The Protestant work ethic, sometimes called the Puritan work ethic, is a sociological, theoretical concept. It is based upon the notion that the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work is proponent of a person's calling and worldly success is a sign of personal salvation. It is argued that Protestants beginning with Martin Luther had reconceptualised worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to work diligently as a sign of grace.
The term was first coined by Max Weber
in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
. The Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was strong (for example, the Scandinavian
countries, northern Germany
, the United Kingdom
, and the United States of America
). In such societies, it is regarded by many observers as one of the cornerstones of national prosperity. Such observers would say that people in countries with Protestant roots tend to be more materialistic, perfectionist, and more focused on work as compared to people in many Catholic countries (for example, Spain
, and France
) where the people had a more relaxed attitude towards work and were less materialistic.
Proponents of the notion of the "Protestant work ethic" claim that the term refers to its Protestant origin and does not require Protestantism itself. As Ireland was ruled by a Protestant nation, while Japan modeled its modernization on largely-Protestant nations like the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, they could have received the secularized ethic from Protestants without accepting any religious underpinning to it. Similarly, successful capitalist countries with relatively-large Catholic minorities such as the United States (Even though the United States still has this work ethic based within itself), Australia
, United Kingdom
and New Zealand
tend to be ignored in the analysis and lumped together as Protestant, despite the strong influence and 'capitalist outlook' of Catholics in the business community in all of these countries. Catholics make up the majority in much of Southern Germany (Bavaria has the highest GDP of all German States, but this is a rather recent, post-WWII development).
The notion of the Protestant work ethic faced some criticism in the Twentieth century. The strongest of such criticism was that it revolved mostly around the culture and history of Europe and did not take into account societies that had never been Christian. Examples often cited are East Asian nations like Japan which have a strong work ethic but never had more than a small minority of Protestants. Others feel that the recent economic progress of Catholic nations like Ireland and Brazil makes the term at best of historical use.
The capitalist development of Catholic northern Italy and southwestern Germany before and during the Protestant Reformation is also cited as a counterargument that other factors, including geographical and political ones, were the main drivers for capitalist development, not Protestantism per se. Similarly, the deep economic factors that gave rise to capitalist accumulation and development existed in Europe prior to the Reformation in 1517 and owe little to any religious factor, but more to the unraveling of feudalism and the functioning of governance institutions that strengthened property rights and lowered transaction costs.
Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
. Chas. Scribner's sons, 1959.
Robert Green, editor. The Weber Thesis Controversy. D.C. Heath, 1973, covers some of the criticism of Weber's theory.