For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Duty to Work"

by Cholbi, Michael (2018)


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.

Key Passage

work is a surprisingly difficult matter to define. Indeed, it is unlikely that there is a single ahistorical understanding of the nature of work, nor is there only one way a duty to work might be grounded. In the Christian tradition, for example, a duty to work has sometimes been rooted in the imperative that our earthly existence should glorify and serve God, or perfect the created world by making it fit for human needs. However, the dialectical aims of our discussion are not historical. Our concern is instead to ascertain whether individuals, in the socioeconomic conditions that prevail in the relatively prosperous economies of the early twenty-first century, have a duty to work of the sort that is often assumed in public discourse, i.e., an enforceable, interpersonal duty. Thus, rather than attempting to settle what work is, we can instead rely upon whatever notion of work is at issue in the ostensible interpersonal duty to work. In other words, work (for our dialectical purposes) is whatever individuals are required to do so as to discharge the ostensible duty to work. And some notions or kinds of work would presumably not count as discharging this obligation. It would, I imagine, strike contemporary advocates of a duty to work as wrongheaded to reason that, because recreational swimming or completing a crossword puzzle are sometimes “hard work,” those engaging in such activitiesare thereby discharging their ostensible duty to work. To insist that individuals have a duty to work is instead to insist that individuals have a duty to engage in economically useful activity. For our purposes then, work can be understood as any activity that aims to produce goods with a commodity status, that is, goods that others besides the worker can in principle consume or enjoy. (Note that this need not assume that work produces goods intended for market exchange; others can consume or enjoy goods they acquire through non-market means.) On this picture, self sufficient farming or hunting, entrepreneurship, and providing unpaid labor such as child or elder care are all work, since all result in the production of goods that could be exchanged with others (even if they are not as a matter of fact so exchanged). But the paradigm case of working isemployment, the selling of one’s labor to others so that goods can be produced for others’ consumption. Our focus in assessing a duty toworkwill largely fall onemployment, since that is the form work takes for the great majority of workers. (p.2)


Reciprocity, Fair Play, Workfare, Industrial Societies, Cooperative Scheme


Concepts of Work

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