The Duty to Work

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 21 (5):1119-1133 (2018)
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Most advanced industrial societies are ‘work-centered,’ according high value and prestige to work. Indeed, belief in an interpersonal moral duty to work is encoded in both popular attitudes toward work and in policies such as ‘workfare’. Here I argue that despite the intuitive appeal of reciprocity or fair play as the moral basis for a duty to work, the vast majority of individuals in advanced industrialized societies have no such duty to work. For current economic conditions, labor markets, and government policies entail that the conditions for a reciprocity-based argument to apply to most workers are not usually met. More specifically, many workers fail to provide valuable goods through working or their working does not result in net social benefit. Concurrently, many workers do not receive adequate benefits from working in that they neither have their basic needs met or do not even enjoy an improvement in welfare thanks to working. Hence, workers neither provide nor receive the benefits needed for a reciprocity-based duty to work to apply to them. Furthermore, these conditions are conditions over which workers themselves have very little control. Most workers therefore could not fulfill their ostensible duty to work even if they made conscientious efforts to do so. In most cases, a person who fails to work morally wrongs no one, and in the case of any particular individual or worker, the defeasible presumption ought to be that she has no duty to work.

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Michael Cholbi
University of Edinburgh


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