Protestant Work Ethic

"A Puritan is someone who is desperately afraid that, somewhere, someone might be having a good time." -- HenryLouisMencken?

Theory #1

Work is valuable in its own right. If you're not working, what are you doing with your life?

As exemplified by:

"Don't talk to others, they just want to hurt your productivity. Do more work - the coffee is free!"

Contrast with:

"Better to sit idle than to work for nothing" -- seen pinned to a colleague's cubicle.

Theory #2

A method of enslaving people by convincing them that Work is inherently good.

A conveniently self-serving "ethic" for a master (synonymous with "boss" in old English) to have his servants believe.

Work now; play later.

"The key elements of the Protestant ethic were diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of the work domain."

From Hill, R. (1992,1996) History of Work Ethic.

See also Rose, M. (1985). Reworking the work ethic: Economic values and socio-cultural politics. London: Schocken.

Contrast with the HackerWorkEthic?.

Believers in the ProtestantWorkEthic contradict millennia of philosophical thought about the relationship between work and leisure. Traditionally (i.e., until various upper classes successfully indoctrinated the ProtestantWorkEthic into society) one worked in order to live. In no case did one live in order to work. On the contrary, one lived for leisure (activities that are valuable for their own sake). Until very recently, the concept of intellectual work did not exist and so the usage of one's intellect was the sole preserve of leisure activities.

If you got an intellectual from a couple centuries back, their attitude might be that:

An extreme example of the ProtestantWorkEthic is the totalitarian doctrine of Total Work that infects various countries. Japan did not have a word for "leisure" until they borrowed the English one. Germany and the USA are also great fans of the doctrine of Total Work.

If you're not working, what are you doing with your life?

Anyone who asks this question is less than a full human being; maybe some kind of slave.

The primacy of work in society (eg, "What do you do?" always eliciting some kind of job description) is a serious socio-pathology.

Wait a minute. All other mammals spend virtually all their time "working", and they enjoy it. That is, they spend their waking hours providing for their survival and reproduction, and they don't grumble about it. Cats enjoy hunting, raccoons don't need to be prodded into foraging, etc. Why should humans be any different?

Any well fed house cat will happily spend 20 hours a day sleeping. Highly intelligent animals. I'm hoping for reincarnation.

Humans have very little instincts. Moreover, humans have intellect; and as noted, the intellect was thought until recently to be the sole domain of leisure activities.

Well, I can see one reason why humans should be different. Modern "work" is far different from what people did to survive and reproduce even 20,000 years ago. Starting with agriculture, human cleverness has come up with lots of ways to create material wealth that are way more efficient than hunting/gathering but not much fun.

And actually, agriculture is terribly inefficient. It isn't until very recently that people raised in agricultural societies ate as many daily calories as the average forager did. Agriculture was invented because it was a way to control people; you can't control foragers the way you can control farmers. The big plus is that agriculture allows a high density of people. So if you don't care about such abstract things as scientific research and discovery then agriculture only has negatives.

If you demonstrate agriculture to non-agricultural people, they will laugh at you; these people are not starving by any means and foraging takes up only a small fraction of the time that farming does.

Even so, work can be fun, it's what you spend most of your time doing, it's how you survive, and it's a big part of your place in society, so why not enjoy it? At least in contemporary developed countries, if you have an education, you have enormous choice in how to make a living. There has to be a choice available to you that's fun.

Oh yeah? Says who? I don't think that any work can be enjoyable in my case; after long thought, I've rejected the possibility. I enjoy design, but why would I enjoy designing crap for other people? And why would I enjoy submitting myself to a hierarchy (ie, any modern workplace)? Do you enjoy debasing yourself? Do you enjoy being bossed around? Even as a member of the miniscule fraction of society that is part of the labour elite, the choices on offer suck. For most workers, the "enormous choice" available to them are beyond mere suck-dom.

My personal goal is to retire as fast as possible and never work ever again. Working is for chumps and losers. Same with paying taxes. Rich people don't pay taxes and they don't work so why should we?

And really, this only scratches the surface of how and why work can be deeply fulfilling. See also my comments way down below about the myth that work, or anything "good for you", has to be a drag.

-- BenKovitz

Anyone who believes that work is fulfilling has managed to delude emself on a scale so vast that ey are beyond the ken of mortal men. Social and political activism and other ways of bettering the world are known to be fulfilling. But just slaving day in and day out on some junk that some corporation wants? That's just fooling oneself.

