Mundane work is morally praiseworthy

Economists hold an important piece of wisdom that needs sharing: noble acts don’t occur in a vacuum. Mundane acts derive moral worth through their support of heroic acts. Even if they aren’t praised as heroes, everyone who is being productive should feel warm and fuzzy inside for their contributions.

Let’s put this bit of knowledge together with the “equimarginal principle” (EP). EP is an outcome of the intuitive idea of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Return: if you keep doing more of something, each extra bit yields smaller benefits. First slice of pizza: great. Second slice: good. Third slice: meh. Fourth slice: regret. EP gives us a rule to improve our life: cut back on pizza and drink more beer. Balance your choices so that the marginal net benefit is equal across all avenues. If it’s not, then cut back on those choices that yield relatively low benefit and do more of the things with high marginal benefit.

This applies on a societal level too. And to charity. What is the marginal value of an extra dollar invested in cause X? Cause Y? Take some money out of the low marginal benefit cause and shift it to the other. Cancer research is a worthy goal, but you can do more for the world by donating to a less saturated cause. I’m not saying nobody should research cancer. I’m only saying the marginal researcher could create more value in some other venue.

Back to my main point. The team that cures cancer will be lauded as heroes. But some of that praise belongs to the people who support them. The people who made their equipment made their project possible. So did the people who provided gasoline so they could drive to work. These people won’t get this praise, but recognition isn’t the root of morality.

These unsung heroes are making the world a better place. They allow the “real” heroes to pursue their comparative advantage. It’s not just those on the front lines who are making the world better. EP tells us that pursuing that praise isn’t always praiseworthy. You are short-changing your cause if you pooh-pooh support roles. And because of the nature of voluntary exchange, “support role” doesn’t have to be narrowly defined to “volunteer for your preferred cause.” Just by being productive in your usual life you are contributing something. It’s certainly praiseworthy to go further and donate to some cause, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that working for others (i.e. your customers) is virtuous in and of itself.

Contribute to society where you can contribute the most net benefit. Pursuing praise alone is not how you make the world a better place.

And don’t forget: you’re part of society too. So don’t be afraid to treat yourself!

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10 thoughts on “Mundane work is morally praiseworthy

  1. I wouldn’t go overboard in praising mundane work. Most of those who would provide support to your hypothetical cancer curer would be working for wages or salaries. Sure they do an honest day’s work but they don’t take any risk and don’t contribute any significant positive externalities. Those who create the cure would have gambled their time, energy, reputation and capital (theirs or investors’) on a very uncertain project. If they succeed they contribute enormous positive externalities.

    Bill Gates’ wealth is a tiny fraction of the value of the productivity we enjoy because of his products. Bill Gates’ housekeeper contributes value roughly equal to what she receives in pay.

    • Agreed!

      I’m mostly thinking of the marginal do-gooder. If they are asking “should I dedicate my life to a low-pay/high-praise task?” and that means leaving a job as an accountant to teach math at an inner-city school, they should consider that the warm-fuzzy-charitable opportunity cost might be greater than the benefits.

  2. That was excellent. Christians would call this the Doctrine of Vocation. We all have many different vocations (husband, father, worker, neighbor) and all are needed throughout our lives. Great article.

  3. Reminded me of a philosopher of science (can’t remember who) who applied Adam Smith’s invisible hand idea to scientific research groups. Scientists join groups where the honor and reward will be highest and likeliest: joining a large team working on a very likely technology or discovery may have a high chance of success, but the honor will be distributed among more people; meanwhile, joining a small team of independent researchers offers a high amount of individual praise, but the likeliness of success may be less.

    • This raises a point (A) related to something I’ve been thinking of lately (B).

      A: Markets are good at giving us the info/incentives to follow EP. But for non-market decisions (e.g. science, but also charity, entrepreneurship, externalities, etc.) we lose those price signals and it becomes all the more difficult to evaluate the wisdom of decisions.

      B: A teacher’s customer isn’t the student… it’s the student 10 years into the future. That disconnect makes incentives and information fuzzy.

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