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.


  1. 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.

  2. Yes, I was speaking more in the sense of the US and developed world.

    Also, 22,000 children under 5 die each day across the world, it’s not just limited to poverty-related causes.

  3. 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 by and starve while robots ride through to pick up the carcasses and the wealthy hide behind their gates. Wars have been fought over this. People like to live.

    C’mon man, you got anything else? Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? A rotating schedule with reduced work hours?

  4. I’m seeing sources say approximately 1/3 of deaths are due to poverty-related circumstances. So yes, for the most part, death due to poverty no longer exists.

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

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

  7. 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 is any obligation beyond that. It’s laudable to produce a surplus and help take care of others, but it’s not a moral obligation. It might be in your personal moral code, but that’s not absolute or universal. You seem to equate ‘work’ with ‘generating economic value,’ for the most part. In other cultures, there are other obligations, or other definitions of work, depending on how you want to spin it. For religious Jews, Torah study is greater obligation than work, for example.

    On a separate tack – when does the obligation to work start and stop? I can always work more hours, should I? My kids are able bodied, should they be working? Are wealthy people and retirees amoral? Am I amoral on vacation (insert Vegas joke here?)

    Would you support cutting the amount of work someone does to allow jobs for others? This is a serious question – in rich societies, we are already at a point where there are more able bodied people than jobs for them, and the robots have not even arrived. The Europeans have started to cut down the hours people work to allow for more people in the work place. I don’t see that flying here with the virtual cult we have of the hardworking man putting in his 60 hour work week. You could argue that the candle on both ends guy is creating surplus, but in most cases (with the exception of philanthropists like Gates and Warren) that surplus is not going to society, it’s being hoarded (see, Trump.) Is there a moral obligation to produce as much as you can if you don’t share it with others? What is the purpose of generating the surplus? Is it to distribute it to others or is it a good in and of itself? If it’s for distribution and we have enough goods produced just by people who actually want to work (plus robots) to feed everyone, why do other people still have to work?

    Of course, this is a largely philosophical question for most on this blog. As per Brecht – “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” (first comes the eating, then comes morality.) I assume that everyone here works because they are not independently wealthy. The moral aspect only comes into it if you no longer have to work to eat, but still choose to do so. I am honest enough to admit that I would not continue to come into the office if a sudden inheritance or jackpot fell into my lap.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. You really don’t see the connection? UBI lessens the incentive to work for people who are able bodied. That is a problem–people who can work should, in order to provide for those who aren’t able to. It will be these people who are hurt most when society generates a smaller surplus to provide for them.

  11. A lot to respond to here:
    The socialism connection–I suppose it is a bit ironic, but I guess that the honor given to socially-beneficial work is one thing they may have gotten right. You agree people shouldn’t be burdens on others if possible, but stop there. If everyone acted that way, how would those for whom it’s not possible survive? What about your own family, do you feel it is ok to just support yourself, or do you feel obligated to provide for them out of your surplus?
    We certainly have more obligations than to work. I don’t know how you are assuming that I think work is our only, or even primary obligation.
    Of course we can always work more hours. I think there’s a point where effort is reasonable, where you’re pulling your weight and then some, and that is just fine. I think it’s ridiculous to suggest vacationing or retiring is amoral, and if you read that into what I am saying, you are being deliberately obtuse.
    We should certainly not restrict people from working more if they wish. It does not harm others to work more, and laws that restrict work to try and create additional jobs are counterproductive.
    With regard to the rich and “hoarding”, unless their money is literally being put under a mattress or the like, their surplus is helping others. Investments, savings accounts, and even spending on luxuries benefits others as well. A shipfitter is pretty happy to have, and benefits from, a rich person building a megayacht.

  12. I most certainly did not say being poor makes you less moral! Far from it! There are many poor folks who work their ass off, and that is noble. There are also many poor who are content to be a taker and won’t get their act together–that is a problem.
    I also didn’t say work should be a government requirement based on reality. It seems like too many people jump to laws and government when there is this middle ground of culture, morality, and social obligation. I’d rather people choose to work out of a sense of duty and social/moral obligation to avoid unnecessarily burdening others than if they were just conscripted by some overbearing government. Liberty needs space here.

  13. 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 be direct and make a point or this should just be regarded as too nonsensical to even debate.

    1.) You did not even address what I asked you in the discourse thread, which is why passive profiting is a bad thing.

