On The Work Ethic

Thomas L. Wayburn

To the Reader

The following material was taken from an essay on the separation of the state from the Christian church.  This essay purported to show that the Christian religion is almost certainly false and, more important, extremely harmful.  Probably all organized religions are both wrong and harmful.  The reason that I was interested to discourage religionists is that religion seems to support the work ethic, which, in turn, supports trade and commerce, which, in turn, are destroying the world.


Thoreau said, “I have ... learned that trade curses everything it handles; and, though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.”  Thoreau says in a nutshell what I am trying to say in a lot of words.  I have already said what I think of trade in messages from heaven.  I can’t believe that anyone who is selling messages from God is receiving any.  But, a lot more needs to be said about trade and commerce in general.  I believe that trade and commerce are destroying the world with the blessing of the Christian church, and the philosophical (or theological) basis for doing this seems to be the work ethic.  If I can discredit the work ethic, I will have removed the fangs if not the claws of Christianity.

Origin of the work ethic

According to the third chapter of Genesis, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but the serpent beguiled Eve and she ate of the fruit of the tree and gave to Adam to eat of it.  This is supposed to be the origin of sin.  Part of the punishment for this sin is described in Genesis 3:19, where God says to Adam, “In the sweat of thy face [brow] shalt thou eat bread”.  The little phrase “in the sweat of thy face” seems to be the sole scriptural basis for the work ethic.  The reader might find it interesting to contrast the Old Testament origin of the work ethic with the advice of Jesus to behold the fowls of the air and to consider the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-32). 

Harmfulness of the work ethic

The work ethic encourages three harmful notions: (i) if people don’t work, they shouldn’t be allowed to live, (ii) provided they do work, they should be allowed to do anything to earn a living, and (iii) if activity isn’t onerous, it isn’t work.  Whereas, without Protestant Christianity the work ethic might not exist, it could be argued that, without the work ethic, modern Christianity wouldn’t exist.  Because of its importance in the development of capitalism and the threat it poses to the continued existence of mankind, we need to discuss the work ethic in some detail. 

Historical utility of the work ethic disallowed

At one time, before man developed high technology and before the earth was filled up with people, the work ethic afforded a number of practical advantages to the priesthood, the ruling class, capitalists, employers, and, it must be admitted, to the person who embraced the doctrine.  The work ethic has certainly had its advantages, but what we are asking is whether it is an absolute and immutable principle that will always be valid and whether its basis in the doctrine of original sin is at all valid.  I believe that the work ethic has outlived its usefulness.  Hard work puts too much pressure on an already highly stressed environment.


It seems to me that the concept of original sin and the work ethic have been used and continue to be used to enslave people by their own consent.  What does it matter whether man is taught a religious doctrine that makes him feel guilty if he doesn’t work hard or he works hard because he is forced to.  In either case he is enslaved.  Voluntary hard work, without religious coercion, might be justified provided the impact on the environment is not too great, provided its purpose is not the accumulation of excess wealth or the domination of other people, and provided it is accompanied by joy and satisfaction.

Under feudalism, the common man was a chattel slave who was taught an older version of the work ethic in order to reduce his inclination toward rebellion and to get as much work as possible out of him, but the feudal lord, if he was a decent man, assumed responsibility for the slave’s welfare.  Under capitalism, the common man is a wage slave who is taught the work ethic presumably for similar reasons, but his employer no longer assumes responsibility for his welfare, except, lately, to make sure he is not using drugs for recreational or other purposes,; so, in a certain sense, he is worse off than he was under a “good” feudal lord.  (In fact, he seems to miss his feudal lord, as he refers to his deity as his Lord.)  Certainly he may leave one job and look for another, but this leads to uprootedness and the next job is not likely to differ substantially from the job he left. In both jobs the employer is interested in making a profit and does not place a high priority on the welfare or happiness of the worker, who has become merely a human resource that can be inserted into the economic equation without regard to his humanity. 

