Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Forgotten Virtue of Industry

The founding fathers often expressed their view that virtue is a prerequisite for a republican regime. In this blog we’ve quoted the founders in this regard many times. However, we should be careful not to assume that our concept of virtue is the same theirs. Today when a public speaker suggests our society needs virtue I brace myself for a discussion of chastity or charity depending on the speakers’ persuasion. Industry, while respected, doesn’t get billing as a moral issue. College textbooks on ethics don’t have a chapter on this virtue. Industry is a forgotten virtue.

During the 18th century, industry was a core virtue, perhaps even the preeminent virtue after justice. Let’s examine the most admired and widely read ethical writer in colonial America leading up to the Revolution: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin published both newspapers and books over several decades expressing his ethical wisdom most often through his alter ego, Poor Richard. Here’s a classic:
“... Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise. So what signifies wishing and hoping for better Times. We may make these Times better if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and He that lives upon Hope will die fasting. ...” [“Poor Richard Improved”, 1758]
For Franklin hard work wasn’t a postlapsarian punishment nor a form of self-denial. In an early essay he challenges the notion that self-denial is even required for virtue and uses “justice” and “industry” as examples.
“It is commonly asserted, that without Self-Denial there is no Virtue, and that the greater the Self-Denial the greater the Virtue. ... If to a certain Man, idle Diversions have nothing in them that is tempting, and therefore he never relaxes his Application to Business for their Sake; is he not an Industrious Man? Or has he not the Virtue of Industry?” [“Self-Denial Not the Essence of Virtue”, 1734]
He notes that one may have to cultivate virtue by practice until it becomes second nature; but virtue and flourishing ultimately go hand-in-hand. Furthermore, when a virtue is widely accepted it contributes to the welfare of a nation. He speculates on such matters in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind”, 1751:
“... I have heard it remarked that the Poor in Protestant Countries on the Continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish Countries, may not the more numerous foundations in the latter for the relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident. To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity, ’tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for Laziness, and supports for Folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed Want and Misery as the proper Punishments for, and Cautions against as well as necessary consequences of Idleness and Extravagancy.”
In the same essay he turns a critical eye on the America’s “peculiar institution”:
“... Slaves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry. ...”

Franklin was the apostle of the virtue of industry his whole life. In his last decade he wrote a celebrated essay on the character of the American people: “Information on Those Who Would Remove to America.” It has been widely republished and it is worth reading in its entirety. The essay is a warning to Europeans about what they can expect if they emigrate to America.

He describes Americans as independent hard-working people where ancestry and privilege are not the currency of the realm. Those expecting a cushy lucrative government appointment are warned:
“.. it is a Rule establish’d in some of the States, that no Offices should be so profitable as to make it desireable. The 36 Article of the Constitution of Pensilvania, runs expresly in these Words: As every Freeman, to preserve his Independence, (if he has not a sufficient Estate) ought to have some Profession, Calling, Trade or Farm, whereby he may honestly subsist, there can be no Necessity for, nor Use in, establishing Offices of Profit; the usual Effects of which are Dependance and Servility, unbecoming Freemen, in the Possessors and Expectants; Faction, Contention, Corruption, and Disorder among the People.”
Expecting a free lunch?
“... every one will enjoy securely the Profits of his Industry ... he must work and be industrious to live ... In short America is the Land of Labour, and by no means what the English call Lubberland, and the French Pays de Cocagne, where the Streets are said to be pav’d with half-peck Loaves, the Houses til’d with Pancakes, and where the Fowls fly about ready roasted, crying, Come eat me!”
He suggests that Europeans “... read the Constitutions of the several States, and the Articles of Confederation ...” to see that there is no welfare, start-up funds, subsidies for manufacturing, or protectionism. Protectionism leads to sloth and liquor! In sum:
“... those Vices that arise usually from Idleness are in a great Measure prevented. Industry and constant Employment are great Preservatives of the Morals and Virtue of a Nation. Hence bad Examples to Youth are more rare in America, which must be a comfortable Consideration to Parents.”
This is a small sample of an inspiring essay which, judging from the term papers offered for sale online, must still be assigned with some regularity.

As our nation was being founded, there were two revolutions in the field of ethics. Immanuel Kant introduced the “categorical imperative” in such a way as to categorize everything instrumental as being irrelevant to morality. Industry, for example, is desirable but has nothing to do with virtue. Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism; he retained instrumentality but put it in service of the collective. Thus when someone says they work hard and make a decent living, they have said nothing of moral worth until they explain how they serve the community with their wealth.

This is such a major paradigm shift from the founding era that I fear it obscures our reading of the founders. It’s not that the founders didn’t praise charity, engage in public endeavors, and appreciate good deeds. It’s how they construct their worldview to position some ethical concerns at the center while situating others on the periphery. It’s the way they held industry to be righteous and not just a practical detail in the service of other virtues.

The virtue of industry created the kind of person who demanded and fought for liberty. Sloth and dependency corrupt the soul and make the citizenry ripe for tyranny. This was the moral vision of our founding fathers and I've given only a sliver of the picture.

[All passages can be found online here.]

17 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, this quote you cite from Franklin has always nagged at me;

I have heard it remarked that the Poor in Protestant Countries on the Continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish Countries, may not the more numerous foundations in the latter for the relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident.

There a famous riff from philosopher/social scientist Max Weber that Western Civilization---specifically America---is built on the "Protestant work ethic."

So what's interesting is that Franklin here knocks the Roman Church for making life too easy for the lazy.

And if you take a look at the Christian world, the Catholic countries of the world---even today---do indeed lag behind the Protestant ones! Germany, Britain and America, Canada and Oz kick ass on Spain, Italy, and Latin America. Eastern Rite Russia and Greece rather suck, too.

