Not Your Mommy or Daddy’s Work Ethic

What’s a work ethic? And if it’s important, why is it important?

I found this definition of ‘work ethic’ at Wikepedia:

Work ethic is a value based on hard work and diligence. It is also a belief in the moral benefit of work and its ability to enhance character. An example would be the Protestant work ethic. A work ethic may include being reliable, having initiative, or pursuing new skills.

Hard work, diligence, reliability and initiative are unquestionably good things. But why? What makes them ‘moral’ and how do they enhance character?

It all depends on how you define ‘moral.’ I define morality as rational self-interest. In other words: objectively and purposefully striving for survival and, beyond that, personal fulfillment represent strong character and morality. ‘Rightness’ refers to the survival of an organism, not its immolation or self-destruction.

Morality, rationally defined, does not mean survival at any price. You cannot call it moral if you destroy someone else’s life or property to advance your own life. But your core moral obligation lies in taking the steps necessary to promote and sustain your own personal happiness, survival and fulfillment.

It takes character to survive and flourish. And productive work is the means of building the character you need, in order to cope and survive.

Most people view morality differently. They view morality as what you do for others. We get this pounded into our heads daily. It goes like this: If you refuse to destroy or harm others, you’re mildly moral. Better yet, if you sacrifice or even ultimately destroy yourself for another, you represent the epitome of moral character.

Think of every major religion. Christianity shows a man dying on a cross for others as the epitome of morality. Judaism is known for its emphasis on self-sacrifice and even ‘martyrdom.’ (You’ve heard the stereotype of the ‘Jewish mother,’ sacrificing for the sake of others, for your own good.) And Islam—well, you know where Islam stands on martyrdom, self-sacrifice and sacrifice of just about everything humanly valuable.

At the end of the day, if you develop a work ethic, you do so for a reason.

If you could live off of somebody else—even without coercing or manipulating them—would it be preferable to living on your own? I suspect a lot of people feel this way. Actually, we are thinking and rational creatures by nature. Not everyone chooses to act rationally or utilize their potential for self-sustaining thought and action, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s our nature, just the same.

We’re not animals. Animals can be lovely and fun, but they do not build bridges, develop life-saving pharmaceuticals, provide clean water or give us transportation into space or on the highway. Animals survive by instinct. Humans survive by intelligent and independent thought.

Instinct is automatic, while thought must be cultivated and self-generated. Productive work, based on a work ethic, doesn’t merely enable survival. It allows us to function as the thinking, rational human beings that we naturally are. It makes us feel good about ourselves. That’s why you’re actually better off taking care of yourself than living off of another, even if you had the choice.

It’s also why so many relationships based on unhealthy economic dependence are so painful and destructive. I wish I had a dollar for every parent of a 25-year-old child (or grandchild) who says, ‘I help him, pay his bills, give him a place to live, don’t require him to work — but he still treats me badly. Why so ungrateful?’ The 25-year-old “kept” child understands, on some level, that he ought to be on his own. In a sense, he comes to hate his benefactor because he senses that what’s going on isn’t right, healthy, moral or anything of the kind. He senses it but cannot articulate it because nobody in leadership roles — politics, government, organized religion, mental health — will ever say anything other than it’s “society’s” job (including his family’s job) to “keep” him.

Wikepedia continues:

Many conservatives believe that laziness is morally wrong, even reprehensible, because one is not doing their share of the work and living off of the hard work of others, and for this reason oppose welfare programs.

‘Share of the work.’ This makes it sound like life and productivity are selfless duties, rather than the aim of personal fulfillment. This is why conservatism, as a moral approach or a political system, gets us nowhere. Conservatives operate on the same underlying morality as the leftist establishment. Conservatives say, ‘Develop a work ethic. You owe this to others.’ What about yourself? Most conservatives will reply, ‘It’s good for yourself, too. But your primary duty is to others.’ How is this any different from a leftist or socialist saying, ‘You are your brother’s keeper. You will live for the sake of your brother, and the government will make sure you do so.’ It’s a myth that leftism opposes the work ethic. Leftists and socialists know full well there must be productive people who have work ethics—to take care of those who cannot or will not produce, not to mention give the leftist bureaucrats and politicians the power over others they so crave.

Both attitudes about work stem from the same flawed ideology. And it’s pointless to reply, ‘I don’t care about ideology. It doesn’t matter.’ Ideology is the stuff of philosophy, for sure. Philosophy promotes a particular ideology. But psychology shows us that ideas matter, and that every single emotion we experience contains an idea of some kind. You’re carrying around ideas about morality, whether you know it, or not. And those ideas are affecting you across the board, including in your attitude about work.

A proper approach to ethics tells us that a work ethic is good and necessary—for our own sakes, most of all. “Self-employment” is a profoundly accurate and meaningful term, when applied to self-esteem and motivation. We’re all self-employed in the service of our own survival and fulfillment, regardless of the context in which we work. A work ethic is a means to this end … the goal of self-interest, the most basic of human requirements.


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