Nowadays, both the husband and the wife must work and the child has no one at home to take care of him or to run to in times of crisis.  Our teachers continue to report more and more problems arising from this circumstance, which is identified with the liberation of women by many observers.  Indeed, among some of our young people excessively hard work has become a fad.  People are ashamed of being alcoholics, but they boast in a backwards sort of way about being workaholics.  The “salaryman” in Japan devotes his entire life to work, which includes coming home late at night from a business meeting stewed to the gills, so he has contrived to become an alcoholic as well as a workaholic.  The exportation of the work ethic, then, makes up our “balance of payments” to the East.


When most people think about their jobs, they think about the work they put in and the status, authority, and money they hope to get out.  They don’t think about the value of what they do and they disregard its effect upon the world.  This is precisely the wrong way to look at jobs and accounts for a number of misconceptions.  Clearly it doesn’t matter how much work people put into their jobs if they produce nothing of value for humanity.  Moreover, even if they produce something of value, if the destruction of the environment is disproportionately large, they are doing more harm than good.  A businessman comes home tired at night, but the most he can hope to have achieved is that a certain economic advantage has been transferred to his own company from another company.  The net gain to humanity has been zero.  For that matter, his hard work may have consisted in taking a long plane trip between London, where he negotiated a deal, and his home base in New York.  Airplanes consume tons of fuel and emit annoying, disruptive, and unhealthy roars, whistles, and booms as well as extremely noxious fumes.  Also, from time to time, they dump unburned fuel over cities!

The important items to look at when we consider human economic activity are the natural resources consumed and the goods and services produced.  (We might as well consider clean water and air, for example, as natural resources that are consumed, in a sense, when we add impurities to them.)  Money is a secondary consideration because money isn’t wealth.  (It’s a big mistake to assume that money is equivalent to genuine economic wealth.  We can’t eat money, moreover the government can create as much money as it pleases without any wealth being created.)  Since some of the natural resources consumed depend directly on the amount of human labor applied, we should minimize human labor, provided only that we do not have to replace it with machines that consume even more natural resources than do people.  But, machines don’t have to drive back and forth to work.  Some resources have to be spent to keep them running, but machines don’t have to be served lunch in restaurants by still more people who, in turn, must drive back and forth to work.  Fossil fuel consumed by commuting workers is roughly proportional to the number of man-days worked.

The effect of the work ethic on the four economic classes

I find it convenient to divide American society very roughly into four economic classes.  After defining the four classes, I shall discuss how each class is affected by the work ethic.  This is only an approximate theory; exceptions abound.  These classes are described in some detail in the essay “On a New Theory of Classes”, which can be found in this volume.  The effect on the classes of the work ethic and competitionism itself is described in that essay.

Power and money seekers

The first economic class consists of those who pursue power or money in excess of what one needs to live.  This class, which consists mostly of businessmen, managers, and politicians, but includes some academicians, religious leaders, lobbyists, and others, causes most of our problems.  Even people who fail in the pursuit of money and power do more than enough harm until they give up the chase.  Since fame, power, and money can be converted into one another, any combination of the three may be subsumed under the term status.  Thus, the ruling class is a subset of those who achieve status.  Undoubtedly, a few people achieve status without having pursued it (and without their ancestors having pursued it), but they must be about as common as holders of public office who were elected against their will.

People who work for the sake of the work

Some people who become famous in the arts or sciences, for example, do not convert fame into power or money, in which case they remain in the second economic class, which I call the amateur/professional class because it consists of people who love their work and are dedicated to it.  Most of these people belong to what we normally think of as the professions, but professionals who are in it for the money belong to the harmful class described above.  Amateur/professionals love their work for the same reason that money seekers don’t (or wouldn’t if it weren’t for the money or power); namely, interesting and enjoyable work usually doesn’t pay well.  Thus, the money and power seekers put the professional amateurs in the unenviable position of either giving up fulfilling and spiritually rewarding activities or giving up economic and political power over their own lives and the affairs of their nation. 

The working class

The third economic class is the working class, which, for the most part, is motivated by self-preservation.  It includes a large number of people who are accustomed to think of themselves as professionals, notably disappointed and disillusioned salaried engineers.  Members of this class won’t work unless they are paid, but they use the money to stay alive, not as a way to acquire power, to keep score in a gigantic game, or to finance lavish lifestyles.  Workers still produce most of the wealth, but, in many cases, receive a smaller proportion of it than do the first and second classes.  

