On Laziness

To find out what (if anything) is immoral about laziness, we must first try to define it. On Wikipedia laziness is defined as “disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. This definition may not be totally adequate, since people would probably not call someone lazy who works all day with things they really like (i.e., it would not be “exertion” for them). If we, on the other hand, were to say that they are nevertheless “exerting” themselves in some way, despite the fact that they are thoroughly enjoying they work, we would have to concede that very few people are actually lazy, since we would not be able to distinguish this kind of exertion from paradigm cases of laziness, such as lying on the couch watching tv all day. The only significant difference between a film critic (who loves her job) and an unemployed movie buff (let’s say that the latter person also writes about movies on his blog)  might be the fact that the film critic gets paid. In this case the laziness of the movie buff, thus, cannot be constituted by the difference in “exertion”. Still, if we were to insist in calling the movie buff lazy anyway, we would have to concede that all people who have enjoyable jobs are lazy too. But that seems wrong.

A way of getting out of this dilemma would be to specify the nature of “exertion” in some way. We might define laziness as “disinclination to unpleasant activity or exertion despite having the ability to act or exert oneself”. In this way we couldn’t really tell (without further information) whether the film critic or the movie buff were lazy or not. In order to know whether someone is lazy or not they must be put to the test by being asked to do things they do not enjoy. Unfortunately, this leads to other problems, since, presumably, virtually everyone has a disinclination to do things they do not enjoy (i.e. find positively disagreeable). This would mean that almost all people are lazy.

Still, many people do things everyday that they find disagreeable, like going up too early in the morning, commuting to work, doing the work itself (which is usually a mix of agreeable and disagreeable tasks), cleaning the bathroom, shopping for groceries etc. (of course, some people genuine enjoy things like cleaning or shopping, but you catch my drift). One paradigm case of laziness seems to apply to those who are not willing to do those everyday unenjoyable things that most other people do. We might, for instance, think of unemployed people in countries with generous welfare provisions – at least those few who are unemployed because of their laziness.

So the difference between laziness and non-laziness does not seem to consist in differences in “inclinations”, since most people are disinclined to do unpleasant things. The difference seems to lie in the actual doing of unpleasant things. Most people are “lazy” in the sense that they would refrain from doing unpleasant things if they could, but the genuinely lazy people are those are actually not doing unpleasant things, while the industrious (let’s say that that is the opposite of lazy) are actually doing them.

If this account is reasonable we would have to say that, for instance, a rich heir who is never doing anything unpleasant is a lazy person. Maybe some people would be inclined to call such a person lazy; but when laziness is used in a pejorative sense (which it usually is) the idle rich are usually exempt from that sort of criticism. Poor people, on the other hand, who are avoiding unpleasant activities as well, are often called lazy, even in spite of the fact that rich people are able to avoid unpleasant activities to a higher degree than poor people. So it all seems to boil down to on who’s expense you are leading your displeasure-avoiding lifestyle. If you are living pleasurably on other people’s taxes you are condemned as lazy. If you are living on your own money (which we assume have been earned in an “honest” way) you are not condemned as lazy (although we might not call you industrious either).

But I don’t think this is the whole truth about laziness. If common language does not seem to condemn the rich heir as lazy on account that he is not being idle on someone else’s expense, he might nevertheless be called lazy for other reasons. For example, he might justly (again, according to common language) be called lazy if he refuses to fulfill certain social duties that may be unpleasant for him. If he prefers to stay at home relaxing with a drink by his swimming pool instead of helping out with certain arduous arrangements for his uncle’s funeral, then his family would probably be warranted in calling him lazy (among other things).

And now we may have struck at the core what what laziness and industriousness is all about. It seems to be mostly about fulfilling certain (unpleasant) duties – duties which might be of various kinds, but often social or economic. The reason, then, that some of the unemployed might be called lazy seems to be that they fail to fulfill a presumed duty to share the burdens of economic life and to contribute to the economic stock of riches that they themselves are drawing from (again, we are assuming the context of the welfare state). The reason why the rich heir discussed above is called lazy is that he fails to fulfill his duty as a member of the extended family. Another example might be a priest who declines to preform important (but arduous) rituals because he would rather do something more pleasant.

