In Praise of Self Development and the Work Ethic

In Praise of Self Development and the Work Ethic
By Neil Lock

Today, I’m going to explore something natural to all human beings; the process I call self development. And I’m going to take a look at one part of this process, an attitude commonly called the “Work Ethic.”

Now some, mostly on the political left, like to pooh-pooh the work ethic. It’s a hangover from the old, spent force of Protestantism, they say. Or, it’s out of date and counter-productive. Or, it’s merely enslaving yourself for the benefit of an élite class of the rich.

While there’s some merit in these criticisms – particularly the last – I find that I can’t go the whole way with them. There is something about the work ethic that makes it seem, to me, both natural and good. And so, my purpose here is to try to tease out just what it is that makes me feel this way.

Human Development

The baby turns into the child, the child turns into the unruly teenager, and the teenager turns into the (more or less) civilized man or woman. All this we take for granted; we’ve been through it. For most of us, it wasn’t terribly pleasant at the time. But we pulled through. And now here we are, able and ready to pontificate on our highfalutin’ blogs over the ins and outs of ethics, or politics, or economics, or Life.

Yet not everyone manages to get this far. Many – too many – seem to reach a point of stagnation. Often, around the time their physical development reaches its peak, individuals’ mental development seems to stop.

I have my own view on this matter. For I know that, whatever ailments my body may have suffered in its 60+ years to date, my mind has never stopped growing. (Despite being pickled in alcohol on many occasions!) This is just as well for me; for I seem to be moving towards becoming one of that rare and very late maturing species, the generalist.

And, as a “Student of Generalism,” I find it natural to ask questions like: why has this process of mental growth, which seems to stop in so many others, continued in me over all these decades? What have I done differently?

Physical and Mental Development

Our physical development happens, for the most part, willy nilly; it is wired into us. Yet, even here, there are choices to be made. For example, I always found it far easier to grow outwards than to grow upwards. So it was fortunate for me that, unlike many whose minds are naturally stronger than their bodies, I had sufficient hand-eye co-ordination to be able to enjoy at least some sports. (There was a time when I used to bowl a cricket ball at around 70mph!). Thus I had an incentive to keep myself, at least moderately, physically fit.

As to mental development, we spend our childhoods having our brains stuffed with facts – and fantasies, too. We also soak in, to a greater or lesser extent, culture from around us. I was lucky enough to enjoy (if that is the right word) an old fashioned, classical education, which was then overlaid by a heavy dose of mathematics and science. That was a good combination. For it not only gave me a better than average understanding of the context in which we live our lives; but it also instilled in me strong desires for truth and progress. That helped to make me what I am – a natural radical who, nevertheless, can when necessary find traditional (or even square) roots.

Beyond a certain point, however, our development becomes almost entirely volitional. To do it, we have to want to do it. I wonder, perhaps, whether this may be part of the cause of the stagnation which so many people suffer. Where, for whatever reason, there’s no will to progress, how can there be much of a way?

Now there are some fine people, who volitionally continue their physical development. For example, many years ago I knew a young lad, whose talent for the game of cricket was far greater than my own. I faced his bowling in the nets when he was only 15, and couldn’t lay a bat on it. It was clear that, if he put in the necessary efforts and managed to stay fit, he could become a fine bowler.

This particular story had a (very) happy ending. My young friend first made it into county cricket, then all the way up to the England team, for whom he took more than 170 Test wickets. In the process, he put himself through many agonies; fast bowling isn’t the easiest of careers for someone who suffers from a bad back! But he became a household name, then a respected sports journalist, and he’s now (2014) an England selector.

I salute Angus, and all such people. But for many of us, and for myself in particular, it is the mind rather than the body which becomes the focus of self development. I will, therefore, confine my remarks in the remainder of this essay to mental development.

Five Dimensions

In human development – and, in particular, in analysis of my own development – I have identified five mental dimensions, in which an individual can grow. These dimensions have a one to one correspondence with the divisions within the philosophy, which I put forward in my recent book Honest Common Sense. Some of them also have two distinct flavours or directions; which I like to think of as inside or outside, yin or yang.

