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.


Why We May Be Richer than We Deserve to Be

Sometimes the value of democracy is discussed in terms of economic gains and losses. With (representative) democracy – the story goes – we get certain freedoms that, for instance, facilitate innovation, which, in turn, helps economic development. I have heard some claim that the lack of democracy in China places some limits on how much their economy can grow, since their system makes it easy for them to copy ideas and produce stuff on the basis of those ideas, but hard to come up with new ideas, due to the habit of deferring to authority (intellectual as well as political authority).

On the other hand, some claim that democracy must not be taken too far, because that, too, can hamper the economy. This was a common complaint in the 1970s and 1980s from right wing groups who complained of an “excess” of democracy, whereby too many “special interests” fight in the democratic arena to get a piece of the pie, without thinking about long-term financial stability (or about the plight of traditional elites). On the international level, this has often meant the support by Western countries of authoritarian regimes in the rest of the world, since democratic developments might mean land reforms in favor of the poor, and the like.

There is no need to decide the question about correlations between democracy and economic growth here. But it is probably safe to say that if a democratic system had been in place in the major European countries (including England) in, say, the 18th century, then the industrial revolution would probably have been retarded. People, and especially people in those days, are often rather conservative when it comes to changing their way of life – something which was probably necessary to get the industrial revolution going, and which was achieved by, for instance, privatizing the commons and creating a class of landless paupers. And if we add the fact that the gains of the industrial revolution took a long time to trickle down to ordinary people, I think it is safe to say that under a democratic system the voters would not have taken such chances lightly.

The conclusion seems to be that if democracy had prevailed earlier, and if the democratic culture had been more pervasive and participatory than what would in fact be the case later on, we would probably – or at least possibly – be poorer (i.e., having a lower GDP than today) in the industrialized world than we are today (add to this the gains of colonialism, slave trade, etc. – phenomena that would have taken place to a lesser degree under participatory democratic rule). However, this conclusion should not make us shy away from the idea of democracy, and of a more participatory democratic culture. If it is the case that “too much democracy” slows down economic growth or the material standard of living, then we should simply bite the bullet and accept lower economic growth and standard of living. (If it is not the case, then so much the better, obviously.)

Now, the discussion so far has been riddled with caveats relating to the difficulty of establishing correlations between economic parameters and democratic rule. There is, however, one thing that we can be relatively sure of: with a fuller democracy than what prevails today, it would probably be harder for the economic and political elites to be as rich and powerful as they are today, and that is something we should welcome, even if it would mean a somewhat lower GDP (a somewhat lower GDP would not make us less happy, provided that economic policies are designed in a reasonable manner).

Mozi and the Dangers of Narrow Utilitarianism

In the minds of some (perhaps most) people, “utilitarianism” has a special meaning. It often refers to an extremely “materialistic” view, which aims at maximization of wealth. This is not surprising, since utilitarianism has been (but less so nowadays) associated with economics. In the early 19th century, those who wrote on economics (or “political economy”, as it was usually called) were not seldom adherents to hedonistic utilitarianism of the Benthamite kind. Later in the same century, however, the goal of maximizing pleasure was by many economists regarded as too imprecise to be used in scientific discussions. So pleasure was generally replaced by “utility”, and the by the maximization of utility, it was usually meant the highest possible satisfaction of subjective preferences. Moreover, the easiest way to “measure” such satisfaction of preferences is by measuring income, wealth, and the like. It is hard to be scientific if one wants to measure levels of mental “satisfaction”.

It is, of course, a shame that many associate utilitarianism with this “economistic” way of thinking, since it is rather barren if it is regarded as a moral view (and if it is not intended as a moral view, then why should one make policy recommendations on the basis of it?). Nevertheless, it is, in fact, a very old view, and if we look back in the history of ideas, we find one extreme adherent to it in the Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo Tzu), who lived around 400 B.C. Mozi put forward a principle of “universal love” (not really emotional love, but rather “concern”) which is not all that different from the utilitarian/hedonist idea of impartiality when it comes to maximization of happiness, and he criticized the Confucian view that parents and relatives should always be one’s first concern.

