Brad Warner takes a big risk by publicly tunneling under the idea that the only moral way to live is with complete, uninterrupted commitment to obvious acts of service:

[F]rom a very young age I was aware of the idea that a truly moral person must give absolutely everything in order not to fall short of what the virtuous life requires. I felt like a real scumbag for enjoying my job.

I relate to this deeply. I can identify two different societal pressures on how I feel about the morality and virtue of work. On one hand there’s the liberal ideal that one should commit as much time and energy as possible to acts of service. On the other there’s the capitalist ideal that economically productive work is a virtue, and there’s no upper limit to how much of it you Should™ do.

The really tricky part is that these pressures both apply, but they aren’t exactly connected, and they can easily come into conflict. The result is an insatiable societal demand for more sacrifice.

But isn’t it the case that one should give of oneself in service of others? Warner brings a teaching from Dogen to show that this moral demand is much more radical than its conventional interpretation:

“Both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving,” Dogen says. To Dogen, even being alive and dying are examples of free giving. Even the mere fact that you are alive and someday you will die are ways that the universe gives itself to the universe.

The way to truly serve all beings is to begin from the understanding that you’re always giving. Warner’s first post on the topic stops there, though, which doesn’t quite resolve the question of whether it’s virtuous to do self-satisfying work.

To clarify, he wrote a part 2 that examines the sort of moral Butterfly Effect that seems to inevitably arise from doing good work, even if not necessarily in the sense of direct acts of charity or community service.

To me, the takeaway is not that one should feel good about oneself merely for living one’s life. It’s that an orientation that every act is an act of service is what generates a truly moral attitude, as opposed to an attitude of doing acts of service as a means to some morally satisfying end.

⤳ “Earning a Living” on Hardcore Zen

⤳ “Earning a Living Part 2” on Hardcore Zen