Monday, April 28, 2008

What's Wrong With Being Lazy?

When I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana a few weeks back, a topic of discussion that came up in several different contexts was the way the local Cajun population was considered. They are a minority and are pejoratively labeled with many of the negative properties we find attached to other sub-populations, especially laziness. I began to wonder why it is that we consider laziness to be such a bad thing. Why do we vilify enjoyment of life, demanding a preference for toil over happiness?

This, of course, is hardly an original question. It is one discussed at length by Max Weber.

It was a well discussed fact of Europe in the late nineteenth century that a significantly larger percentage of high paying jobs, especially managerial jobs with authority, were held by Protestants, while Catholics tended to do the lower paying, dirtier, more physical labor. This regularity held across national borders in pluralistic societies with generally different cultural historical narratives. Much time and space, especially in Catholic publications, considered why this might be.

Max Weber, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, takes up this question, deeming it to be the sort of issue designed for the sociologist. In the first part of the book, Weber begins by debunking a number of seemingly reasonable hypotheses that seek to explain the phenomenon. For example, one might suppose that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, as opposed to the diffusion of power in Protestantism, might put religion in a prominent place that would leave little room for financial concerns. But Weber points out that while Protestantism has removed a central authority, it has in fact replaced one authority with another that puts a religious spin on every aspect of life. Similarly, one might think that the difference is one of theology, in which the doctrinal beliefs stemming from the Reformation encourage the sort of money-making interests that were reported in the Protestant community. But examinations of early Protestant doctrine, indeed shows quite the opposite. And so it goes with several possible explanations.

Weber took America, particularly the writings of Benjamin Franklin, as prime examples of the statement of the Protestant work ethic wherein making money is not seen as a means to a better life, but as a moral imperative that governs the very process of living itself. The Protestants made more money, but they did not seem to enjoy it; indeed, the enjoyment of the wealth they slaved so hard to achieve was seen as sinful. It is in the ethical framing of Franklin’s language that Weber finds the sociological clue for what he claims to be the best explanation for the capitalist leanings of Protestants and the non-material lifestyles of Catholics. As the Protestants gained political power, they began to frame those sorts of behaviors that benefited them as a group in moral terms and thus the basic concepts of capitalism became internalized within the structure of society and within the consciousnesses of its members. It was not the religious that determined the economic, but rather, the other way around. The interesting question for the sociologist, then, is how such normative structures that determine how a person lives, acts, and feels in society come to be.

He traces the move to Luther’s notion of calling. In Catholicism, one’s calling takes one out of the world. The secular is to be left behind, to be transcended. But Luther elevates the secular to the status of the sacred. All work can be divine and this change permeates the boundary that the Catholics had placed between inferior worldly work and that which was Divine, now the Divine was contained within the ordinary and this meant that even the economic could be brought under the umbrella of the religious. Hence one was not working for the earthly rewards (those were to be avoided), but rather working for the sake of working, a notion to be encouraged by the nature of the social relations in an emerging Capitalist society.

The ethos of hard work for the sake of hard work then becomes internalized so that even the "colorless deist" as Weber refers to Franklin, has been sociologically conditioned to approach labor as an act with a degree of fetishism.

Certainly the long way around the barn to ask the simple question, is there anything virtuous about the person who works hard and is there anything morally wrong with the slacker?