Imagine what you would choose to do with your life if you didn't have to scratch for a living. Now find a way to get paid for it, and you've got a personally fulfilling job. Also remember that different people find different things fulfilling... some people like to try and better the world, but there are other means of obtaining fulfillment. Finally, perhaps believing that bettering the world is fulfilling is no less a delusion than work being fulfilling. -- RobertWatkins

I strongly believe in work-to-live rather than live-to-work. I enjoy many of the things I'm employed to do, to varying degrees, but it's not fulfilling. I don't mind spending my work days writing software, because I like doing that kind of thing, but I'm not doing it for myself at the end of the day - I'm doing it for the company - so I disagree, Robert. If I didn't have to work for a living, then I would still write software; but then I'd be doing it for me, and maybe that'd be fulfilling. I still code for money because it's a highly effective way of funding those parts of my life which are fulfilling - firstly and foremostly, indulging my partner. (Our ultimate goal is for me to be sole provider simply because I don't dislike doing the work that I do, whereas he does dislike doing the work he can get). Uhm, hope that's coherent. -- TorneWuff

The ProtestantChristian? movement seems to promote the idea that virtue in this life leads to salvation in the next, and so they strive to avoid sin, such as "idleness". They seem to have some kind of calculus of sin and redemption going. Very up-tight and northern European.

The CatholicChristian?, on the other hand, may sin as hard as they like (and contrast those sins against OriginalSin) so long as they then confess their transgressions. Salvation is then simply a matter of faith, in a relaxed Mediterranean sort of way.

It's these very up-tight and northern European countries that top the HumanDevelopmentIndex, so I as a Catholic must admit there's something to these up-tight northern European Protestants after all :-)

Er, no. Protestants tend to be more into the idea that "salvation is simply a matter of faith" than Catholics, in fact. I think those descriptions are misleading about both Protestants and Catholics.

The point, I think, is that Protestantisms in general don't have the sacrament of confession. Therefore, one must work hard all one's life to avoid sinning in the first place, because once you have sinned, you are damned forever. The 'work ethic' is a kind of extension of this tense, striving kind of lifestyle into matters other than salvation.

Dude, go to Sunday school or something. This is just wildly wrong.

Protestants don't have the sacrament of confessing to a priest. They are expected to fully, and with sincere repentance, confess their sins to Jesus, and ask for His forgiveness. The belief that Jesus is willing and able to cleanse any sin for which you are truly sorry and ask forgiveness, thus making it possible for you to enter heaven, is the entire basis of their faith.

Their work ethic is also based at least partly on the parable of the talents, which says that it is sinful, or at least "displeasing to God", to waste the skills or abilities which He has blessed you with.

May I add that I spotted that apparent theological incongruity too. Problem is, the description of the cultural differences seems rather insightful, based on my visits to southern Europe. Maybe we Prots (he says in a cultural sense) don't have as much faith as we would like to believe?

There may be something to learn from the perspective above, in other words.

Actually, if you compare the teachings of both Catholicism and Protestantism (and other Bible-based faiths), you will find they all have interpreted the Bible incorrectly. All these religions teach that you can somehow do something in this life to be in paradise in the next (confess to a priest, 'truly believe' etc.). The biblical teaching is that God's people have been chosen from 'before the foundations of the world' (whatever that means). Rebuttal: 'but the bible says we just need to believe and we will be saved.' That can be likened to this statement: 'you just need to compress the mass of your body to volume smaller than that of a pinhead and you can travel at the speed of light.' In essence, you would have to do something that is physically impossible for you to do (believe, compress your body's mass) to get the desirable end result (paradise, travel at the speed of light). The word 'believe' has more weight to it than the superficial way it is used by most people. I don't know what the original Hebrew/Greek word used is.

"Work is valuable in its own right. If you're not working, what are you doing with your life?"

ProtestantWorkEthic and ExtremeProgramming share the same insight about motivation: only short-term gratification can lead to long-term goals. The point of ProtestantWorkEthic is that work is enjoyable in its own right, independent of the long-term goal.

Err, that's valuable not enjoyable.

Forget the five-year plan. Focus on the moment. And derive an intense gratification/high from producing a solid intensely-high-quality horse-shoe. (See also WorkingLikeaFarrierCommunity :-)

ExtremeProgramming focus on TestOften? to get the quick gratification high works on the same principle: ShortTermCannotOpposeLongTerm?.

Sometimes the TestOften? fixes get so intense that I cannot unplug.

-- AsimJalis

When I hear "Protestant Ethic", I think of the idea, "The way to get ahead in life is hard work, thrift, and taking the initiative - and none of this is going to be any fun." I don't know if that's how Max Weber[1] put it, but the part before the dash is from the The Organization Man[2]. The part after the dash is the unstated subtext that I think I hear.

To put this in other words, the ProtestantWorkEthic - in practice, though not necessarily as stated - seems to be the belief that anything that is good for you must be unpleasant, and anything pleasant must be bad for you. This steers people's imaginations in strange ways. For example, since vegetables are supposed to be good for you, people don't think of fun ways to cook them. Cultures without the Protestant Ethic have a lot more fun getting their nutrition. And so work, a "necessary, useful" thing, must be drudgery. Whether you call it the ProtestantWorkEthic or something else, it's a belief deeply held in much of American WASP culture.

