But being inspired by the bosses isn’t the only reason to do more than you must. Perhaps, despite poor leadership, straitened circumstances and declining conditions, you believe deeply in your university and its mission of public education, and you know that your work can contribute to it. Perhaps you care about the students who will benefit from your additional efforts. Perhaps your work relationships are foremost in your mind; you care about the colleagues whose work lives you can make more meaningful. Unlike people stuck in what the anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs,” you don’t think your work is pointless. You might want to expand your ambitions, then, because you want to be the kind of person who does an excellent job, because you believe in the mission, because you want to live a life of greater significance and achievement.
Again, we’re not talking about your obligations. If morality is the realm of what we must do, ethics is the realm of what it would be good to do. For ethics, in the classical tradition, is about what it means to live a good life. Considerations of significance, achievement, mission, what kind of person you are: All these are ethical. If they apply, they ought to move you, in part, because of what they mean to the life you’re living — roughly a third of which will be spent at work.
A few obvious caveats. When your ambitions involve other people, you need to make sure that what you have in mind makes sense for those it would affect; a manager with extra time on her hands should think twice before giving more work to staff members who don’t. And of course, for plenty of people the sources of significance in their lives have little to do with their job. You’re unfortunate to be working at a place that suffers from public disinvestment and lackluster leadership; you’re fortunate to be able to take pride in what you and the larger institution can accomplish.
We’re living, so they say, amid “the Great Resignation.” There are something like 10 million open jobs in the U.S. economy, and though the reasons are complex, it has been suggested that places with a better workplace culture are more likely to retain employees. Many potential employees, to be sure, have probably been stymied by pandemic-related difficulties in securing child care. Other people say they have withdrawn, emotionally, from the whole career concept. Paradoxically, the Overemployed folks fall into this category, staying at once busy and disengaged. A few people yearn to be lotus-eaters, although the ones we hear about will be those Stakhanovite souls who tirelessly churn out a daily Substack newsletter about the joys of doing nothing. Still, the take-this-job-and-shove-it contingent will surely be dwarfed by the keep-this-job-and-do-just-enough-to-get-by crowd.
In rare instances — notably, the sort of union action I mentioned — underperforming may be part of a concerted, collective action to achieve a specific outcome. That, too, can be a meaningful project, but it doesn’t describe your situation. A year from now, you may well find a new workplace where you (and your colleagues) will be better appreciated, enabled and supported. In the meantime, though, you might start by asking yourself what will make your work life a source of satisfaction and self-respect. Not because you owe it to management but because you owe it to yourself.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)