Productivity Versus Productiveness

 Posted by on 2 December 2010 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Objectivism, Productivity
Dec 022010

Note: I discussed this issue in last Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, and you can hear that in podcast form via NoodleCast.

On occasion, I hear Objectivists use the term “productivity” when they mean the virtue of productiveness. That’s a mistake, and I think people make that mistake because they’re not clear about the difference between the two terms. So I’d like to take a moment here to sketch the distinction as I see it.

Productivity concerns a person’s capacity to achieve his goals effectively and efficiently, without wasting time, effort, or resources. Hence, the dictionary notes that its concern for “the effectiveness of productive effort.” Productivity is wonderful — but only provided that a person’s goals are life-enhancing. I’d love for Steve Jobs to increase the productivity of his workers because Apple products enhance my life and happiness. Michael Moore, on the other hand, is more than welcome to spend days doing what could be done in mere minutes. For him to be efficient in the creation of his loathsome movies is not a value.

In essence, productivity focuses on the means by which a person achieves his ends, without evaluating the worth of those ends per se. The techniques of productivity — such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done — might be used to further the creation of beautiful sculpture, the marketing of new invention, or the dissemination of rational ideas. Or they might be used in expanding church membership, lobbying politicians for more environmental regulations, or writing a smear biography of Ayn Rand.

In contrast, productiveness is the Objectivist virtue whereby “man’s mind sustains his life.” In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff defines it as “the process of creating material values, whether goods or services.” Here’s how John Galt describes it in Atlas Shrugged:

Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live–that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values–that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others–that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human–that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay–that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live–that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road–that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up–that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.

To be productive in this sense involves a far wider range of actions than productivity. Most of all, productiveness requires that the material goods produced serve human life and happiness.

We often use the adjective form “productive” to refer to both kinds of activity, i.e. to productivity and/or productiveness. Yet they need not occur together. A person can be productive in the sense of productivity without being productive in the sense of productiveness. That’s Michael Moore. Or vice versa: I might waste time each day trying to find relevant papers for my current projects because I don’t use any kind of filing system.

Ideally and in the long run, a person should be productive in both senses of the term. A person’s drive to create the material values that sustain human life should impel him to seek the most efficient and effective methods of achieving his goals. Yet particularly in our day-to-day life, we need to maintain our awareness of the distinction between productiveness and productivity. Why?

By keeping that distinction in mind, we know that our occasional failures of productivity are not some kind of moral crime: they are not failures of the virtue of productiveness. In many cases, they’re just ordinary errors in managing our work-flow, and our aim should be to notice and weed them out over time. In other cases, they’re morally proper given the broader context, as when we work an easy day after weeks on a grueling project or when we take time off to tend to health problems. Moral guilt in such cases — which I know I’ve felt before, and I suspect I’m not alone — is not warranted and not helpful.

  • Nathan Smith

    “the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up”

    I’m not sure what this refers to. What would it mean to say “My goal is John”? The sort of thing that comes to mind is the work that teachers and physicians do. The goal of their work is to help others, yet Rand wouldn’t have a problem with that. So what does this mean?

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