” (revised): Every person who is able ought to work.
Obviously, I have not gone round the world to survey existing cultures, nor have I scoured history and anthropology texts searching for counter-examples. If I haven’t done the empirical research, how can I be so confident? By engaging in what might be called “experimental philosophy”: Try to imagine an historical culture that had no moral preference for labor. Once you realize that it can’t be imagined, you realize it can’t be real.
Experimental philosophy is not new with me. Philosophers have long used thought experiments. Here’s one from the philosopher James Rachels: How do we know that every society on earth has a moral rule favoring truth telling? Well, try to imagine a society in which people could lie at any time, in which there was no belief that other people should tell the truth. Sometimes I ask students to imagine a society that had no preference for telling the truth, and I ask, “What time is it?” Someone invariably says, “Four-thirty” (or some other incorrect time). I then chide the class for not being creative. If there is no preference for truth, someone could just as well say “Oranges” as give a time.
You see the point? Our preference for truth telling is so deep in us that we struggle to imagine a society where that expectation is entirely absent. Different cultures have different rules about exceptions, that is, times when it is right to lie—perhaps it is right to lie to outsiders, to save a life, to spare someone’s feelings, and so on. But no culture says it is right to lie willy-nilly, at any time to any person for any reason. If there were no expectation of truth telling, language would collapse. We would grunt at each other.
Enough about truth telling. Let’s return to the moral law of labor. Can we imagine a culture that denied it? I believe that today we can, and I will explain below. But for most of human history it seemed obvious to everybody that people needed to work. Therefore, every culture has had a moral preference for labor over idleness.
Why? Why have we always believed that people have to work? The saying I cited above (which occurs twice in Proverbs, an indication of its importance in the minds of the ancient sages) points the reason, an explanation obvious to everyone in the ancient world. If you don’t work, scarcity will overtake you.
Remember Paul’s words to Titus, which I cited in part one of this essay. He wanted Christians to work in order to “provide for daily necessities.” We all recognize that people have needs. Human life is impossible if these needs are not met. For all human history (until very recently, as I will explain) it has seemed obvious that many human needs can only be met through human labor. And it has seemed obvious that we need to work hard; in the story of the fall (Genesis 3) God tells Adam that he will wrest his living from the ground by the sweat of his brow. We hear echoes of an agricultural society in both Genesis and Proverbs, but the value of hard work was just as plain in pre-agricultural hunting or gathering societies. Mercantile and industrial societies experienced the same truth. Throughout human history, for most people in most societies, the margin for error was small. A bad hunt, a bad harvest, a bad year with fishing nets, a plague of locusts, a plague of germs, an earthquake—peasants (i.e. most people) always lived close to economic catastrophe. People needed to work hard to gain even a small edge against starvation.
I hope I have done enough to defend my assertion that the moral law of labor has been widely accepted. Now I need to address certain complications. Later, I will ask whether it is true.
(1) Immediately someone will ask about the difference between needs and wants. Much of the work we do aims at getting things we want but don’t absolutely need. At various times individuals have recognized this fact, and they have said, in effect: “Hey folks! We don’t need to work so hard. If we learn to be content with only the things we truly need, we can live better lives.” Epicurus, St. Francis, the Buddha, and Jesus are among the voices that call us away from the unending pursuit of more. If these voices are right, then the moral law of labor—Every person who is able ought to work—has to be balanced with other moral values. When I say that the moral law of labor is recognized in every culture, I do not imply that it is the highest or sole moral value.
(2) What about people who work, but not to procure necessities? The vast majority of human beings have been peasant laborers (herdsmen, hunters, farmers, etc.), but the history books are full of rulers and conquerors, prophets and priests, poets and philosophers, musicians and scientists. If there are some “jobs” that don’t aim at producing the necessities of life, does that undermine my proposition that he moral law of labor is universal? No, it doesn’t. Rulers, artists, and scientists all engage in work; to that extent they obey the law of labor. But it is true that they do not work to procure necessities, an extremely important fact. Some work aims at producing non-necessary goods. Such non-necessary goods include things like statues built to honor conquering kings, new religious rituals, and philosophy books and novels.
(3) What is the difference between needs and wants? If I admit that some people work to produce daily necessities and other people work to produce non-necessary goods, shouldn’t I give a perspicuous account of the difference? No. As an example, consider transportation. Transportation of human beings and material goods has always been a necessity of life. Even in the most technologically primitive cultures people needed to go to work (the field, the lake, the forest) and bring the products of their work back home (the cave, the tent, the house). Over time, human beings met the transportation need by walking; by using beasts of burden; by building rafts, canoes, and ships; by driving trucks, cars, and buses; by building railroads; and by many other methods. Pretty clearly, transportation of some kind is necessary to human life. But every time people invented a new means of transportation (e.g. sailing ships), they incorporated that technology into their economy. New forms of labor appeared, such as sailor, and the overall productivity of human labor increased. Over time the higher level of productivity made it unthinkable to go back to an economy limited to earlier kinds of transportation. Therefore, a particular mode of transportation may be considered non-necessary, in that human life went on just fine before it was invented, and a necessity, in that later forms of life require the higher productivity made possible by that form of transportation.
Unfortunately, in beginning this essay, I did not understand how its tendrils would lengthen. It may become the blogger’s equivalent of the blackberry bush. I will continue my examination of the morality of labor in part three, next week.