a blog about philosophy in public affairs

On what we should get out of work (other than money!)


Remember what good things you hoped awaited you within a future job when you were very young and still preparing for one. And have you ever been unemployed long-term, worried that you’d not find work in the near future? In this case, remember why it was distressing (if it was). Here I’ll talk about the things we can, and should, get out of work – and argue that these goods are so important that we ought to reorganise employment.

Unless you are independently wealthy, money will certainly be on the list. You also probably hoped that your job will be decent in other respects: not putting you at unusual risk, and free of bullies. A job that doesn’t require you to work longer than somewhere between 35 and 50 hours a week.

But it’s likely that money, and avoiding the bads of some jobs, were not the only things you hoped from your employment and missed when unemployed long-term. There must have been others: A chance to get really good at what you’d be doing. An opportunity to contribute, through your work, to other people’s lives going well. Occasions to do things together with other people, in a coordinated effort which you can see as a common endeavour. And the respect of your friends, acquaintances and even strangers.

There may be other good things one hopes to encounter within one’s working life, but these four – excellence, social contribution, community and social recognition – are special. Or, at least, this is what Lisa Herzog and I argue in a recent co-authored article on the goods of work (other than money!). What makes them special is not merely the fact that so many people value them. One may also make a lasting friend at work, for instance – but it would seem inappropriate to consider friendship a good of work. What makes these four proper “goods of work” for you, me, and most of our contemporaries, is that our only reasonable chance to enjoy them is in the context of paid employment.

One may, in theory, be able to get very good at doing something by pursuing a life-long hobby. But how much time for hobbies do people with regular lives have – those who have to hold down a job (even a 40 hours a week one!), care for a family and deal with the usual daily chores? Probably not enough to be able to achieve excellence on the side. One may also be able to contribute socially outside one’s paid job – and many people do, to some extent, for instance by volunteering for causes they find important. But, again, a full time job allows very modest opportunities to make a difference to others if one also wants to have a personal life. Similar considerations apply to the possibilities of experiencing community through collective creative efforts. And, not without reason, and not unrelated to the other goods of work, it’s largely through one’s job that an adult can gain social respect.

Now, assuming these goods of work really are highly valuable, yet are not available to most of us outside paid jobs, what does this mean? Lisa and I think this means that their distribution – more precisely the distribution of occasions to enjoy these goods – is a matter of justice. Just like it’s unfair that the organisation of work gives us such unequal opportunities to make money, it’s unfair that it presents us with enormously unequal opportunities to enjoy excellence, social contribution, community and social respect.

To see how we think about the implications of our argument in a bit more detail you’ll have to read the paper (pre-print here). We advocate regulations against jobs that severely undermine the goods of work – socially stigmatising jobs, jobs that avoidably involve dumbing routines and oppressive hierarchies. But we are also after the more ambitious goal of reforming the very nature of jobs as we have them now. Don’t be put off by the thought that – unlike money – these goods are not universally valued, nor do not they seem to be all-purpose means: Most of us want them, but some reasonable people don’t; and you can’t use them to get whatever else you want to get. If you believe in personal liberty and equality you’ll need good reasons why the state should coercively interfere with the distribution of things whose main – and disputed – value is not instrumental.

But we think that in the case at hand there are good reasons. The goods of work – as well as, possibly, lots of other important goods that philosophers of justice have mostly ignored so far! – are not all means-purposes, but neither can they be acquired through multiple avenues. They are properly accessible, for most of us, only through paid employment. We have to work in order to make a living, and we have to work for a very considerable proportion of our life.

The situation would be quite different if we lived in pre-distributive societies that entitle all citizens to an unconditional basic income enough for survival; or if we only had to spend 3-4 hours a day doing paid work. (And it’s possible that one of these is the way forward – rather than much additional job regulation.) But, as things stand, no amount of redistribution of income and wealth will give most people a decent shot at the goods of work.

A full understanding of what distributive justice requires may not, after all, be possible without understanding what makes life good. Thinking about work is central to this discussion, and philosophers are already deep into it.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Thank you Anca for a great post!
    I’d like to share links to a couple of recent papers where I present converging arguments for the view that there are important goods achievable through work, and which should be made accessible as a matter of justice. One paper advances the views in the context of discussions about human rights:
    and the other paper engages the topic in the context of discussions on socialism:



    • Anca Gheaus

      Thank you Pablo, this is really helpful. Looking forward to reading these papers.

  2. Anca, thanks for this. Very interesting! I’ve bookmarked the paper. Reading your list of the four distinctive goods of work got me thinking about my own experience with work. Before starting my PhD in philosophy, I worked four different jobs and I chose to move from one to the other because I did not think I was getting the goods I thought I was seeking out of work. I do not think I was able at the time to pin point what these were (admittedly, I was not overthinking every thing I did at the time- I had not yet encountered philosophers and philosophy). I usually told myself and others who inquired about the reasons for the change that I did not think the job I was leaving was rewarding (and I did not mean money-wise. Ironically my pay decreased with every new choice). I tried to see if your list captures the notion of a rewarding job and accounts for what I felt those jobs were lacking. It does, but only partially. I feel that there is an aspect of reward that is not fully captured by the four goods. Perhaps one way to put is:fulfilment.

    Of course, each of the goods you list contributes to the job being fulfilling, but one can do a job that meets all four conditions and still not find it fulfilling. I’m not sure what fulfilment constitutes in exactly, but I would say it must do more with the content of the job rather than the context (working conditions). It will also vary considerably between people based on what they find makes their work meaningful. I will need to give this more thought, but also wanted to hear what you had to say. It seems to me important (but I could be completely wrong; after all I’m basing this on personal experience) because like the other goods you mention fulfilment seems to be harder and harder to achieve outside one’s job.

