A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


The Opposite of Sloth

Here's an interesting article about a new breed of executive, referred to in the article as "extreme workers," who eagerly work 70 hour weeks with little vacation. In reading Catholic Social Teachings on labor (e.g., Laborem Exercens) for the CST class I've taught at three different law schools, I've often strugged to make its lessons relevant to a class full of future (usually highly paid) lawyers.

Part of the problem is that the CST discussions of wage and hour issuestypically address the question of workers who work long hours in orderto put food on the table. Most of my students, however, are heading for the law firm world, where they will bill anywhere from 2200 to 3000 hours per year and work many additional non-billable hours and be well compensated for their sacrifice. The question of what to say to workers who would volunteer to work overly long hours is, apparently, not something the encyclical writers have even considered. But many of the harms identified in the CST writings as resulting from too much time at work -- e.g., not enough time for family, leisure, worship, or spiritual reflection -- are the same, whether the long hours are chosen or imposed by necessity.

In our culture, the idea of too much work as a bad, even sinful, thing just has no traction. Maybe it's our Calvinist heritage. Or maybe it's that, while many sins are conceived as paired examples of excess (e.g., cowardice and foolhardiness), with virtue (courage) as the mean, I'm not sure there is a counterpart to the sin of sloth. We would do a better job of discouraging people from working too hard, I've concluded, if we had a name for this sin and understood industriousness, like courage, as a mean. My question for the commenters is: if there were, what would a good name for it be?

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Unless I'm missing something, it seems to me that greed and pride rather cover those bases--those are two of the big 'uns that share an appartment with sloth.What you describe is also an offense against prudence. Sacrificing oneself and one's family to become a cog in the legal machine hardly seems to dovetail with the personalist norm.Does that cut it or were you looking for something else?

Greg -- I don't think greed and pride capture the sin with the same specificity that sloth does. I know many people (maybe this is peculiar to lawyers) who just love to work for the sake of work -- they're not doing it for the money (they've already made enough) and they're not really in it for their pride. They just get a kick out of, say, litigating. The result is that they're at work 80 hours per week and not spending time with their kids, etc. and causing other people (coworkers, subordinates, etc.) to spend more time at work as well. I know other people who do it not because of greed or pride but because of social pressure in their workplace to put in long hours. I'm sure in every case we could shoe-horn the actions into an existing sin. I just think it would be helpful for our particularly cultural situation to see a nice tidy opposite sin for sloth, like we have with cowardice and foolhardiness.

What about "overwork" as the opposite extreme from sloth? As in, he is overworking himself and his colleagues. This denotes that he is working too much to the detriment of other important elements in his life. The cause of overworking can be (a) his own desire to engage in the activity because of the satisfaction or pleasure that it provides him or (b) coercion in the form of economic or social pressure to do it. In the first case, overwork can be a form of selfishness, which puts one's own pleasure above the needs of others (one's spouse, children, extended family, friends, community, etc.). In the later case, one is subject to the same kind of exploitation, against which the encyclicals rail. Granted social pressure to work long hours may seem less ornerous than economic pressure. Nevertheless, it can be equally powerful given that human beings are socially oriented and threats to our loss of standing with in the community can be perceived as life threatening to some people.

I take your point, but I don't think I'm shoe-horning anything. I would suggest that you're using an unecessarily limiting definition of both pride and greed.I deal with this issue a lot in my practice as well as in my book, God Help Me! This Stress is Driving Me Crazy (Loyola).Nobody "just likes work." People like work for what it does for them. The personalities you describe like work because they're good at it. It makes them feel good about themselves. Family life on the other hand is hard. These hard-charging types are rarely good at intimacy, but billable hours they understand. Putting myself and my interests above the interests of those I am called to love and be loved by is pride. No shoe-horning about it. This sort of behavior says that "I and my interests" are the only thing that matters even to the exclusion of the souls that have been placed in my care. That isn't "enjoying my work" that's having an unhealthy obsession with work that is rooted in pride and self-aggrandizement. The fact that people being prideful don't recognize it as such is hardly the point. As Mrs Gump might have said, "Prideful is as prideful does."Incidentally, your characterization of sloth isn't really correct. Sloth isn't mainly about laziness and a poor work ethic. It's about not doing the spiritual and relational work that needs to be done so that you can become the person God is calling you to be. A person could work 80 hours a week and still be slothful if they are ignoring their spiritual and relational responsibilities.I don't think the issue is that we need new virtues. I would argue that we have to have a deeper understanding of the virtues that already exist, but are largely ignored and poorly understood. After all, unchecked ambition is hardly a 21 century phenomenon. The Church has been confronting sin in all its forms for 2000 years. Perhaps going deeper is what's called for, not re-inventing the moral wheel.Just my off-the-cuff thoughts. Thanks for the conversation.Greg