The first dimension is about what we are. Its out side is individuality. Now, it’s blatantly obvious that we are individuals; for each of us has our own body and our own mind. As I once heard it put, “if god had meant us to be collectivists, he’d have given us plugs in our stomachs and sockets in our backs.” And that means, that we should behave as individuals; we should, simply put, be ourselves.

The in side of this dimension is tolerance. That is, to accept others as individuals. And so, as long as they aren’t dishonest or lazy, and as long as they don’t commit real crimes, to accept them for what they are – even if they are very different from ourselves. It is this viewpoint, tolerance of the individual, which is the source of what some see as my far left views on subjects like racism, religion, gay “marriage” and immigration.

The second dimension is about how we think. The scientific part of my education gave me a head start in the out side of this dimension, which I characterize as seeking the truth. Finding truth is extremely important to me. For, if individuals disagree on the facts of an issue, it isn’t going to be easy to persuade them to agree on anything derivative, such as what should be done about it. And I greatly respect the scientific method, which – when applied honestly and with full attention to detail – is the best tool we human beings have so far developed for finding out truth.

The in side of this second dimension I think of as mental hygiene. Its externally visible aspects are, first, a strong reluctance to lie, to deceive or to bullshit anyone. And second, intolerance for lies, deceit and bullshit, and distaste for all the dishonest that peddle them.

The third dimension is about how we relate to each other. In this dimension, I find two of the traditional branches of Philosophy. The yang of this dimension is Ethics – how each of us should behave towards others – and the yin is Politics, the art or science of social organization and government.

As far as Ethics is concerned, each of us must evolve our own ideas of right and wrong, and then seek to do only the right. From some of our received culture – for example Confucius’ Golden Rule, the secular among the Ten Commandments and perhaps some form of the libertarian Non Aggression Principle – we get both a start, and a sense that the task is a tough one. In my book, I went so far as to write down Ten Ethical Laws, my own shot at a moral code common to all civilized people. That task, indeed, was hard enough; and trying to keep to my code is even harder!

As to Politics, my generalist nature leads me to look for fundamental principles which should underpin all civilized societies. I myself see four such principles, which form a hierarchy. I won’t go into detail here – that’s in the book – but I’ll simply name them, in order: justice, moral equality, rights and freedom. It is my view that any civilization worth the name must implement these four principles, or something very like them.

On to the fourth dimension, which is about what we do, and in particular Economics. Here, I find Franz Oppenheimer’s distinction, between the economic means of getting needs satisfied and the political means, to be key. The economic means is “one’s own labour and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labour for the labour of others,” or, otherwise said, work. In contrast, the political means is “the unrequited appropriation of the labour of others,” also known as robbery.

One of the most powerful – and unexpected – new ideas I had during the writing of my book, came when I considered altruism; the idea, so often peddled by the establishment, that we should not be “selfish” or “grasping,” but ought to devote ourselves to the welfare of others. But I suddenly realized that someone who works for a living, who uses Oppenheimer’s economic means, has already done their bit for others! For, as I had already identified, there is no nobler human activity than delivering goods or services which others are voluntarily willing to pay for. And this led to the converse thought; that it is the users of the political means that are the selfish and grasping, and that ought to be castigated and shunned for failing to devote themselves to the welfare of others.

The fifth and final dimension I call Honesty. In one sentence, honesty is being true to your nature. I contrast this with dishonesty, and in particular with its most visible form; that is, hypocrisy, or otherwise said, failing to practise what you preach.

The Work Ethic


Now, where does the work ethic fit in all this? It’s actually rather obvious. All of these dimensions of self development require the individual to put in work. Hard work.

The work ethic is, of course, most obvious in the economic sphere. But it can bring benefits in other areas, as well. For example, when I was a mathematics student at Cambridge, I was extremely diligent. And what leisure time I had, I spent on the cricket or hockey field, or in late night sessions at the Computer Lab. Looking back now, I think I was probably far too diligent; I should have got out more. But the result – a First – did give me some kind of start in my career.

It takes work to be an individual, too; not to try to be cool, not to be just part of a crowd, not to sponge off others,. It takes work to be tolerant – of people of different skin colours and sexual orientations, of Muslims, of Christians (I’m an agnostic these days), of Rastafarians and Pastafarians. To seek truth is harder work yet – requiring you, as it does, to examine what you are told by the media, to evaluate it, and to reject those parts (most) that are false. To keep to an Ethical code is harder still. To formulate, and then promote, new Political ideals is – well, that’s such hard work that only generalists like me will even try it. And to be, and to remain, honest – well, that’s the hardest work of all.

