Related essays

The idle life model

General remarks

Wants and needs

Pain and pleasure

Part-time free agents

The value of human society

Equality of idleness


The mathematics of ethics

Good manners

Theft and gift

Conflicts of primary and secondary ethics

The modern rosy vision of complete freedom

Human behaviour at different degrees of idleness

Varieties of ethical codes

The natural selection of ethics

Co-operative and coercive society

The Logic of Slavery

Shifting values

10 Commandments


The logic of puritanism

Ethical naturalism

Rules & Rulemaking

From Physics to Ethics

Code of the buzzard

Plant, animal, human

The Work Ethic

Busy & idle psychology

Fear of idleness

Outline of Ethics

This essay is intended to unite various strands of Idle Theory's approach to ethics, and to provide links to various essays that amplify particular points.

primary and secondary ethics

1) There are two systems of ethics: a primary ethics that is concerned with generating idle time, and a secondary ethics that is concerned with what is done in idle time.

2) Degrees of idleness have ethical consequences. It is not just that ethical behaviour has effects upon idleness, but that degrees of idleness have effects upon behaviour.

Freedom and Constraint

Any system of ethics presupposes freedom of choice. Ethical behaviour is about choosing to do the right or appropriate thing, and ethical debate is about what is and isn't right or appropriate. Someone who is entirely determined in their actions, who always acts from necessity rather than from choice, cannot act in accordance with any moral code or principle.

Idle Theory abandons any presupposition of complete freedom in favour of a degree of freedom which may range from complete freedom at one extreme, to total constraint at the other. In Idle Theory, human life, like all life, alternates between work and leisure, busyness and idleness. The work that is done is that of self-maintenance, providing food and drink, shelter and clothing, and all that is needed to sustain life. The penalty for failing to do this work is not discomfort or inconvenience or embarrassment: the penalty is death. Busy at their work, humans are constrained, on pain of death, to some restricted set of self-maintenance activities. Only in their idle time are they free to do as they choose. Rather than being perfectly free agents, they are part-time free agents - free to the extent that they are idle, constrained to the degree that they are busy.

Any creature that is continually busy stands at the threshold of death. It is therefore in the interest of all living creatures to find the easiest way of living, the most idle life.

Seen from this perspective, ethics is not so much about what human free agents should and should not do, but rather what part-time free agents should and should not do in order to become as far as possible completely free agents. The primary endeavour of constrained, hobbled, unfree humanity is to gain complete freedom of choice.

If humanity is not free, it is not because it is enslaved by tyrants, but because it is in the nature of all living creatures that they must work to survive. A human life is not a gift of some 70 years handed to each person on a plate: instead it is something that requires continual periodic effort to sustain.

The Primary Ethic

The one good of Idle Theory is idle time. Only in idle time (or leisure time or free time) is it possible for anyone to do what they want to do. Only in idle time can anyone freely choose what to do. Whatever anyone may want to do, they must first have the idle time in which to do it. And life does not consist entirely of idle time. Much of life is spent in constrained, necessary busyness.

The primary ethical task for humanity (and any living creature) is to become as far as possible idle and free. What people do thereafter in their idle time is an entirely secondary matter.

This quest for idleness has the character of an absolute imperative. For it is not simply that increasing idleness brings pleasure and happiness and all the good things in life, but that increasing busyness and toil culminate in death. The choice between idleness and busyness is the choice between life and death. To choose idleness is to choose life.

It is either through coercion or cooperation that anyone increases their idleness, with coercion often offering, in the short term, the highest rewards, but co-operation offering, in the long term, the highest rewards. The value of human society is that individuals are more idle working cooperatively within society than they are outside it.

The entire organisation of human society is built around the goal of maximizing idleness, and minimizing work. The purpose of human society, and of all its customs and practices, is the increase of idleness. The division of labour into separate trades acts to increase productivity, and increase idleness. The production and distribution of useful tools that reduce human labour serves to increase idleness. A trading economy is a system whereby such tools are distributed as widely as possible, to increase the idleness of as many people as possible. The invention and innovation of new tools, or ways of producing existing tools, acts to increase idleness. The observance of various codes of conduct within human society is valuable to the extent that such codes act to maximize idleness. The formalisation of such codes as enforcable laws serves to maximize idleness. The political organisation of society must be whatever maximizes idleness.

Every part of human society - its division of labour, its tools, its trade, its codes of conduct, its laws, its political organisation, or any other custom or practice - are all to be judged according to whether they increase or decrease idleness. All customs and practices and laws and codes must be regularly reviewed to determine whether they serve a useful, idleness-increasing purpose, and those found useless or damaging discarded, and useful new practices adopted.