So, let’s proceed from the latest definition of laziness, i.e., that it consists in the non-performance of unpleasant duties, to the question of whether laziness is really immoral or not. Evidently, it depends on whether one thinks that we have any moral duties or not. If you, for instance, believe that we only have negative duties, i.e., duties to refrain from doing certain things to others (for instance, harming them physically or taking their property), then it seems hard to call laziness immoral. No doubt, a person might violate negative duties out of laziness. A person might, for instance, turn to robbing because she finds that less unpleasant and time-consuming than working. But the person who subscribes to this libertarian philosophy would probably not call this a problem of laziness, because laziness seems to imply non-activity and non-performance. When a duty is unfulfilled through activity and performance people would probably avoid the label laziness (laziness, in other words, is about not doing things). I suspect that a firm believer in negative liberty would mostly use that label to describe the reasons that some are poor and others rich etc., because according this worldview people only get what they deserve. If you are lazy you will simply become poor, and if you do not fulfill your social duties you will simply become lonely. And if these are your choices, that is up to you.

Thus, laziness only seems to appear as a moral problem if we actually think that people have positive duties. Let’s take the example of the unemployed. If you, like me, are a hedonistic utilitarian you will think that people have a duty to contribute to maximizing pleasure, or, perhaps more practically relevant, to minimizing pain. One way of doing this could be to taking an ordinary job. Obvious examples of professions who contribute to reducing pain are doctors, nurses, or firemen; but most professions contribute to it in more indirect ways by making our everyday lives run smoothly.

It seems, then, that a conscious choice to live on unemployment benefits, in spite of the fact that one would be able to find a job, may be immoral. In other words, it may be a case of immoral laziness. I say that it “may” be so, because it is still possible for the unemployed to engage in other sorts of activities instead of paid work which could contribute to the well-being of other people. In other words, since unemployment (even voluntary unemployment) does not by itself constitute laziness, the moral status of the unemployed depends on how they actually spend their time. It is still possible for them to fulfill the duty which consists in doing what one can to maximize happiness in the world. (Needless to say, most cases of unemployment are not voluntary, unless we are taking “voluntary” in a highly formalistic and morally useless sense.)

When it comes to other kinds of social duties, whose neglect is commonly condemned as laziness, we would have to examine the purpose of those duties in order to resolve the moral question. In some social settings the neglect of social duties might be a valuable protest against unreasonable demands. In other words, as a hedonist one cannot accept a “duty” that does not, in fact, contribute to enhanced well-being. Nevertheless, refusing to fulfill a “false” duty does not get one off the hook when it comes to participating in fulfilling the real duty of maximizing happiness. You might be warranted in skipping some religious social requirement if you think that this requirement is only making the world worse; but then you should find something more productive to do instead than sitting by the pool all day.

The main thing for the hedonist is that you should find some time to make yourself useful for other people (in the sense that you should contribute to making their lives happier). If you are not fulfilling that duty then you may rightly be condemned as lazy. Of course, this does not mean that you should devote all your time to the service of others. After all, your happiness is also a part of the total sum of happiness. And we all need some recreation in order to fulfill the rest of our tasks in an efficient manner. Furthermore, there are many ways of contributing to happiness in society. The obvious ways are doing volunteer work to directly help the less fortunate, but one one can also spend time educating oneself in order to contribute to the betterment of society in more structural ways, or composing music or writing poetry for others to enjoy etc. etc.

Now let’s return to the case of lying on the couch watching TV all day. Would the hedonist say that this constitutes laziness and worthy of moral condemnation? In many cases, yes. No doubt, there are many valuable things one can learn by watching TV which might be of profit in one’s work as a pleasure-maximizer, but it would be hard to claim that a lifestyle dominated by the television is the most efficient type of lifestyle. And it would be hard to claim that watching television all day is such a blissful activity for you that the pleasure of it outstrips all other things you could have done for the benefit of other people. If we replace television with computer games it is even harder to see how more than a very modest amount of time per day could be reasonable.

Of course, I do not want to scare  anyone away from hedonism by claiming that you should devote a lot of effort to the improvement of society. If you already work full-time and have children to take care of it might be hard to squeeze in a lot of such activities on top of the necessary time for recreation for yourself, and that is understandable (besides, working hard to earn money to give to charity or the taxman is not a bad way to contribute). But the least one can do is to try to be noticeably less lazy than the average person in your circumstances. If your perception is that most people who work as much as you do, do five hours of charity work per year, then try to do seven or eight yourself. If the average person reads half a book on politics per year, try to read two or three yourself. There is always something you can do instead of being lazy.

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