Human Rights Review

, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 27–45

Employment as a Limitation on Self-Ownership


    • Political Science DepartmentRollins College

DOI: 10.1007/s12142-010-0165-8

Cite this article as:
Maskivker, J. Hum Rights Rev (2011) 12: 27. doi:10.1007/s12142-010-0165-8

All contemporary societies are structured around work. It could be said that work is the organizing principle of most people’s lives; it structures the way they encounter material and social reality as well as the way they achieve status and self-esteem. Generally speaking, a person must be employed in order to consider herself, and be considered, a responsible and respected member of the community. Work understood as employment constitutes a necessity for most people in this world. Although some people may enjoy their work, and achieve self-fulfillment and status, they still work to survive. Few human beings live in the proverbial Garden of Eden; most people have to work in order to make a living. Welfare-state assistance, for those physically and mentally able to work, is neither eternal nor unconditional.

This paper argues that the need to work violates effective self-ownership. For the sake of analytical clarity, I take a formalistic understanding of “work” as employment. (wage-based or self-employment). This strategy surely relegates significant normative discussion about the status of work and labor in relation with human nature and morality, as can be found in the works of Marx, Hegel, and many other philosophical luminaries.1 Taking up an analysis of the notion of work in this deep sense necessitates more space that I can afford to take here and although valuable in itself would not significantly add to the logical soundness of my self-ownership argument as presented in this essay. Defining work formalistically as remunerated activity highlights the obligatoriness aspect of much human effort which, I wish to claim, is constraining in a morally relevant sense, however enjoyable or willfully undertaken.2 As contemporary philosopher Robert Goodin aptly claims, “[e]ven if you work for an enlightened firm rather than a literal slave-driver, you have no real discretionary control over whether or not you spend however long it takes to get at least a poverty-level income” (Goodin et al. 2008: 33).

By effective self-ownership, I generally mean autonomous use of individual faculties, potential, and energies. Effective self-ownership differs from formal self-ownership which is defined by the absence of physical intrusion and coercion (Cohen 1995). It requires both non-interference and the real opportunity to make plans and realize preferences. In this way, my claims constitute a modified approach to the classical understanding of self-ownership traceable to Lockean libertarianism, which emphasizes freedom from bodily intrusion and later echoed by Nozick in his account of rights as “side-constraints” (Nozick 1975). In particular, this paper develops the argument that a fundamental variable to assess whether individuals are effectively self-owning is the extent to which they are substantively free to allocate their time between employment and non-employment-related activities. Autonomous control of time—to the extent that such control is humanly possible—obtains hand in hand with a particular type of freedom which I call, for lack of a better term, freedom to do otherwise. In normative discussions on liberty, this conceptualization of freedom is commonly linked to notions of autonomy understood as positive command over one’s life, not as mere absence of physical impediments (Christman 1988; Raz 1986). The arguments in this paper do not imply that work is constraining tout court. Rather, the idea is that lack of opportunity to work less than full-time via an unconditional basic income or other similar policy instruments violates the individual’s effective self-ownership, and that such a violation is lamentable for reasons of freedom. Thus, this paper should not be understood to recommend, philosophically, the destruction of work-based society but, rather, the erection of institutional alternatives that debilitate the constraint imposed by employment.

The notion of effective self-ownership in rights talk is not new; it is widely present in debates about the voluntariness of market relations. Wiederquist, for example, asks what physical conditions must be present at the outset before we can say that an individual enters market relationships voluntarily and how those conditions can be secured (Widerquist 2008). Much in the light of the works of Cohen (Cohen 1988, 1995), Widerquist argues that in capitalistic scenarios, the individual cannot be said to make a voluntary choice to enter the market because of the absence of an acceptable alternative to that entrance. Thus, he argues for “an exit option” that is derived from “freedom as Effective Control Self-Ownership.” More exactly, Widerquist defines the latter as “the effective power to accept or refuse interaction with other willing people” and as “the power to say No” (Widerquist 2008: 3).

The foregoing line of reasoning is in keeping with my approach; however, it is vastly incomplete in fleshing out the totality of mechanisms that detract from effective self-ownership in a capitalist system or in any non-capitalist order that relies on employment as a source of livelihood. In this article, I want to point to a different, albeit related, logic—one that has been consistently underexplored by theorists of freedom and rights. This logic highlights the coercive nature of any system that is premised on wage-based employment as the main guarantor of livelihood by constraining the individual’s capacity to make use of her time freely.

In the literature on voluntariness from which Widerquist draws, the lack of acceptable alternatives to market relations is attributed to the particular character of capitalism. In that system, property holders have the power to subsist without the need to submit to the control of others, whereas the propertyless, on account of their lack of command over resources, are pushed to sell their labor and enter the market under circumstances they may disprefer (Cohen 1988).

In his seminal work on libertarianism and equality, Michael Otsuka makes a case for what he calls “robust self-ownership” that is also premised on the desirability of an equitable distribution of property. Otsuka contends that self-ownership, while it includes absolute rights of control over one’s body and talents, does not imply complete control over the fruits of the land and other resources one owns or even to all income generated by one’s work requiring the use of external things (Otsuka 2003). Absolute rights in one’s person do not apply to the “worldly things” one owns as Nozick claims in his defense of classical libertarisnism (Nozick 1975: 179). According to Nozick, “taxation from earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor” (Nozick, 1975: 169). Nozick assumes the individual to have a right to a complete control over the economic returns of his land and material assets (besides his body and talents, and provided labor is not performed on resources whose acquisition violated norms of justice or a weak Lockean proviso). Otsuka challenges Nozick’s libertarian view by arguing that property rights in external things and resources (such as land) are not derived from the right to bodily self-ownership. In Otsuka’s account, ownership of external things springs from an initial right to worldly resources that is prior to one’s engaging in the labor that, when mixed with those worldly resources, can legitimately generate income. This initial right to worldly resources does not imply any curtailment of the right of self-ownership.3

The arguments that I develop in this article expand the scope of the above-described defenses of individual emancipation from coercive market forces as a matter of right. But my approach innovates in suggesting that emancipation is not only possible via a more equitable distribution of property ownership but also via a system that secures control over the use of our personal assets in a way that traditional employment-centered economies do not. This guarantee may be achieved via various social policies which are independent of considerations of property, although they are designed to redistribute income within society.4 Thus, this paper presents an implicit defense of stake-holding policies such as the basic income and capital accounts which, if sufficiently generous, may permit the individual to (partially) opt out of remunerated work.5 However, my analysis is not limited to any particular set of policy proposals but rather focuses on one unexplored aspect of the justification of the opportunity to opt out of work more generally, namely, the effective self-ownership argument based on autonomous control of time.

