All Commentary
Thursday, May 1, 1997

The Moral Obligations of Workers

A Productive Life Requires Virtuous Work Habits

You hate your boss. Your hours are bad. Your salary is too low, and you haven’t been promoted in years. What’s a worker to do? If you can’t get your way, and just can’t take it anymore, you can quit. In a free market for labor, your skills will be better appreciated elsewhere. You gain satisfaction from making this decision on your own. In a free society, no worker is forced to be trapped in a job when there is another that appears more inviting. It’s one of the glorious rights a free society offers its members, one that has been unknown to most people during most of human history.

But what happens if you stick around the workplace? What if you choose to continue in your present position on grounds that it’s probably the best you can do for yourself right now? The answers to these questions have changed dramatically in the last several decades. There was a time when workers understood their moral obligations to themselves and to the person who signed their checks. It was to fulfill the terms of the contract, and do the best job possible. A productive life requires virtuous work habits and adherence to basic ethical norms; besides, a slothful worker is justly fired at any time.

The right to quit and the right to fire are two sides of the same coin. The boss can’t force the worker to stay, and the worker can’t force the boss to keep him employed. The beauty is that it depends on voluntarism. No matter how many grievances they may have against each other, if boss and worker choose to continue the economic exchange, they do so by their own free wills. We can assume, in a free market, that all employment contracts work to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Nowadays, the moral code requiring a worker to give a day’s work for a day’s pay has nearly been shredded. Workers think less and less of production and honest dealing and more and more of rights, protests, strikes, and lawsuits. The best-selling cartoon book of 1996 (featuring the character Dilbert) is devoted to attacking employers and presenting worklife as a huge ripoff, which is a fundamentally anti-capitalist message. To be sure, this change in attitude toward work began long before the advent of laws allowing employees to sue companies, even bankrupt them, for the slightest grievance. The go-slow, strike-threat strategies of labor unions chipped away at the moral code of workers decades ago.

A union member in the 1950s musical Pajama Game sardonically promised his boss a day’s work, for a week’s pay. But back then, he could only get it through extreme measures. In the normal course of the workday, only the powerless grievance committee lent an ear to the perpetual complainer. Even in this pro-union musical, the fundamental right of the management to hire and fire as it sees fit—and the obligation of workers to do their very best in normal times—was never seriously questioned.

Job Conflict

These are far from normal times. Troublemakers in the workforce have an exalted status, as well as the legal right to grab whatever they can get from their employers. For those reasons, many employers now fear their employees, and even potential employees in the interview stage of hiring. Anti-discrimination law puts the boss in a double bind. If he hires based only on merit, or on a hunch that the person is a good team player, he must also think of all the people passed by for a job. Are they going to claim to be members of some federally protected victim group (the list of which gets longer every year) and thereby sue on grounds of discrimination? The courts have upheld the rights, for example, of alcohol abusers and convicted felons to have the same right to be hired for a job as everyone else.

In practice, this means employers must pad their staffs with officially recognized victims if only to protect themselves from government investigation and class-action lawsuits. This reality has shifted the balance of power in the workplace. Workers no longer view their first obligation as to do their best work for the sake of themselves and the company. Instead, they know that they are potential lawsuit plaintiffs, and hold it over the management and the owners for every slight. A complaining employee can demand pay increases and promotions through a subtle form of legal blackmail, a tactic familiar to most anyone who works in a medium- or large-size company. Employers now fear using strict standards of merit for promotions and perks. Such evaluations might result in a distribution of wages and salaries that is unequal among the demographic groups represented in the workforce, and therefore draw the attention of government officials or class-action lawyers.

Yet even this type of political padding doesn’t always work. Texaco worked for years to keep all types of people represented at all levels of its operations. The company bent over backwards to institute its own private quota system of hiring, if only to keep protesters and trial lawyers at bay. It gave out franchises based on the race of the applicant, and allowed more lenient application standards for groups said to be underprivileged. Yet when one employee’s gripe mushroomed into a class-action lawsuit involving hundreds of workers, Texaco ended up having its good name dragged through the mud, and shelled out $176 million to lawyers and complaining employees, without ever having entered the courtroom.

