Tuesday’s Discourses post “Let’s All Go on the Dole” featured a wide-ranging discussion centered around the concept of a Universal Basic Income. As with all of our Discourses posts, we posed a series of questions to prompt debate and discussion in the comments. In one of my replies, I mentioned the spiritual and moral degradation that results from severing the link between work and survival, prompting this reply from user mashav:

Why is work spiritual and moral?

That question really got me thinking, I suppose because it was a concept I took for granted, one that is pretty fundamental to how I see the world. It was apparent by mashav’s question, and by other cynical comments in that thread, that this view is not as widely shared as I must have assumed. So with this assumption challenged, I felt obligated to make a case for why work indeed has a deep moral and spiritual dimension.

I’m not sure why the concept is so controversial. After all, we humans are clearly moral and spiritual creatures, possessing a depth of experience that, to the best of our knowledge, is unique among all creatures. We dream about the future and wrench in agony over losses long past. We bond with others in ways that transcend the physical. And we deeply feel pain and guilt from our transgressions, or as a result of others who’ve wronged us.

We are also social creatures, inextricably linked with our fellow man. “No man is an island” said John Donne. Even the proverbial hermit in the wilderness was at some point raised, nurtured, or educated by another. The entirety of our civilization rests on the necessity of cooperation, the vast superstructure of knowledge, culture, technology, and health built upon it. Economies grew ever more sophisticated, relying on man’s ability to cooperate with one another as individuals specialized more and more.

And what has driven this unending project? The need to survive and desire to thrive. It’s an ascent up the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

And we humans must have learned pretty quickly that our best way to scale this pyramid is to cooperate. It starts with simple exchange of basic physiological goods, the resulting surplus of which is able to support securing of goods higher up the pyramid, and onward and upward we go. The priest depends on the farmer’s surplus to survive. Through the principle of comparative advantage, this eventually results in someone being able to survive and thrive by making dramatic voice-overs for film and TV, exchanging that talent for all one needs in life.

So if we are spiritual and moral creatures, and work is such a fundamental part of our existence, how could it not be said that work is spiritual and moral?

It’s easy for the philosopher to recognize the inherent meaning in his work, but what about the garbage collector? It shouldn’t be too hard to see even then. He performs a service for others through his profession. There is an inherent nobility to work that, while primarily performed to meet one’s own needs and desires, contributes to civilization in some way.

And that contribution is not just in the direct service provided, it is found also in the way in which one’s income provides for others. The surplus generated through specialized work supports those who are unable to survive on their own, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled. The commonwealth of man has been built such that, for the most part, true poverty (i.e. that which results in death) no longer exists. Layers of support from the personal to the societal ensure this, but require the surplus to be maintained.

Nobody “deserves” food, water, shelter, health care, or anything else. No, all we deserve is to die. Those who expect “society” to provide basic needs have to recognize that such provision only comes through the hard work of the individuals that comprise it. Much like the assumption that “national income” is actually a thing to be disbursed and rerouted at will, rather than a statistical abstraction to understand the aggregate of individual actors, “society” is not actually a thing in and of itself.

This is where we reach the question of the morality of work. Those who are able to work are obligated to work. Generating a surplus is a moral obligation if one has the ability.

Selfishness, cynicism, tribalism, and bigotry are but some of the threats that have the potential to destroy it. Too much leeching off of others diminishes the surplus, as taking overtakes contributing. And you know who is hurt first/most in this downward spiral? Those who truly depend on others for survival.

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HERE is the thread where you guys can cut loose.


The commonwealth of man has been built such that, for the most part, true poverty (i.e. that which results in death) no longer exists.

Really? Is this subject limited to the US only?
According to the UN, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. That’s one roughly every 3 seconds.

Seriously, zoom you been hitting the soylent green? No one deserves anything but death? Funny, I use Maslow all the time with issues like this. We can only navel gaze about this because our needs are largely met. Ironic that said navel gazing may be required to come back down the pyramid to the physiological. Most people deep down believe that work is better than a handout. Someone has to do shit, right? But, when robots and computers do nearly everything, why should our survival suffer because of what will amount to an obsolete model. Besides, no one will sit… Read more »

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

Look on the bright side, this post has basically taught me that pornographers and drug dealers have the moral high ground.

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

I applaud you for putting this together, but what does any of this have to do with Universal Income?

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

This is master prestige trolling. Spectacular.