In this article, I take a different route from Otsuka’s, who many believe to have provided the most sound defense of robust self-ownership ideals to date. Although my account does not challenge the validity of this assessment, it suggests that Otsuka neglects to show that effective self-ownership can be justified without resorting to considerations of ownership. It is not unreasonable to think that in reflections about effective self-ownership, the issue at hand may be the clashing of two types of freedom in society: the freedom to keep the fruits of one’s labor (by refusing to be taxed with redistributive purposes) against the freedom to act on the plans of life we form as rational agents under acceptable conditions of existence. Discussion on the “worth of freedom” evokes this distinction. (Rawls 1971: sec 32). According to this reasoning, built into the concept of freedom are circumstances that make it possible to exercise freedom effectively, circumstances that enhance or diminish its worth, that is, what the individual can actually do while free. Material resources are facilitators of freedom; hence, they increase the value of it. However, it is not necessary to argue for a certain conception of ownership of world resources to arrive at the conclusion that effective self-ownership is a philosophically feasible concept. Effective self-ownership can be justified by reference to self-direction values that are themselves independent of property considerations. This proposition should not strike one as unfamiliar in political philosophy. After all, John Rawls’ theory of justice—the cornerstone of liberal egalitarianism—highlights the need to minimize the effects of social contingency and the “natural lottery” with an eye to securing the basis for autonomy, ultimately. Only when free from the limitations that an unfortunate background imposes will the individual be able to carry out her freely chosen ends without facing obstacles that are “morally arbitrary”, that is, obstacles the individual is not morally responsible for bringing about in any significant way (Rawls 1971). If redistributive measures can be justified on the basis of this concern for avoiding morally arbitrary disadvantage, and for maximizing opportunities to live according to one’s freely formed conception of the good life (precluding harm to others), it is not far-fetched to reason that effective self-ownership can be deemed philosophically acceptable by reference to society’s obligation to enable people to act as rational and autonomous choosers, which the availability of appealing life options greatly facilitates. This essay argues that time understood as an enabling resource for effective self-ownership has been underexplored and purports to theorize why it is conceptually connected with material resources but nevertheless independent of them, normatively speaking.

The article unfolds as follows.

Self-Ownership and the Work Constraint” explores the importance of effective self-ownership and how this conception relates to the need to work, which is a central organizational principle of modern society. In particular, I spell out the argument that in order to claim effective self-ownership, an individual has to enjoy freedom to do otherwise from that which he is allowed (or desires) to do, which in the case of employment would signify the possibility to withdraw from the monetized economy (if only partially). “Labor as Unavoidable?” tackles the objection that labor is an unavoidable part of the human condition because basic human needs are constant over time, and these needs will always require us to work. Finally, “A Collective Action Problem” addresses the timeless question of socially necessary cooperation. Social survival depends on engagement in socially useful production and work. However, my arguments show that even when the collective mandates that people work, it is ethically permissible for each individual to engage in under-demanded forms of labor. I explain why freedom from employment, while theoretically impossible if collectively enjoyed by all citizens at once, is not obviated by considerations of collective action.

Self-Ownership and the Work-Constraint

Self-ownership is a philosophical concept that implies a particular type of individual liberty. In the classical (libertarian) formulation of the concept, this liberty is defined as the absence of interference with the use and control of our bodies. John Locke and others held that individuals own themselves in the sense that they have property rights in themselves, just as people have private property rights in things. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke espouses the idea that “every man has a property in his own person; this anybody has a right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his” (Locke 1976: 19). This idea of private ownership has two components.

First, it comprises the individual right of control over the use of one’s person. That is, the use of one’s skill and body, along with the fruits of one’s labor. Second, self-ownership also comprises rights to transfer those prerogatives to others (by sale, rental, gift, or loan). The property rights in question are moral rights which are not necessarily legally recognized rights. A polity that allows slavery, for example, fails to recognize the (moral) self-ownership of slaves.6

The notion of self-ownership implies the basic principle that only the agent herself controls the use of her person, meaning that external actors cannot interfere with her decisions.7 From this perspective, self-ownership actually implies a bundle of property rights of varying strengths. Libertarians understand self-ownership as involving a full set of rights over oneself that is comparable to the full set of unrestricted private property rights. They conceive self-ownership as full self-ownership, because they believe there is no morally valid reason why people cannot fully control their own persons, the results of their talents and efforts, and the property they have acquired as a result of the latter.

The abovementioned right, however, does not exhaust the ideal of a self-owning person. Lack of control over material resources, for instance, fatally undermines the individual’s effective capacity to use her skills and powers. The propertyless proletarian who cannot use the means of production without the capitalist’s permission, for example, lacks effective power to control the use of his abilities and strengths (Cohen 1995: 94). Although he has not lost his formal freedoms, he needs the consent of others—property owners—to be productive. People who control their own resources do not have to ask permission of others to use those resources. Having to ask other parties for permission, or non-vetoing, limits the many ways people can use their talents and abilities. The concept of effective self-ownership suggests that the freedom to choose how to use our talents and strengths is jeopardized by phenomena other than intrusion and force. It suggests that lack of resources limits the individual’s real control of her talents and physical attributes. Control of natural and economic resources implies effective control of human potential because productivity demands access to the external world and its resources. People need resources in order to use their talents. Lack of (sufficient) resources extinguishes potential since talents languish in a material vacuum. Musical talent, for example, is useless if the potential musician has no instrument. A talent for craftsmanship remains dormant in the absence of supplies and resources.

