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The Ethics of Quiet Quitting

By Evan Arnet
6 Sep 2022
photograph of worker alone in empty office

If you don’t hop to answer emails after hours, volunteer for new initiates, and help your employer out by taking up overtime work on short notice, then you might be a quiet quitter.

Referencing not quitting as such, but merely fulfilling the terms of one’s contract and no more, quiet quitting entered popular discourse via TikTok. (Wikipedia asserts – without citation — the neologism has its origins in a 2009 symposium at Texas A&M. The author has been unable to confirm this claim.)

Public reactions have been mixed, partly due to uncertainty about just what the term meant. First though, some clarification about what it is not.

Quiet quitting is not working-to-rule: a longstanding union practice in which employees followed rules and regulations to the letter often substantially interfering with company productivity.

A work-to-rule action is collective, involving many workers engaging in uncivil obedience simultaneously, and foregrounds the importance of good faith employee labor to a productive company. The intent of a work-to-rule action is not to assert personal boundaries, but to change the workplace. Quiet quitting by contrast is something far more individual.

In 17 seconds, an early TikTok video pushed “quiet quitting” as both resistance to going above and beyond at work, and as resistance to the centrality of paid labor in our lives. These are independent claims and do not need to be taken together.

Recent economic and cultural movements, most prominently the great resignation and the surging popularity of the “antiwork” community on the social media site Reddit, have brought critiques of work to the fore. There is a deep well of philosophy to draw from. Aristotle highlighted the pursuit of leisure, during which moral and intellectual virtues could be cultivated. Zhuangzi, a classical Chinese philosopher in the Daoist tradition, felt no need for the industriousness and drive to master the world. Bertrand Russell is famous for his 1932 paean to leisure and idleness, and held it should not be the privilege of the rich alone. More recent examples exist as well. Sunaura Taylor contends our obsession with work and productivity effaces the inherent value of people, and especially of disabled people who are easily marginalized if judged purely on their market contribution. David Graeber resists the value of work for work’s sake and the proliferation of “bullshit” jobs.

More narrowly though, as something a worker does, quiet quitting is fundamentally about setting specific boundaries at work – perhaps especially in the United States with its weak unions, permissive labor laws, and culture of striving.

This too has received pushback.

Arianna Huffington (co-founder of the HuffPost) expressed sympathy for avoiding burnout, but argued instead for “joyful joining” in which “rather than go through the motions in a job you’ve effectively quit on, why not find one that inspires you, engages you, and bring you joy.”

Huffington’s implication here is that “quiet quitting” is doing the absolute minimum, but that need not be the case. Workers can be committed diligent workers and nonetheless refuse to answer work emails off the clock, or show up on short notice. Others of course may be withdrawing more fully, presumably out of deeper dissatisfaction with the workplace.

As for “joyful joining,” it is only partially responsive. Many workers may not be in the personal or economic position to easily switch jobs or pursue the perfect job for themselves. Additionally, it lets the job itself off the hook.

Toxic work culture, unreasonable expectations, low pay, rare raises, and other management-side problems that lead to quiet quitting are not addressed by employee fit – these workplaces need to improve.

As the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Quiet Quitting is about Bad Bosses, not Bad Employees.”

What about the ethical core of the matter? Is it always the right thing to give 110% at work? Is this kind of diligence a virtue? There is little doubt that quiet quitting stands in opposition to hustle or rise and grind culture that demands ceaseless commitment to productivity and the pursuit of career-oriented goals. But, that’s kind of the point. The ethical contention at play concerns whether there is anything morally wrong about fulfilling our contractual expectations but not seeking to rise above them.

While not one of the classical virtues, hard work could be considered a moral virtue – an excellency of character – generally worth cultivating.

That answer might appear somewhat unsatisfying as it seems to simply stipulate exceeding expectation at work is a good thing, but on closer examination even positing that hard work represents a virtue says little about quiet quitting.

Virtues need to be balanced. A person must set boundaries on their paid work in order to invest time in family, volunteering, or other pursuits. Likewise, the virtue of hard work presumably does not demand suffering or extensive sacrifice, and this places limits on how much one owes their job even if they believe in the value of hard work as such.

Immanuel Kant, for example, held we have a duty to self-improvement and the cultivation of our talents. However, he did not believe we needed to be fanatical with this, and we could be flexible with which talents we cultivated and how extensively. Additionally, for Kant, part of the aim of such cultivation is so that we can be in position to offer help and assistance to others (just as we each require help and assistance during our lives).

For Kant then, if the work is meaningful and provides us an opportunity for self-improvement, there may be good reason to exceed expectations. It does not, however, provide a general obligation to exert extra effort. And such a duty would certainly not apply to work of drudgery or morally compromised work. If anything, Kant would more likely object to some modern business practices, such as treating workers strictly according to their contribution to the bottom line rather than as ends unto themselves.

In the Marxist tradition, for a worker to derive satisfaction from labor they must be substantively connected with the products of their labor. Marx himself would hold that the entire idea of wage labor, in which we work for others to ensure our own subsistence, is necessarily alienating and problematic.

But we do not need to follow him to that conclusion to appreciate that if someone is not benefiting from their additional labor, either in terms of the product of their labor or compensation, then there is very little reason to expend additional effort.

Finally, a lot of disagreement with quiet quitting is more strategic than ethical. Kevin O’Leary, a businessman turned television personality, has harshly criticized quiet quitting. His main contention is that it will be the go-getters, not the quiet quitters, that get ahead. This is contestable and depends a great deal on the commitment to meritocracy (it may well be the sons of golfing buddies that get ahead). It also relies on finding a successful balance between boundaries and burnout as a long-term strategy. Nonetheless, for those in upwardly mobile career paths giving 110% is plausibly an effective tactic for advancement. But here, quiet quitting centers a different question: is that what matters to the worker?

Evan Arnet is a PhD candidate in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine Department at Indiana University Bloomington. His research focuses on the animal behavior sciences and genetics, but he is broadly interested in how science and medicine intersect with our values.
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