And since human society is primarily a common endeavour towards a common good, the idleness it generates should ideally be distributed equally in common across society, with no individual working longer than any other. But this is entirely an equality of idleness, and of nothing else. If in their idle time some people busy themselves making and trading luxuries or amusements, and become wealthy thereby, those people who have given over their idle time to sleep or play have no claim to equal shares of such wealth.

The value of ethical behaviour within society is that such behaviour increases social idleness. Unethical behaviour is that which decreases social idleness. Any act has consequences in the form of gains or losses of idle time for both the agent and for everyone else in society. Those acts are best which increase everyone's idleness, and worst which decrease everyone's idleness. And since time and idleness are numerical in nature, there is a mathematics of ethics which allows the consequences of any act to be assessed, and its merit or demerit established.

Ethical behaviour may perhaps be typified as considerate behaviour. An ethical man is a considerate man, who considers not only his own interest, but the interests of others.

Secondary ethics: aesthetics

If the primary ethic is concerned with coming by idle time, a secondary ethics is concerned with disposing of that time. Primary ethics is about how people come by idle time, and secondary ethics is about what they do with it.

Once people have idle time in which they can do what they like, what they do in their idle time cannot be determined by the primary ethic. For in the extreme, someone who has achieved perfect idleness cannot increase their idleness beyond this quantitative maximum. And so their activities must therefore be governed by qualitative considerations other than increasing idleness.

It is in idleness that humanity can act to pursue pleasure, or happiness, or virtue, or duty, or whatever principle or code they may construct for themselves. Such codes might be thought of as club rules or game rules.

Of course, even in their idle time people remain governed by the the primary ethic. But the primary ethic only prescribes limits to what can be done in idle time: it does not determine what is actually done in idle time. The existence of two ethical systems makes for conflicts between primary and secondary ethics, which should generally be resolved in favour of primary ethical concerns.

Imperative Optional
Singular Plural
Rational Emotional
Equal Unequal
Quantitative Qualitative
And while the primary ethic is singular and numerical in nature, secondary ethics are likely to be plural and qualitative. Secondary ethics might be best described as a matter of aesthetics. One person might seek happiness. Another beauty. One person might act according to some rule, another on impulse. In idle time, people can make up whatever rules they like to govern their behaviour, or make no rules at all.

The principal question posed by secondary ethics is: what is to be done with idle time? Are some activities in some sense better than others? Given that it is in the nature of idle time that one need not do anything, is complete inactivity - maybe even sleep - an appropriate use of idle time? Or should it be passed in play and party fun? Or does idle time offer the chance of wholly new experiences, extending the bounds of human achievement? Or should idle time be one in which one should challenges for oneself, to climb mountains and sail across oceans?

In some senses, these secondary ethical questions are what mostly seem to occupy modern moral thinkers, many of whom deplore "doing nothing" as "a waste of time." Maybe it is, but a preoccupation with what people do with their time suggests a belief that human life is idle life, and all our days are leisured - a rosy vision of human life. All that will be said here is that such questions are entirely secondary: the primary imperative is to provide idle time.

The Ethical Consequences of Degrees of Idleness

While ethical behaviour acts to increase the degree of idleness, it may also be argued that the degree of idleness has ethical consequences.

Idleness may range from zero, and busy all the time, to 100% complete, and idle all the time - and with every shade between.

Someone living a completely constrained life at zero idleness has their life entirely determined. They are not free agents. They work at some task continuously. They have no freedom of action. If they fail to carry out their necessary self-maintenance work, they pay with their lives.

By contrast, someone living a completely unconstrained life of perfect idleness is at all times entirely free to do whatever they wish to do. They are absolutely free agents. Rather than being determined by work, they decide what to do with their lives.

Real human lives are almost always lived somewhere between these two extremes. We are part-time free agents. And this has consequences.

Firstly, to the degree that somebody is constrained and unfree, to that extent they are also self-centred in their actions. A completely busy man is someone who works continuously in his own interest. Therefore to the extent that anyone is busy, to that extent their interests are selfish. It is only relatively leisured people who can act with consideration towards others, if only because considering others requires the idle time in which to carry out such considerations. Equally, it is only relatively leisured people who can, after due reflection, construct codes of conduct, moral principles, or commandments. Therefore only relatively idle people can act from moral principle, while busy people must necessarily act amorally. And therefore human behaviour must be to some considerable degree determined by human idleness. And if idle people have the time to reflect on these matters, then more generally only idle people will have the time to talk or reason about any matter whatsoever, while busy people will mostly act upon impulse or conditioning or guidance.

Secondly, nobody who is entirely constrained in their actions can be held culpable for those actions. They are effectively choiceless automatons, doing what they must do. Only somebody who is perfectly free can be held entirely culpable for their actions, because only such a person always acts from free choice.

moral spectrum

Thus there must always be some degree of doubt as to whether someone has acted from necessity or from choice. It is never possible to say of anyone that they are "evil", meaning that they willingly and knowingly chose to carry out some evil act. Nor, by the same token, is ever possible to say of anyone that they are "good". All we can judge is the effects of the actions of men, not the motives behind those acts.