Time, like other resources, is crucial for the effective exercise of individual potential. Without time, an individual cannot realize her goals nor engage in any sort of activity, for that matter. Time is an input for all activity at a rate that is peculiarly non-manipulable. The ever-present nature of time means that every action has a temporal location. Differently put, everything we do takes time. Time is a crucial source of long- and short-term utility (Goodin 2001: 18). This is so because material objects and skills can be enjoyed and exercised only insofar as people have the time to enjoy and exercise them. The value of a good depends on the extent that it can be combined with time; otherwise, it will remain inert (Zeckhauser 1973). By the same token, a talent or skill is valuable only to the extent that it can be exercised, which depends on there being time to exercise it.

People who are fortunate enough to have jobs that utilize their preferred skills rarely realize that “time is on their side.” However, much human potential and talent can be exercised only when people have enough time for leisure, understood as meaningful activity outside of employment. Economists often contrast labor with leisure—meaning time outside of work—which is assumed to be valueless or simply idle. The category mistake, however, is to regard labor as fundamental or as having a necessary priority over leisure.

Aristotle emphasized the importance of leisure by stating that the first principle of all action is leisure (Aristotle 1978, 1989). In this view, individuals are busy so that they may have leisure. According to Aristotle, leisure is the goal of busy-ness, which we call labor. We do not have to share Aristotle’s social conservatism and intellectualism to see that human beings can engage in meaningful pursuits outside the sphere of necessity and labor. The way people spend their time is both an important element of personal definition and a potential significant barrier to their full autonomy. The manner in which an individual uses her time throughout her life is so important—so central to conceptions of the good which make that life coherent—that work and leisure cannot properly be equated with production or consumption (Levine 1995:262).

Just as an individual can choose how to spend her money, she can also, in theory, choose how to spend her time. The fact that most people cannot opt out of work, however, makes such control difficult when it comes to decisions involving how to divide their day between activities that are necessary for guaranteeing a livelihood and activities that do not, necessarily, contribute to that function. Leaving qualitative differences among working conditions aside, it is not far-fetched to think that most working people spend their time in relatively similar ways: in employment, under the supervision of a boss (if not self-employed) and under the auspices of a relatively rigid schedule.

Self-ownership means that the individual can control how to use her potential and skills, factors beyond her control notwithstanding. If this control is to be more than formal, though, individuals need more than the absence of interference: they need resources and time.

Why does time matter, exactly? If one has enough resources to live without being forced to work, then are concerns not about time addressed via the access to resources?

Here, I want to suggest a negative answer because of the specialness of time as an independently valuable good. What makes time independently valuable from material resources? Although the possession of the latter permits one, under normal circumstances (i.e., freedom of action and choice) to prescind from work (at least temporarily), the connection between time and resources is not logical but merely empirical. To bring my point home, think of the following hypothetical situation. However, non-original in its setup, the imaginary scenario below will clarify some important issues about the nature of time in discussions of self-ownership.

Max and Joseph live on a desert island in which the only source of survival is the farming of a small plot of land. This land requires labor-intensive work because it will give fruits only if farmed constantly, 340 out of 361 days in a year. Failing to labor the land in this manner will result in insufficient crops for survival (assume the marginal productivity of farming it exponentially starts to increase on day 300). Max and Joseph, then, have to decide how to allocate the time to be spent laboring the land.

Max, eager to trade part of the crops with inhabitants of other islands, proposes to labor the land in 340 days in exchange for the full ownership of the crops and offers to provide Joseph with a decent amount of food to secure his survival. Joseph, keen on surfing, readily accepts, as this arrangement will give him the time to devote himself to his passion. In this scenario, Joseph does not command any resources (crops) but has plenty of time free of labor. Max, on the other hand, owns the crops produced and can trade them with, or sell them to, other individuals who visit from faraway. He does not have much time off work at his disposal, because the crops’ existence hinges on his being physically available to farm the land almost all year round.

This artificially ridiculous example could be used to reflect on one important aspect of social reality: the acquisition of resources is many times made possible via excessive work and minimal leisure. Yes, it is true that resources can buy free time (because of the possibility to not work that they grant), but this occurs in cases in which the resource is the source of an economic rent (which by definition implies idleness on the part of the resource owner); in cases in which an initial successful investment renders posterior work marginally much more profitable than in the past (i.e., Bill Gates with Microsoft); and in cases in which special talents or extreme popularity render each hour of work or “performance” extremely profitable (i.e., Pop starts, NBA players).

The social democratic struggle for a shorter work day (and a shorter work week) illustrates how time and resources can be conceived of as logically independent of each other. It is precisely the lack of command over resources on the part of the laborer that instigated a political and legal fight for the reduction of the work day. If one does not own the resources necessary to afford leisure, one can appeal to the legal system to secure leisure at the expense of the capitalist and his resources. Leisure before the 8-h work-day was inexistent for those resource-less. Today, it is not.

Why is time as such an important ingredient to human wellbeing? The decision to engage in any type of activity requires that a minimum amount of time be allocated to it. Time, as well as material goods, is an enabling resource for human action. Because the connection between time and material goods is not conceptual but empirical (i.e., it obtains not as a matter of logical necessity), one would be well-advised to reflect on the actual social factors that facilitate that empirical relationship. The economic system seems to be one of those factors. In a market society, where labor is a factor of production, the availability of resources can minimize the need and urgency to sell our labor in exchange for the means to subsistence. But this dynamic is a matter of social choice, not a logical axiom or an inevitable phenomenon.

Indeed, humankind knows of a different way to structure production and work which detaches labor from the individual’s possession of resources. In a kibbutz-like context, for instance, the allocation of labor among members of the community is independent of their material possessions. That allocation will determine the amount of time off work that each individual will have. Of course, how much leisure each laborer will be able to enjoy will centrally depend on the social product. The kibbutz’ collective output will ultimately determine how much individual leisure is possible without hindering collective survival due to insufficient production/productivity.

