Are We Working Too Much ?

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Is Hard Work Always a Virtue ?

Although Bertrand Russell was born into the rarefied atmosphere of British aristocracy, his penchant for hard work was a defining aspect of his character. Yet circumstances also contributed to Russell’s work habits: Despite his high social status, he had problems making ends meet such that he was compelled to spend most of his energy pursuing work that he hated for much of his adult life.

Russell’s capacity for hard work was matched by an unparalleled capacity for independent thinking. He sought to articulate a more wholesome attitude towards work than that which he had internalized. While Russell’s conscientiousness didn’t change – it continued to demand that he work hard long after his financial situation improved later in life – his opinions underwent what he described as a “revolution”. Russell’s ideas regarding the benefits of hard work metamorphosed into insights that, while prescient when initially articulated in 1932, are even more relevant almost a century later.

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm in caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what has always been preached.

Russell concluded that conventional opinions regarding the value of hard work were not only inaccurate, but often downright unhealthy. The tendency to regard hard work as virtuous was disadvantageous to the extent that it prevented people from deriving benefits afforded by engagement in activities that were not compelled by necessity. Russell accordingly noted that “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

A Refined – and Healthier – Work Ethic

Russell recommended that we modify our notions about duty. If we were to subject the ethics of work to scrutiny he thought we would recognize that the “duty of work must be admitted” only to the extent that is “unjust for a man to consume more than he produces”. While we have a duty to earn our keep – and a corresponding duty not to expect others to meet our survival needs for us – our obligation to work ends there. If we expect to reap the benefits of work we must work to an extent that is commensurate with the benefits that we derive, but not more. The Work-Reward relationship is preserved in Russell’s thinking, as it is not the work-reward relationship that is problematic but rather a tendency to elaborate on this obligation to an extent that enshrines hard work above and beyond this minimal moral requirement.

There is one other modification of the work ethic urged by Russell: hard work makes sense when work’s benefits are sensibly distributed. The behaviors subsumed under the Work Ethic – industry, submission to authority, and a willingness to work long hours for a distant advantage – are rational and beneficial when such habits produce work that “is likely to bring a great reward collectively.”

“A Very Moderate Amount of Sensible Organization”

The most harmful consequence of the spectrum of ideas and values that have come to be characterized as the “work ethic” is not the presence of some who escape the minimum amount of work by inheriting or marrying money but rather the fact that “wage earners are expected to overwork or starve.” We live within a system wherein “half of workers (are) working excessively, and half (are) thrown out of work entirely.”

“…what will happen when the point has been reached where
everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?”

Since technological advancement has made it possible to diminish the amount of labor required to secure life’s necessities for everyone, it should be possible for leisure to be distributed throughout the community rather than remain the prerogative of a small privileged class. Work opportunities should be similarly distributed. Yet technological advancement has done little to liberate us from the Scylla of excessive work and the Charybdis of unemployment despite technological advancements that have proceeded at a pace not envisioned by Russell in 1932.

The possibility of sufficient work and leisure for everyone is contingent upon our capacity to govern ourselves with a “very moderate amount of sensible organization”. Our capacity to cooperate and sensibly organize ourselves is probably no more advanced now than it was when Russell first recognized our shortcomings in this regard. Advancements in automation and artificial intelligence render excessive work even less necessary than when Russell called for a re-evaluation of our work ethic in 1932. Yet the problems that Russell identified persist, insofar as our capacity to employ technological advancement to expand skills and freedom remain largely unevolved.


Russell, Bertrand. “In Praise of Idleness” (1932). In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays. Routledge. London and New York. 1996

3 thoughts

  1. This is excellent. Thank you.

    I like this integration of your ideas and those from Bertrand:

    The behaviors subsumed under the Work Ethic – industry, submission to authority, and a willingness to work long hours for a distant advantage – are rational and beneficial when such habits produce work that “is likely to bring a great reward collectively.”

    I also am eager to see what comes next!

    I listen, ireflect, iPhone


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