I wrote an article, "Billable Hours in Ordinary Time," published in Loyola Law Review, and published in the theological journal Communio under the title "Living the Fullness of Ordinary Time," which contrasts the view of time in a billable hours world (and by extension, in most of corporate America) with the liturgical and theological view in Catholic Christianity. I do, incidentally, think there is something to the Calvinization of time in America (Weber). Incidentally, this is another way in which Catholic liturgy and theology (liturgy of the hours, liturgical seasons, days of feast and fast) shape - or used to shape --Catholic sensibilities in ways very different from Protestant theology and liturgy. One of the texts I discuss is JPII's Dies Domini-which talks about the importance of keeping the Sabbath.

How about "workaholism"? There are two problems here that ought to be distinguished. Some people spend a great deal of time working because they need, or at least think they need, the money which they receive for what they do. Actually some people are not paid enough and do need the money that long hours brings in. That is one thing. Another is that some people actually so enjoy what they work at that they want to keep at it. The solution here is to make people do work they do not enjoy so that they will not work at it more than is reasonable. This may be more difficult. Some people enjoy drinking so much that they inevitably do it to excess. They should not drink at all. Should workaholics be warned not to work? Perhaps they might be counseled to change to a job they do not like.

Here's a candidate for the vice opposed to sloth, although it's a term that's guaranteed not to catch on: Hyperopia, an excess of farsightedness, interestingly described in Sunday's NY Times: contrasted sloth (an insufficiency of love) with two classes of vices, either perversions of love (pride, envy, wrath) or excessive love of good objects (avarice, gluttony, lust). His exemplars practicing sloth's contrasting virtue, zeal, included Mary and Julius Caesar. Purgatorio, cantos 17 and 18.

I was going to offer "25/7," but Joe's "workaholism" entry is much better... Immediately recognizable as a disorder.When's the first "Workaholics Anonymous" meeting? My calendar's REALLY tight through March, and I'd like to pencil it in asap.

The difficulty with a neologism or even a popularly accepted word like "wokaholism" is that someone can always simply say, "You're telling me that workaholism is a sin? Who says that? Why should I believe you?" Then you're left stammering something that makes you sound like a low-rent Marianne Williamson wannabe. The word is perhaps a more palatable descriptor to the modern ear, but it lacks the moral authority needed to really challenge people. Heck, I know people who wear "workaholic" as a badge of distinction.I think Patrick's traditional reformulation of my point above, that the opposite vices of sloth are variations on the themes of pride and greed, pack a much harder moral punch because they are backed up by both theological and intellectual tradition. To use a metaphor that might appeal to the company I'm keeping in this box, it seems to me that there's something to be said for appealing to precedent rather than writing new law.

Greg -- thanks for the discussion and the pointer towards your book, which I look forward to reading. I think you're right that I have an overly-secularized understanding of sloth, about which I have read very little. Cathy -- I am familiar with your excellent article, which I commend to all the blog's readers, along with an article by your former colleague Patrick Schiltz on the same topic.Patrick -- I like your proposed vice, but I think Bill and Joe capture more narrowly the phenomenon of working too much, as opposed to the traits of character that cause such behavior, on which you and Greg are more focused. The focus on character is probably more interesting in the long run, and more consistent with our moral tradition, but I like the idea of a sin focused narrowly on work, in the same way that gluttony is (in our popular understanding of the word) focused on food. But maybe that is just wrongheaded, for reasons Greg points to in his second comment.Anyway, thanks to all for participating. I'm learning a lot from this fantastic thread.

For those who like Greek names, try "hyperponeseiosis". The excess is caught "hyper" and "poneseiosis" suggests a desire for toil or hard work. The word is not attested in antiquity, but then maybe no ancient Hellen thought of this as a problem.

I agree with Greg Popcak that sloth should be understood in the sense of the term acedia and that it is a spiritual problem, not simple physical laziness.But I would argue that we won't gain any profit from seeking a term for overwork or whatever this is. The moral problem of overwork is that while working hard appears on its face to be a virtue, no virtue is truly a virtue unless the virtues are unified. This business of trying to identify them individually and in the process segmenting them, is part of the problem.

