“The Devil makes work for idle hands.” There is an assumption, and it is a very old assumption, that working hard is a virtue. It is never explicitly expressed in wisdom statements of the last few hundred years, but hard work is specifically a virtue for the poor, and not something the wealthy need to trouble themselves with. Members of the leisured classes never seem to have worried themselves much about what the Devil may do with their un-busy hands. However, it has always been the case (still is today) that the poor are assumed to be feckless and foolish. If you don’t keep them gainfully employed, they will waste their time and health smoking, gambling and drinking. When the wealthy drink, smoke and gamble, that’s not a problem.
It doesn’t matter if what you do is in and of itself useful, a ‘work ethic’ will encourage you to be busy. It results in the creation of ‘make-work’ which has no other function than to look like you’re doing something. It creates cultures of overtime and overwork where people feel obliged to stay on and look busy because that’s important. Never mind what the job is, you can’t be the one person seen to leave at the end of the working day.
The underlying assumption is that work is good for you, if you are working class. In some ways this is true. Meaningful work can do a lot to establish dignity, a sense of purpose and social position. Work can confer identity, and it can get the necessities of life done. However, a traditional work ethic isn’t much interested in this, only in the sense that if you aren’t busy busy busy, you could be dangerous. If you aren’t worked to exhaustion, you might have time to stop and think. You might question the usefulness and point of your productivity. You might notice that other people make more money from you productivity than you do. That could lead you to some serious doubts about the whole project of capitalism.
Truly ethical work would be about doing the things that need to be done so that everyone has the necessities and at the same time the balance of the planet and its eco-systems is maintained. Truly ethical work would not suck up a person’s whole life but would give them time and space to be a person. Truly ethical work would be fairly paid, not this curious system where those who do the basic essentials are barely valued at all, whereas those who take long lunches and make decisions (regardless of how those decisions play out) are deemed to be worth a lot more. If work was about ethics, we’d spend less time berating the poor, and more time complaining about the lazy leisured class and its consumptive habits.
There is nothing remotely ethical about the existing notion of a work ethic. It would be a good deal more ethical to do less, consume less, live more modestly, prioritise taking care of needs rather than profits, and getting shot of the idea that simply being rich is a valid contribution to your community.