Busy and toiling humanity is inherently amoral, and no amount of ethical exhortation will make them otherwise. For busy humanity to become moral agents, they must first of all increase their idleness. Simply by increasing idleness, busy and amoral humanity is converted into idle and moral humanity. The primary ethical task is one of raising humanity from busy amorality towards idle morality.

This view of human life, as busy, constrained, and troubled, counsels compassion, unwillingness to pass judgment, and forgiveness.

Comparative ethics

Any new ethical system really needs to be compared with existing ethical codes. These may be, on the one hand, the customary codes of ethical conduct found in the society in which people find themselves, and on the other hand the formal teachings of some religion or sect or moral philosophy. In this respect Idle Theory most closely approximates to an Utilitarianism in which happiness or utility are replaced by idleness, and might be regarded as a form of ethical naturalism.

After all, most people are likely to have reservations about an ethical theory that, say, advocates murder and extortion, particularly if they belong to societies which penalise these activities (although mafia hit men with an interest in ethical naturalism would here vigorously nod their heads in approval).

In the case of Idle Theory, one obvious check is to see how it matches up to the biblical 10 commandments. The Christian advice to "love thy neighbour as thyself" also corresponds with the requirement of consideration. If reference is only made to Christian religious moral injunctions, it is because there does not appear to be much rational ethics in existence.

In general, it does not seem that Idle Theory's ethics runs counter to established ethical codes. But it justifies them in a new way.

But there are some differences. Since Idle Theory's ethics is primarily concerned with maximizing idle time, it is relatively unconcerned with activities that have no apparent effects on idleness. Idle Theory's principal justification of monogamy is that it is a practice that minimizes the transmission of disease. But if there is no threat of disease transmission, there does not appear to be anything wrong with many sexual practices, so long as they do not involve assault, injury, enslavement, and any reduction of any person's idleness.

Equally, idle theory is not much concerned with psychological distress. If one person insults another, they take no idle time from them, and whoever has been insulted may respond with anger, or indifference. It is only where an insult has consequences, as when some trader or manufacturer is libelled with the effect that he loses his trade and his idle time, that what people say matters.

Idle Theory's ethics is quite closely related to Utilitarianism. Much like Utilitarianism, it is seeking to maximize a quantity. But Utilitarians seek to maximize happiness, while Idle Theory seeks to maximize idleness. Happiness is an inherently subjective measure of wellbeing, and it is not at all clear that it has an inherently numerical nature. But idleness is, or at least claims to be, an objective measure of wellbeing. And it is very definitely numerical in nature. That is, anyone who is working to earn a living takes an objective amount of time working to secure the basic necessities of life which provide continued life. In their idle time they may be happy or unhappy, content or discontent, but these subjective valuations are simply their judgment about their life at that moment. On an ocean liner, some of the passengers may be happy, and some sad, and some bored, and some amused, and some depressed, and some serene, and so on. But they are, regardless of their state of mind, objectively safe and secure aboard the ship, and will remain so until the ship hits a rock and begins to sink, at which point they become objectively unsafe. And indeed, anyone on a passing ship will be able to see that the sinking ship is in trouble, without consulting its passengers or crew. Utilitarianism might be said to be concerned with the subjective happiness of the passengers, while Idle Theory is concerned with the objective integrity of the ship that carries those passengers. If the ship starts to sink, then the passengers may be terrified, amazed, excited, serene, angry, and so on. But this does not affect their underlying objective condition of insecurity, but how they respond to it. But a Utilitarian who only took heed of the subjective feelings of the passengers, and ignored the condition of the ship, might not act until all the passengers had suddenly become terrified of drowning.

Practical ethics

Practically, Idle Theory's ethical advice is to take heed of the possible consequences of one's actions not just for oneself, but for everyone else, and to choose those courses of action which result in a general net gain in idleness, compensating anyone who suffers a loss. Don't busy yourself or anybody else more than you need to.

What is ethically most important is the gain and loss of idle time. Anything that increases idle time is right, and anything that decreases idle time is wrong. Nothing else matters. In weighing up whether some behaviour is right or wrong, do not ask whether you like it or dislike it, whether it is normal or abnormal, whether it is legal or illegal: ask whether it gains or loses anyone their time.

What people do in their idle time only matters if there are consequences for other people's idleness.

In principle, any action that has time consequences ought to be egalitarian in outcome: everyone should gain equally, or lose equally. In practice this may be difficult to achieve. No such egalitarian considerations apply to idle time activities like playing games in which some people lose and some win, nor even to some people getting rich by making and selling luxuries and amusements for profit.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: April 2004 to replace Ethics.
last edited: October 2007