Undoubtedly, large societies cannot operate as kibbutzim for logistical reasons. But the aim of this discursion has not been to refute such fact. Rather, the aim was to argue that individual access to resources (i.e., wealth, assets) is not the logical flipside of access to free time. If this statement is true, it is not irrational to reflect on the value of time as such as a metric for distributive justice (Goodin et al. 2008). The basic income policy, or any other similar policy in effect in the context of a capitalistic society, will surely not do away with the empirical link between money (resources or social benefits) and leisure (the relaxation of the necessity to seek employment). However, we can justify these policies because they grant access to time outside of work, weakening the connection between resources and leisure. Such access is instrumentally valuable because time is the medium via which intrinsically valued pursuits can be carried out. Nobody values time in the abstract. Time is normally an object of desire because if we have it, we can do things we value with it. Time may not be a sufficient condition to do those things (we may need earthly resources such as money too), but it is certainly necessary, therefore, worthy of analysis in its own right.

The claim developed in this paper is that individuals cannot enjoy effective self-ownership as long as their employers control their time, which is crucial if they are to realize their potential. The proletarian needs the capitalist’s permission to use the means of production, for example, and similarly, the average worker needs her boss’s permission to use her time for work or leisure. If she does not have an employer, and is self-employed, she is still under certain time constraints if she is to make a living. Unless she is able to (partially) opt out of work, the individual’s capacity to effectively control the use of her powers (regardless of her preference as to work) is limited by the current centrality of remunerated work in society. When one is told what to do while in paid labor, one lacks (full) autonomy over one’s time for the period one has to remain in paid labor to economically subsist (Goodin et al. 2008).

Our lives are shaped by our decisions as to how, and to what extent, we use and develop our inherent abilities, skills, and talents. Although those decisions might be reversible, they still mean that a particular life will take a particular path because depending on how she uses her abilities and aspirations, the individual will transit certain life experiences rather than others. It seems fair to say, therefore, that the greater control we have over how we use our skills, the more power we have to direct our lives. But what are the necessary conditions for this control to secure something beyond protection against non-consensual action? I wish to suggest that the individual uses her skills autonomously when she does as she pleases with them provided that she could choose to do otherwise.8 True freedom of choice means that individuals must be able to refuse that which they are free, or desire, to choose. Let me elaborate.

There is a difference between doing something when one could have chosen not to do it and doing something when one could have not chosen otherwise. For example, although starving and fasting have the same physical effect—in that food is not ingested—both phenomena are importantly different given the context of choice that surrounds the individual that is either fasting or starving. I fast when I could decide not to eat, but I starve because I have no food (Sen 1988, 1991). It would be erroneous to claim that I should be able to avoid eating. It is non-voluntary starvation that should be rejected. People should have the option to fast, but they should also have the option to avoid hunger. This view of freedom of choice presupposes that even if the individual sincerely prefers the only option available to him, he is not really choosing freely if he cannot choose otherwise. I do not want to suggest that individual desires do not play a role in assessing freedom of choice. An individual is freer when she has the option to choose that which she (autonomously and rationally) prefers vis-à-vis a situation where her desired option is not present among her alternatives. However, this condition is not sufficient for assessing freedom in a substantive sense, since an individual whose preferred option is among her alternatives and who can choose not to choose that preferred option appears to enjoy greater freedom still. Amartya Sen seems to agree with the above insight when he remarks that “[t]he loss of opportunity to eat freely is a substantive loss even for the person who chooses to fast […], doing x and choosing to do x are, in general, not equivalent” (Sen 1988: 292). But why are those options not equivalent?

Enjoying freedom to do otherwise affords the individual the possibility to make a real, not merely formal, choice among alternatives. For individuals to have a substantial degree of control over their personal trajectories—one that goes beyond the absence of force and intrusion—they must be able to refuse that which they are free, or desire, to choose, I claim. In discussions about employment, freedom to do otherwise entails freedom not to spend a significant part of one’s day securing the means to survival. In this paper, I develop the argument that only when this possibility exists (if only partially) will the individual enjoy—to an extent humanly feasible—autonomy to allocate her time freely. She will effectively own herself, in consequence.9

In her work on voluntariness and freedom, Serena Olsaretti argues that a choice is voluntary if and only if it is not made because there is no acceptable alternative to it10—an unacceptable alternative being one that no rational individual would pick if she could avoid doing so11 (Olsaretti 1998: 71). However, Olsaretti accepts that a choice can be voluntary in the absence of other alternatives if and only if the option that is available is strongly preferred by the agent so that she chooses it because of that, not because she does not have other alternative. On this account, what makes a choice voluntary is its autonomous nature. “The idea of choosing voluntarily or acting freely is taken as equivalent to that of acting autonomously, where autonomy indicates the ability to act on one’s preferences about preferences” (Olsaretti Olsaretti 1998: 73). Understanding autonomy as the capacity to act on one’s higher-order preferences explains why sometimes we may be unable to make voluntary choices but might not resent that inability: a person’s choice to smoke (a first-order preference) may be rendered impossible due to high taxes on tobacco, but he may believe that the tax increase is actually for the better since he primordially wishes to quit smoking in order to lead a healthy lifestyle (a higher-order preference). The fact that the person does not voluntarily choose to quit smoking does not diminish his autonomy in this case. Moreover, on this view, autonomy may be increased by a person’s inability to make (first-order) voluntary choices. While tied to the mast, Odysseus cannot make choices as to whether or not to move, it is impossible for him to move even if he so wishes. But the decision to be tied to the mast in the first place was his voluntary choice, and that decision makes him autonomous (Olsaretti 1998: 73).

My conception of effective self-ownership takes issue with the conclusion that a choice can be autonomous even in the absence of other alternatives. Olsaretti’s reasoning is reflective of a particular conceptualization of autonomy which fundamentally revolves around internal psychological conditions. If we take autonomy to imply the capacity to fulfill one’s higher-order preferences, we must accept that, insofar as a given alternative is rationally desired by the agent, the absence of other options does not necessarily curtail her autonomy. However, autonomy may imply other things besides a capacity to act on our higher-order desires. If we associate autonomy with the capacity to exert control over the possible trajectories that our life may follow—the different directions in which our life may move—we can see that the absence of options to choose from constitutes a worrisome limitation. On this second view of autonomy, what matters is the absence of external constraints on the freedom to lead different modes of life irrespective of our particular desires regarding those alternatives (but not going contra them).

