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2009 (31) Heft 1

Work and Social Justice


Guest-Editor: Carsten Köllmann

Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

The labour market is among the most contested fields of political argument and conflict in our time. Public criticism of increasing wage inequalities and especially of excessive management pay is, notwithstanding its popularity, only a symptom of more fundamental changes going on in the labour market and in society at large. The conditions and the very meaning of work rank high on the agenda of Western societies. Persistent mass unemployment, coupled with an increasing number of working poor, contributes to the general perception that grave social injustices prevail and require public intervention. This gives rise to pressing questions: Will full employment ever be achieved again? If so, will this be done at the cost of justice, confirming the popular belief in an inevitable conflict between justice and efficiency? Or can these values be reconciled? Will the ‘knowledge society’ do the trick, or will strict measures against the unemployed be necessary to revive the allegedly eroding work ethic? Is the rise of ‘atypical work’ a natural feature of functioning labour markets, and is the principle of free contract thus the only ethical demand we should reasonably make? What about a right to (meaningful) work? Or should we just fall back on the idea of a basic income and definitively abandon the traditional ideal of full employment?

In this issue, we offer a selection of articles by philosophers, economists and social scientists addressing these questions from different perspectives. Despite all disagreements, they seem to share the belief that work is at the centre of human life and society, if not as gainful employment then as meaningful activity in the sense of self-realization and contribution to the common good. Its conditions must therefore be assessed by reference to principles of justice.

Peter Koller reviews the rise and decline of ‘typical work’ in advanced societies, i.e. long-term employment with decent working conditions. After outlining a conception of social justice and a just working system therein, he assesses three suggestions of how to remedy the situation: the ‘market-liberal’, the ‘market-alternative’, and the ‘market-regulative’ conception. He votes for the third, and for considerable reforms, including a basic income, but acknowledges that this may only be possible on the level of international cooperation. Gebhard Kirchgässner criticizes what he calls ‘well-intended proposals’ such as the institution of a right to work, the redistribution of working time and a basic income. In his view, they lack an economically sound basis and cannot be realized without impairing other basic human rights. He agrees that a remedy is called for, but denies the feasibility of the above proposals. This negative outcome is attenuated by some positive suggestions. He closes by urging philosophers to face economic reality when making ethically motivated proposals. Claus Offe explicates the meanings of ‘full employment’ and criticizes the ‘productivist’ goal of maximal employment as unrealistic and not necessarily welfare-enhancing. He advocates a basic income as a remedy for three negative contingencies associated with capitalist labour contracts: involuntary unemployment, poverty, and denial of autonomy. After discussing arguments for and against a basic income, he closes with a functionalist reflection on its virtues for gradually overcoming the structural problems of capitalist societies. Starting with Nozick’s ideal of a minimal state, Richard Sturn takes issue with a normative principle that seems to be widely accepted in debates on the labour market: the principle of ‘free contract’. At first glance, this principle appears to be compelling as a normative foundation for the labour market, but Sturn concludes that it only applies under extremely unrealistic assumptions. Thus, he rejects Nozick’s ideal of a night-watchman state as a baseline for an ethical assessment of labour-market relationships. Ulrich Steinvorth wants to replace the demand for a right to work with a right to develop one’s capabilities. A right to work usually means a right to employment in the labour market, i.e. to labour. But most of us want to avoid labour. In his view, the rational core of the demand for a right to work lies in the idea of adapting nature to human capabilities: the ‘Promethean venture’, which is, with a ‘liberal proviso’, the normative basis for a right to participate in a society’s interaction with its environment. This, however, could be done outside the labour market if there is a decent dole, hence a call for basic income. Stephan Schlothfeldt, however, challenges Steinvorth’s basic premise that labour is a burden people prefer to avoid. In his view, philosophers tend to neglect labour’s function as a source of social recognition. This does not rule out a basic income, but it should be seen only as a second best. Ulrich Steinvorth, in his reply, defends his premise that a life of self-chosen activity is preferable to labour. He agrees that recognition is central but claims that the importance of labour is only a feature of the kind of societies we currently live in. Russell Keat examines an influential paper by Richard J. Arneson in which socialists were urged to confine themselves to distributional justice and to leave the provision of meaningful work to the market in order to preserve neutrality. Keat denies that the state could be neutral in this respect. By drawing on the ‘varieties of capitalism’ literature, according to which there are at least two kinds of capitalist organization, the ‘liberal’ and the ‘coordinated’, Keat claims that meaningful work will be prevalent in the latter. Thus, there can be no neutrality, only different biases of the ways to organize the market. In response, Richard J. Arneson diagnoses a non-sequitur in his former argument, jumping from the premise that the state should not privilege some preference as intrinsically more worthy to the conclusion that it should not enhance worse-off people’s well-being by increasing their opportunity to perform meaningful work. He rejects Keat’s claim that ‘varieties of capitalism’ exclude the possibility of neutrality towards alternative conceptions of the good, even if neutrality of outcome might be impossible. In his reply, however, Keat tries to defend parts of Arneson’s earlier position against the Arneson of today. Christoph Henning thinks that the dominant justification of workfare is perfectionist, but that perfectionism need not be paternalistic. While the purpose of welfare was to take care of the vulnerable, workfare aims at bringing recipients back into the labour market. To Henning, a liberal perfectionism seems recommendable, but not its paternalist version due to its violation of individual autonomy. He considers possible explanations for why liberal philosophers may have accepted the idea of workfare but discards them as unconvincing. Peter Streckeisen challenges the ‘conventional wisdom’ that we are living in a knowledge society with more democratic kinds of work organization; worker alienation, class struggle and environmental destruction, may still persist. He diagnoses political strategies as resulting in blaming the unemployed for not investing enough in their human capital. After a brief case study done at Novartis he closes by speculating about why the picture of the ‘brave new world of human resources management’ might have gained such widespread acceptance.


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