Now some, mostly on the political left, like to pooh-pooh the work ethic. It’s a hangover from the old, spent force of Protestantism, they say. Or, it’s out of date and counter-productive. Or, it’s merely enslaving yourself for the benefit of an élite class of the rich.
While there’s some merit in these criticisms – particularly the last – I find that I can’t go the whole way with them. There is something about the work ethic that makes it seem, to me, both natural and good. And so, my purpose here is to try to tease out just what it is that makes me feel this way.
The baby turns into the child, the child turns into the unruly teenager, and the teenager turns into the (more or less) civilized man or woman. All this we take for granted; we’ve been through it. For most of us, it wasn’t terribly pleasant at the time. But we pulled through. And now here we are, able and ready to pontificate on our highfalutin’ blogs over the ins and outs of ethics, or politics, or economics, or Life.
Yet not everyone manages to get this far. Many – too many – seem to reach a point of stagnation. Often, around the time their physical development reaches its peak, individuals’ mental development seems to stop.
I have my own view on this matter. For I know that, whatever ailments my body may have suffered in its 60+ years to date, my mind has never stopped growing. (Despite being pickled in alcohol on many occasions!) This is just as well for me; for I seem to be moving towards becoming one of that rare and very late maturing species, the generalist.
And, as a “Student of Generalism,” I find it natural to ask questions like: why has this process of mental growth, which seems to stop in so many others, continued in me over all these decades? What have I done differently?
Physical and Mental Development
Our physical development happens, for the most part, willy nilly; it is wired into us. Yet, even here, there are choices to be made. For example, I always found it far easier to grow outwards than to grow upwards. So it was fortunate for me that, unlike many whose minds are naturally stronger than their bodies, I had sufficient hand-eye co-ordination to be able to enjoy at least some sports. (There was a time when I used to bowl a cricket ball at around 70mph!). Thus I had an incentive to keep myself, at least moderately, physically fit.
As to mental development, we spend our childhoods having our brains stuffed with facts – and fantasies, too. We also soak in, to a greater or lesser extent, culture from around us. I was lucky enough to enjoy (if that is the right word) an old fashioned, classical education, which was then overlaid by a heavy dose of mathematics and science. That was a good combination. For it not only gave me a better than average understanding of the context in which we live our lives; but it also instilled in me strong desires for truth and progress. That helped to make me what I am – a natural radical who, nevertheless, can when necessary find traditional (or even square) roots.
Beyond a certain point, however, our development becomes almost entirely volitional. To do it, we have to want to do it. I wonder, perhaps, whether this may be part of the cause of the stagnation which so many people suffer. Where, for whatever reason, there’s no will to progress, how can there be much of a way?
Now there are some fine people, who volitionally continue their physical development. For example, many years ago I knew a young lad, whose talent for the game of cricket was far greater than my own. I faced his bowling in the nets when he was only 15, and couldn’t lay a bat on it. It was clear that, if he put in the necessary efforts and managed to stay fit, he could become a fine bowler.
This particular story had a (very) happy ending. My young friend first made it into county cricket, then all the way up to the England team, for whom he took more than 170 Test wickets. In the process, he put himself through many agonies; fast bowling isn’t the easiest of careers for someone who suffers from a bad back! But he became a household name, then a respected sports journalist, and he’s now (2014) an England selector.
I salute Angus, and all such people. But for many of us, and for myself in particular, it is the mind rather than the body which becomes the focus of self development. I will, therefore, confine my remarks in the remainder of this essay to mental development.
In human development – and, in particular, in analysis of my own development – I have identified five mental dimensions, in which an individual can grow. These dimensions have a one to one correspondence with the divisions within the philosophy, which I put forward in my recent book Honest Common Sense. Some of them also have two distinct flavours or directions; which I like to think of as inside or outside, yin or yang.
The first dimension is about what we are. Its out side is individuality. Now, it’s blatantly obvious that we are individuals; for each of us has our own body and our own mind. As I once heard it put, “if god had meant us to be collectivists, he’d have given us plugs in our stomachs and sockets in our backs.” And that means, that we should behave as individuals; we should, simply put, be ourselves.
The in side of this dimension is tolerance. That is, to accept others as individuals. And so, as long as they aren’t dishonest or lazy, and as long as they don’t commit real crimes, to accept them for what they are – even if they are very different from ourselves. It is this viewpoint, tolerance of the individual, which is the source of what some see as my far left views on subjects like racism, religion, gay “marriage” and immigration.
The second dimension is about how we think. The scientific part of my education gave me a head start in the out side of this dimension, which I characterize as seeking the truth. Finding truth is extremely important to me. For, if individuals disagree on the facts of an issue, it isn’t going to be easy to persuade them to agree on anything derivative, such as what should be done about it. And I greatly respect the scientific method, which – when applied honestly and with full attention to detail – is the best tool we human beings have so far developed for finding out truth.
