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Is Productivity an Ethical Issue?

Yes, but it’s complicated.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
2 min read
Is Productivity an Ethical Issue?

What is ethics?

At our moment in history, ethics concerns itself largely with the systematization and application of moral principles. Moral principles are both inferred from, and used to determine, the rightness/wrongness of specific actions.

But ethics wasn't always like this - narrow, legalistic, and simultaneously clear but confused. As the story goes, ancient philosophers understood ethics differently - as an holistic enterprise, concerned with the nature of human life and how it could be lived well. Before there were principles, there were virtues.

In my own way, I belong to this second school of thought. I am essentially a virtue ethicist, and in my estimation the (attempted) focus on moral principles is at least as likely to turn people into moral nihilists as upright adults. Oops!

Sins of productivity

So when I recently opened an email from a popular internet writer (not naming names) that mentions "the cardinal sin of productivity" I can't help but wonder… what's going on here?

On the one hand, "sin" could easily be interpreted just as a metaphorical turn of phrase, or even as tongue-in-cheek. On the other hand, though, people's thinking about "productivity" is already deeply fraught, and the way we speak about things affects how we think about them.

"Sins" of productivity only make sense if productivity is an enterprise offering clear, specific indications for what one should do (and when), with its injunctions are based on something objective and binding. On this view, productivity stands as a child or close cousin of morality itself.

Art not science

Productivity is an ethical issue, but only in the much broader and ancient sense. Matters of what we now call "productivity" - how you spend your time, what you consume, and what you produce - will indeed constrain and determine what kind of person you become, whether you live your life well.

But it is neither meaningful nor constructive to zoom in on small productivity matters and deem them moral failures or successes. Productivity is one of the arts related to time, consumption, and production as considered in context, and certainly not a science of any of these.

So don't tempt yourself into misapplying the non-dictates of productivity with moralized language like "sin," "lazy," and "waste." You'll have missed growing the forest for tending one little tree.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.