The disenfranchised

The fourth economic class consists of the chronically unemployed, people on welfare, criminals (but not white-collar criminals), prisoners, the homeless, destitute elders, hopelessly handicapped people, and many people who are dying.  These are people who cannot cope with our rigid social system as it is presently constituted.  In a society in which competition for wealth is permitted, even encouraged, by the moral code of the dominant religions, there are bound to be more losers than winners.  (Not only do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but the gain of each rich person is the loss of many poor people.)

The plight of the poor

The members of the disenfranchised class are victims of the notion that one must work in order to live, which is derived from the work ethic.  This is an extremely inhumane notion and it tends to ensure that children born into this class will escape it only with great difficulty and a lot of luck.  Perhaps, the idea of no-work-no-pay might be justified if society were to provide opportunities for all types of people.  But, instead, society demands, within the working class, strict conformity to the docile puritan type who gets up early in the morning, works late, saves his (or her) money, and lives for his work, which he regards as a duty rather than a joy. 

Pressure on the working class

With the rise of the union movement it looked like workers would be able to retain enough of the wealth created by themselves that they might enjoy a tolerably good life, but that dream is coming to an end.  When automation began to be developed, the unions were forced into the false position of trying to hold back progress, mainly because the workers themselves believed in the work ethic.  It never occurred to them that it might not be necessary or proper to sell their labor and the time of their lives for money.  No one in power considered the option of making the distribution of wealth independent of who creates it, man or machine.

Also, the business class (a subset of those who seek money and power) found new ways to subvert the goals of working people by the judicious use of propaganda, by globalizing the economy, by influencing the nation’s immigration policy, and by making obscene amounts of money, which has been used to bid up the price of housing, for example.  With the development of robotics, the working person has become more and more expendable.  Many of us are destined to work less whether we want to or not.  Many workers can and will be replaced by robots and other forms of automation.  What is going to happen to these people?  Are they going to join the growing welfare/prisoner/homeless class? 

Economic parasites

As in the example of the globetrotting businessman, most members of the ruling class and the rest of the money- and power-seeking class don’t create any genuine wealth.  They work hard enough, so they satisfy the work ethic, but they are a liability to mankind because they consume a disproportionate share of the fruits of production, and, with their travel and their conspicuous consumption, they put more stress on the environment than do the other classes.  They will do anything for money or power, even though they may deceive themselves into thinking otherwise, and they do it with the blessings of the Christian church.  Once people disregard the meaning, to themselves and others, of their work, why should we expect them to exhibit ethical behavior in other respects!  We must discredit the work ethic in order to evaluate correctly the behavior of such people. 

A few words are in order to make clear the extent of the waste due to business and to clear up the mistaken notion that business renders a service by creating jobs.  Neither does the businessman create any genuine wealth, nor do those who serve him.  At the first level of support, the efforts of and resources used by his secretaries, administrative assistants, computer programmers, accountants, etc. are wasted.  At the second level, the efforts of and resources used by those who provide transportation, communication services, and the resources consumed at the first level are wasted.  At the third level, those who provision the people at the second level serve no useful function, and so on.  It is easy to imagine an entire city populated by businesspeople and by those who, either directly or indirectly, serve them.  Within that city no food would be grown.  All goods manufactured in Businessville would be consumed in the process of doing business.  All buildings constructed by the residents would house business and its ancillary activities.  Homes would be built by outsiders.  Consumer goods and food would have to be imported.  When all is said and done, the entire city would function as a gigantic parasitic colony, feeding off the efforts of people who live elsewhere while consuming resources and deteriorating the environment, with nothing of value to the human race to show for it.

The inhabitants of Businessville have jobs and earn wages, so they add a certain amount of money to the gross national product, and the economy seems to benefit.  This is the wrong way to look at an economy; it confuses money with wealth.  Society would be better off if the denizens of Businessville were idle and the surrounding countryside provided all of their needs without letting them go through the charade of pretending to earn a living.  In this manner, the net loss to the environment would be reduced.  Better still, the good people of Businessville might consider applying their considerable talents to the production of something useful to themselves and others.  It might take their minds off money, which, in their hands, is simply an instrument of depredation.

