Idle Theory Shifting Values

It would appear that the values of Western society have shifted over time. A few centuries ago, slavery was permitted, but is now impermissible. Furthermore, in Britain, the death penalty - once used to hang people for stealing sheep - has been revoked even in the case of murder. Sexual morality, furthermore, which once restricted sex to within marriage, has been relaxed to allow divorce, casual sex, and a variety of previously impermissible forms of sexual conduct.


Now it may be that these values have shifted because, after long consideration and heart-searching, people changed their minds, and having changed their minds, changed their practices. And so, in the case of slavery, after thousands of years of institutionalised slavery, people suddenly started to feel that slavery was morally wrong, and decided to ban the practice.

One alternative explanation is that the ancient coercive institution of slavery in time ceased to be economically viable, and therefore ceased to be practised, and finally became morally abhorrent. Rather than morality determining practice, practice determined morality. In the Logic of Slavery, the basic argument was that in busy societies, people could raise their idleness by enslaving other people, and forcing them to work for them. And they had a strong incentive to do so, and would meet with comparatively little resistance. But in largely idle societies, there was little incentive to enslave anyone, and there would be great difficulty in enslaving anyone. And so, as idleness rose in any society from a low level to a high level, largely thanks to technological innovation, the institution of slavery would gradually become obsolete. And once it had ceased to be practiced, it ceased to be a right and customary institution, and became frowned upon, and finally utterly condemned. In the case of Britain, slavery became illegal at the height of the industrial revolution. And in America, it was the condemnation by the industrialised northern states of the continuing practice of slavery in the relatively undeveloped southern states which contributed to the American civil war.

The Death Penalty

A similar argument may be made in respect of the death penalty. In busy societies, living not far from zero idleness extinction, any behaviour which reduces social idleness pushes a society nearer the brink. The theft of a sheep, or a few tools, might make the difference between life and death. And so thieves and other malefactors posed a serious threat to the survival of society. And at the same time, given low idleness, life had little value - the value of any life being its sum total idle time. The cost to thieves of taking their lives was easily offset by the value to society of being rid of them. And if execution rather than imprisonment or banishment was the chosen option, it was because execution was the least expensive - busy societies not having the time resources to maintain prisons or transport people long distances. Furthermore, banishment from tooled cooperative society would almost certainly result in slow lingering death, as the idleness of the banished plunged: execution was mercy killing.

By contrast, in idle societies, the same crime - of stealing a sheep or a few tools - is more of a nuisance than a threat to survival. And in a largely idle society, the value of life is high. And so the the cost to thieves of taking their lives tends to outweigh the value to society of being rid of them. And at the same time, relatively idle societies have the time to construct and maintain prisons and penal colonies in which to keep malefactors alive. And thus if prisons only began to appear in numbers in Britain during the industrial revolution, it may not have been that there was any crime wave, but that prison sentences had begun to replace execution.

Equally, in busy societies living on the brink of extinction, there must have been a strong incentive for people to steal sheep and tools and the like whenever the opportunity arose, to make life easier. However in idle societies, given that life is already easy enough, there is less incentive to steal.

And what applies to crimes like theft which burden a society and reduces its idleness also applies to the care of the sick, the elderly, and the young. In the least idle societies, there is little free time available to care for such people. Once people got too old and feeble to do the work needed to survive, they rapidly died, largely uncared for. And if someone fell sick, or broke a limb, little could be done to help them, and they would have to left to fend for themselves. And in the worst of circumstances, a society might find that the burden of supporting dependent infants was too much to bear. and they also would be abandoned to die. It is only in relatively idle societies that it becomes possible to care for the malformed, the sick, and the aged. And then only to the degree to which those societies are idle.

In general, in busy societies, morality (e.g. the requirement to not steal) has the form of an absolute imperative, and the punishments for non-conformity are severe. And in idle society, moral imperatives lose their force, and punishments for con-conformity are mild. In perfectly idle societies, there would be no moral imperatives, and no punishments.

Sexual morality

Similar arguments might be employed to explain why sexual conduct was highly regulated in the past, and sexual mores have grown increasingly relaxed with the passage of time, and the increase in social idleness.

One explanation for this might be that in busy, primitive, largely untooled societies, human beings were themselves the primary all-purpose tools. In these busy societies, life expectancy would have been low, as hard-working adults rapidly succumbed to arthritis and broken limbs and every other work-related disease. They carried the weights, bore the burdens, wove with fingers, dug with hands, tore with teeth, hammered with feet. And since humans were the primary all-purpose do-anything tool, and low life expectancy was continually draining human labour from society, it was necessary to compensate for this with high birth rates.