[France sits astride it all, defying categorization---very Catholic, very revolutionary, very modernist, very secularist, very much cheese-eating surrender monkeys.]

Just thought I'd pop this in, and thx for yr exc post.

Jason Pappas said...

Yes, I was pondering that point as well. No doubt Franklin’s work-ethic shows his Calvinist New England heritage. I believe Franklin re-packages it on a secular basis. (By secular I don’t mean anti-religious--merely “pertaining to this world”.) Franklin combines industry with an independent spirit in the sense that sloth and dependency would also come together.

England, Scotland, and Holland--all with strong Calvinist influences--historically have a emphasis on industry and a great respect for individual liberty. Germany has the work ethic but its historic duty-bound disposition left it susceptible to paternalism (first Bismarckian and later much worse).

Italy and to a lessor extent Spain led the revival of commerce in the 12-16th centuries. Traditional textbooks often credit the creation of the middle class and commerce with the atmosphere at the time Calvin formed his doctrines. I’m not as knowledgable of this period as I’d like to be but perhaps it’s another case of one group picking-up where another left off.

Of course, Catholics in America thrive as much as others. It's still is worrisome that Latin America lags so much. The USA and Argentina has very similar climates and I remember reading that their GDP per capita were similar circa 1900. After we see a divergence in both wealth and political freedom. I idly wonder about a greater acceptance of paternalism south of the border.

Pinky said...

.
Thanks for providing this post that reminds us of the differences between the idea of virtue and that of chastity. We need to grasp those differences.
.
During those times the work necessary for individuals and families just to get along in their day to day existence was plainly laid out in front of Americans everywhere. No one had to guess as to what was necessary career path. As they would have said, "It is as plain as the nose on your face." For starters, what about that first winter at Plymouth?
.
All of which points up the necessity with which we are faced in the here and now of twenty-first century America.
.
Perhaps we could rethink our ideas of virtue and how they have been changed to be synonymous with chastity. Maybe we need a revival of virtue in our society?
.
What were the social virtues of the Founding Era?
.

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

This is a corrected post:
.
.
And, I think Tom's reference should remind us of Weber's ideas regarding cross-historical analysis and of how history should be read. We can't just lay Franklin's aphorisms on today's young people carte blanche. The Bible tells us that before we get anything else, we should get understanding. Now, there is a virtue!
.
.

bpabbott said...

Much of Franklin's thoughts parallel the words of early economists like Adam Smith. The question of "wherein does virtue consist" was examined in Part VI of the sixth edition of Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments'.

Perhaps Adam Smith's thoughts shed some light on Phil's question?

Pinky said...

.
Smith relates virtuous with vicious?
.
I never thought of that before.

.

Jason Pappas said...

Good point, Pinky, sloth wasn’t a luxury the colonials could afford. As a matter of fact, luxury was suspect!

I’d like to know more, Ben. I’ve been wanting to read Smith’s moral sentiments and some of Hume and Hutchenson’s moral works. It’s on my massive reading list. Perhaps you can give us a taste?

bpabbott said...

Jason, I've also been meaning to give a serious read to Moral Sentiments, but haven't had the time.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Excellent post!

Always On Watch said...

No matter what one thinks of private Christian education today, most of the Protestant forms of Christian education do promote the value of industry, often termed as "the Christian work ethic." In my view, so many of our public schools simply do not successfully promote a work ethic.

Always On Watch said...

One more point....The McGuffey Readers, which were used so long as the core readers in both public and private schools, clearly promoted the value of hard work. Many famous entrepreneurs grew up reading those books, and I do not think it an accident that these entrepreneurs worked so hard.

Pinky said...

Always on watch attributes "... most of the Protestant forms of Christian education" ... as promoting "... the value of industry, often termed as "the Christian work ethic."
.
Not that it is a big deal; but, the idea is not "the Christian work ethic" but it is the Protestant Work Ethic. It does make a difference as all Christians are not Protestants.

.
.

Jason Pappas said...

I'm not familiar with private education. It's not that hard-work isn't praised. The question is whether or not it is a major virtue or merely seen as a practical and unavoidable fact of life. In universities it isn't even considered a part of ethics. In popular writings it is often considered as part of self-help. It is totally missing from political debates!

Always On Watch said...

Pinky,
The textbooks I'm using don't refer to the Protestant work ethic. I suppose that the publishers wanted to be more inclusive.

Always On Watch said...

Jason,
The question is whether or not it is a major virtue or merely seen as a practical and unavoidable fact of life.

I think that something can be practical and unavoidable AND still be a major virtue. Depends on one's attitude when doing the work, I suppose.

Praising hard work is clearly not the same thing as promoting hard work as a virtue in and of itself.

Phil Johnson said...

.
I think that something can be practical and unavoidable AND still be a major virtue. Depends on one's attitude when doing the work, I suppose.
.
As long as we're going to bring philosophy into this thread, how about this bit out of Habermas's lecture, Modernity's Consciusness of Time and Its Need for Self-Reassurance, where he refers to Max Weber:
“What Weber depicted was not only the secularization of Western culture, but also and especially the development of modern societies from the viewpoint of rationalization. The new structures of society were marked by the differentiation of the two functionally intermeshing systems that had taken shape around the organizational cores of the capitalist enterprise and the bureaucratic state apparatus. Weber understood this process as the institutionalization of purposive-rational economic and administrative action. To the degree that everyday life was affected by this cultural and societal rationalization, traditional forms of life---which in the early modern period were differentiated primarily according to one’ trade---were dissolved."
.
.
I'm Pinky. I changed my login.
.