Understanding autonomy as requiring the option not to choose that which one is free, or desires, to choose reflects a concern for the capacity to be the main author of one’s own life, insofar as that capacity is humanly possible12 (Raz 1986). Life authorship in this external sense means that one is in a position to decide how to shape one’s life, as opposed to being in a situation where factors beyond one's control determine the course of events. Thus, the option not to choose what one can, or wants, to choose evinces this control because we can be surer this way that circumstances have not coerced a person to choose one way or the other. Additionally, having more than one acceptable option to choose from ensures that the agent is in a position to act on a change of mind if she desires to at any point in time. This possibility enhances her control because it means that autonomy is not contingent on the fortuitous circumstance of (rationally) preferring the only acceptable option available.13 In other words, it means that it is the individual who authors her life, not chance. The ideal of life authorship is not necessarily the same as the idea of life unity. The self-authored life may consist of diverse and heterogeneous pursuits. The important contrast is with a life of compelled, or fortuitously non-compelled, choices inasmuch as freedom from compulsion and freedom from chance are humanly possible.

At this juncture, the following question comes to mind: why is involuntary action morally problematic? Is it because absence of acceptable alternatives is bad in itself or because that scenario indicates the (potential) presence of exploitation understood as some sort of unfairness? It is not clear that involuntary action understood in the light of absence of acceptable alternatives is intrinsically bad (a moral wrong per se). The following reasoning illustrates why: there are classic philosophical stories involving freedom and voluntary action where a person is dying of thirst in the desert and out of nowhere pops a man selling water for some obscene price, say all the money a person has and all they will have or some such thing. Is such a transaction voluntary?14 One would argue no because the only alternative was death. Fair enough, but let us say the “scoundrel” in the desert selling water was no scoundrel at all but instead a very fair-minded person. This person charges only the price of one dollar for the bottle of water that will allow the man to survive to reach the next desert town. In this revised case, is the exchange voluntary? No. But is it morally problematic? It is harder to think so.

It seems reasonable to view a situation of the type described in the first example as morally worrisome because it reflects something else than non-voluntariness. When the water seller in the desert charges the thirsty individual a price that is patently higher than the price he would charge under different circumstances (i.e., in the presence of competition or in a city park), he is engaging in what economists call “discriminatory pricing” or monopolistic practices. The seller is profiting from the passer-by’s vulnerable situation vis-à-vis him. The seller is taking advantage of an inequality in “bargaining power” that one normally associates with the potentiality of unfair play practices (Goodin 1988).

The normative literature on the concept of exploitation, albeit ambiguous and complex, puts forward the idea that interpersonal exploitation occurs when one party takes unfair advantage of another party’s particularly vulnerable situation (Elster 1983; Goodin 1988). It is reasonable to predict that a person in (desperate) need will accede to any demand or price on pain of unbearable consequences such as loss of health, loss of life, or unemployment, to name a few. What makes a relationship or interaction exploitative, on this view, is not the use of plain physical force to bend someone’s will, but a more subtle mechanism, namely, coercive offers. A coercive offer leaves the individual formally free to decline the benefit being offered, but such benefit is so fundamental to the individual’s wellbeing that no rational person would normally choose to bypass it. An offer is deemed coercive, under this logic, because the party making the proposition works the “terms of exchange” to his favor, in detriment of the (circumstantially) weaker party, and precisely because the weaker party is in such vulnerable position, unable to negotiate. The central immorality in a situation of this kind is akin to an abuse of the process of bargaining because it is the vulnerability or desperation of others that facilitates and motivates the “over-pricing” (Goodin 1988: 144). The act of taking advantage of someone’s position of weakness (permanent or temporary) is normally seen as in contradiction with principles of fairness—or fair play—which preclude “dirty practices” or “low blows.”

Extrapolating the discussion about exploitation to the case of employment in actual society, it does not seem unreasonable to think that the option to work or live as a social outcast is of an exploitative nature. Even if there is no specific party exploiting the worker (a debatable assumption in various cases), we could think of the system as a whole as exploitative. Because the individual has to work fulltime to subsist decently, normally, she will find it difficult to exercise full autonomy over the use of her talents and time, since her talents and time will have to be employed in response to the demands of the productive economy, not her own, necessarily. Invariably demanding fulltime work in exchange for a decent livelihood is comparable to demanding an exorbitant price for a bottle of water in the absence of competition. It leaves the individual vulnerable to the powerful party (society) in the face of the great loss to be suffered if the “offer” as stipulated is not taken (if one opts not to work while not independently wealthy).

So long as a person has to be employed fulltime in order to survive, she is not free to use her talents and strengths in ways other than those required by activities centered on work. She can decide, if she is fortunate enough, between different jobs, but she cannot afford to develop those talents that may not guarantee her a livelihood. Although she has formal control over her skills in that nobody can force her to use them in ways she does not consent to, she does not have effective control over them insofar as she cannot use and develop them in certain ways without society giving her permission to do so by allowing her to allocate her time freely without incurring the risk of deprivation. No sense of real control exists if the individual has no meaningful choices about how to use her innate, or acquired, abilities since she cannot be said to have freely chosen how to exercise those abilities under such circumstances. The logical conclusion one can draw from this is that if the agent has no effective control of her powers, she cannot be said to effectively own herself—irrespective of her preferences regarding work. The non-work alternative seems to be justified by the ultimate principles of human autonomy which, according to the arguments laid out in this article, are facilitated not only by formal self-ownership but also by effective opportunities to use our persons and unique abilities.

Social policies such as the basic income exemplify the ideal of freedom from compulsory employment if they are generous enough to guarantee subsistence. Van Parijs, the champion advocate of basic income, defines that policy as an income paid by a political community to all its members on an individual basis, without a means test or work requirement (Van Parijs 1995). Van Parijs’ ideal of “real freedom” underlies his support for an unconditional grant. This substantive notion of freedom mandates resource distribution that favors the least advantaged, while securing the formal freedoms of all. Basic income can clearly be understood to facilitate autonomy through control of time since it relaxes the strictures of employment. Employment imposes schedules that are virtually inescapable on pain of unbearable costs to us and our dependents. Since basic income supplies both material resources as well as time, it appears to be a valuable tool for fostering effective self-ownership. Because effective self-ownership is a condition for autonomy, basic income clearly does more than alleviate poverty: It addresses the constraints imposed by compulsory work. Moreover, one of the main results of basic income is that it protects workers from the potential arbitrariness of employers, which can include both low pay and long shifts. By enhancing workers’ bargaining power because the latter no longer face deprivation as an alternative to unemployment, the basic income expands workers’ autonomy to manage time according to their own criteria rather than that of the employer or the consumers.