Opposition to the good life

The members of the amateur/professional class love their work.  But, the work ethic seems to invalidate these people, because they are having too much fun, and, for them, work is not onerous.  Consider the abuse heaped upon artists (unless they are stars).  Scientists would be treated the same way if they didn’t cooperate with the establishment (the ruling class).  But, if people don’t get joy and satisfaction from their work, quality will suffer, as we have seen.  We might be better off if unhappy or bored workers replaced their jobs with hobbies.  Moreover, fundamental principles of human dignity require that people refuse work that does not provide joy, satisfaction, and spiritual growth.  This is in conflict with the work ethic.

Summary of harm done by the work ethic

To summarize, the work ethic harms the disenfranchised classes by justifying their impoverishment.  It makes the worker reluctant to give up his job to a machine and it makes him suffer unnecessarily when he is finally forced to give it up.  The work ethic enables business people and other economic parasites to justify themselves because, after all, they are working.  And, finally, it makes artists, scientists, and scholars feel guilty because they are playing rather than working, or, what is more likely, it encourages other people to think that they ought to feel guilty.

A classless society opposed by Christianity

We would like to prevent people from becoming disenfranchised because we abhor suffering and we know that people who have nothing to lose are a threat to our security!  Apparently, the working class will be greatly reduced by robotics and other forms of automation.  Also, we disapprove of drudgery, but the most boring jobs are those most amenable to automation.  We should be able to find enough people who love to repair machines that no one will have to do it merely to survive or even to acquire excess wealth.  The money/power-seeking class should disappear because the decisions made by this class are not in the best interests of mankind (and other living things) and because the rest of us do not wish to be dominated.  It is beneath human dignity to permit oneself to be dominated by a human master outside of school.

This leaves the amateur/professional class, to which it is highly desirable to belong, as can readily be ascertained by observing its members.  The amateur/professional class could form the basis of a classless society in which everyone is engaged in enjoyable, rewarding, but not necessarily economically useful, activities.  It is not difficult to envision a world where the distinction between work and play has vanished.  As mathematicians say, “Math in earnest should be fun and math for fun should be in earnest.” One might relax from demanding play, like doing math, by watching baseball.  And yet the Christian church encourages us to bear any burden willingly and to tolerate injustice.  It admonishes us to “know our place” and submit to the whims of our “superiors”, who are imagined to rule according to the will of God (where, in reality, they may simply be playing the game who-can-make-the-most-money).  Thus, the Christian church discourages the social changes that can open the amateur/professional class to everyone. 

Beyond the work ethic

It looks like the work ethic is bankrupt.  We neither require, because of automation, nor can we afford, because of environmental stress, to have everyone working 40 hours a week or more.  It seems, too, that many jobs pose greater hazards to the safety and health of workers than was previously supposed.  Just when work has become less desirable because of its impact on the environment and upon our selves, workers are becoming less useful to production because of automation, although the impact of automation on the environment cannot be neglected.

Humanized technology, used for the benefit of all mankind, makes it possible for us to produce abundant material wealth without excessive labor provided we confine our efforts to useful activities rather than to business as business, which, clearly, produces nothing.  (I have heard that retailing accounts for approximately two-thirds of all economic activity in America.  If we neglect the transportation factor, the only function of retailing is to prevent the consumer from buying products for what it costs to make them.)  We can provide a good life with abundant leisure for everyone, even those of us who, as yet, may not be able to contribute to society, provided only that we stabilize our population, reduce consumption and waste, especially of energy, and stop competing for wealth and power.  We could rehabilitate our economic system so that the effort we waste dividing up the pie would be used to benefit ourselves and our fellow creatures.  A much smaller effort, by people who are really contributing, could be devoted to making a smaller but better tasting pie, and the time we save because we are not fighting over the size of the slices could be devoted to the arts and leisure.  We might have to live without cars, but we could enjoy less work, more play, and no commuting!