The in side of this second dimension I think of as mental hygiene. Its externally visible aspects are, first, a strong reluctance to lie, to deceive or to bullshit anyone. And second, intolerance for lies, deceit and bullshit, and distaste for all the dishonest that peddle them.
The third dimension is about how we relate to each other. In this dimension, I find two of the traditional branches of Philosophy. The yang of this dimension is Ethics – how each of us should behave towards others – and the yin is Politics, the art or science of social organization and government.
As far as Ethics is concerned, each of us must evolve our own ideas of right and wrong, and then seek to do only the right. From some of our received culture – for example Confucius’ Golden Rule, the secular among the Ten Commandments and perhaps some form of the libertarian Non Aggression Principle – we get both a start, and a sense that the task is a tough one. In my book, I went so far as to write down Ten Ethical Laws, my own shot at a moral code common to all civilized people. That task, indeed, was hard enough; and trying to keep to my code is even harder!
As to Politics, my generalist nature leads me to look for fundamental principles which should underpin all civilized societies. I myself see four such principles, which form a hierarchy. I won’t go into detail here – that’s in the book – but I’ll simply name them, in order: justice, moral equality, rights and freedom. It is my view that any civilization worth the name must implement these four principles, or something very like them.
On to the fourth dimension, which is about what we do, and in particular Economics. Here, I find Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction, between the economic means of getting needs satisfied and the political means, to be key. The economic means is “one’s own labour and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labour for the labour of others,” or, otherwise said, work. In contrast, the political means is “the unrequited appropriation of the labour of others,” also known as robbery.
One of the most powerful – and unexpected – new ideas I had during the writing of my book, came when I considered altruism; the idea, so often peddled by the establishment, that we should not be “selfish” or “grasping,” but ought to devote ourselves to the welfare of others. But I suddenly realized that someone who works for a living, who uses Oppenheimer’s economic means, has already done their bit for others! For, as I had already identified, there is no nobler human activity than delivering goods or services which others are voluntarily willing to pay for. And this led to the converse thought; that it is the users of the political means that are the selfish and grasping, and that ought to be castigated and shunned for failing to devote themselves to the welfare of others.
The fifth and final dimension I call Honesty. In one sentence, honesty is being true to your nature. I contrast this with dishonesty, and in particular with its most visible form; that is, hypocrisy, or otherwise said, failing to practise what you preach.
The Work Ethic
Now, where does the work ethic fit in all this? It’s actually rather obvious. All of these dimensions of self development require the individual to put in work. Hard work.
The work ethic is, of course, most obvious in the economic sphere. But it can bring benefits in other areas, as well. For example, when I was a mathematics student at Cambridge, I was extremely diligent. And what leisure time I had, I spent on the cricket or hockey field, or in late night sessions at the Computer Lab. Looking back now, I think I was probably far too diligent; I should have got out more. But the result – a First – did give me some kind of start in my career.
It takes work to be an individual, too; not to try to be cool, not to be just part of a crowd, not to sponge off others,. It takes work to be tolerant – of people of different skin colours and sexual orientations, of Muslims, of Christians (I’m an agnostic these days), of Rastafarians and Pastafarians. To seek truth is harder work yet – requiring you, as it does, to examine what you are told by the media, to evaluate it, and to reject those parts (most) that are false. To keep to an Ethical code is harder still. To formulate, and then promote, new Political ideals is – well, that’s such hard work that only generalists like me will even try it. And to be, and to remain, honest – well, that’s the hardest work of all.
As to the work ethic in its economic sense, another identification I make in my book is that Competition, along with co-operation, is one of the parents of economic progress. I list there what I call the Four Paths of Competition: (1) Do it better. (2) Do it quicker. (3) Do it cheaper. (4) Do what others can’t. I myself, as a technologist, have used a combination of (1), (2) and (4) during my career; but the older I get, the more I seem to return to number (1) as my primary mode of earning.
It seems to me that those that criticize the work ethic actually hate competition. They’re too lazy, or too dishonest, to do things better, or quicker, or cheaper; or to make any effort to innovate. And a lot of them are so lazy and dishonest, that they use Oppenheimer’s political means to live off others’ efforts.
Oh, and most of them are collectivist, intolerant, liars and bullshitters, criminals and/or political operators. Many are hypocrites, too.
Now, I can answer my earlier questions: Why is my mind still growing? And, what have I done differently to those that have let themselves stagnate?
My answer to both is the same. I have, over many decades, adhered – more or less diligently – to the work ethic. They have not.