Hard work is not a virtue

In an article printed in the Church Times on 17th April 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron writes:

The Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none – and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.


Religious leaders have let him get away with it. They should not have. This is a far more serious attack on Christian values than any number of gay marriages.

Charity, compassion, humility and love are of course apple pie. Nobody is going to disagree with them. Even the most pathologically hate-filled want other people to love them and show them compassion. Cameron has added responsibility and hard work because they fit his agenda. He wants us to blame the poor for their poverty either because they are irresponsible or because they do not work hard enough.

Here there is a major difference between capitalist theory and all the major religious traditions. The fact that religious leaders so rarely draw attention to it (with a few honourable exceptions like Peter Selby) shows how much they have sold out.

The difference is about where wealth comes from. All premodern societies believed that wealth comes from God, or the gods. It is given. Food grows. The wood and stones we need for houses are provided by the planet. It is true that we have to act on these things, but even our muscles and brains are given, more to some than to others. The proper response is gratitude. Societies characteristically express gratitude through celebration. By celebrating they reinforce their gratitude and therefore learn to trust the giver. Thanking and trusting draw attention to the giver and the purpose of the gift, and thereby lead to an ethical imperative: to make sure everybody’s needs are met, here and now, in accordance with the giver’s intentions. The relevant biblical texts are usually read at Harvest.

Capitalism overturns all this. Capitalism presupposes shortage, while at the same time creating shortage. Its fundamental beliefs come from rich people in divided societies, for whom it seems that nature does not provide enough to meet our needs. It is a common error. We all tend to assume that our own lifestyle, and the way we were brought up, is more normal than it really is. So Adam Smith and his wealthy colleagues, surrounded by desperate poverty, all too easily convinced themselves that the problem lay not in their own excessive and exploitative lifestyles but in overall shortage. In the same way some car-owners today may imagine that a family without a car is suffering hardship, and fantasise about universal car-ownership as a desirable objective.

From capitalism’s perspective, shortage – nature’s meanness – means that only by hard work can a society reach a tolerable quality of life. Hard work becomes a necessity, and thus a virtue. It therefore follows that the unemployed are free-riders. For those who buy into this account of reality it seems natural to divide the population between the goodies who work hard and the baddies who do not.

The situation is of course complicated, both by capitalism’s internal contradictions and by the inconsistent ways it is applied. We are also to some extent influenced by capitalism’s rebellious children, socialism and communism, which usually also treat hard work as a virtue. We permit some to be free-riders: babies, the ill, those over an arbitrary pension age. Otherwise we keep inventing new needs, new shortages, new imperatives to work hard. There is an added layer of abstraction in that ‘hard work’ is now, absurdly, defined not by service to other people but by service to ‘the economy’; for example, those who are paid to ring us up and invite us to buy things we don’t want are counted among the workers while mothers feeding their babies are not.

Despite the complications and absurdities, we have been taught to fear the threat of economic chaos. We have largely been persuaded that hard work is a virtue because an acceptable quality of life depends on it. As long as this belief remains popular, it follows that people who do not ‘work hard’ are receiving without giving. They are free riders, getting away with irresponsibility.

For those who accept this picture of reality, the harder everyone works the better our lives will be. It also follows, rather less popularly, that eugenics is a good idea after all since society will be more successful if it kills off people like me who cannot ‘work hard’.

As working hours get longer and conditions get worse, the absurdity of all this becomes increasingly obvious. Having to work harder than we want is itself a major cause of poor quality of life. The drive to get everyone to work harder only seems to make sense when we are bullying other people, not when we ourselves are the objects of the bullying.

The older traditions were right. We have been given the things we need. Between us we have the muscles and brains to make constructive use of them, but never equally. It is always the case that some can do more constructive work than others. The distribution of assets will never match how hard everyone has worked. However it does not need to. There is a limit to how much work needs to be done.

These two very different understandings of wealth produce very different attitudes to the poor, disabled and unemployed. They also produce very different social agendas. Should our society be constantly striving to do more, produce more, consume more, achieve more? Or should we rather enjoy what we already have, adopt a spirit of gratitude, and celebrate?

