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Employment as a Limitation on Self-Ownership

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

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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.

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

  6. 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)

  7. 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.

  8. Without infringing on other people’s rights

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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

  12. 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).

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

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

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

  16. 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).

  17. 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).

  18. 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.


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Correspondence to Julia Maskivker.

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Maskivker, J. Employment as a Limitation on Self-Ownership. Hum Rights Rev 12, 27–45 (2011).

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  • Acceptable Alternative
  • Collective Action Problem
  • Basic Income
  • External Thing
  • Voluntary Choice