In Praise of Idleness | Study Guide

Bertrand Russell

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In Praise of Idleness | Main Ideas


Duty and the Ethics of Work

Bertrand Russell describes how his conscience is what motivated him to work diligently in his earlier years. It was only later in his life that he experienced a "revolution" in his beliefs concerning the virtues associated with productivity. After recognizing the harms that have accrued from people's obsession with work, Russell began to realize that work is not inherently good. Work is good only insofar as it is required to produce the means by which people can enjoy life. There is no reason to work for long periods of the day because modern technology can produce a surplus of goods. Working hard should not be promoted as a duty. It should instead be seen as a symptom of an oppressive moral system that encourages the poor to live their lives enslaved to those who profit from their labor. Russell hopes his essay "will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing." Idleness ought to become a duty.

Russell traces the glorification of work to 18th century Britain's pre-industrial days before machines were invented. Human labor alone could produce surpluses that priests, warriors, and others in positions of power would take to benefit themselves. In order to motivate laborers to increase their output, it was necessary to convince them that hard work was an obligation. Russell writes, "... it was found possible to induce many of them to accept an ethic according to which it was their duty to work hard, although part of their work went to support others in idleness." This system came to an end in most places when machines appeared during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ethical views associated with pre-industrial times persist nonetheless. Russell analyzes how this "conception of duty, speaking historically, has been used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than their own." Thus, the ethical views that laud hard work are clearly intended to benefit those in power, rendering these views a "morality of slaves."

The Impact of Technology on Labor

Modern technology has reduced the demand for human labor. Russell says that this became obvious during World War I, when large numbers of people left the workforce to engage in the work that the war required. The fact that they could do so without a resulting gap in production should be proof that the available labor power far exceeds the demand for it. Russell surmises that "the War showed conclusively that by the scientific organization of production it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world." When the War ended, life went back to the way that it had been prior to its beginning. Everyone returned to work for longer periods of the day than was necessary. Russell laments this fact, commenting that this was a missed opportunity to reduce the total hours of work required. Laborers were instead "made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed." Russell attributes this unfortunate circumstance to the misguided moral views of the working poor.

The logical solution to the problem of an overabundant supply of labor and a declining demand for human production is to reduce each laborer's hours. Russell says that a four-hour workday will solve both the problem of people getting sick from overworking, as well as the problem of unemployment. He illustrates his point with an example: Imagine a pin factory that employs people for eight-hour shifts. Suppose that the owners of the factory purchase new machinery that will double the number of pins that can be produced in a day. Russell points out that the new machinery will cause problems for the employees because "the world does not need twice as many pins." The "sensible" thing to do would be to cut each employee's shift in half. Doing so would solve the problem, but it would cause the workers to get upset. So, the factory owners decide to retain all of the employees and to produce more pins than they need. This causes a host of problems down the line. Russell imagines that the pin factory will eventually go bankrupt and all of the employees will be out of work. The only reason for this dreadful consequence is the unyielding lure of the "slave morality."

Do People Desire Goods over Leisure?

Russell does not deny the fact that some labor is required for people to sustain themselves. He warns that "it is unjust for a man to consume more than he produces." Everyone has a duty to work, and four hours of work each day is all that should be required. There is no reason to work for more than four hours each day or to fear additional leisure time. Education should address the "wise use of leisure," so that leisure time does not cause anyone to grow bored or to get involved in mischief. To deprive a person of leisure time is to prevent the person from enjoying the best parts of life. Seldom does anyone claim that the best hours of their life were the hours that they spent performing manual labor.

Russell acknowledges the fact that his entire argument rests upon the assumption that there will be an even distribution of labor. He also accuses the West of failing to attempt economic justice of any kind. He writes that in the West "... a large proportion of the total produce goes to a small minority of the population, many of whom do not work at all." There is no means by which to control production, and many unwanted items are produced as a result. Russell says that this is not the case in Russia. Although Russia has achieved economic justice, the belief in the value of hard work persists there as well. Russell suggests that Russian leaders hold a popular vote to determine whether people prefer a surplus of goods over more leisure time. As long as people continue to desire excessive amounts of work, they will prefer the goods to leisure.

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