However, It seems that Mozi’s prime concern was economic production, and he criticized Chinese rulers who squandered resources by, for instance, waging war. He also criticized traditions that seemed very unproductive, like expensive funerals and long periods of mourning, during which one was expected to do no work.

Now, it is, of course, rather uncontroversial to criticize war and the destructive forces and costs that it brings along. Somewhat less uncontroversial is perhaps the critique of superstitious practices that drain resources, but even people who subscribe to such beliefs would probably agree that such things cannot swallow too much of one’s material resources.

But there are other things in Mozi’s doctrine which appear more controversial. To quote a scholar: “To attain the end of a rich, numerous, orderly, peaceful, and literally ‘blessed’ population, Mo Tzu was willing to sacrifice very nearly everything else. Clothing should keep out the cold in winter and the heat in summer but should not be attractive. Food should be nourishing but not well-seasoned. Houses should keep out the cold and heat, the rain and thieves, but should have no useless decoration.” Mozi went so far as to condemn music, “which used men’s time and wealth in the making and playing of instruments, yet created nothing tangible”.

Mozi’s utilitarianism is, thus, extreme in its maximization of “utility”, in the form of production of material, “useful” things, and the production of new people, and in its rejection of what is of interest to the hedonistic utilitarian, namely, pleasure. Now, it is probably the case that no utilitarian economist adhere to such an anti-hedonistic view. Nevertheless, their political recommendations have not always been all that different. Politics is often regarded as a wealth-making machine, whereas pleasure is something that should be left to individuals, and not concern politicians. Just enable people to make money, and the rest will take care of itself.

The problem with this is that the way we make money affects the possibilities of leading a more pleasurable life. And it is not easy for an individual to plan these things by her- or himself, when the system itself is geared towards a specific way of making money. It is, for instance, hard to find a career that will give you a reasonable balance between leisure and money. The logic of the system demands that you either work hard for a lot of money, or work very little for little money (although many also work hard for little money, of course, just as a few lucky people work little for a lot of money). It is hard to find a career which requires a medium amount of work for a medium amount of money, even though that would probably produce more pleasure than the present way of making a living.

In conclusion, utilitarian politics must from the beginning regard people as interested in pleasure and promote it through politics, rather than decide that one thing (for instance, income) should serve as a proxy for happiness.

Ethical Hiring and Firing

It struck me one day when I was passing a parking inspector on the street that that kind of job could not be very hard to learn, i.e., most ‘normal’ people could probably do it quite easily. Yet, it is probably the case the people who actually do jobs like that – jobs that most people can do with a small amount of on-the-job training – often have more work experience or education that is needed (but it could also be the case that they simply have the right social connections). There are other jobs that require some sort of education, but usually not a three- or four-year university degree. Many civil service jobs, for instance, ask for degrees in political science, law, sociology, etc. even though the job description has very little to do with the contents of such degrees.

In other words, many people are over-skilled or over-educated, relative to their present job. On the other hand, there are many people who remain unemployed because they can’t get the experience or education that will put them on the top of the list of the hiring employer. There might be a measure of ‘hidden’ discrimination in this.  We usually frown upon nepotism or favoritism, because we want to ensure equality of opportunity and meritocracy. Thus, one might want to rely on objective criteria (years of education, years of work experience, etc.) when hiring. But if these objective criteria are not very relevant for the job in question, then this appears to be nothing but a form of discrimination of those who have not been able to connect to the right kind of social networks (and we all know that social networks are of increasing importance when it comes to landing a job these days) or have been forced to stay away from work life for other reasons. And it is probably the case that this kind of discrimination hits people even harder than the ‘classic’ kinds of discrimination: race, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, religion etc.

Now, if we want to maximize happiness in society it seems that employers should relax their demands for education or experience, when those criteria are not very relevant for the job in question. Empirical research has confirmed that whereas people are able to adapt to many unfortunate circumstances in life (for instance, becoming disabled), unemployment  seems to be an exception to this. After the shock of becoming unemployed has receded, quality of life increases somewhat again, but usually not up to the pre-unemployment level. Combatting long term unemployment should, thus, be important for a hedonistic utilitarian. One way of doing this could be – at least for some vacancies – to consciously hire people who may have less experience or education than the top applicants. In other words, hiring people with adequate qualifications rather than people with excellent qualifications (which are unnecessary for doing the job in question anyway).