The sad tale began with an accountant at the company’s Denver office who filed an internal complaint of racial discrimination, a powerful weapon in today’s workforce. Fearing escalation, supervisors even higher up the management chain did everything possible to make her happy, moving her to a new division with plusher working conditions and assuring her that her job would be secure. It wasn’t enough. When a few hotshot lawyers heard of the situation, it was only a matter of time before it became a general lawsuit involving 1,500 people, most of whom had no particular complaints at all! None of this means that the company was necessarily treating anyone poorly on grounds of race. It only means that the money was there for the taking, so who’s to say someone shouldn’t take it?

Take This Job . . .

In the traditional moral code of work that arose in a free market, the situation would have been handled very differently. If the accountant didn’t like her job, she would have quit and gone to work for someone who appreciated her more. If she began to complain too loudly of her plight, undercutting the morale of other employees and creating a hostile work environment, she would have been fired. If she was at fault, she would have learned a valuable lesson in workplace ethics and human relations. If the company was at fault, it would have lost a valuable employee and would learn not to act so hastily next time.

This system of mutual rights creates peaceful cooperation between the employee and the employer. Each understands the obligations he has to the other. The goal, as with any economic exchange, is to better the lot of everyone involved. Contrary to the old Marxian claim that an inherent conflict exists between labor and capital, a free market makes it possible for them to exchange in a mutually advantageous and profitable manner.

The Joys of Work

Ludwig von Mises argues that such a voluntary relationship takes the drudgery (or the disutility) out of work and can turn it into a genuine joy. The worker can delight that he is achieving personal goals, whether material or spiritual. He gains self-respect and the consciousness of supporting himself and his family and not being dependent on other people’s mercy. In the pursuit of his work the worker enjoys the esthetic appreciation of his skill and its product. This is not merely the contemplative pleasure of the man who views things performed by other people. It is the pride of a man who is in the position to say: ‘I know how to make such things, this is my work.’[1] Moreover, To be joyful in the performance of one’s tasks and in overcoming the disutility of labor makes people cheerful and strengthens their energies and vital forces.[2]

It is only legal interventions that tip the balance in favor of either the capitalist or the employee. There can be no doubt that the employee has the upper hand today, much to the detriment of his own ethical well-being. By suing and blackmailing his employers, creating hostile work environments, and threatening to call the government in, the employee is implicitly threatening to take property that is not his to take. That situation is bad for the company, for society at large, and even for the employee in the long run. It is contrary to a market-based work ethic, which is about more than merely working long and hard, but fulfilling the terms of your contract by striving toward excellence in the service of the business’s institutional goals.

As Mises points out, when the worker views himself as a defenseless victim of an absurd and unjust system, he becomes an ill-humored grumbler, an unbalanced personality, an easy prey to all sorts of quacks and cranks, and even morose and neurotic. In what appears to be a description of modern-day America, Mises wrote that a commonwealth in which the tedium of labor prevails is an assemblage of rancorous, quarrelsome and wrathful malcontents.[3]

The Ethics of Work

There is both an economic and moral dimension to the work ethic. The economic side is dictated by the realities of property and contract relations. The employee is not the owner; capitalists and stockholders are. The worker has been hired by these owners to perform a certain function for the good, meaning the profitability, of the company. He is free to choose not to do so, but then he is obligated to do at least what he has agreed to do and then leave the company.

There is a respect in which the employer is an economic benefactor to employees. The capitalist pays out wages to employees before he sees the profits of their current production. He is undertaking a risk in an uncertain economic environment that the employee, the immediate recipient of wages, is not being asked to bear. Moreover, the capitalist cannot merely pay the wage he can afford; he is constantly in a position of having to keep his employees from being bid away by competitive enterprises, even those that take fewer risks in the market.

To accept an employment contract means to agree to provide a certain amount of labor in return for a defined amount of money. To not perform that contract is to violate the terms of the contract and to fail to respect the unique entrepreneurial role of the capitalist. It is also the moral equivalent of stealing property from the capitalist who has employed him. A system that gives this person legal recourse to turn against his employer-benefactor and loot even more property in a bitter personality struggle is not a system that respects property rights.

On the moral side, we can turn to the brilliant and beautiful writings of Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981), whom former Polish president Lech Walesa has called the spiritual leader of Poland. As the teacher of John Paul II, Cardinal Wyszynski was arguably the key intellectual and religious force behind the eventual overthrow of the communist regime, though he did not live to see it. Imprisoned for three years by a totalitarian regime that labeled him one of the greatest foes of the Polish People’s Republic, Wyszynski spent many years reflecting on the nature and morality of work in free and unfree societies. In 1946 he published a full-blown philosophical elucidation of the moral obligations of workers.[4] As a treatise on everyday morality, its power may be unsurpassed.

