I used to say “yes,” but I’m now willing to say that, in a lot of cases, it does not.
I’m not yet ready to declare that laziness does not exist. However, a case can be made for the position that the word is being used in cases where there is in fact no laziness. Moreover, laziness is a word that I am more likely to use towards myself, than towards others. I’ll explain why it is so in this article.
What is laziness? I’m not going to report on what the philosophers have said, but I will offer a personal take on it. Laziness happens when someone sets some goal, and someone fails to meet this goal. The two words someone in the sentence above can be the same person, or different people. Now, one of the problem with laziness is that it is a value judgement. We could simply say that someone has failed to meet a goal, and leave it at that. However, implying that the person who failed to meet this goal is lazy amounts to taking things one step further. The person did not merely fail, they failed because they did not do what they should have done, or they did something they shouldn’t have. Doing or not doing is an intentional choice. Consequently, laziness is intentional.
Let’s take the example of my episode of depression that I had in the summer of 2022. I was so depressed that even getting off the couch to go to the bathroom was an ordeal. Was I lazy? I wouldn’t say so. I did not intentionally fail to get off the couch. My anti-reflux medicine was causing a chemical imbalance in my brain that made me depressed. This is why I couldn’t go to the bathroom without immense effort. I wanted to go to the bathroom as I had done all my life, but during that time period it wasn’t possible. When I stopped taking the medicine, the imbalance in my brain went away, and then I was back to my normal self.
Similarly, there are people who despite wanting to meet some goal — work, go to the grocery store, be out and about — cannot meet this goal, not because they intentionally do not want to work towards that goal, but because they cannot work towards that goal. Is it laziness on their part? I’d argue that it isn’t. During my cancer, I couldn’t do most of these things. I wasn’t lazy. I just did not have the energy to do them, or I had to protect my own health. All of my cancer happened during the pandemic, and I was at risk of getting COVID-19 from other people. COVID-19 and cancer do not mix well.
The people who would have called me lazy in these examples would have been external observers. I would not have applied the label to myself. These external observers would have known nothing of what was going on in my body and my mind. It may even be the case that some of them would not have believed me when I reported feeling depression, or fatigue. This is often what happens with the label lazy. It is a label that an observer applies to someone else. Given the value judgement implied by the term lazy, this observer is judging someone else, and imputing to intent what is due to circumstances. Merely failing at something can be a statement of fact, but being lazy is a sin.
“The poor are poor because they want to be poor.”
“If this person wanted a job, they’d have one.”
“The homeless are homeless because they don’t want to play by the rules.”
Underneath each of this statement is the notion that the people talked about are just lazy. They are lazy because they intentionally sabotage their own lives. In the mind of the people who believe this, the cause of these folks’ misfortune can certainly not be circumstances. These poor sods are the opposite of the self-made individual. The self-made individual is self-made, and did not depend on circumstances to get where they are. Similarly, these people are also self-made, but in the opposite direction, it is not circumstances that brought them down, but their own intent.
However, I’m not willing to say that laziness is never possible. I am reluctant to use it to label other people, but I can see applying it to myself, in some circumstances. For instance, during my undergrad years. I spent time doing what I wanted, rather than what my teachers wanted. In some cases, this meant that my grades were lower than they could have been. If I had been more diligent and spent time studying instead of partying, gaming, or doing something not related to my studies, I would have done better. This was entirely a choice on my part. I was lazy.
This example of my undergrad years also brings up another aspect of laziness. My definition above is not complete, because it is quite possible to be lazy, and yet to succeed at reaching some goal. In some of my classes, I did not do the homework and yet still managed to get good grades. You might say that the homework was unnecessary. However, I did not know this ahead of time. I gambled, and I won, but this was mere chance. Here too I was lazy, because it was my choice to avoid doing the homework. Here, however, I am in the privileged position of knowing exactly how my mental processes operated.
Moreover, it is probably the case that when we are extremely intimate with someone else, we can tell when the person is being lazy. Think about a parent and a child. The parent might have an inkling of whether the child has being diligent in their studies, or if the child has been fooling around. Still, I’d be reluctant if I were the parent to label the child lazy, even if I were justified. The same thing can happen between partners, but again, I’d be reluctant to use this label. I don’t see using this label being fruitful if what you want to do is push the person thus labeled to do their best.
So I still see a place for the label, but primarily as one which is self-applied, in some specific circumstances. I wouldn’t use it for someone else. In the case of talking about others, I am hard-pressed to see any situation where the label would be better at expressing what happened, than using language which does not imply a value judgement.