Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 6

This is Part 6 of my on-going examination of the concept of ‘duty to work’ and how it was associated with the related idea of a ‘right to work’. Neoliberalism has broken the nexus between the ‘right to work’ responsibilities that the state assumed in the social democratic period and the ‘duty to work’ responsibilities that are imposed on workers in return for income support. That break abandons the binding reciprocity that enriched our societies and has spawned a solid argument for a basic income. But the solution to the problem is to reinstate the link between opportunity to work and the societal benefits of work, especially as it enhances the material well-being of the least advantaged. In this part, I explore that theme.

The earlier parts in this series are:

1. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 1 (August 4, 2020).

2. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 2 (August 11, 2020).

3. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 3 (August 20, 2020).

4. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 4 (September 1, 2020).

5. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 5 (September 8, 2020).

In Part 5, I introduced the concepts of justice developed by John Rawls in relation to work.

His work has a broad remit and I am only focusing here on what he said about full employment and work, although I provided a basic introduction to the development of his idea of justice.

We also learned that John Rawls had a complex view of work.

On the one hand, he tied it in with the production of ‘primary goods’ – the act of transforming nature in order to survive and achieve higher material standards of living.

But in his conception of justice, work goes beyond that narrow aspiration, and, includes the advancement of “self-respect”, which necessitates a much broader conception of work.

Meagre redistribution of income, according to Rawls does not provide for ‘self-respect’ because it does not “put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degreee of social and economic equality”.

Those who just take when they can also give are considered operating outside of societal norms.

John Rawls clearly considered the opportunity to work to be a crucial path to achieving self-respect, and, in that respect he advocated that government should maintain a Job Guarantee (employer of last resort – in his terms) as a pre-condition for social stability.

This is because the lack of work was in his words “destructive .. of citizen’s self respect”.

So when the ‘market’ doesn’t produce enough jobs, the state must fill the gap.

Self-respect requires a mutuality, which in his 1971 book said depended on us:

… finding our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed.

This can be taken to mean that an emphasis on what each person does for work might obscure the social aspects of work – that is, the contribution of each individual to society, which is how we measure that mutuality.

Thus we encounter in John Rawls a notion of citizenship and reciprocity.

He wrote in his 1980 article ‘Kantian constructivism in moral theory’, which was published in the Journal of Philosphy (Vol. 77) (p.546) that citizens are:

… fully cooperating members of society over the course of a complete life.

This cooperation involves the sharing of the returns to being a member of society but also the burdens (see the 1994 article by Elizabeth Anderson, ‘Welfare, Work Requirements and Dependent-Care in the Journal of Applied Philosophy (Vol 21, No.3)).

Elizabeth Anderson writes (p.245):

Rawls’ scheme allows income inequalities if they provide incentives that maximize the prospects of the least advantaged. If these prospects were unconditionally guaranteed, a substantial portion of the population would not work. This would depress total production, and thereby reduce the size of the social minimum. Work requirements, by enlisting all in production, would arguably maximize the social minimum.

It, of course becomes a rather sensitive issue how we construct ‘work requirements’ in moral debates within society.

We can cast ‘non-work’ in a stigmatising way, which does not enhance the concept of reciprocity or self-respect. Alternatively, we can think of ‘work requirements’ as being a social act to maximise the resources available to enhance the lives of the poorest – the ‘social maximum’.

The conservatives tend to emphasise the moral failing argument while collectivists emphasise the contribution to the greater good motivation. They are quite different in meaning and impact.

This difference is especially important when considering what the state’s responsibilities are in this.

If the state is deliberately maintaining policies that ensure individuals are not able to gain access to work or the hours of work they desire and then impose work requirements in return for the welfare payments (‘work for the dole’, ‘workfare’) then that is an entirely different moral canvas to one where the state takes responsibilities to ensure everyone who can is able to work so as to maximise the potential of its citizens to promote material well-being for all.

A Job Guarantee wage payment is not welfare!

It is a job offer with a socially-inclusive array of wages and non-wage entitlements (holiday and sick pay, special leave payments, training, superannuation, choice of hours, etc) within an environment of other broader social wage universality (free health care, public transport, child care, etc).

One might argue that requiring the most disadvantaged workers to work as long as there is a reasonable job offer from the state places too much emphasis on activities that elicit a wage payment to define a contribution to society.

It is often pointed out that mothers who decide to stay at home to rear their young children are making a valuable contribution to society, which means that not all contributions can be measured in terms of paid work.

That is clearly true and in a progressive society such mothers would be funded properly for their work in recognition of its value.

And what about the idle rich? What do they do by way of reciprocity? Not much.

Which is one of the reasons that steeply progressive tax systems are required. I emphasise that the tax revenue gained has nothing to do with funding government (standard disclaimer).

Returning to the self-respect argument, John Rawls criticised what he termed Welfare-State Capitalism (WSC) for adopting an excessively narrow conception of a social minimum, the latter being an integral aspect of his concept of justice.

He wrote in his 1985 book – Justice as Fairness – that the (p.59)

social bases of self-respect … [are] … those aspects of basic institutions normally essential if citizen are to have a lively sense of their worth as persons and to be able to advance their ends with self-confidence.

Samuel Freeman’s 2007 book Justice and the Social Contract (Oxford University Press) also discusses this point at length.

