The Ideas of Work and Leisure – 2

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Categorizing Human Activities

To define the four main categories under which the activities that fill most of our life’s time can be classified, it is necessary to answer four questions, as follows:

  • First, is the activity compulsory or optional? Here we must consider two subordinate questions. If compulsory, is its necessity absolute (unconditional) or relative (conditional)? If optional, is it also morally obligatory for the purpose of leading a good life or living well, even though it is not biologically necessary for the preservation of life and health, and not economically necessary for earning a livelihood — the means of subsistence? If optional and not morally obligatory, is it nevertheless morally permissible because it does not frustrate our efforts to lead a decent human life?
  • Second, what purpose does the activity serve? Why do we engage in it? What goods or values do we achieve by doing it, either for ourselves or for the society in which we live?
  • Third, how is the result we achieve by the activity related to the activity by which we achieve the result, and also how is it related to the agent performing the activity? On the one hand, the result — the good or value aimed at by the activity — may be extrinsic to the activity. It may be a consequence of the activity, one that follows from it and lies beyond it. On the other hand, it may be inherent in or intrinsic to the activity itself. When the activity has no consequences as part of its purpose or aim, it is strictly nonutilitarian. When it is utilitarian, it may, on the one hand, result in some perfection or improvement of the agent performing the activity; on the other hand, it may improve something other than the performing agent. The result may also be only a good or value for the individual performing the activity, or it may also be a good or value for the society in which the performing agent lives.
  • Fourth, what sort of activity is it? Is the activity physical, mental, or both in different measures: more or less physical, more or less mental?

The full importance of these questions will become clearer as we now use them to characterize the four main categories under which activities can be grouped or classified.

Sleep or Sleeping

It is compulsory, not optional; and its necessity is unconditional, not conditional. Its purpose is the preservation of life and the enhancement of bodily health and vigor. The values aimed at are primarily goods for each human individual, though these goods are also matters of importance for the community in which the individual lives. The results achieved are extrinsic to and consequent upon the activities rather than inherent in them. Finally, the character of the activities is primarily physical; or, more properly speaking, they are physiological activities.

Work or Working that is Toil or Labor

For the great multitude of human beings — excepting only the few who, at any time, are exempt from toil because they are otherwise provided with the means of subsistence and the comforts or conveniences of life — toiling, or working to earn a living, is compulsory, not optional.

However, if we consider the whole of humankind at any time, that statement must be qualified by saying that toil is never unconditionally necessary, since it is always possible for some individuals to be exempt from it by the privileged condition that their possession of sufficient wealth confers upon them. It is not possible to stay alive and healthy without using some portion of one’s time for the biologically necessary activities; but it is possible to stay alive and healthy, and even to live well, in the fullest sense of that term, without engaging in the form of work that is toil.

There is nothing intrinsically good about toil, neither in itself nor as a means to a good human life. However, this is mitigated by two extrinsic considerations, which cast some measure of favorable light upon toil. Toiling is a more honorable way of obtaining a needed livelihood than stealing. It is also a more dignified way to take care of one’s economic needs or the needs of one’s family than receiving a welfare handout. To this extent the person compelled to engage in toil preserves his self-respect by doing so.

Work or Working that is Leisuring Rather than Toiling

It is always optional, never necessary, either biologically or economically. One can stay alive and healthy without leisuring. One can possess the means of subsistence and enjoy the comforts and conveniences of life without leisuring. But if we pass from just living to living well, living a morally good human life, then it must be said that leisuring is the only form of work that is morally obligatory. In other words, one can live well without toiling, but one can not live well without leisuring.

Before I pass on to playing or amusing one’s self (the last of the four main categories under which our activities can be classified), let me summarize all the points we must bear in mind about the two distinct forms of work, toiling and leisuring. I feel compelled to do so because most people think of leisure as the very antithesis of work. The fact that most people think of work as working for a living prevents their understanding the different kinds of work.

The form of work that is toiling aims at obtaining wealth, the means of subsistence and, beyond the necessities of a bare livelihood, the amenities as well — the comforts and conveniences of a decent human life.

In sharp contrast, the form of work that is pure leisuring does not aim at wealth, neither the necessities of a livelihood nor the amenities of a decent life, but aims rather at living well, a morally good human life. Leisuring is, therefore, morally obligatory, even though it is neither biologically nor economically necessary. The goods or values that leisuring aims at and achieves are goods that perfect the human person individually and also contribute to the welfare of the society in which the individual lives.

Both labor and leisure contribute to the social welfare, but in different ways. The results of labor enrich the wealth of the community as well as obtain wealth for the individual who toils. The results of leisure improve the community as well as perfecting the individual person, by enriching it not by wealth but by all the goods of civilization or culture — all the arts and sciences.

