The Ethics of Hard Work

I’d like to explore a simple question: Is hard work ethical by nature?

To clarify, I’m assuming this is hard work on a typical job. We’re obviously not talking about hard-working Nazis or Khmer Rouge. We’re also not talking about hard-working volunteers. Rather – is hard work in a standard corporate environment worthy of our respect?

The default assumption is that, yes, it is. An unqualified “Yes!” for American readers. “Hard work” is the greatest virtue to most Americans – and also in many other places in the world (Japan comes to mind).

But first, what is hard work? I think there are two components: the first is the total dedication and expenditure of energy on the task at hand. No holding back. And the second is spending more time than is required in order to do this work. When we celebrate hard work, it isn’t a single virtue, but rather a multiplicity loosely disguised. Among them:

  1. Sacrifice of the self
  2. The endurance to exert oneself for long periods of time
  3. The independence associated with professional life
  4. A sort of conscious asceticism

There’s certainly a power to hard work. We want to believe in the Horatio Alger story: work hard, and you will achieve your dreams. There’s a dignity, as well. After all, you’re sacrificing on behalf of something outside yourself. In some cases you simply lose free time; in other cases it is your comfort or even your health. Finally, there’s a satisfaction in a job well done, in supporting your teammates. When we see someone idling on the job, it’s difficult to respect them.

Hard work is a democratic virtue. We may not be born beautiful, or born geniuses, or born athletic or wealthy. However, we can make a conscious decision to work hard. That choice is our own.

But ultimately, kneeling before the god of hard work is honoring a false idol. Stop and think: when you sacrifice yourself for hard work, you’re sacrificing yourself on behalf of a corporation. Is there anything more repugnant? A corporation, after all, is an organization designed around the abdication of all human responsibility in pursuit of profit.

By indulging in hard work and long hours, you make a decision. I believe it is a cowardly decision. Your decide to sacrifice your time to the corporation – rather than become a better individual, or help your community, or spend time with your family, or volunteer to help those in need.

Many of my co-workers are extremely hardworking individuals. They arrive in the office before 8am, and leave it at 8pm. They are busy every hour on the job, eat at their desk, and they log in to work computers from home or check their blackberries in the middle of the night. They don’t need to do this in order to survive: it’s a choice they made.

These same individuals have a spouse and kids. Many of them commute hours to and from work every day, so their kids can go to the best schools. Both parents work so they can afford child-care. This makes me so sad. I want to shake my co-workers and shout: “Your kids are growing up without their parents!” I think these parents love the organization they work for as much as they love their own children. They would dispute this vigorously, if I asked them. But their actions speak louder than any words. They spend more waking hours working than the company needs of them. Meanwhile, children need parents. Spouses need each other.

I would go further. Even if you’re single, without kids, is sacrificing your own health and happiness for the good of your employer ever admirable at all? I don’t think so. There are things more worthy of your attention than your job. If you’re happy you’ll be a better friend and a more conscientious member of your local community, than if you’re harried and stressed. If you’re healthy, you won’t suffer from lifestyle diseases and overload the healthcare system. You won’t increase the insurance premiums of your neighbors. You’ll be more able to care for your elderly parents in person, rather than shuffling them off to languish in anonymity in a nursing home.

So please, don’t jump to conclusions about someone based on hours worked. It’s so difficult to overcome these cultural biases that hard work is Virtue Number One. But being a hard worker isn’t always a good thing. It simply means your first priority is the company you work for. Once you understand that, you understand that means that the worker values himself less than the company, his family less than the company, and the community less than the company.

Leave a comment


  1. Stephen

     /  December 19, 2011

    Hard work can be virtuous, but for many people, it isn’t. Consider this rewriting of its elements:

    1. Desire for personal gain.
    2. Endurance that self-sabotages and deceives, because no one can maintain that level of productivity, only its appearance.
    3. An identity that depends on the corporate environment and peers. Avoiding personal relationships.
    4. Wasteful spending to display one’s status.

    I admire people who have found something to work on that’s worth working on, who work hard while they’re at work and then go home.

    • m741

       /  December 19, 2011

      I think that’s a very reasonable position. Working hard on something worthwhile for a set period of time is definitely admirable.

  2. bigatojj

     /  December 20, 2011

    My friend, you are bettering your writing and focusing on interesting subjects. You are really turning into a good writer that I want to read. Sorry I have not been contributing anything.

    I would say in the text above that people does not really love the company so much and more than the kids; what they do love, and more than the kids, are their DESIRES for LUXURIES and LAZINESS. That’s what keeps them needing lots of money and so needing their job so badly.

  3. m741

     /  December 21, 2011

    I’m not sure about that. At heart they are putting the company ahead at their own expense. But I don’t know what their motivations are. I would guess fear and intellectual laziness, funny though that sounds.


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