The point is that in designing the jobs that are guaranteed the state has a choice.

It can limit its imagination and require workers to dig holes and fill them in again, which will accomplish the goal of having workers do something in a day but achieve little else. It will certainly not engender the broader goals of advancing self-respect.

Alternatively, it can ensure all the jobs add social value and be visibily demonstrated to do so. Then workers will enjoy self-respect from being engaged in these activities.

Which is where the Job Guarantee can play a major role in pushing out the boundaries of what we call productive work.

Notice I used the term ‘social’ value. In my own research work, we have found almost unlimited activities that require human effort which would enhance unmet social needs, community well-being, environmental care etc but which no profit-seeking employer will offer any wage for.

There is huge scope for the state to expand these activities within a paid-work environment to increase well-being and enhance the self-worth of workers.

Michael Festl (in the journal Analyse & Kritik, Vol 1 2013, pp.141-162) distinguishes between two perspectives of work in relation to how we view the conceptualisation of work in the writing of John Rawls – instrumentalism and sentimentalism.

The former relates to work as “providing the necessary means for a good life” and is “a necessary evil until technology is sophisticated enough to provide the resources needed for fullfilling each individual’s conception of the good life without the help of labour” (p.143).

The latter considers work more broadly to be “a vital part in the building of … character and identity” and therefore provides the opportunity to pursue a “good life”.

Again, in this second conception, work needs to be meaningful – adding social value. Self-respect requires that richness.

Self-respect, according to John Rawls is “perhaps the most important primary good” (1971: p.386):

Without it nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism.

Now it can be argued that one doesn’t need to work to gain self-respect, which is true.

John Rawls talks about “communities and associations” (1971, p.387):

For while it is true that unless our endeavors are appreciated by our associates it is impossible for us to maintain the conviction that they are worthwhile, it is also true that others tend to value them only if what we do elicits their admiration or gives them pleasure …

It normally suffices that for each person there is some association (one or more) to which he belongs and within which the activities that are rational for him are publicly affirmed by others. In this way we acquire a sense that what we do in everyday life is worthwhile …

To be sure, men have varying capacities and abilities, and what seems interesting and challenging to some will not seem so to others. Yet in a well-ordered society anyway, there are a variety of communities and associations, and the members of each have their own ideals appropriately matched to their aspirations and talents.

We know that for those of working age and who are not infirmed, a dominant association or community is the work place.

As Micheal Festl writes (p.144):

… for a majority of citizens … the workplace is the place where they spend most of their time awake, it is of vital importance that they get respect for what they do at work …

So while John Rawls clearly considered work in instrumental terms and argued that government should use its policy capacity to maintain full employment (where “those wo want to work can find it” (1971: p.244)), he went beyond that to construct work as an essential element in providing the opportunity for individuals to attain self-respect.

It is also not the case, that John Rawls focused only on how society might view an individual’s work – in the sense that we have indicated that self-respect can come from a worker observing that their contribution is viewed warmly by others.

Michael Festl (p.150) also noted that:

Individuals are supposed to be aware that it is a reasonable demand that they contribute to society’s overall well-being and are not only fixed on their personal well-being.

In his 2001 book – Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, John Rawls wrote that (p.179):

In elaborating justice as fairness we assume that all citizens are normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. We do this because for us the question of the fair terms of cooperation between citizens so regarded is fundamental and to be examined first. Now this assumption implies that all are willing to work and to do their part in sharing the burdens of social life, provided of course the terms of cooperation are seen as fair.

He wrote this in relation to the counter-argument, expressed by UBI advocates, who considered it fair that the surfers of Malibu should be able to receive income support without working.

Samuel Freeman clarified this position in this way (2007: p.229):

… does not regard it as appropriate to provide people with full ‘welfare’ payments if they are able but unwilling to work. By providing a social minimum for all whether they work or not, the welfare state can encourage dependency among the worst-off, and a feeling of being left out of society.

John Rawls considered this issue in relation to his ‘difference principle’ (see Part 5) and asked whether it was true that the “least advantaged” are “those who live on welfare and surf all day off Malibu”.

His response was to argue that “a certain amount of leisure” must be included in the index of primary goods so that “those who do no work have eight extra hours a day of leisure and we count those eight extra hours as equivalent to the index of the least advantaged who do work a standard day.”

The conclusion for a just society:

Surfers must somehow support themselves.

In this context, if we consider leisure to be among the primary goods, then:

… society must make sure that opportunities for fruitful work are generally available.

So the two aspects are essential – to demonstrate a willingness to contribute to society through work there also has to be the opportunity to work.

To take this further and to understand why John Rawls was opposed to basic income we need to extend his reasoning about the “social union of social unions”, which will help us understand the idea that work and community awareness are interrelated and take us well beyond the idea that we are individuals seeking to maximise our own well-being.

In turn, this will help us understand how we construct societal justice and why most workers are opposed to the idea that a person who can work should be supported by all others when they refuse to contribute in this way.

In other words, we now have a third reason for considering work is important in a just society that takes us beyond the need to transform nature to survive and a vehicle to attain self-respect.


In Part 7, we will explore why we should assume that through work that willingness is manifest and perhaps some other issues that arise.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.