Labor as Unavoidable?

What prevents a concern with effective self-ownership from being nonsensical? Human existence itself is constrained by natural needs. We all have to attend to those needs in order to keep ourselves alive. Doing so implies work—in the sense of activities and effort that procure the means necessary to keep body and soul together. It is a fact of life, unchangeable as death that we need to do certain things in order to survive. Robinson Crusoe had to perform basic tasks in order to survive on the desert island. Clearly, he would have to do different things if he were living in society. However, natural needs remain constant in both scenarios. It is ludicrous to suppose that people can choose to ignore them in one but not the other. This is why, the argument goes, it is absurd to claim that employment that guarantees survival is a serious constraint. Since natural needs are inescapable, working in order to meet them is a fact of life. This conclusion suggests that a discussion about a right to opt out of it is futile. This is what I call the “labor is unavoidable objection.”

However, not all activities associated with the purpose of securing survival are always inevitable. Their inevitability depends on the context of individual life. A certain degree of social progress allows us to escape natural constraints in many ways. For example, we no longer have to kill animals in winter to keep our bodies warm with their furs. We do not have to migrate from dry to water rich areas when droughts threaten to leave us without that precious resource. We do not have to go hunting or apple picking when we are hungry.

As a matter of fact, the demands imposed by the need to work in order to live have changed dramatically through the ages. This evolution has been the product of human agency in the business of constructing civilization (whatever its particular form). Such historical development is, therefore, somewhat amenable to analysis, through the lens of freedom. If human agency and intention have constructed the means that allow for the fulfillment of human needs to be fulfilled, it can be inferred that society’s failure to provide people with access to such means results, to an important extent, in the curtailment of freedom. Advanced societies of the sort we live in minimize, to a degree formerly unknown, the efforts devoted to survival. This explains why, in principle, discussion about employment and its inevitability is not equivalent to a discussion about immovable limits. It is not at all obvious that employment is a natural fact of life whose constraints are inevitable. My point is illustrated by a parallel I draw with physical disability.

The limiting power of disability varies according to historical evolution. Modern societies are in a position to alleviate the burden that many types of disabilities impose on people to a degree unknown in the past. They can provide facilities and remedies that render those disabilities easier to tolerate. If the effects of disability on the individual can be softened by society and its institutions, it is conceivable to argue that a failure to minimize the burden that they impose on people amounts to curtailing freedom, even if those disabilities were imposed “by God” or by nature. Human agency is involved in the impact disability has for humans because society is in a position to limit those effects. The same line of reasoning applies to the limitations imposed by the need to work.

It is certainly true that natural needs constrain our available options, since we have to choose some activities over others in order to meet them. Hannah Arendt calls this the constraining power of labor on human nature (Arendt 1958). Arendt’s thinking is heavily influenced in this respect by Karl Marx. One of Marx’s basic premises is that the need to work in order to survive limits human intellectual and moral development. Despite their different historical contexts and approach, Arendt and Marx both highlight the fact that the limitations imposed by natural needs are in some sense undesirable, since they prevent us from realizing our higher nature. Reference to a “higher nature,” however, is not necessarily synonymous with perfectionism, although in the case of Arendt and Marx (depending on which period), this is the case. Arendt believed that our human energies should be directed toward our development as homo politicus, while Marx prioritized intellectual or practical development. In neither case should mundane or menial activities block this development. That said, recognizing that natural needs inhibit the realization of some human capacities does not necessarily imply a philosophy centered on one particular idea of the good life. It may simply point to the fact that the need to make ends meet takes time and energy away from the pursuit of other highly valuable enterprises.

A Collective Action Problem

A society where people have the real opportunity to opt out of employment in the name of effective self-ownership opens the door to the problem of feasibility. Suppose policies such as the basic income that financially support individuals who decide to exit employment are in place. What would happen if everybody decided to opt out at the same time? How would governments find the necessary funds to support those policies if social production were to come to a halt? The opportunity to opt out of work would be unsustainable if everybody claimed it simultaneously. But we should not make hasty conclusions. As a matter of fact, this objection lacks the philosophical purchase to defeat the normative arguments in favor of the opportunity to opt out of work. The following example illustrates my point.

Imagine a country where healthcare is free and universal. In such a society, every person has a right to medical assistance without having to pay for it. Now, picture a hypothetical situation in which every person in the country is badly injured by a natural disaster and needs urgent medical attention. Such a scenario assumes that the healthcare system would be unable to assist everybody: there would not be enough doctors or beds for such immense effort. Does it follow from the fact that if everybody needed medical care at the same time the system would collapse, that any particular individual at any time would lack the right to receive urgent medical attention if necessary? I would say no. This simple example seems to suggest that the justification of a right, or opportunity, does not hinge on questions of applicability. Another way to put this is to say that the fact that if everybody did X at the same time, nobody could enjoy Y (a valuable state or good) as a result, does not imply that nobody has a right to do X.

Another example makes the point clear. Few people would dispute the fact that people have the right not to have children. This right appears to be justified by important freedom interests that are widely recognized as legitimate. That said, it is a truism that if every single living person of reproductive age decided not to reproduce, humanity would be extinguished in the course of a few generations.15 Clearly, this situation is undesirable and should be avoided. One could even say that it makes humanity unfeasible, since it effectively terminates it. However, does that conclusion imply that no individual has a right not to be a parent? That would be a difficult argument to make.