The real problem nowadays is what to do with all the extra leisure that would be provided by humanized technology in a rational society.  Educated people would solve this problem by producing spiritual wealth such as music, poetry, drama, painting, mathematics, science, and all the other beautiful things to which we could devote our leisure hours – or by enjoying the spiritual wealth produced by others.  It behooves us, then, to make certain that all our children are educated to the full extent of their capacity, not just so they can work, but so they can play.  Also, it would be helpful if they could be taught the truth. 

Certainly the schools should teach primary skills and the basic knowledge that all citizens need, but they should teach how to think critically as well.  Most organized religions subvert that goal under the guise of imparting values, for which they substitute arbitrary morals.  The schools could teach values if only we could agree upon which values should be taught.  Some schools are teaching (or getting ready to teach) values under the general heading of Character Education, but, in my opinion, they are teaching the wrong values.  For example, the character education program of the Houston Independent School District intends to teach loyalty to one’s employer, but it would be difficult to find an employer in corporate America worthy of anyone’s loyalty. 

The schools should be teaching respect for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Instead they require students to pledge allegiance to a flag that really stands for global imperialism under the name of commerce.  The students chant, meaninglessly, “liberty and justice for all” while many of them are immersed in injustice every hour of every day of their lives while they remain hopelessly ensnared in a dehumanizing economic system that is being exported under the name of liberty.

Schools should be teaching that a human being is not a beast of burden, the purpose of which is to serve another, presumably superior, human.  If the schools wish to impart values, they must teach that, whereas a human being may wish to serve others as a manifestation of his (or her) nobility or to serve God or some higher purpose in order to transcend himself, from the viewpoint of worldly affairs he is basically his own person, an end in himself, not a means to an end.  Instead corporations are forming partnerships with the schools in a desperate attempt to prepare students to serve them.  Some students may have parents who have been thrown on the junk heap by those same corporations whenever it was economically expedient to do so.  Schools should be teaching respect for the environment, but the students are well aware of what business and industry, which they are being trained to serve, have done to the earth.

I believe that the two principal causes of the failure of our educational system are: (i) we teach patriotic and ideological lies in which no intelligent child can believe and (ii) we are trying to prepare our young people for a life that no one should look forward to living, namely, life as a cog in a gigantic commercial machine.  The way in which we do this is discussed in part by Gatto [1].

Resistance to change

We continue to suppress new ideas; we continue to resist social change that can solve our problems; and we continue to tell ourselves the same old lies.  Do we really believe that capitalism represents the ultimate economic system any more than we believe Christianity represents the ultimate moral system?  We behave as though we hate truth because we are afraid that, if we ever got a good look at the beasts into which our materialistic society has transformed the human children we once were, the shame would kill us.  Christians tell us that, until the world ends, we will be motivated by greed (the profit motive) because of original sin.  Why not show our children what the possibilities are for a world where generosity has replaced greed and let them decide for themselves if they are good enough to live in it! 

Addendum:  Christianity Impedes Social Progress

The most important defect of Christianity is that, while it promises personal salvation, it does nothing to improve the miserable circumstances of the mass of humanity.  (I am not talking about serving free lunches to people who will hungry again tomorrow.  That only delays revolution or bread riots.)  Personal salvation won’t help society.  Despite the numerous Christians who consider themselves saved, the social practices that are destroying society continue apace with “saved” Christians in the vanguard.  Christians, who believe that the world must continue to be “a vale of misery and woe” until the stars fall from the skies and Jesus comes walking on the clouds, are not inclined to try to improve a world that is inherently doomed because of man’s “natural” sinful nature.  Thus they are unwilling to attempt any of the systems for change that are from time to time proposed by social thinkers.  Bertrand Russell [2] said, “It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.”  (I would have said “organized religion”.)

Houston, Texas

May 31, 1990



1.         Gatto, John Taylor, “The 7-Lesson Schoolteacher”, The Truth Seeker, 118, No.4 (1991).

2.         Russell, Bertrand, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, Paul Edwards, Editor, Simon and Schuster, New York (1957).