In times of high unemployment employers might receive hundreds of applications when they announce a vacancy, and it is hard to imagine that the person who actually gets the job is actually better at doing the job than any other person who ‘ranks’ from, let’s say, place 2 to 20 on the list. On the contrary, we all know from experience that a not insignificant amount of people we encounter in everyday life are more or less incompetent at their job. Thus, in many cases the policy suggested here would not only be more just, but also more efficient for society. But even if it turns out to reduce efficiency, we must always remember that it is always possible to sacrifice some efficiency if it means greater justice (i.e. overall happiness).

You can read more on this topic in my article ‘Ethics in Hiring: Nepotism, Meritocracy, or Utilitarian Compassion,’ in the lastest issue of Philosophy for Business.

Hedonism and Basic Income

As a hedonist, I have often defended the Welfare State, which includes, for instance, financial assistance to people who are unable to find work (or unable to work at all). The logic behind this is that the relief of suffering that ensues is not counteracted by a similar loss in pleasure by those who are taxed in order to fund such programs.

This kind of assistance can come in different forms. In Sweden, for example, there are unemployment benefits that are determined as a percentage of one’s previous salary (this has all sorts of requirements attached to it), but there is also means tested assistance which is calculated to cover only the necessities of life (rent, food, clothes, etc.). Other kinds of assistance exist for the sick, for students, for parents, and so on.

The idea behind a basic income is that these different kinds of assistance can be replaced by a single type of benefit that all citizens are entitled to. It does not matter whether they are unemployed, sick, students, parents, or simply people who choose not to work – they are all eligible to receive the basic income. The question is whether a basic income is preferable to traditional benefits from a hedonist perspective.

There is no clearcut answer to that question. As I stated at the outset, hedonists should defend some kind of assistance to those that are unable (and perhaps also unwilling) to work. On the plus side, a basic income lets people choose an “epicurean” way of life, which – I believe – can be conducive to increased happiness. Epicurus’s idea was that one does not need much in the sense of material wealth to be happy. More important is leisure and good friends. A basic income also enables engagement in political life (“civic virtue”), which is somewhat in line with John Stuart Mill’s ideals.

A drawback to basic income, however,  is that it may render some people too passive. Empirical research seems to confirm that sitting alone at home all day watching television (or something similar) is detrimental to one’s happiness. This means that a basic income is most beneficial to those who have good ideas about how to use their free time in an active way. Some traditional unemployment benefits require certain activities on the part of the recipient, and this is probably what some people need (whereas the idea behind the basic income is that it is supposed to be totally unconditional).

Is there a risk that a basic income scheme would become to expensive? Of course, hedonists must always take account of the fact that many people are not hedonists, and they will perhaps resent paying taxes to finance a basic income (which means that, for instance, entrepreneurs may “obstruct” these policies). On the other hand, it is not to be suspected that many people would choose to live on the basic income instead of working, because we must suppose that the level of the basic income is set rather low. It will allow people to live modestly by themselves, but it should not be set so high as to allow, for example, the forming of a family (something that most people want).

There is, however, a kind of paradox involved in this. If – as I believe – people could become happier by living in a more epicurean way and renounce many modern pleasures, and if more people realized this, then perhaps more people would want to live on a basic income instead of working. But then we could not afford the basic income scheme. The ideal, then, supposes that most people would not choose the epicurean way to happiness! If too many people choose that way we would have to come up with some other scheme, for instance, shortening the workday for everyone to five hours, which would radically reduce unemployment and increase leisure time (for most people). This compromise would be beneficial both to those who have a hard time finding something meaningful to do in their spare time and those who can’t get enough spare time. At the same time the level of production that is necessary to maintain a decent material quality of life can be kept going.

I have uploaded a longer text on the hedonist case for a basic income on the Social Science Research Network.

Can We Afford to Help Refugees?