Long, boring BigDesignUpFront, like long, boring requirements and design documents, all seem to grow out of this fundamental, twisted worldview. "We're making hard, unpleasant sacrifices now to make coding go faster later." In other words, making things better in the future must always involve deferred gratification (the "thrift" part of the Ethic).

Perhaps a subtle obstacle that XP faces - the reason it has such a high "get it" factor - is that it clashes with the ProtestantWorkEthic worldview. To someone who sees the world through that lens, the claims of XP sound not just wrong, but implausible. "Short-term thinking and having fun? That's fine in the rumpus room, but surely not at *work*, where we have to get important things done."

-- BenKovitz

"It was during the years of office work that I caught on: I got two weeks' paid vacation per year. A year has 52 weeks. Even a comparatively unskilled, uneducated worker like me, who couldn't (still can't) do fractions or long division - even I had enough math to figure that two goes into 52 ... how many times? Twenty-sic. Meaning it would take me 26 years on the job to accumulate one year for myself. And I could only have that in 26 pieces, so it wouldn't even feel like a year. In other words, no time was truly mine. My boss merely allowed me an illusion of freedom, a little space in which to catch my breath, in between the 50 weeks that I lived that he owned. My employer uses 26 years of my life for every year I get to keep. And what do I get in return for this enormous thing I am giving? What do I get in return for my life?" []

Who else but you can answer that question? - TakeaYearOff?! That is not a bad idea once in a while! Do what you think valuable! Don't complain, it is in your power to change the formula.

Anyone who believes that work is fulfilling has managed to delude himself on a scale so vast that they are beyond the ken of mortal men.

Anyone who believes that work is not fulfilling should find himself a new job. How can you spend 8-10 hours a day doing something you don't find fulfilling? That must really suck. You are right, with one small problem. There is no reason to think a priori (and no empirical evidence supporting) that it is possible for all people to be 'gainfully' employed doing something they find fulfilling. In fact, there is no reason to think that most people can. Depressing, and forces you to consider the societal worth of a system that *only* values 'gainful' employment.

Gainful employment, especially in a capitalist society, is employment where you do a service and get money in return. Doing a service and getting no money back is either charitable (good, and implies consent), or exploitative (bad, implies coercion). Getting the money without doing a service is theft (bad, implies coercion) or welfare (bad, implies laziness, especially prolonged). Also, receiving services without paying for them is either theft (bad) or the result of other people's charitable urges (not bad, but not good either).

In a modern society, you can not survive without receiving services from other people; everyone is interdependent these days. Society is tolerant of people receiving services from others for free for a while, which is why we have charities (and welfare). Society is rightfully intolerant of people receiving services from others for prolonged periods, especially when the people could perform services themselves.

Thus, gainful employment should always be the aim of members of societies (though not necessarily the state). This brings the debate around to what sort of services people can provide that are valuable.

I think the ProtestantWorkEthic is based on the biblical teaching that says, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thessalonians 3:10 NIV) I also think it is not supposed to provide a contrast between work and leisure. If you extend the above idea to "If one doesn't work, one doesn't have leisure time", then leisure time can exist quite harmoniously with the PWE. Rather, the PWE seems (to me) to provide a contrast between working and thievery, or between working and sit on your butt and do nothing but be lazy and concoct plans on how to become a millionaire without exerting yourself or some similar concept of trying to have all leisure time without having to work for it. Work till you drop doesn't seem to be the ProtestantWorkEthic either because that doesn't allow for the leisure time for which you are diligently working. Doing a job well, and taking pride in your work, and not taking short-cuts that cause loss of quality seem to be more of the essence of the PWE.

Not! The work ethic is based upon Ephesians 6:5-9 "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; 6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free." Which is about doing everything as unto the Lord. Life itself is an act of worship, as is work, play, sex, etc. All we do is worship! That is at the core of the work ethic.

As long as we're discussing Biblical attitudes towards work...this is friggin' brilliant:

This in turn reminds me of Rule #10 in crybaby conservative Charles J Sykes' (or, as I like to call him, 'John Calvin, Jr') list of Rules Kids Won't Learn in School:

What did Yeshua ben Yosef like to do? Talk with his friends about religion all day. Perhaps his disciples enjoyed a certain brewed aromatic beverage of Ethiopian extract at an outdoor eatery while doing so as well. Wow, come to think of it, Jesus makes me look like a hard worker. So whenever you hear someone extoll the virtues of toil and follow it up with "Praise Christ!" a la Eric Cartman (Sykes thinks, among other things, that prayer belongs in public schools), I humbly advise you to take what they say with a grain, if not a pillar, of salt.

-- TheerasakPhotha



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