And then there are the corporate worker bees (usually over the age of 50) who, when they look around at the ever-increasing younger cohorts in the meetings they attend, start to get nervous. They read the articles and hear the comments that they are too old, too inflexible, have out of date skill sets and (of course) are overpaid.These usually are the folks who bought into the cruel middle class myth that getting a college degree and a white collar job would facilitate the trip up the ladder and into a solid, comfortable middle class life.They are at an age in which the most likely have college-age kids, a substantial mortgage, and have gotten used to a certain lifestyle that they dont want to lose.So, they put their heads down, work the longer hours, and worry about what they can do to ensure that they are still seen as being valuable in a world that values youth, vigor and lower salaries, updated skill sets and wages. Experience is too expensive. Each day becomes a case of deliver, deliver, deliver as fast as possible. And dont forget to keep your Blackberry on 24/7 so you can ALWAYS be found.You can call that workaholism if you like. I call it unbridled fear. Fear of losing it all and facing the fact that you more than likely wont be able to easily replicate your comfortable little niche that you thought was yours for being good, obedient, educated girls and boys in the sheltered corporate life.People ask me if I miss working how that I have been retired for 3+ years. My answer is a firm, not only "no" but "hell no!"

This retireee proposes the simple word 'neglect' --- as in neglecting one's physical (and mental?) health, one's family or other loved ones, etc.I can only echo Jimmy's comment: "Hell no," I don't miss so-called "gainful employment" a bit, not one stinkin' bit!My younger brother (mid-50s) routinely puts in 12 hours a day at his desk, not because he wants to but because it's the only way he can keep up with the work that keeps piling up on his desk. He intends to retire for good at age 62.As someone once said, "I've never seen a guy on his deathbed say, 'I wish I'd only worked longer.'"LIfe is too short.

Im a scholar who has worked in the so-called real world for many years (Information Technology), and I have observed workaholism in action. Pace Joseph Gannon, I actually think most workaholics DONT like their jobs. And they arent just in it for the money either. (These are generally workplace nomads, always chasing after the better deal, both in terms of money and the time spent following it.) Rather, workaholics are driven to succeed according to absurdly inflated standards of success they themselves have set up. Everything rides on their self-identification with a career, and their gaining power and reputation in it. They dont see their work as inherently worthwhile. They are textbook obsessives, as Greg Popcak pointed out. They are stressed out and generally miserable, because, to paraphrase Santayana, they keep doubling their effort when theyve forgotten their aim.So, rather than counseling them to change to a job they do not like, I would tell them to find a job they actually do like, but just enough to put down once in a while, so they could take some time to live well. Itll be there when they come back..I

Two footnotes to the discussion:1) Heres a contrarian view on trends in the American workplace, argueing that American workers are experiencing both increasing hours of paid work and increasing hours of leisure. What allow this to happen is that hours of unpaid work are declining. If so Eduardos law students, despite their logging of more and more billable hours, have a decent chance to lead even a fuller life than their predecessors. A tangential consideration on sloth can be found in an old essay of Wilfrid Sheed, one of my favorite writers and an erstwhile Commonweal luminary:Every vice has some good in itas for sloth, it is not really all that far from nirvana, the garden of Allah, or Abrahams bosom; it is just a mite premature. Rest in peace, but not yet. I still think it is one hell of a sin. Essays in Disguise.

Being a workaholic can be a sin as most things done excessively. In medio stat applies here. The real problem of immersion into work is avoidance to face other things in our life. Like relating to spouse, children or family. Many get into comfort zones which can be very dangerous. People who are perpetually in school usually are afraid to grow up. That old irascible "St" Jerome said that he immersed himself into studying Hebrew to avoid the temptations of all those Roman damsels he associated with. The Vulgate came out but the person might have lost out.In sum the problem is one of fear of intimacy. Whether emptying oneself before God or others.

Bill, I must say I agree with you. I recall my maternal grandfather who moved from Mt. Vernon, IN (near Evansville) to St. Louis at age 14 to look for work to help support his mother and his younger siblings back home. He was constantly on the go later in life as an industrial insurance adjustor. Work was his life until he retired. Even then, he downplayed the importance of feelings, telling us to ignore them. By coincidence, I just finished viewing the film "5X2" in which the lead male character cannot relate to intimacy. When he gets called at work about his newborn son being delivered prematurely by caesarean, he leaves for the hospital but stops on the way to have a nervous lunch. He then spends time alone in his car. Only when he knows he must finally get to the hospital does he proceed to visit his wife. Even then, she and we sense this man's discomfort with intimacy. At work, he apparently is OK. Not so at other times.Thanks for the insight.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment