Labor as a virtue

Nowadays, it is considered incorrect to speak of hard work, or what used to be called “industry,” in moral terms.  And if we think of morality as adherence to abstractions and the production of condemnations, our reluctance is probably correct.  As Margaret Thatcher often pointed out, however, the “Victorian virtues” included hard work and thrift, and the great social historian of that era today, Gertrude Himmelfarb, maintains we can learn from the Victorian example.

But I do believe that there are some things we can learn from the Victorians, not only such virtues as work, temperance, self-discipline, and self-reliance, but also the importance of moral principles in public affairs. The Victorians were candid and proud “moralists.” In recent years that has become almost a term of derision. Yet contemplating our own society, we should be prepared to take a more favorable view of Victorian moralism.

If we think of morality as the glue that holds our republic together, our way of life, it becomes much more plausible to maintain that hard work, together with the personal discipline and long-term thinking it entails, has a moral dimension, and is indeed a virtue.  On this Labor Day, I find it gratifying to quote from the  Detroit News on the shape of American industriousness:

For the most part, Americans have a straight-up attitude toward work, stepping up to the plate every day to get their job done, whether they like the work all that much or not.

In fact, 42 percent of U.S. workers plan to do some kind of work today despite the holiday, according to a national survey by Development Dimensions International, a human resource consulting firm in Pennsylvania. Those who sneak a little work today will do one or more of the following: Check work e-mails or voicemails (28 percent), catch up on reading (14 percent) and even travel into the office (17 percent), says the survey.

It’s not forced work. Nearly 80 percent say they don’t feel pressured to work, but will do it anyway.

The finding is not surprising. It reflects the work ethic that built the country into the world’s economic powerhouse.


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