David Cameron, if there is an ounce of Christianity  in you, you should know that we are all free riders. We are all recipients of free gifts. We are all scroungers. No amount of hard work will change that.

About Jonathan Clatworthy

Retired Church of England parish priest, university chaplain & tutor in philosophy & ethics. I help run Modern Church, which promotes liberal theology, and write books.
This entry was posted in Economics, Ethics, Inequality, Politics, Work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Hard work is not a virtue

  1. David Emmott says:

    That is excellent Jonathan! Needs shouting from the housetops: hope you don’t mind if I do my bit by sharing it. I wish my dad was still around to read it; he would have agreed with every word.

  2. Oliver says:

    But our lives now are far more comfortable because others worked hard and developed the science and technology we all use today. In premodern times people were poorer, many more babies died and everyone except the aristocracy lived with permanent hunger. Developing countries in Asia have mostly wanted to work hard and develop so that they can have the standard of living of the rich western world.

    Now I believe there should also be a consideration for the disabled, the sick, and also to balance work with leisure. We also don’t know how long the natural world can sustain our modern lifestyles (when for example the oil runs out). But our lives are better in many ways today because of hard work and because people learned to command nature through science and technology. We need to keep the importance of hard work and economic growth while balancing it with the need for leisure and sustainability.

    • Thanks Oliver. This expresses very well what I think of as the default position I was brought up with, and which I now reject.
      In every society most people accept their society’s standards so they think their society is better than others. The modern west has been extra committed to this – hence the idea that societies which are not like ours are ‘developing’ – i.e. in the process of becoming like us.
      So I don’t accept that our lives are more comfortable now than before modern science and technology. Your claim stands in a long tradition. In 1650 the process had barely begun, but this was the year Hobbes wrote that before his day life had been ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. I accept that some societies are more comfortable than others, but I think the key variable is morality, not technology. There is a proper place for technology, but we have gone overboard with it. Nor do I think good innovations come from hard work. Pythagoras, Euclid and Newton came up with their discoveries because they were interested and were sufficiently free of other pressures. At present there is an urgent need to do less, before we completely mess the planet up.
      Finally, I think the present controversy over austerity and welfare benefits illustrates the tension between your first and second paragraphs. We are governed by people driven by your first paragraph. They pay lip service to the point in your second, but in practice any investment in the well-being of people who cannot ‘work hard’ hinders their agenda.

      • Philip Stephens says:

        Late reply, but I just found this post. I was thinking about this topic while at work and this article came up at the top of my Google search.

        I think what’s interesting is that this notion of working hard isn’t really true when it comes to the evolution of technology. Technology is about making us have to work less. I think the most intelligent will not be hard workers, but find ways of exerting the least amount of energy for the greatest return, and I think this is very business-oriented thinking.

        Perhaps this hard-work-is-a-virtue thing is just a way to use people as resources. A smart, rich business man uses his resources efficiently. Essentially, the majority of us in modern western societies are being used as tools to help someone else make money.

        What if we stopped learning that hard work is a virtue though and instead learned to think like the ones in power? What do I have to offer the world and how much is it worth?

    • Brian Davison says:

      Oliver, hard work has gained benefits agreed. But should they be only for those now able to work hard themselves? or for society as a whole? should the fruits of God’s grace plus the fruits of human labours be distributed equally to all who were created by God, or be distributed according to the ability to work that has already been given?
      Should people be valued for their work output or because they are human beings created by God and equal to every other human being?

      For those able to work, our labours can contribute to the overall purpose of God – but keeping the benefits only for those with opportunity is directly opposed to the work of God.

      (Also of course wealth is not directly related to work!! – ask the coal miner after a 12 hour shift if his wage matches the profit of the owner sat in his office – or the banker who gambles with other people’s money and is paid hansomly for it)

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  4. michael byrne says:

    I utterly agree. As a catholic i dont see work as a virtue. I see things need to be done but not at the expense of others and not at the expense of family life. Work is part of life. Money and work have been elevated to a ridiculous status. People now work for the sake of it and their health communities and family are suffering. We now work to consume more but still throw away great numbers of products in a rubbish pile. It is madness to me.

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