    • Anca Gheaus

      Hi Siba, thanks for your comment. In spite of the fact that “fulfilment” is so difficult to pin down – what is it exactly? and what to make of the fact that what fulfils us changes all the time? – I think I agree with you. One – say, a surgeon – may have a job that’s clearly giving her all the goods we mention (assume she works as part of an egalitarian team of health professionals) and yet not be fulfilled at work. Maybe she used to be, but suddenly stopped caring about being a surgeon. Or maybe she never cared about being a surgeon, she only did it because her parents insisted…

      So I guess fulfilment at work is partly about being lucky to do something you care about (and care not only that that things is done, but that *you* are doing it.) And the good of doing what you care about is not captured by our list.

      I do, however, see it as a more general good, not one of work. It may not be essentially different from the good of spending your life with people you care about, or live in a place you can love etc. So, at first blush, I’d say that, if this good has anything to do with justice, what we owe to each other are proper opportunities to have self-knowledge and experiment with our life circumstances.

      Does this make any sense? Maybe Lisa has more/different thoughts on this?

      • Lisa Herzog

        Hi Siba, thanks for raising this point. In the debate about “good work”, there is the notion of “fit”, which concerns the fit between a person and a job. So among a number of jobs that offer sufficient amounts of the various goods of work (however one defines “sufficient”), there might still be one that is a better fit for me than all the others. Would it be good if I could get it? Sure! But is there a claim of justice? Here I hesitate. One problem is the degree of subjectivity of a notion like “fulfillment”, and the problems of establishing it on a sufficiently clear epistemic basis that can be used for public policy. Also, there are “expensive tastes”/”lucky Jim” problems here: some people might ONLY feel fulfillment in very rare, or not socially useful, jobs; others might feel fulfillment even in rather crappy jobs. And some of the jobs that people might get fulfillment from might be inherently rare, e.g. because social demand is small compared to supply (e.g. musicians), or because there are few such positions (e.g. president of a country).
        One avenue to explore would be to ask whether there are fair opportunities for all to seek such jobs, which has to do with the flexibility of labor markets, education systems, social mobility, etc. But this might boil down to general requirements of procedural fairness and equal opportunity.
        There might be an element of luck (or “blessedness”, for the religious) that goes beyond anything we can theorize from a perspective of justice. This concerns things like finding the love of your life, or being able to live in a place you feel deeply connected to. Finding a job that gives you this deep kind of fulfillment might be in that category, too.

  3. Tomer Perry

    Hi Anca and Lisa – interesting argument. I have not read the full paper – only the post – so take my comment with a grain of salt. Though I’m sympathetic to the overarching argument (that the structure of paid employment is a matter of justice), I am yet unpersuaded by the argument as it is sketched. Specifically, I am not persuaded by the claim that these goods are only achievable by paid employment. In general, I’m not sure why we would even want to tie excellence, social contribution, community or status to paid employment. As an empirical matter, much more has to be said but it seems to me very plausible that other than social status, the other three goods can be achievable not through paid employment.

    Now you consider a lifelong hobby as an option and quickly dismiss it, but I really think that’s under-explored (and I’m sure you go into greater depth in the paper). I actually think that getting good at something as a hobby as a distinct good than getting good at something that one’s living depend on, and I actually think that our goal should be exactly the opposite: to disconnect, as much as possible, the relationship between achieving these goods and paid employment. So justice doesn’t require distributing opportunities for paid employment but rather severing the relationship (which I think is overstated in your argument but is probably true to varying degrees to different segments of the population) between paid employment and these goods, especially if paid employment is necessary for providing crucial goods.

    For example, I’m a board gamer. That’s my hobby – and I’ve spent considerable amount of my time as an adult pursuing it (though less recently, for various reasons that are related to paid employment). It’s a community, and for many people it’s the most important community they are members of. And there are some prominent figures in that community who have turned their hobby into paid employment – they run podcasts or review sites that are successful enough to sustain themselves. But they were doing it for years, building their audience, without paid employment. And on the way, they provided did something for their community (which may or may not fit your definition of social contribution, if it doesn’t there are other examples). Whether or not you want to equate their expertise with that of a specialized expert that works with a paid salary is a different point but I think it is not uncommon to gain all three of these goods via hobbies and for many people – they achieve these goods primarily via non-paid employment. I have friends that play music and perform regularly even though it’s not their paid employment. Others who do theater. And so forth.
    In addition, I think it’s often better to pursue these goods outside paid employment. This is getting quite long but tying these to paid employment often create pressures that hamper the pursuit that one is otherwise attached to (for example, because of its community or social contribution). And paid employment is often completely devoid of expertise, or at least, require far less expertise than these hobbies I mentioned. My father was a bus driver, and though he was a great driver – he never felt he got any better after the first few years. Some of my friends play a card game competitively. And though they work at relatively specialized jobs (such as writing code), some of them don’t feel like they’ve gotten any better at it for years, while they invest a staggering amounts of time into their skill at the card game (producing documents, recording podcasts, training, travelling to and winning tournaments etc.) that clearly take up much more of their mental energy than their paid employment.

    Last point – you don’t really mention here family issues, which I assume you’ve thought about quite a bit. The main reason I’ve been spending less time on my hobby is family-related responsibilities – which is also a field where one can get all of these goods. For me personally, I’m much more interested in becoming good (or at least as good as I can be) as parent than I do at my paid employment, where I just want to do something reasonably good for a remuneration that allows me to do my share in supporting my family. For my father, who worked at a job that didn’t provide much opportunity for expertise or fulfillment, family provided one of the most important venue for these kinds of goods. In short, I am not yet persuaded that paid employment is in any necessary for the acquiring of these goods in our society, but I have to read the longer article.

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