Work, Pay, and Morality

Pay and work issues raise deep moral questions

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-10-20

Human beings are working animals. We thrive when engaged in meaningful, goal-directed activity. And we dutifully take care of things that must be done. While money is a concern, work also involves moral necessity and intrinsic reward. We flourish when we have good work and do it well. In an ideal world, work would be rewarding, spiritually and financially.

During a recent Fresno State Ethics Center lecture, James Sterba, a professor from Notre Dame, defended liberal ideals about work and wealth. He argued that there is something unjust about a system in which rich people build up surpluses while hard-working poor people barely survive. He claimed that poor people have a right to have their basic needs satisfied. To solve this problem, we would have to tax the wealthy in order to support the poor.

Critics worry that taxes may discourage the well-off from working. Mitt Romney explains on his website that high tax rates “discourage work and entrepreneurship, as well as savings and investment.” On this view, workers would see that it doesn’t pay them to work harder when the government takes more of what they earn. A related concern is that those who receive welfare will have no incentive to work. From this perspective, work is motivated by external necessity and the hope for monetary reward. If we didn’t need to earn a living, we might not work. And if we were taxed at a higher rate, we might choose to work less.

This makes sense in a world in which people can rationally weigh the costs and benefits of work and monetary reward. But most workers do not have the luxury of deciding whether and how much they should work. A lot of the most important “work” is done without choice or compensation. Consider how much time is spent every day doing housework and yardwork, caring for children or for the elderly and disabled. It is significant that this sort of essential but uncompensated “work” is traditionally done by women. What would our economy look like if we found ways to pay the family caregivers who now work for free?

Perhaps caregiving work provides intrinsic rewards. Maybe there is joy in changing diapers. But caregivers are often at a disadvantage. According to Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, “people in single-mother families had a poverty rate of 42.2% and an extreme poverty rate of 21.6%.”

It would be nice if all work were both rewarding and fairly compensated. But many must work at dull and demanding jobs to put bread on the table. Unfortunately, even these jobs are scarce. The unemployment rate in Fresno is above 13%; one in four of us lives in poverty.

Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the economy, hard working people cannot find work. Some people are unable to work because of illness or disability. And children can’t and shouldn’t be forced to work. In these cases, it seems that social support is justifiable.

But what about able-bodied adults who refuse to work, should we also support them? This is a deep moral question. Liberals tend to think that every human being deserves to have basic needs fulfilled, regardless of what they do or have done. Conservatives tend to think that able-bodied adults should be left alone to fend for themselves.

I wonder whether there really are that many able-bodied adults who are unwilling to work. If work were available, if work were meaningful and if work were fairly compensated, I suspect that most adults would choose to work. There may be a few sponges who game the system. But the bigger problem is that the work that is available is meaningless drudgery paid at a less than a living wage.

For many, the question is not about meaningful work but about basic survival. This brings us back to Professor Sterba’s conclusion, which is that there is something unjust about a social system that leaves many impoverished, while others enjoy luxury.

I would add that there is something unjust about a system in which much of our most essential work is uncompensated, in which single mothers and their children are disadvantaged and in which many jobs are spiritually deadening and poorly paid.