On Philosophy

December 19, 2006

The Philosophy Of Work (or: An Ethical Reason To Nap At Work)

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 2:14 pm

Ethics is something of a universal constant, no matter when and where you are, and no matter what you are doing, you are obligated to act ethically, and consider the ethical implications of what you are doing. Some people seem to forget this at work. Just as ethics compels us not to harm others the same obligation applies while we are work. Usually this means that none of the products we are designing, producing, or advertising should cause harm to the consumer (when used appropriately, no one is responsible for idiots). For some reason, however, people at work seem more likely to rationalize away unethical behavior. Often they reason that their contribution is so small that they only bear a small part of the responsibility, or that even if they didn’t do it someone else would. The first reason is flawed because what we are dealing with is a threshold situation. If a certain number of people work at it the product is produced and causes harm, but if too few people work on it the product isn’t made, and no harm is done. In such situations each individual bears full responsibility, unlike situations in which a person’s contribution causes a certain amount of additional harm, regardless of what others are doing (in which case the responsibility is divided.) The rationale behind this is a bit complicated, but it should suffice to point out that if we allowed responsibility to be distributed in threshold situations various ethical paradoxes would result (for example, adding more people would make everyone less culpable). The second reason is more obviously flawed, since it could be used to defend, for example, murder of all sorts (something else would have killed him eventually), especially state sanctioned murder. But you have probably already taken these ethical considerations into account.

The above is one ethical consideration associated with work (the most obvious one), but there is another area that deserves some attention, the relationship between employees and their employers. Influenced as we are by the protestant work ethic I think that most people assume that employees have a responsibility to do their absolute best work, and to work their hardest, at their job. This is a mistaken impression. Employees do have an ethical obligation to do their jobs, but not necessarily to do their best work, or to work their hardest. The reason for this is twofold. One, obvious, consideration is that employees have an obligation to themselves as well, and that the stress of working as hard as they can might be bad for them. But this reason is rather weak, because different people are affected by stress differently, and perhaps the ethical obligations to one’s job are stronger. The stronger reason is based on the idea that employment is effectively a contract. Ethically both sides must uphold their end of the contract, but neither side is required to do more. Thus, unless you are specifically employed to work to your limits, you are only ethically obligated to do what you are specifically employed to. If you can do that while having plenty of free time feel free to take a nap, guilt free. Now I am not saying that everyone should slack off either, you do have an ethical obligation to do the job you are paid for, but no one has a responsibility to live up to expectations that they didn’t sign up for, and aren’t paid explicitly for (you might have to if you want to keep your job though, but that is a different story).

My third point, completely unrelated to my first to, is that our “work culture” (the idea that everyone should work) is at best misguided. Of course in the distant past, when humanity was struggling for survival it was vitally important that everyone work, but that simply isn’t the case. In fact for a long time we had effectively 50% unemployment (when women weren’t allowed to work) and we got by fine. The problem is, ultimately, capitalism. Capitalism creates efficiency by motivating people to compete by paying them money, which they need to live, based on their performance. Unfortunately this means that everyone ends up working even if they aren’t needed to. Now we do need some people to work, because work creates wealth, which is a way to say that things we create through our work have more value than the raw materials that went into them (especially in the case of intangibles like art). But a lot of the modern workplace is made up of middle-men (and women) who aren’t adding value, but are kept in place by the nature of the system. Consider, for example, disposable razors. Even though they keep adding more blades disposable razors are as good as we need them to be. This means that we could automate the factory, get rid of most of the company, and be set for the rest of the time. Unfortunately capitalism doesn’t support this kind of outcome. It requires that companies keep competing with each other, meaning that they spend a lot of time advertising and innovating uselessly. In fact, in the ideal world, most production is automated, creating widespread unemployment. Such unemployment wouldn’t be a bad thing. Everyone could work vastly reduced hours, or we could simply pay people not to work. If the goal is to have a high standard of living, and to produce all the nice things we are accustomed to, who cares if not everyone is employed as long as we have that (assuming we provide a good life for the unemployed)? The fact that such an outcome isn’t a possibility under our current economic systems is something to think about.

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4 Comments

  1. Do some research on the French 35 hour work week. They passed a law that capped the work week at 35 hours on the theory that it would give people more leisure time, but in the end the law was considered more of a hassle than a help and dropped.

    Think also of the implosion of the Soviet union. Surely it stands to reason that they could have just rounded up some prisoners to work in automated razor blade factories, and yet their economy imploded anyway.

    Yes, we could all survive in a society in which only a few people did all the work, but 1.) it would be really dull for the people who don’t work and 2.) society would lack all the refinements that make life interesting. We’d be surviving, but not much more than that.

    Comment by Carl — December 19, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

  2. The automation of factories was not the soviet union’s downfall, that was communism’s fault. And I don’t know about you, but I am fully capable of living an interesting life without someone telling me what to do, as I think most people are. And why would innovation end? I’m not advocating ditching rewarding innovation, I’m advocating thinking about better ways to do so.

    Comment by Peter — December 19, 2006 @ 10:26 pm

  3. I’m not saying that automation hurt the Soviet Union, just that it didn’t save them either. I also don’t think capitalism by itself is the best system. But it’s not the worst system either.

    Comment by Carl — December 19, 2006 @ 11:10 pm

  4. I feel I am entitled to a little comment here: the 35-hour law was not dropped, and it did me an awful lot of good. It sure did not hold its promises in terms of work sharing and unemployment reduction (work does not behave like mass: the whole is not the sum of its parts), but it did give us an awful lot of extra free time. And it somehow demonstrated that if you can do some work in 40 hours, there is no reason why you should not be able to do it in 35 (and why not 30, and why not 10?). In the end, technological progress has to find its way through to somewhere. The 35-hour law was a way to trade money for time, and we found that time was a desirable commodity after all (except all those who just watched more TV, who should definitely go live in the matrix).

    All in all, this is just what vacations are about: imposing a n-week annual leave on employees is just a way to force them to earn less and take some time off, which they would not choose to do themselves (beats me why). Therefore: happy holiday!

    Comment by mandarine — December 21, 2006 @ 7:16 am


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