His views on work were developed in opposition to the pagan view of work, which was to despise labor itself. Pagans regarded physical work as unworthy of man, Wyszynski writes. It was the duty of slaves. It could not be reconciled with the sublimity of the free mind, for it limited it too much, and made it dependent both on itself and on others.[5] But the coming of Christianity corrected this error, elevating work to participation in the creative work of God. In this, the Christian view follows the example of Jesus Christ, who said in the Gospel of John, my Father has never ceased working, and I, too must be at work.

The Christian or Western view of work emphasizes the importance of uniting spiritual and physical work. In early monastic life, sublime contemplation and hard physical labor went hand in hand, and were seen as complementary to the achievement of the sanctity of the individual soul. As the Psalmist says, For thou shalt eat the labors of thy hands, blessed art thou, and it shall be well with thee.

Putting Talent to Use

Every person has been given gifts that allow for productivity, and they are intended to be used in the service of God and of others. Therefore, man cannot be destined for only prayer or work. Work helps us to become holy, and holiness allows for the inner harmony necessary for productive work. St. John’s Gospel uses both images in a passage on salvation: the wages paid to him who reaps this harvest, the crop he gathers in, is eternal life, in which sower and reaper are to rejoice together. This monastic attitude toward labor spread throughout society as the faith itself did, eventually supplanting both the pagan view that work is only for slaves, and even slavery itself.

As Wyszynski writes of the Christian ideal, work is the duty of man. This duty arises from the very needs of man’s life, as well as from the meaning that work holds for his perfection. Without work it is not possible either to sustain life or to reach the full development of one’s personality. Work is the means of God’s gift, life, in us, of properly satisfying its needs, and perfecting our rational nature.

Leisure is not the state of nature. Even before the fall, Wyszynski emphasizes in opposition to the pagan view, it was necessary to work. Work is not punishment for sin; it is closely related to the rational nature of man.[6] In the Genesis narrative, God’s commandment to Adam to subdue and rule the earth preceded the first sin and God’s judgment. It is only the burden of work that is a consequence of sin. By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread. This burden should be borne joyously as part of our desire to improve ourselves and our relationship with God.

The implications seen by Wyszynski deserve to be quoted at length. It is the working man himself who most benefits from work understood in this way. This is not because he gets his wages for his work, but because his work, which is bound inseparably with his person, shapes and develops his mind, will, feelings, and various moral virtues and characteristics, as well as his physical and spiritual skills. . . . Work, based on our reason and freedom, should develop our conscientiousness, our sense of duty, and our responsibility. Only then will it be the work of a rational being. Work, understood in this sense, immediately reveals to us two aims that every man ought to achieve in his personal work: the perfecting of things and the perfecting of the working man. This is the starting point for social-economic progress, for human civilization, for moral religious progress, and indeed for the culture of the world.[7]

Real Social Work

There are many social virtues associated with work. Work creates bonds between people, since it requires that we peacefully associate with others. It calls forth both cooperative behavior and the constant personal improvement needed to compete with our fellows. It makes it possible for families to form and thrive. It allows us to be generous with those who are unable to work for reasons not of their own choosing. Work even generates universal good, in that we are participating in the international division of labor and acquire the knowledge of what it requires the world over to bring about a prosperous social order.

Of course, none of this is possible in a collectivist setting, where worker and employer are not free to contract with each other. The institutional setting required to ennoble work is one of markets, competition, and, above all, private property, which Wyszynski calls the leading principle of a well-regulated society.[8] The true glory of private property is not that it allows personal accumulation. Rather, it allows us to employ others and to be employed in enterprise, with justly given and received wages, and thereby spreads prosperity to more and more members of society in service of the common good.

