Primary ethics is concerned with generating idle time, and involves a rational calculation of time gains and losses. Secondary ethics is concerned with consuming idle time, and is non-rational and guided by aesthetic sensibility, emotion, or feeling. Producing idle time is a matter of cold calculation, but what is done in idle time - for example playing games - is a matter of spontaneity and chance.
Conflicts of Primary and Secondary ethics
Where there are two ethical systems, the one guided by reason, the other by emotion or feeling, there must occasionally be collisions. In general, primary ethics must always take priority over secondary ethics. For secondary ethical concerns do not have the same weight as primary ethical concerns. Secondary ethics is only possible to the extent that primary ethical behaviour is successful in generating idle time.
Collisions may arise for a variety of reasons. For very often what is right in one is wrong in the other. It is quite right to be single-mindedly disciplined at work, but it by no means clear that such single-minded discipline is appropriate at play. And while spontaneity may be a virtue in idle time, it is not clear that it is appropriate at work. The whole cast of mind is different between busy and idle times.
But also, apart from overall mentality, there can arise argument over what is done in idle time. For example, there is no particular reason why people should not become intoxicated by alcohol in their idle hours and days. But there is every reason why people should not be intoxicated at work: they are likely to work badly, make mistakes, or not work at all. Equally, while it's fine for people to spend their idle hours asleep, it's not acceptable for them to spend their working hours asleep.
Separating busy and idle time
One way around these various conflicts is to make a strict separation of busy and idle times, a separation of work and play. Rather than blending work and play insensibly together, so that people alternate between busyness and idleness from hour to hour, or even from minute to minute, working in a leisurely manner, there are instead set specific times for work, and specific times for play. All the busy hours are allotted to one part of a week, and all the idle time to the remainder. There is a working week, and an idle weekend (or sabbath). In this manner, ethical dispute is minimized. Indeed, this might offer part of the explanation of the origin of the sabbath. (Another explanation of the sabbath is that it allowed the real idleness of a society to be measured.) The relative duration of the idle weekend and the busy working week is determined by the overall idleness of a society. If a week is 10 days rather than 7 days, then a 10% idle society would work 9 days and have a one day weekend. And a 90% idle society would have have a one day working week, and a 9 day weekend.
The separation of busy and idle times might be compared with the separation of the supply of fresh water from the discharge of soiled water. The primary ethic, in this analogy, would be entirely and exclusively concerned with the provision of pure, fresh water in copious quantities. Secondary ethics, in this analogy, are concerned with what is done with this supply of fresh clean water: drinking it, cooking with it, cleaning with it, washing with it, using it to flush away soil, constructing fountains and ponds, watering plants and flowers, and all the infinite other possible uses of water. The business of supplying fresh water is one of making the water as pure as possible, devoid of any additives. But in using water, water is always being contaminated in one way or other. And it is very important that the pure water that flows into a household or a city is not contaminated by the contaminated soil and waste water that flows out of it - because if the water supply is contaminated with soil and waste, it cannot be used to drink or cook or wash, and may be poisonous to people and plants and animals.
An example of ethical conflict
A modern example of ethical conflict concerns the use (or abuse) of drugs such as marijuana, opium, cocaine, etc.
The prime ethical imperative requires that people perform their work conscientiously and soberly. People who are under the influence of drugs are unlikely to effectively carry out their work, or maybe even do any work at all. Therefore this imperative of sobriety must also carry the force of law, and anyone at work who is found to be intoxicated should be subject to sanctions.
However, from a secondary ethical perspective, there is nothing wrong with people using drugs in their idle time, when there is no work for them to do. Nor is there anything wrong with buying and selling such drugs.
At present, in modern Western society, even the possession and use of drugs in idle time is a criminal offence. Selling such drugs attracts even higher opprobrium.
Although in most circumstances the use of drugs at work is undesirable, there are many examples where it is actually useful. A business meeting may well proceed more amicably and easily if lubricated with a little alcohol than if conducted with glasses of water. And many kinds of creative activities benefit from the use of drugs that enhance imagination. Some computer programmers insist that they perform better under the influnce of marijuana than stone cold sober. Equally drugs such as cocaine may enable busy, hardworking people to endure longer hours of work than they might otherwise.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: Sep 2004
Last edited: Nov 2004