The results achieved by both labor and leisure are extrinsic to or consequent upon the activities that constitute both forms of work. The result achieved by leisuring always perfects the performing individual in mind or character. It may also be an improvement in something else; for example, some art, science, or other body of knowledge, or some social institution. In sharp contrast, the result achieved by labor may sometimes be solely an improvement of the materials on which the laborer worked. The performing agent, the worker who toils, may be in no way perfected as a human being by the work done. That is never the case when the worker leisures in stead of toils.

However, it is also true that work may involve a mixture of toiling and leisuring. Its results may involve both some perfection of the worker and also some improvement of the materials worked on. I shall return to such mixtures of toiling and leisuring when I come presently to a delineation of the spectrum of work, which ranges from work that is purely toil at one extreme to work that is purely leisure at the other extreme, with all degrees of admixture in between.

Work that is toil may, at one extreme, be mainly physical in character with little or no mental activity involved. This is what we call unskilled labor. At the other extreme, it may be work that is mainly or exclusively mental rather than physical in character. When that is the case, the leisure component in the mixed character of the work done predominates. Some knowledge is acquired, some skill is developed, that perfects the individual as well as the materials on which he or she works.

This is especially true if the mental activity involved is to any degree creative, rather than the performance by rote memory of a repetitive routine. To the extent that anything is learned by doing the work, it must be leisure-work that is mental rather than physical. When the work done is purely leisure-work, without any ad mixture of labor or toil, it always has a mental component, even though strenuous and prolonged physical effort may be involved in doing it.

Before we turn to play or amusement, one more point must be mentioned in our consideration of work in both of its forms, toiling and leisuring.

The production of wealth being the purpose of toil, the results of such work are always possessions, either things possessed by the worker or things possessed by the company or corporation that em ploys the worker or by the community in which the worker lives. In contrast, the result of work that is leisuring always confers intrinsic perfections of mind or character upon the worker even when, in addition, the work produces external goods, either economic goods or the cultural goods that perfect the community in which he or she lives.

Playing or Amusing One’s Self

There can be no question that it is optional rather than biologically or economically necessary. But there is some question about whether it is morally obligatory.

To answer that question, we must move on to the result at which play or amusement aims. The purpose of play being pleasure and pleasure being one of the real goods that enrich a human life and contribute to happiness, it would appear to follow that we are under some obligation to play and amuse ourselves in our pursuit of happiness or in our effort to make a good human life for ourselves.

That statement must be immediately qualified by a consideration of the limited value of pleasure as one of life’s real goods. Some real goods are goods without limit. We cannot, for example, have too much knowledge or too much skill. Other real goods, such as liberty, wealth, and pleasure are limited goods, of which we can have too much, more than is good for us to have or good for our fellow human beings in the community in which we live. Overindulgence in play or amusement is, therefore, not morally permissible, even if some enjoyment of the pleasure derived from play is morally obligatory for the sake of leading a good human life.

Two further questions remain, one about the pleasure that results from play and the other about the character of that activity.

Of the four main categories under which our activities can be classified, only play produces a result that is entirely intrinsic to the activity itself. When the activity is purely and simply play, no extrinsic consequence then follows upon doing it. We are playing or amusing ourselves purely and solely for the pleasure that is inherent in the activity performed.

To whatever extent a given activity has some extrinsic result as its consequence, whether that be health, wealth, or the perfection of our minds and character, the activity ceases to be pure play and takes on another aspect. Just as work may involve in varying degrees an admixture of labor and leisure, so an activity that is in one respect play may also in another respect fall under some other category. It then becomes utilitarian play.

Is playing or amusing ourselves ever purely physical or ever purely mental? Clearly, there are some forms of play that are purely mental or are for the most part so, involving little or no physical effort. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether any form of play can be purely physical, since playing usually involves some skill or know how, which is a mental trait.

One fundamental problem in the classification of our activities under the four main categories has emerged in the preceding discussion.

We have noted admixtures of toil and leisure in some kinds of work. We have observed that a given activity may be play in one aspect and something else in another. It is also the case that a given activity may, at different times, serve all the purposes so far mentioned: It may aim at enhancing our health, at increasing our possessions, at improving or perfecting ourselves, and at giving us pleasure. It may even achieve two or more of these results at one and the same time.

How, then, shall we characterize the diverse particular activities in which we engage to fill the time of our lives? Some may fall wholly under one of the four main categories. Some may fall under two or more of them, varying in the degree to which the differing aspects of the activity constitute an admixture of different categories.

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