Benjamin Bestgen: Working hard

Benjamin Bestgen

In his latest jurisprudential primer, Benjamin Bestgen explains why there is more to the concept of ‘hard work’ than meets the eye. See his last post here.

The legal profession and many others are notorious for being associated with stressful work, tight deadlines and demanding unsociable, even unhealthy amounts of overtime. In the Anglo-American sphere and in many European and Asian countries, being a “hard worker” is seen as a moral and societal virtue.

In contrast, being called “slacker”, “unambitious” or “a 9 to 5 kinda guy” carries a whiff of moral disapproval. Many people who are poor, unemployed or on benefits are accused of not working hard enough, lacking willpower and being, in a sense, morally deficient.

Capitalist and socialist/communist ideologies both emphasise the virtue of hard work. They differ on a lot of things but not that a strong work ethic is of utmost importance to individuals and society.

“He who does not work shall not eat.” stems from the Bible (2 Thessalonians 3:10) but was emphasised by Lenin in his State and Revolution (Chapter 5, s.3). Even the most ardent anti-communist would probably agree.

So why do increasing amounts of people feel disengaged from their jobs and why do we see a rise in stress/work-related physical and mental illness? Do these people, some of whom are your neighbours, friends, family or colleagues, lack moral fibre?

While absolute numbers of poverty in Britain appear to have remained disgraceful but stable in recent years, the specific number of people living in poverty but having jobs has risen. Are they not ambitious enough “to make it”?

It is also telling that one of the top five regrets of dying people is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” If hard work was a fulfilling, virtuous pursuit for a good life, why regret it?

Our conviction that hard work is virtuous is a fairly young idea, historically speaking. Throughout most of human history, having to work for pay or sustenance was seen as an indignity. Most workers were not even classified as free persons but living in some form of indentured servitude.

Even medieval Christianity with its “pray and work” ethic upheld dozens of religious holidays, breaks and festivals throughout the year. Their aim was salvation, but not salvation through work. Only Calvinist Protestants embraced the latter.

There is no denying that humans find satisfaction and fulfilment in productive, meaningful activities. Developing one’s skills, learning new ones and seeing positive results of one’s efforts makes us happy and so does social approval.

But what constitutes a “meaningful activity”? What is the goal of your work and how does your work impact others? Why do you do what you do for a living?

Before you scoff at such questions be mindful that they are ancient and are still asked today. And, on your deathbed, will you be able to look on your life’s work and feel satisfied?

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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