Negative consequences of collective actions are not prima facie valid reasons to question the justifiability of rights. Although they may certainly interrupt their exercise under particular circumstances, they do not constitute objections to their normative foundations. As such, a reply to the feasibility objection against the opportunity to opt out of work would require certain rules pursuant to the distribution of the non-work option should conditions arise that make collective exercise of that resource impossible. Actions affected by the specter of collective action dilemmas are not morally unjustified tout court. The fact that a drought prevents all the inhabitants of a town from watering their gardens does not mean that the abstract right to water is always unjustified. As a right it may well be justified, but its exercise may not be, under the particular circumstances of a drought.16 By the same token, it could be claimed that the right to opt out of work is a legitimate right whose exercise should be regulated in circumstances when everybody wants to exercise it. More specifically, this means that, should the situation arise wherein everyone decides to opt out of work, society would have to ensure that everybody performed a certain amount of work in order for everyone to have a certain amount of leisure. Some sort of work obligation should be imposed.

The option to opt out of work that I defend in this paper cannot be exercised under every circumstance. For example, the freedom to exit work is unlikely to be (normatively) viable in a context where the price of sustaining it is unacceptably high. This might be the case in underdeveloped economies (if it is even sustainable at all). In insufficiently developed economies, even if the majority of individuals were work lovers, it is conceivable that the social surplus is insufficient to allow for the funding of the opt-out-of-work option. Or it could be sufficient, but implemented at the cost of mental and physical sanity resulting from overwork. In an asocial scenario—such as a desert island with only two people—the right to opt out of cooperative efforts does not impose a duty on either individual to provide the other with the means necessary for survival. The practical viability of the opportunity to opt out of work must hinge on contextual considerations, namely, whether there is a structure that can produce a surplus (which seems highly unlikely in the above scenario, although not impossible). The opportunity to exit cooperation cannot justify constraining others or consuming what others need to survive, or sustain their own leisure, for that matter. Let me elaborate further on this issue.

Which kind of duty does the right to opt out work impose on individuals? Does my right to opt out of work impose a duty on you to work so that my leisure can be sustained and vice versa? How can I enjoy my right to opt out of work if I have a duty to work in order for you to enjoy yours? And the same consideration applies to you, which renders the logic self-defeating. There seems to be an irresolvable inconsistency in a defense of an unconditional right to opt out work if we acknowledge that such right carries a correlate duty on others. However, the impression is incorrect. Rights are rights against other persons, but they can also be rights against society as a conglomerate of institutions. In this sense, it is conceivable that the duty that follows from the right to opt out of work is a duty imposed on society, not any particular individual that constitutes it. We can see this more clearly if we think of examples. The right to receive an education imposes on the state—as a representative institution of society—a duty to provide citizens with an education or to assure, in some fashion, that they have access to one. The same logic applies to the right to healthcare (however “under-recognized” this right is by the constitution of the economic system of certain societies). By the same token, a right to opt out of work is consistent with the idea that society has the duty to render such right possible. This assertion does not presuppose a rejection of the idea that it is people, not some sort of metaphysical identity that forms society.

When assigning responsibility and rights to collective agents such as corporations, states, and societies we are under the assumption that such bodies fulfill the role of a delegate. Bearing this in mind, these collective agents are referred to, by convention, as capable of being beneficiaries of rights and bound by duties. When the conventions are the ones that best serve the interests of individuals, then the legal rights and responsibilities constituted by the conventions have a moral significance that enables us to speak of them as moral rights and duties of corporations, nations, or societies, consistent with an ethical individualist framework. This said, the duty that society must fulfill in the case at hand is a duty to make the option to opt out of work realistically available to individuals—if certain enabling conditions obtain. However, no particular individual is under an obligation to work in order to sustain the right of another individual, although, presumably, she is under the obligation to support, or at least not obstruct, the policy that implements the right.

Clearly the right to opt out of work derived from the value of effective self-ownership differs from “absolute rights” such as the right to physical integrity. These rights are largely absolute because they are critical to the definition of humanness: they reflect values that are indisputably associated with the human condition. Disregarding them implies disregarding human life itself. The freedom to opt out of work is not absolute, although it certainly reflects core human values. Its practical viability depends on surrounding circumstances that play a larger role in determining whether the right—if we can call it so—is actionable or not. The relevant factors are, inter alia, the percentage of people who want to take advantage of the opportunity, society’s state of technological progress, and the existence of an infrastructure that permits and facilitates cooperative efforts so that leisure is not achieved at the expense of other fundamental, highly valuable, goods. In sum, the weight of the right to opt out of work vis-à-vis other rights will hinge on the particular social context in which the former might be exercised.

At this juncture, the question whether the exercise of “expensive talents” should be given room arises. If effective self-ownership for via autonomous control of time is a legitimate social goal, one may wonder, how is society to accommodate all the different ways in which people will act as self-owning persons? Some of those ways are going to be expensive in comparison with others. Should society make them all possible? If individuals are going to be treated with equal respect, it follows that their specific claims to effective self-ownership have to be taken into consideration on an equal footing. But how can this be possible if, in the context of budgetary limitations, some people will need many more resources than others to exercise talents while controlling their time autonomously (some will want to be writers, while others will want to be epic film directors, for instance).

The funding that society offers to its members should allow them, if desired, to pursue activities and projects that require the active exercise of an ability or skill which is normally enjoyed and relatively challenging to use (leading to personal self-fulfllment in some non-trivial way). But this requirement does not mean that society should necessarily fund any particular pursuits that individuals desire to engage in. It is crucial to justice that the agent, being free to choose which talent to develop, be in a position to enjoy the background capabilities necessary for minimum self-fulfillment while perfoming an activity, in consonance with the psychological law spelled out by Rawls in his Aristotelian principle of motivation (Rawls 1971: 414,426).17 These capabilities include, among others, a certain degree of autonomy, space for creativity, non-repetitiveness, and sense of responsibility for the final product of using one’s talents (Schwartz 1982; Muirhead 2004; Waterman 2005). These capabilities are “objective” variables evoked to characterize the manner in which any one talent could be exercised. This means that my conception of equality is not “welfarist” in the sense that it does not permit preference satisfaction (welfare) to be the measure for a just distribution.18

An argument for effective self-ownership ultimately supports the idea that the individual’s capacity to exercise her talents should be decoupled from other people’s conceptions of that which is of value or desirable, at least partially, granting the person with a higher degree of autonomy to control her time. However, this requirement does not permit funding for any one particular activity or life plan that is a vehicle to self-fulfillment. Justice demands equal access to the conditions of effective self-ownership, but it also warrants that such access be equally distributed among all members of society. The reason for equal access is that there is no prima facie case for anybody to have a morally stronger claim to the conditions of effective self-ownership than others do, since we are all equal right holders. This equality justifies limitations on the claims to the funding for specific (fulfilling) activities when the latter are unduly expensive.