I am using this https://www.unicef.org/media/files/UNICEF_Child_mortality_for_web_0831.pdf and, given the geographic concentration of under-5 mortality, I have a hard time believing your number.
But if you want to talk about the US – https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/how-many-us-deaths-are-caused-poverty-lack-education-and-other-social-factors


My initial reaction to your statement is informed by my distaste for socialism, ironically. Your view of this subject sounds hilariously like this: Article 60. It is the duty of, and matter of honor for, every able-bodied citizen of the USSR to work conscientiously in his chosen, socially useful occupation, and strictly to observe labor discipline. Evasion of socially useful work is incompatible with the principles of socialist society. –1977 Constitution of the USSR I agree that there is an obligation for a member of society not to be a burden on others, if possible. I don’t agree that there… Read more »

Here is an article from a bit less apocalyptic viewpoint as the robot overlords one. Greg, I think this has some interesting ideas that still let people perform a service to society.

I am not sure that the US will be able to sustain its 300+ million population on everyone being able to have three 40hr per week jobs until they are 70 years old. Can we limit how much work one is allowed to perform so that someone else can do some too?

Work is a matter of necessity for most people. It shouldn’t be a government requirement based on morality. The idea that being poor somehow makes you less moral is one that was created by the upper classes to explain why they were somehow better than those that worked for them. Of course, being lazy is no excuse for staying poor. But that has less to do with morality IMO than it does with how convenient it can be to not work and get paid for it by the government.

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

No, there is absolutely no connection to this and an argument either for or against UBI. It’s such a detached tangent its not even tangentially connected to the issue at all. I don’t want to be too harsh, but this post would be my champion example of why the Republican Party and American conservative political ideology is brain dead and will be banished from American politics entirely within a decade. You haven’t even provided one example, either for or against universal pay. you are making a weird philosophical opinion that doesn’t even make sense really. I think you need to… Read more »

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

So, are people who are invested in the stock market, landlords, people who live on inheritance morally bankrupt because they don’t work for that money at all. It just comes.

Judge Dredd, Pro Se

we could have all kinds of great discussions about whether UBI could be accomplished, what it would take or even things like whether it would be a cheaper alternative to welfare, food stamps, social security and unemployment. some of the ideas being kicked around are to tax the robots that replace human workers and let that fund the UBI. I’ve also heard ideas about putting a lot of funding into americorps so young people would earn their own money for college while they actually did stuff like improve our infrastructure, help communities learn to read, etc. and then they wouldn’t… Read more »

Ethics changes with Technology…Niven…. well, as for morality and work. if you are physically and mentally able to work, your better fucking be doing it, well something creative or constructive at least. You have no right to the product of someones else labor other wise. now if someone wants to gift some of that to you, that between you and them. maybe just maybe we could build a society of philosophers and engineers if we could just give everyone the free time to just sit around and think…but given the society i see out there… i do not have high… Read more »

Judge dredd, pro se

So you don’t have a problem with people making money passively, by not working. You have a problem with poor or displaced people making money passively. Rich people are a-ok making money this way. That’s pretty much where I knew you’d go with it. You want exactly what I said you want; you wasn’t a socially acceptable class of your choosing to be able to make money passively and you want a class of people to frown on so you can feel morally superior. No more, no less. Passive economy exists in this nation already. There are people who make… Read more »


1/3 of all human deaths does not extrapolate to 1/3 of children under 5, since they don’t tend to die of old age, earth disease, etc.
In any case, lets get away from ‘won’t someone think of the children’ and stick with your number of 50k dead per day due to poverty.
What are you arguing? Are you saying that number is ok? That’s your proof that “death due to poverty no longer exists” because “only” 18 million people die each year?


There is a difference between obligation and doing something noble voluntarily. No knowing that difference is another connection you seem to share with the socialists. I personally have said many times that I am happy to pay more in tax if it gets us a more robust social net. But I don’t see that as a moral obligation. It’s a choice. The only people I am morally obligated to support are my minor children since I chose to bring them into this world. You could make an argument for my parents, but that’s it. The rest is a choice that… Read more »


Who is the public? What does it hold as its good? There was a time when men believed that ‘the good’ was a concept to be defined by a code of moral values and that no man had the right to seek his good through the violation of the rights of another. If it is now believed that my fellow men may sacrifice me in any manner they please for the sake of whatever they believe to be their own good, if they believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it—well, so does any burglar. There… Read more »


Not to mention packagers of sub-prime mortgage tranches. Masters of surplus.

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