As to the work ethic in its economic sense, another identification I make in my book is that Competition, along with co-operation, is one of the parents of economic progress. I list there what I call the Four Paths of Competition: (1) Do it better. (2) Do it quicker. (3) Do it cheaper. (4) Do what others can’t. I myself, as a technologist, have used a combination of (1), (2) and (4) during my career; but the older I get, the more I seem to return to number (1) as my primary mode of earning.

It seems to me that those that criticize the work ethic actually hate competition. They’re too lazy, or too dishonest, to do things better, or quicker, or cheaper; or to make any effort to innovate. And a lot of them are so lazy and dishonest, that they use Oppenheimer’s political means to live off others’ efforts.

Oh, and most of them are collectivist, intolerant, liars and bullshitters, criminals and/or political operators. Many are hypocrites, too.

In Conclusion

Now, I can answer my earlier questions: Why is my mind still growing? And, what have I done differently to those that have let themselves stagnate?

My answer to both is the same. I have, over many decades, adhered – more or less diligently – to the work ethic. They have not.

10 thoughts on “In Praise of Self Development and the Work Ethic

  1. We do not (generally) exchange labour for the labour of others.

    I do not (generally) want the labour of others – I want specific goods and services (even if the services involve labour – I generally want the result, not the labour) and I do not pay people (generally) with labour (that is not what they want).

  2. On tolerance – one should not let the principle blind us to the truth about hostile doctrines (and their supporters).

    Being tolerant of enemies is a mistake (in moral terms as well as practical terms) – “X group is moving into the area – I must be tolerant of them” can not just be suicidal, it can also be a death sentence for people who it is one’s duty to protect.

    • Paul,

      You are right that being tolerant of your enemies is a mistake. That’s why I put in the rider: “as long as they aren’t dishonest or lazy, and as long as they don’t commit real crimes.” All enemies of civilized human beings do one or more of these things.

      Believe me, I feel no kindness at all for those that are “collectivist, intolerant, liars and bullshitters, criminals and/or political operators!”

  3. I was thinking on similar lines just yesterday on another blog with an article about the crisis of intimacy and the sexed-up culture we live in. I was blaming ‘centralised redistribution’ for a general cultural decline:

    The Marxist viewpoint was that with capitalism, all relationships become a matter of economic convenience, rather than true interpersonal connection. His legacy reasoned that if you could take away the need for being financially dependent on others, there would be more opportunities for developing intimate connections that go beyond financial convenience. The result is that we are now progressing backwards to a feral-like state of being.

    Where it went wrong was the false assumption that capitalism is somehow a perversion, when ‘exchanging resources’ is actually the basis of life itself, and that only through the struggles of life can the higher virtues develop (love, trust, respect, integrity, self-awareness, ethics, etc.). Examples: a women doesn’t need a good man when the state guarantees the upbringing of her children therefore she goes for the sexy exciting man that ultimately will provide only short-term gratification and stability. The male cad likewise abandons his offspring knowing full well that other men’s productivity will support his children. The old lady no longer needs to bake a cake for her neighbours in exchange for fixing her fence – she just calls the council… The business doesn’t need to build the trust and support of its customers, as Government privileges will ensure it never goes bust etc., and so on…

    In this Might Makes Right mafiosi style environment where the more powerful and vocal self-entitled groups set the agenda; getting more goodies at the expense of the more marginalised self-reliant ones, there can be little progress or opportunities for personal development… Forced redistribution leads to a gradual decline of social capital and loss of personal integrity, corresponding with a rise in hedonism and cultural decay. It’s human nature to want a free meal ticket, but when the costs and consequences of these base desires are socialised, the learning process and capacity for developing true empathy are disabled.

    • We don’t exchange resources. We exchange production. I want to buy a book, not a big roll of paper and a tub of printers’ ink.

      • Wasn’t aiming for accurate terminology in my evaluation – I’ve never read the a-z of market libertarianism, or any other manifesto for that matter :-).

