Primary and Secondary Ethics.
Given that human life always operates at some degree of idleness, greater than zero and less than unity, and that zero idleness is the threshold of death, while perfect or unit idleness is a state of complete freedom of action, it follows naturally that those actions which increase human idleness are to be preferred over those which reduce idleness. What is "right" or "good" is action which increases idleness. The adoption of the alternative - that what is good is whatever makes life more busy and difficult - can only result in the extinction of whoever adopts such an ethical code, as their idleness falls to zero.
The circumstance of humanity is to be adrift, upon a sea whose currents tend to draw them off the edge of the world into oblivion, in a lifeboat whose sails carry them towards secure dry land. Humanity is engaged upon rescuing itself.
The division of labour within human society results in an increase in idleness, and is part of ethical behaviour. The manufacture and use of tools which reduce human work is a part of human ethical behaviour. The trade in such tools, which results in their widest distribution, is part of ethical behaviour. The adoption of laws, which serve to expedite human work, and minimize conflict, is part of ethical behaviour. The observation of moral codes of conduct, to act in ways which do not reduce idleness, is part of ethical behaviour. In many ways, ethics, economics, and politics all form one subject in Idle Theory. In all cases, Idle Theory is dealing with interdependent human societies, in which each person is using tools produced by other persons. Economics deals with the production and exchange of these tools. Politics deals with the formal social structures (e.g. laws) in which the exchange and use of tools is embedded. Ethics, in the pure sense, deals with extra-legal and extra-monetary ethical matters.
The first question that has to be asked of any activity which comes under ethical scrutiny is: does it increase or decrease human idleness? Does it make life easier or more difficult? And then it must be asked: for whom?
Seen in this way, ethics is not about what free moral agents should do in their idle time, but about how part-time free agents act to become, as far as possible, wholly free agents. The question of what free moral agents should do or not do in their idle time is an entirely secondary question, which waits upon primary ethical behaviour delivering idle time.
About this secondary ethical behaviour, which concerns itself with how free agents should behave, Idle Theory has almost nothing to say. It is only concerned with a primary ethics which has, as its goal, the freedom which then prompts the questions of secondary ethics - what is to be done with this freedom? Idle Theory is only concerned with navigating the ship of humanity to the shores of freedom. What men do once they step ashore into that freedom is a quite separate matter, which it is entirely beyond the capability of Idle Theory to address.
In this sense, the ethic of Idle Theory is not all-encompassing. It is not a complete account of ethics. Beyond it, there lies a realm of human freedom which it cannot enter. In this, Idle Theory has a role akin to that of a doctor, who is concerned to heal the sick, and is not interested with what people do with their lives once they leave his care.
This is not to say that secondary ethics is completely separate from primary ethics. If, for example, men use tools to increase idleness, then it is unethical to destroy or damage such tools in their idle time. That is, idle time activities which have primary ethical consequences fall within the scope of a primary ethics. Murder, which reduces human idleness to zero, always has a primary ethical character. But Idle Theory does not need to enter into secondary ethical debates, on the ground that human life has not attained such freedom. Or else, if anyone is concerned with such secondary questions, they can be referred to modern ethics.
Modern ethical theories - hedonism, utilitarianism, etc - all begin by supposing that humans are free moral agents. That humans are, in Idle Theory's terminology, perfectly idle; that the ship of humanity has docked at dry land.
Freedom matters, because individual freedom is a prior assumption of ethical reasoning.
From the point of view of Idle Theory, all these ethical speculations are of a secondary nature, and ask: What shall we do with our freedom? Shall we be hedonists, or utilitarians, or act according to some principle, or be guided by intuition? In Idle Theory's view, anyone can at best only be a part-time hedonist in pursuit of personal pleasure, or a part-time utilitarian seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When human idleness falls to zero, there can be no pursuit of pleasure or happiness or virtue, because there is no time available for their pursuit while humanity is locked into endless work. These ethical theories all have the character of luxuries, and the disputes over which is more reasonable or principled or applicable are so many disputes as to whether porridge is preferable to partridge. Human life is not idle life, to be disposed of at will: this is rather the goal of human life.
Yet Idle Theory is, in some senses, arguably a close relative of utilitarianism, in that it might be stated as seeking the greatest idleness for the greatest number, and to have a calculus of idleness comparable to a utilitarian Felicific Calculus of pain and pleasure, and to engage in totting up the gains and losses of idle time consequent upon any activity. But utilitarian "happiness" or "well-being" is a vague, immeasurable and subjective notion. Idle Theory's "idleness" is much more tightly defined and measurable. But the increase in definition results in a loss of generality. Utilitarianism is, in principle, applicable to any human activity, as it results in more or less happiness. Idle Theory can only deal with those activities which have effects upon human idleness. Also, while in principle, utilitarian happiness may become infinitely great, with no obvious maximum of happiness, idleness has a distinct maximum and minimum.
Idleness is clearly a different end than happiness. But for John Stuart Mill, all rational morality had some end in mind; for utilitarians this end was pleasure:
Whether happiness be or be not the end to which morality should be referred - that it should be referred to an end of some sort, and not left to the dominion of vague feeling or inexplicable internal conviction, that it be made a matter of reason and calculation, and not merely of sentiment, is essential to the very idea of moral philosophy; is, in fact, what renders argument and discussion possible. That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of all rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain is all of the doctrine of the school of utility which is peculiar to it.