The Six Virtues of Labor

In addition to the social virtue of work, there are also individual virtues associated with keeping our moral obligations to those who employ us. Quality work requires and encourages them, even as a free market in labor rewards them. Wyszynski lists and discusses these virtues, in this order:

1. Patience. The task of patience is to control excessive and undisciplined sadness, and the tendency to complain and strike out when things do not go our way. We are usually more convinced of our own value to a company than are those who employ us, so it requires patience to put aside resentment and discouragement when we do not get the recognition we think we deserve. Those who do not succeed at this task are full of complaints, grievances, and lamentations arising out of their state of sadness.[9]

2. Longanimity. This is the virtue of forbearance or long-suffering, a spirit of lasting endeavor in the pursuit of a distant good, writes Wyszynski.[10] Every employer knows the types of workers who watch the clock from the beginning to the end of their shifts, who live for the weekend and for vacations, and can’t see their way to the end of a major project. They do hasty, shoddy work because they lack longanimity, lose creativity and hope, do not improve as workers, and eventually break their moral obligations to those who employ them.

3. Perseverance. This means a prudent, constant, and continual persistence in a rationally taken decision to strive toward some desired good.[11] Above all, this means the avoidance of emotional outbursts and wild shifts in mood that might cause us to hate our co-workers or employers, and pursue actions that are designed to cause them damage. For example, if a person who is pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against an employer were thinking clearly, he would realize there is much more to be gained over the long haul by perfecting skills, being rational, and working one’s way up. Perseverance engenders others to trust us.

4. Constancy. This virtue allows us to pursue our goals no matter what obstacles may arise from external causes. Perhaps a worker has an employer who treats people unfairly. Perhaps a person is unjustly passed over for a promotion or a raise. Perhaps he is fired without seeming cause. Constancy allows a person to look past these slights to larger personal goals and do what is necessary to attain them. Armed with constancy, writes Wyszynski, we calmly await even the most unpleasant surprises.[12]

5. Mildness. This virtue is necessary to maintain concentration in a disorderly setting. Silence and quietness are the essential conditions for fruitfulness in every type of work, says Wyszynski, whether we are dealing with supernatural action, the world of science, or just ordinary daily work.[13] Every employer knows of workers who spend more time talking than producing, and generate more noise than thought. But to do truly good work, for the sake of our employers and ourselves, requires that we filter out superfluous sensations[14] and exercise control over our mental faculties.

6. Conscientiousness. This is the spirit of cooperation that makes the division of labor possible, and turns a workplace into a place of mutual aid. It helps us understand that in any organization, people must take instruction from others. There are structures of authority that must be obeyed. Workers must submit to direction. Wyszynski reminds workers that this is not a power-based relationship but an educational one that aims at perfecting work. To be conscientious is also to be humble, an attitude that drives out disputes, discord, quarrelsomeness, and division.[15]

What a welcome change that would be in the modern workforce, where everyone seems to be at each other’s throats, each demanding his rights or accusing someone of violating his.

If these six virtues are cultivated, writes Wyszynski, then we can enjoy the blessing of leisure and prosperity that follow six days of work, and, he says, fully enjoy the presence of God after a lifetime of toil and struggle, when our sorrow is truly turned to joy.

If these attributes of virtue were once deeply ingrained in our culture, today they seem long gone. We recognize them only when we study the diaries of our great-grandparents, or read older works of pre-New Deal literature, but we don’t see these virtues in most co-workers or the high-profile cases of workplace conflict that bombard us every day on the news. These virtues were sustained by a vibrant market economy free of government controls and the conflicts they inevitably engender. It was a system that required personal responsibility, rewarded virtue, and kept the base desire to steal from others at bay.

However, the passing of that system is no excuse for not retaining and obeying the moral obligations inherent in every aspect of work. Virtuous work is the social and cultural foundation of freedom, and we must reclaim the ethics of work if our liberty is to be regained. It will always be true, as Wyszynski says, that work cannot be carried out with a clenched fist and a shriveled heart.[16] For the result of all human work should be not merely the perfecting of the thing produced, but also the perfecting of the worker, not merely external order in work, but also inner order in man.[17]

1. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Chicago: Regnery [1949] 1963), p. 589.

2. Ibid., p. 591.

3. Ibid., p. 591.

4. Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, All You Who Labor (Sophia Institute Press [1946] 1995).

5. Ibid., p. 21.

6. Ibid., pp. 23-24.

7. Ibid., p. 28.

8. Ibid., p. 42.

9. Ibid., p. 121.

10. Ibid., p. 127.

11. Ibid., p. 137.

12. Ibid., p. 139.

13. Ibid., p. 153.

14. Ibid., p. 155.

15. Ibid., p. 158.

16. Ibid., p. 186.

17. Ibid., p. 151.