        What I should of stated more clearly in my two cents’ worth is that human exchanges through coercion, as opposed to voluntarism, are parasitical in nature, so therefore little in the way of personal development (or cultural progress) can come out of such arrangements. Even though this is pretty elementary stuff, I don’t feel it can be overstated.

      • I’m glad you want to buy a book Ian, I have one that might interest you (click the link at the top of the essay to my blog, click the Honest Common Sense tab and follow the link to YPD Books).

        …actually, I could even be persuaded to offer a free copy to you (also to one or two of the other regulars here). But you’d need to give me a snail-mail address.

  4. The “work” ethic is a very bad idea. It is part of the same thinking that produced the labour theory of value, and a persistent, pernicious idea that people who work hard are not rewarded enough, etc.

    It’s about production, not “work”; have you produced something that other people want? If you have, you will prosper. If you haven’t, you will not. How much “labour” you put into producing it is neither here nor there. Indeed, our economy is currently suffering under a dead weight of vast numbers of people paid by the State to “work” very hard doing things which are either not-productive or actively anti-productive.

    The whole point of capitalist progress is to get more stuff for less labour, and the work ethic actively works against that. It really needs to be ditched. Otherwise you end up like the Amish, working very hard all day with unproductive methods to produce not very much at all. They are very very fond of the work ethic too; and indeed that is why they eschew modernity, because it makes life “too easy”. As libertarian pro-capitalists, we should desire the greatest production, for the least labour. The work ethic has no part in that.

    • Ian,

      I’m well aware of the failure of the labo(u)r theory of value. The way I put it is, “Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is value in the mind of the purchaser.”

      And I’d fully agree with you about the important thing being production rather than work. But isn’t it also true that, without work, you can’t have production? Can a musician, for example, play to a professional standard without putting in practice? And certainly, in terms of mental development, if you don’t put in effort you won’t develop yourself in any useful way.

      In fact, I’d say that the statist non-producers and anti-producers in your example aren’t users of the work ethic at all. They are parasites. Their ethic, if they have one, is “let’s get as much as we can and have fun screwing the suckers at the same time.”

      If you are saying that the work ethic can be counter-productive because it generates wealth that these parasites can then feed off, I’d (sadly) agree with you that that’s how things are today. But that’s a matter of “starving the beast” – a quite separate issue from work and the work ethic.

  5. I think a worth ethic is a good thing – but I may be defining the term differently from Ian.

    To me a work ethic means both valuing what one does (it is a terrible thing to be in work which one is not proud of, not doing things that one thinks are worth doing, believe me – I have a lot of experience of that).

    And a work ethic also (to me) looking after one’s family and friends and preparing for one’s old age – I wish I had more of such a work ethic. Without such a work ethic (and the rest of social conservatism – valuing family and private associations) masses of people end up dependent upon charity or (more likely) THE STATE. It is not an accident that socialists have traditionally encouraged vice (going back to H.G. Wells and others – mocking what Kipling called, with very different intent. “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” i.e. the statements of unpleasant truths that Victorian children wrote out as writing practice in their “copy books”) – the point is to undermine civil society, and promote dependence (do not think of the future – just play about,, the state will provide……). Of course when socialism actually does arrive the message suddenly changes – then it is work, work, work OR ELSE……

    As for enemies being lazy.

    Actually I am very tolerant of that – indeed I am delighted by it.

    If enemies are so lazy that they (for example) have not loaded their weapons (or kept them clean and in working order).

    In the words of that great philosopher “Shaggy” from “Scooby Doo” – I am allergic to pain, it huts me….. So I prefer enemies (whether followers of the Red Flag or the various different factions of followers of the Black Flag, Islamists, Fascists, communal “anarchists” and so on) to be totally unprepared.

    I am very tolerant indeed of such enemies being lazy and hopelessly out of their heads on booze and drugs – although the reason for my tolerance is not a nice one.

    I suspect that, deep down, I am rather feline.

    As for having production without work – well one can have production without much work.

    A diamond one has found by chance is just as valuable as one that one has spent days digging out with one’s fingernails.

    Even in services – some people find them easy to produce, others only produce with an agony (real agony) of effort. From the point of view of the customer the amount of work (even if there is hardly any work at all) is not relevant.

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