Oddly, while Utility meant 'happiness', 'pleasure', or 'well-being' to the early utilitarian philosophers (Bentham, Mill) the modern meaning of 'utility' entirely lacks any connotation of pleasure. A 'utility' product, such as a garment of some sort, is typically something that is minimal, devoid of frills, and serves to perform a task, and nothing more. The one thing it does not give is 'pleasure'. Utilitarianism, in this modern everyday sense, is much closer to Idle Theory. Whether this is because the term 'utility' has changed its meaning, or that the original intended meaning has survived its association with 'pleasure' or 'happiness', is hard to say.
Utilitarianism is frequently attacked by arguing that the world would be a happier place if unhappy people were killed off. The same argument is harder to apply to Idle Theory, because, in an interdependent human society, killing off busy people would simply shift the burden of work onto hitherto idle people. In Roman society, freemen were presumably relatively idle, and slaves relatively busy: killing off the busy slaves would have resulted in the idle freemen having to perform the work of slaves - defeating the whole point of the institution of slavery. In societies in which each person was entirely independent of others, killing off busy people would not increase the idleness of those remaining.
In the view of Idle Theory, 'happiness' and 'pleasure' appear defective ends, because they are unable to be measured. It is this great defect that renders calculation futile. By contrast, idleness - which is a ratio of periods of time - is in principle measurable, and therefore suitable for calculation. But an idle person is not necessarily a 'happy' person. Idle time is simply freely disposable time, and an idle individual might find themselves bored, or prey to innumerable fears and delusions and worries, just as easily as they might find such time pleasant and fulfilling.
Much modern ethical thought begins with some actual ethical dilemma - such as that which surrounds abortion -. Idle Theory's approach is much more one of speculating how (and why) ethical codes arose in the course of human history. Idle Theory tends to look back into the remote past, and the evolution of humans and human society, and work towards the contemporary human world. This has the advantage of keeping Idle Theory relatively uncontroversial, and the disadvantage of making it irrelevant to the extent that it fails to address contemporary ethical problems.
Most modern ethical discussions disregard Christianity. This is really because most ethical theorists are trying to construct ethical systems which are based upon reason rather than revelation. They are, in many senses, post-Christian, and are trying to struggle out from under the immense shadow of Christianity. And yet, Christian ethical codes - the Ten Commandments, and the specifically Christian injunction to 'love thy neighbour' - still largely provide the ethical underpinning to modern Western society - largely because the post-Christian ethical theorists have never managed to construct an ethical theory that surpasses that of Christianity. Purely on account of this, Christian ethical codes deserve greater attention.
And Idle Theory is arguably more closely related to a Christian ethic of salvation than to any modern post-Christian ethical theory. In Idle Theory, human life - and all life - is suspended between two extreme states - zero idleness and perfect unit idleness -, with one far preferable to the other. Thus Idle Theory has a distinct Hell - zero idleness - which baulks huge upon one horizon, and a distinct Heaven - perfect idleness - which can be discerned as a distant smudge upon the other horizon, with the ship of humanity sailing towards the port of Heaven, and away from Hell. Or else its geography is of a ladder which extends from Hell below to Heaven above, up which humanity endeavours to climb, and down which it regularly slides.
Idle Theory also sees human life as deeply unfree, and therefore not wholly culpable. The Demon of Idle Theory is entirely constrained to work, and its God is absolutely free. Fallen humanity is somewhere between the two, and Redemption is recovery of lost freedom. All human evil - lies, theft, murder, etc. - is rooted in necessity, in humanity's fallen state. Those evils will end only with Redemption. There is no such thing as a free will that is also an evil will.
From the point of view of Idle Theory, the Christian cosmos of Heaven and Hell, of Fall and Redemption, of God and devil, appear to more accurately describe the realities of human existence than any of the post-Christian ethical theories (which effectively place humanity in Heaven). Of course, the Heaven and Hell of Idle Theory are translations of Christian terms. In Idle Theory, 'Heaven' and 'Hell' acquire meanings which Christians might deny correspond with their actual meaning within Christianity. Idle Theory is a rational system, rather than one based upon revelation. But what emerges from that rationality is a description of the human circumstance which strongly echoes Christian revelation, and which suggests that there is perhaps a lost rationality within Christianity which may yet be recovered.
For just as rational ethical systems can be constructed, they can also decay and become lost. Early Christianity was clearly robustly various and disputatious. When Christianity became dogmatic, and all heresies were suppressed, often with violence, moral dispute and moral reasoning lapsed. The received orthodoxy became a matter of rote learning and repetition. Moral dispute became out of bounds for everyone except ecclesiastical authorities using the now-dead Latin language. The result, after several hundreds of years, was that when moral dispute was revived, Christian terminology simply no longer made sense to any but the most erudite theologians, and quite possibly not even to them. Post-Christian secular moral theorists had to discard Christian terminology, and start all over again, writing in their own natural language. But it does not follow that, just because Christianity may appear nonsensical and irrational, that it actually always was, and our ancestors were idiots. It is not too difficult to imagine that a subject like modern physics could become equally dogmatic, and its intricate details known only to a dwindling minority of experts, to the point that equations like e=mc2 become entirely incomprehensible to most people, so that they throw away the textbooks, and start all over again - only, in time, to rediscover the lost wisdom.
Author: Chris Davis
Last Edited: 5 Nov 1998