Work ethics refer to an ethos and the values and mores based on it which place emphasis on hard work and diligence. The role of work ethics and how they intermesh with human socioeconomic life are often extremely flexible and nebulous, but it is generally agreed that work ethics govern not merely how we view work, the values we associate with it, but also (in contemporary circumstances) as a code of conduct which governs how we act in interact at the workplace. Work ethics can also be said to dictate the relationship of work and economic activity in relationship to personal life. In bad cases sufferers feel obligated to work so hard they can't relax and enjoy their personal life.

Is a work ethic important, and does it help?

Work ethics of late have become an extremely controversial topic, especially in the post-modern world. In the light of the environmentalist movement and the many corporate scandals which have appeared, the relevance of the work ethic in post-modern society and the economy time and again have been questioned as well. Sceptics of the viability of a work ethic’s role often stress that because of the changes we encounter in this post-Fordist world, traditional work ethics of past decades (ie seeing work and cooperation as beneficial) simply do not work. For many white-collar workers, flexibility at work and a desire for high mobility have resulted in a mercenary and cynical attitude towards work and relations with other people, as the end of the Cold War and the triumph of free trade have witnessed work ethics being supplanted by consumer ethics as the prevailing discourse in society’s relationship with work. Conservatives argue that work ethics still matter and are important not just for the workplace, but for nations and the planet in general.

Critique of the work ethic

If history is any guide to be followed, although a work ethic might be seen as a means of improving efficiency (as seen by the sudden popularity of the “Asian” way in America and Japan during Japan’s postwar boom), it can also lead to disastrous results. Often, the effects of such backfiring can be worldwide. In the cases of the corporate scandals that engulfed Japan in the 1990s and America in the early 21st century are any indicator, a work ethic can sometimes backfire by influencing corporate culture adversely. One could point out that the Enron scandal was a case of the Lutheran work ethic being followed without heeding what it used to be about. A similar charge can be leveled against the keiretsu system which more often than not is now vilified by most contemporary young Japanese as being a source of cronyism and nepotism.

Work ethic can be used to brainwash workers so they work hard to create profit for their Capitalist employers, sometimes without benefiting very much themselves. School can be a training program that attempts to train people to be obedient. It teaches basic knowledge and skills but is also meant to turn pupils into adults who will take orders, work in a cubicle, shut up, and not bother to question their corporate masters or improve their working conditions.


The Western world

The concept of work ethics seems to be a relatively modern development as in general, people generally accept that we need only do so much as what is needed, and are reluctant to work harder to achieve more than what is required. This has had been the prevailing belief ever since the dawn of history, although it has always been generally agreed upon that industriousness is a virtue. Aristotle always felt that all work and property accumulation had to achieve was to furnish the means to a useful end, and condemned ‘excessive’ accumulation of wealth as ‘unnatural’ in the Politics (Book I).

In contrast, there is evidence that Ancient Egyptians had their own work ethic which was supplemented with labour laws. After the fall of classical civilisation, such a state of affairs would not be seen for centuries after the fall of native rule in Egypt until the advent of Protestantism and the prosperity theology of the Lutheran Church declared unlimited accumulation of wealth as permitted as wealth was seen as a reward to humans by Providence for good work. For the Lutherans, individual effort and gain were seen as favour from God. Indeed, although it is not mentioned whatsoever, the same sentiments of the hard-working Lutherans were seen as virtues and so praised by Liberal writers like Locke (Two Treatises of Government) and Smith (Wealth of Nations).

Work ethics in Asia

In Asia, the heritage of Oriental religions and Confucianism resulted in a different mix of traditions that would coalesce into a different work ethic emphasising cooperation, trust, and harmony. The most visible and modern of the so-called Asian work ethic would appear in Japan in the form of the pre-war zaibatsu and later on, the post-war keiretsu involving collaboration between civil servants, finance and the private sector. See Collectivism.

Overseas China and the case of guanxi

In Southeast Asia where ethnic Chinese tend to dominate business from Vietnam down to the Torres Straits as the primary capitalist classes, a different work ethic emerged with the European overseas empires. I need to check Lynn Pan on this, although I have no Idea why I work on this. Food for thought -the traditional Sinosphere does not subscribe to the traditional values that Japan operates upon, ie family vs society, individualism vs co0llectivism. So how does this work? -the role of religion and religious ethics in constructing the Chinese work ethic, ie necrolatry. [citation needed]

Work ethics versus "Stewardship"

Evidently, what may be required to help the work ethic get its groove back would be to inculcate not merely just the virtues of hard work, pride in industriousness and entrepreneurship into young people, but also a sense of stewardship and responsibility as well. Aristotle mentioned in the Ethics that people “…ought to show a sense of shame, as their life being directed by emotion is full of mistakes, and it is shame which holds them in check…Neither will a virtuous person feel shame, as shame is occasioned by misconduct; for he ought not to misconduct himself.”

See also

External links

  1. Bauman, Z “Haunted house: the 'work ethic' was bad enough, says Zygmunt Bauman. But its ghost is even worse” New Internationalist (1997, accessed at:
  2. Brooks, K “The Modern Consumer: Overtaxed, Overwhelmed, and Overdrawn” (27 April 2007, accessed at:
  3. Daulten, D, ”Today’s work ethic just no longer works”, Boston Globe (25 March 2007, accessed at:
  4. The Economist “The Mormon work ethic: why Utah’s economy is soaring above its neighbours” (23 October 2008, accessed at:
  5. Elgan, M “Hard Work is Dead. Call It ‘Work Ethic 2.0’ ” Datamation (17 December 2008, accessed at:
  6. Gao, B, Japan's Economic Dilemma: The Institutional Origins of Prosperity and Stagnation , Cambridge University Press (27 August 2001)
  7. Hill, R “History of Work Ethic”, The Work Ethic Site (1999, accessed at:
  8. Hill, R & Petty, G “A New Look at Selected Employability Skills: A Factor Analysis of the Occupational Work Ethic” Journal of Vocational Education Research (Vol 20 #4, 1995 accessed at:
  9. Philosophy: The Big Questions, “What are Work Ethics?” (accessed at:
  10. Wootton, D (ed), Modern Political Thought: Political Readings from Macchiavelli to Nietzsche, Hackett Publishing Co, Inc (1 Oct 1996)


Classical references (any edition is relevant):

  1. Bhagavad-Gita (consult Bk III for a good example of the importance of work in Hinduism)
  2. The Bible (consult Genesis for examples of the relation between work, original sin and man's place in the natural world)
  3. Aristotle, Ethics
  4. Aristotle, Politics
  5. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government (Bk II)
  6. Adam Smith, The Theory of Modern Sentiments
  7. Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian Wars (Cap VI)

Modern/contemporary references:

  1. Fukuyama, Francis, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, London, Penguin (1995)
  2. Keen, M, The Pelican History of Mediaeval Europe, Harmondsworth, Penguin (1969)