Concluding Remarks

This paper argued that the compulsory nature of work undermines effective self-ownership. Since the very concept of effective self-ownership suggests that it is valuable for the individual to be in a position to change, develop, and form her own desires and interests, it follows that she should have the space and time to determine her own ends. This space, I claimed, emerges hand in hand with freedom to do otherwise, a crucial enabling factor. In the case of employment, this type of freedom would require the real possibility to exit cooperation via participation in the monetized economy regardless of the specific desires of the individual as to work (the agent can remain within the productive economy if preferred, it goes without saying, but her desire does not change the fact that she will enjoy greater effective self-ownership when given the opportunity not to). In this way, my claims challenged classical libertarian conceptions of self-ownership that prioritize the absence of physical obstacles over other rights. All this I argued without granting priority to self-ownership over other social goals and duties.


For an exhaustive examination of the concept of “work” in philosophy, see Applebaum (1982)


The definition of labor as activity that militates against human self-realization due to its alienating nature, much in the light of Marx, strikes a chord here, but I want to steer away from understanding work in this manner. My focus is on the obligatoriness aspect of work rather than the demeaning or alienating aspects of it. It follows from my argument that dignifying working conditions can coexist with unfreedom if society does not offer the alternative to control one’s time (minimally) autonomously. Of course, a society which does not guarantee the conditions for work dignity is to be harshly condemned for its inhumane treatment of its members; and for reasons of justice given the unequal distribution of social advantage associated with alienating work.


Otsuka’s reconciliation of self-ownership with equality heavily draws from Locke’s assumption of initial collective ownership of the world. See Locke (1976).


In practice, income distribution is not always independent of considerations of property, but logically speaking it is. For example, an egalitarian situation in terms of income could be that in which differences in wages among different types of jobs are not large. A society where the surgeon’s earnings are not significantly higher than the plumber’s would be an egalitarian community in this income-related sense. However, it is logically possible that in such a society the “means of production” are concentrated in the hands of a relatively few number of economic actors. We know that income can buy assets, and assets can be made into income, but there is nothing illogical about a concentrated property ownership scheme coexisting with governmental policies favorable to income redistribution via equality of wages. This paper does not argue that a scheme of concentrated holdings is not morally worrisome in terms of justice. Rather, it suggests that income equality, even if decoupled from an equitable distribution of property, is worthy of being promoted.


See, paradigmatically, Van Parijs (1995) and Ackerman and Alsttot (2000).


A particular reading of the concept may suggest that self-ownership permits voluntary enslavement. But Locke is clear in this respect when he states that “[…] a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it” (Second Treatise, Chapter 4, “On Slavery”). Those who defend the right of self-enslavement, however, do so on the grounds that the right to exercise one’s autonomy is more fundamental than the protection or promotion of one’s autonomy. (Steiner 1994)


The distinction between “non-interference” (negative freedom) and “effective opportunity to do something, or to act” (positive freedom) is not entirely devoid of confusion. As Rothbard(1998 [1982]) articulates in his book, Isaiah Berlin may be justifiably accused of conflating “opportunity to act” with “absence of physical intrusion” in his famous 1969 piece entitled “Two Concepts of Liberty.” The conflation is unwarranted because someone may see their opportunities for action dwindle for reasons unrelated to coercion. Discrimination in hiring practices based on race is an example of how one’s opportunities to do things, to act, may be hampered without the use of force. I thank an anonymous referee for this observation. My views on effective self-ownership are not intended to reproduce Berlin’s confusion since “opportunity to act”—not absence of force alone—is precisely what makes effective self-ownership a reality for the individual.


Without infringing on other people’s rights


This paper addresses the self-ownership justification of the choice to opt out of work. It does not address the so-called free-rider objection. The gist of this objection is that taxing working people to subsidize those who could work, but choose not to, constitutes exploitation. The complexity of the response to this objection demands a separate article. Here, I only wish to explain the self-ownership case for the freedom to exit employment, if only partially.


By “non-voluntary” Olsaretti does not mean “non-volitional” in the sense in which reflexes, for example, are. The conditions for voluntariness exceed the conditions for volition.


For the notion of “acceptable alternative” see Cohen (1988, ch. 12 and 13).


The capacity to be our life’s author in this sense also requires cognitive conditions (i.e., mental sanity, information, etc.) besides auspicious choice contexts (external conditions).


The availability of too many options to choose from, however, may bring about some psychological costs. See Dworkin (1982).


I thank an anonymous referee for alerting me to this discussion. I take this example from him/her.


Assuming, idealistically, that this capacity is in the control of all individuals


I understand that the distinction between a right and its exercise may not be totally convincing. It points, more than anything, to the difference between the justification of a right in the abstract (i.e., a right to smoke) and the justification of a right under particular circumstances (i.e., a right to smoke in a closed room filled with lung cancer patients).


The Aristotelian Principle states that, other things equal, human beings “enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities […] and that this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity” (p. 414). “The intuitive idea here is that human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle discriminations.” (p. 426).


Developing a metric for distributive justice falls outside of the scope of this paper. However, it could be thought that my “objectivist” outlook on distribution based on background capabilities for self-development could be related to Sen’s “capabilities approach” to justice (Sen 1995) because it assumes certain human interests are widely and universally shared. In this article, my arguments support the incorporation of the “autonomous control of time” capability into a conception of distributive equality. The suggestion is that minimal autonomy in the control of one’s time is a human interest that, all else equal, it is reasonable to abscribe to every individual living in society, as a general norm. Of course, this view does not neglect to recognize that other more basic capabilities (i.e., adequate nourishment) are lexicographically prior, morally.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010