    2.) You don’t have an argument against UBI, why it couldn’t be paid for, or even if you think it would or would not work.

    This is a completely ignorant and misinformed tangent that has nothing to do with anything. This is a stellar example of how the republican ideology has no place in constructive debate, how even with a super majority in the house and senate it is a lame duck, limp dick entity that is just one year away from being marched right back out of both offices, and why even a president that took so many stupid people for a ride on the republican ticket is having his son fire anyone that has an ideology even remotely close to the one I see above. It’s because it’s useless.

  14. You want something direct? UBI will create many more morally-bankrupt deadbeat leeches that will suck off the teat of those who still have a sense of moral obligation to work hard, help others, and contribute to society. More of these people will become cynical and ask themselves “what’s the point?”, decreasing productivity, decreasing surplus, and resulting in very bad things for the people who truly cannot take care of themselves. It’s pretty obvious what happens when the incentives align towards takers and against makers.
    As to the passive profit thing, I thought I made it clear before that is a socialist trash argument. I am honestly floored you think that shitty article you linked is worth a damn at all. Investment income is the reward for taking financial risk by loaning your money to someone who can make productive use of it. p-r-o-d-u-c-t-i-v-e being the operative word here. What you propose is to take this wealth that is being put to productive use and give it to the above-mentioned deadbeat leeches instead, wow what a recipe for a successful nation.
    Finally, it was mashav’s prompt that had me thinking about the morality of work, and how apparently people don’t seem to understand there is a connection between the two. Sometimes I like to write about the politics of the day, and other times I feel like exploring something philosophical. This blog is a platform for me to write about whatever the hell I want, so I’m not even sure why you are riding this UBI horse when I wanted to take the topic into a different, albeit related, area.

  15. 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.

  16. Morally bankrupt wouldn’t be the term I would use, but I guess it would depend on how such people make use of their time. As discussed with mashav, there are more obligations than employment. If someone can live off non-employment income, and dedicate their time to helping others, creating art, or some other meaningful pursuit, I’d be hard-pressed to call them morally compromised for it. But if that person is just living a lifestyle of self-centered consumption, taking but not giving, you’re damn right they are morally compromised. I would say more so than the deadbeat UBI consumer, since they actually have the means to do something meaningful.
    There’s also the whole idea that the consumer of private wealth, which was indeed earned in a productive pursuit, is quite different from the consumer of public wealth expropriated from someone/something productive.

  17. 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 be saddled with debt even if they graduated with a liberal arts degree.

    I’ve heard of ideas like pooling a resource like social security into a fund not too dissimilar to something like CALPERS, which is EXACTLY WHAT UBI IS, letting the market create the pool of money that pays for UBI.

    These are all ideas that are CONSTRUCTIVE and worthy of debating. What is ridiculous, and a waste of time are these philosophical and emotional opinions that don’t have any basis being discussed in this context whatsoever. I don’t know or care to convince you what is immoral or not. I feel like in the above post you’re basically saying a contract killer is morally superior to someone who cannot find work because he’s kept himself busy. And what is work? In the mind? Physical labor?

    It’s just stupid conjecture that doesn’t mean anything.

  18. 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 hope for that.

  19. 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 money for no other reason than they were given that money by ancestor, or came into it. They aren’t morally bankrupt or even lazy. They are rich.

    You just have a personal problem with a class of people you don’t like receiving money passively.


  20. 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?

  21. 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 I make. Once the majority of the population decide that they all voluntarily would like to choose to pay some taxes to fund food for the poor, you get food stamps. I guess it becomes a legal obligation at that point, but it does not make it any more spiritual or moral.
    You say that vacationing and retiring are ok. Who determines what’s a reasonable amount of effort? If I win the lottery and take my family on a multi-year round the world jaunt to learn and enjoy other cultures, is that moral? Is learning considered “work” in your worldview? What if I just cash out my 401k and we go live on a beach in Thailand? Is that the same or different because we’d have less money? Where’s the cut off?
    I guess I am confused. Rich people spending on megayachts are stimulating the economy. But poor people spending on food are leeches?
    Does it matter how that rich person made that money? I get your point about investments, kind of, but how do you feel about day traders and currency arbitrageurs? They literally create nothing but make money. Is that more moral than UBI?

  22. 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 is only this difference: the burglar does not ask me to sanction his act.

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