We Think We Want Freedom. But Do We Know How to Use It?

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We Think We Want Freedom

The wish to limit work hours is generally motivated by an interest in securing more freedom. It is not “idleness” that we are after: we want reduced work demands to an extent that will allow us to pursue activities that are unrelated to survival (i.e., “making a living”).  While the activity that each individual would pursue in the absence of work varies, the defining feature of the activity resides in the fact that the activity is felt to be freely chosen rather than compelled by necessity.

Activities that are not compelled by necessity are called “Leisure”.  Leisure is, by definition, a specific type of freedom: it is freedom from demands that derive from work or duty.

Freedom is often divided into two types. There is freedom from a constraint, such as from a repressive government, for example.  The other type of freedom refers to the ability to engage in an activity. Such activity is often made possible by learning a skill or expanding our awareness: freedom to play a piano sonata, for example, can be achieved by learning to play the piano.  

Leisure conforms to the former type of freedom insofar as it entails a freedom from something. Its presence is contingent upon the negation of something else (i.e., work or duty). Leisure – freedom from work or duty –  has to this extent almost no implications with regard to the specific nature of the activity that is to be pursued: an activity qualifies as leisure only insofar as it is not work activity. As such, the type of freedom we call “leisure” implies nothing with regard to specific implications or outcomes relative to fulfillment, meaning, or health:  the value of “leisure time” rather depends entirely upon how such time is used.

We may want more freedom from work, but is it reasonable to assume that we will benefit if and when such freedom is achieved?  

Lack of Knowledge & Lack of Know-How

When Bertrand Russell first proposed a four-hour workday in 1932, he acknowledged that there would be difficulties if his vision was realized because working people had not been educated or trained with regard to how to best use time.  He noted that a person “who has worked long hours all his life will be bored if he becomes suddenly idle” because he would have no idea how to best use this newly acquired freedom. If one has spent one’s working life “cut off from many of the best things”, one cannot be expected to have the ability to experience the “best things” when circumstances suddenly allow one to do so.1 

Those who have worked hard will not necessarily be better off without hard work because those who are so liberated will often not make the best use of their newly acquired freedom. Necessary knowledge would be that to which Russell alludes when he refers to “the best things” from which hard workers had previously been cut off. What exactly are such “best things”?

While knowledge of the “best things” may not be apparent to one who has no prior exposure to them, this problem of identifying the “best things” is probably less significant than the likelihood that the newly free would not act on such knowledge even it was made available to them.  If the four-hour workday were to become the norm, would we know how to best make use of our newly acquired freedom?

Our Penchant for Frivolity and Self-Destructiveness

There is no shortage of evidence that suggests that our ability to use time wisely is insufficiently developed. Our tendency to use freedom inauspiciously has been catalogued for millennia prior to the development of methods by which leisure activities could be analyzed in a disciplined and rigorous manner.

Although the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer gave particularly extreme expression to the dystopia he imagined arising in the absence of work, he was by no means alone in his observation that humans need work despite our longings for leisure. Schopenhauer compared our need for work to our need for gravity. He invited us to imagine a world in the absence of activity compelled by necessity:

Just as we need gravity, so would the arrogance of men expand, if not to the point of bursting then to that of the most unbridled folly, indeed madness, if the pressure of want, toil, calamity and frustration were removed from their life. One can even say that we require at all times a certain quantity of care or sorrow or want, as the ship requires ballast, in order to keep on a straight course.

Work, worry, toil and trouble are indeed the lot of almost all men their whole life long. And yet if every desire were satisfied as soon as it arose how would men occupy their lives, how would they pass the time? Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty: in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for
themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is. Thus for a race such as this no stage, no form of existence is suitable other than the one it already possesses.2

The prescience of Schopenhauer’s thought experiment is underscored by decades of clinical experience as well as social and scientific research. The impressions left by review of such literature implies not only that individuals and communities don’t prosper in the absence of work, but that the absence of work tends to be associated with outcomes eerily suggestive of those imagined in Schopenhauer’s workless dystopia.

Future Directions

Although Russell clarified that he was “not meaning to imply that all the (time that remained when one reduced work hours) should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity” 3, he did not address how such an outcome might be avoided. The significance of such an omission is underscored by our current circumstances: a nearly infinite number of opportunities to indulge in “pure frivolity” have emerged in the century since Russell first contemplated the democratization of leisure.

While policies such as Universal Basic Income (“UBI”) may establish an economic safety net and thereby prevent some of the worst economic impacts of automation and artificial intelligence, UBI cannot by itself adequately address the consequences of a largely workless society. Copious evidence from a variety of disciplines – as Schopenhauer would have anticipated two centuries ago – suggest not only that freedom from work is unlikely to promote human flourishing but that such freedom often culminates in extremely negative outcomes.4 Our faulty intuitions regarding fulfillment and human flourishing constitute one important aspect of the problem: those activities that we most expect to deliver happiness frequently do not, while those activities that actually promise the most fulfillment tend to be overlooked or even shunned. Another aspect of the problem derives from the fact that we have not yet evolved an alternative to work.5  If work were to be replaced by leisure, positive outcomes are only foreseeable if we create alternative means of providing the broad spectrum of individual and social benefits that necessity and work have historically conferred.  


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

2. Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Essays and Aphorisms. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books. London and New York. 1970.  Page 43.

3. Russell, Idleness

4 & 5. These observations – and conclusions that can reasonably derived from them – will be discussed in future articles.

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