High birth rates compensate high death rates

And to achieve the highest possible birth rates, women had to be forcibly coerced to become full-time baby-makers, and their children made child slaves to replace dead workers. Women who produced children were prized possessions, to be kept restrained to produce children until they died in childbirth, and their children set to work as soon as they were able to walk. Sons were preferred over daughters because sons were stronger than daughters, and capable of harder work, while a marriagable daughter was a trade item. In such a busy primitive society, the primary industry was that of producing children. Both women and children were highly controlled, and non-reproductive sexual behaviour was an impermissible luxury - a waste of time and energy.

But as busy, labour-intensive societies came increasingly to develop and use tools and technologies, and their idleness rose, the value of children gradually fell. Hands were still needed to work tools, but the tools themselves increased in value. If the task of harvesting wheat was all once laboriously carried out by hand, each ear of wheat hand-picked, then with the arrival of the scythe and the flail, fewer hands were needed to gather the harvest.

And as social idleness rose, and life expectancy rose with it, the need for new hands to work the fields dropped, and so patriarchal society gradually relaxed its command over women and children. Instead of having as many children as possible, it even began to be necessary to limit the numbers of children. Familes grew smaller. And forbidden luxury non-reproductive sex slowly became increasingly permissible.

If so, what is now thought of as 'traditional' sexual morality is the legacy of past ages during which the production of children was the primary industry. If this industry was highly regulated, with many rules and regulations, it was because it was a criticallyis important industry, in which nothing could be left to chance. Patriarchal society was the industrialised mass production of children. Women were possessions primarily valued for their ability to birth and raise children. Children were valued for their ability to work. Paternity was an issue in patriarchal society because sons and daughters were slaves of the patriarch of the family, and disputes over paternity were disputes over child slave ownership rights. And such disputes were minimised by practising monogamy within sexually-exclusive marriages.

The decline of patriarchal society began as rising idleness began to free children from the necessity of work, and women from the necessity of child-bearing. Much as the institution of slavery was abolished once slaves were no longer needed, so child labour became illegal once children were no longer needed to work, and the emancipation of women followed on from that. And as the family as a cottage child-rearing industry declined in value, so also did the entire institution of marriage.

In modern Western society, both marriage and the family are a vestige of what they once were. They have largely ceased to be driven by need - the demand for children -, but instead are largely motivated by want of companionship and community. The chain of command, with patriarch at the top, children at the bottom, has dissolved into a democracy in which parents (and very often children) are equal partners. Society still needs children, but in nothing like the numbers it once did, as jobs are automated out of existence.

In this perspective, traditional 'family values' are the values of male domination and slavery - only acted out within the confines of marriage rather than wider society. Bringing 'traditional family values' back to wider society would be tantamount to dispensing with pluralistic democratic liberalism, and re-introducing an authoritarian chain of command, with superiors commanding inferiors in the chain, and effectively bringing back child labour, slavery, and the subjection of women.

And if social idleness falls, any society is indeed liable to fall back from democracy and liberalism, and revert to regimented military-style authoritarianism, with moral codes enforced with severe punishments.

The general contention here is that when human idleness falls, moral codes become more demanding and imperious, and punishments for non-conformity more savage, in part because the temptation to transgress increases with falling idleness. Conversely, as human idleness rises, moral imperatives lose their force, and punishment for non-conformity is mild, and the temptation to transgress decreases.

Much of what is termed 'traditional morality' is derived from past, busy, hard-working societies in which moral imperatives carried the force of commandments, and were often backed up with severe penalties. Modern permissive liberal values are a consequence of rising social idleness, and reflect the relatively easy life enjoyed in modern Western society. It as inappropriate to apply traditional morality to relatively idle modern Western society as it would be to apply modern liberal values in traditional societies.

The general argument here is that it is human idle time which has absolute and unchanging value, not human institutions or moral codes. Human institutions and codes are only valuable according to whether or not they increase or decrease idleness, and are not valuable in themselves. Shifting moralities reflect changing underlying realities, rather than shifting moralities acting to change underlying realities. If slavery has been abolished, and marriages break up, it is not because there has been an improvement or a decline in morality, but rather that the institutions of slavery and marriage have become obsolete, much like horse-drawn or wind-driven transport have become obsolete. Any particular moral code is only valuable to the extent that it serves to increase human free time, and it becomes an obstruction once it acts to decrease it.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Nov 2004