[This a translation of an old post from my Swedish blog]

For a few (mainly among the Sweden democrats, I presume), the refugee question may be about protecting Swedish “culture” or “identity”, but for most people it mainly seems to be a question about costs: can we afford to help a lot of refugees or not? For that reason, I would like to contribute with a few theoretical comments about what it might mean to say that one can or cannot afford something (discussion about our actual national accounts I leave to others).

When is it possible to say that one person definitely cannot afford to help another person? There are possibly saint-like people who would dispute the following answer, but it seems reasonable to assume that someone who does not have food, clothes, and shelter for oneself cannot afford to help someone else (it is, rather, precisely those people who need help from others). It is rather pointless to share one’s last piece of bread with someone else so that both get too little food and perish.

But the further one progresses from the satisfaction of those basic needs, the less meaningful it gets to claim that one “cannot afford” certain things. Of course, one could always use the expression in a technical sense, – Bill Gates might afford to buy 100 luxurious houses, but he “can’t afford” to by 101 – but for a well-to-do person it is more apt to talk about priorities. I think most of us would claim that a parent who says he cannot afford a winter coat to his child, although he has just bought a new hi-fi system for himself, can actually afford the coat, but has prioritized something else.

There is no doubt that Sweden can afford to help more refugees than the numbers that have already been helped. The question is if we want to prioritize it. Many Swedish households seem to have a lot of money to spend on travels, home improvement and interior design, electronic gadgets, restaurant meals etc. This is obviously something they prioritize above helping strangers in need.

Why, then, is it the case that some people still claim that we cannot afford receiving refugees? Apparently the affordability answer is simply a pretext. There must be some other real reason. The main candidates for such a reason, I believe, are: (i) a moral conviction that we do not have any economic responsibility towards strangers, (ii) the nationalist argument mentioned above, or (iii) pure unreflective egoism. It would, thus, be good if those who claim that “we can’t afford” openly state which of these viewpoints they actually endorse.

(Then there is of course the question of how one is supposed to help people if one actually wants to prioritize this – through taxes or through individual actions. That question is too complex to discuss here and now.)

The Non-Marxist Case against Capitalism

Let us define capitalism as a system where most of the means of production are privately owned, where the freedom to use those means as one wants is relatively large and where the levels of taxes and state economic redistribution are relatively low. As we all know this system has always been criticized from the left, often from a Marxist perspective, where the main point of accusation is that workers are exploited, i.e., they don’t get the full value of their contribution to production.

Nowadays, however, the left seems to have a hard time arguing against capitalism, and bringing up Marx (or other more obscure theoreticians) surely does not help. There is no mass movement among workers in developed countries today who oppose capitalism, and it is difficult to rally them under the banner of “socialism”, when the examples of the Soviet Union, Cuba and other communist states are thrown back in one’s face.

In light of this I have to ask myself: why not bring up a simple moral – and explicitly non-Marxist – case against socialism, a case that virtually anyone can understand in five minutes? Namely: if capitalists did their moral duty, i.e., used their money to help other people, there would be no problem with capitalism. But the fact that there are a few superrich people who own most of the wealth in the world tells us that they are not doing their moral duty. To be substantially richer than one’s fellow human beings is in itself a moral failing, and the quickest way to remedy this is simply to tax them and spread the wealth around (and in some cases socialize the means of production).

Some might protest: if rich people are taxed heavily then people won’t go into business at all. That, however, simply reinforces the point that they are failing morally, being egoists and only ready to exert themselves if that can make them a lot richer than everybody else. A moral person should be willing to work for the benefit of other people (including people one will never meet). The question is, then, how the state should deal with people with radically different morals than the majority; but that is a question that must be handled by all social systems. Claiming that one may have to cater to a few business savvy egoists is not to concede that capitalism is good.

Personally, though, I don’t think anything disastrous would happen if, for instance, top marginal tax rates were raised to levels that were common a few decades ago (for instance, above 90% in the US during both Republican and Democrat rule). People will still create new businesses (and we should encourage people to do so cooperatively) if it allows them to live somewhat more lavishly than the “ordinary” worker, but still very modestly, compared to how CEO:s of large companies live now. Perhaps a first step would be to go back to the time when the CEO made “only” 20 times more than the worker (in the 1960s for the US), rather than 300 times more today.