Éthique et travail

Il est rare que l’on remette en question le rôle du travail dans la vie moderne. Pourtant, la philosophie politique s’est toujours intéressée à la fonction du travail et aux façons de l’organiser. Historiquement parlant, on peut faire ressortir deux dimensions aux réflexions sur le sujet. Selon une première dimension individualiste, on peut voir le travail comme un projet qui permet aux individus de réaliser leurs plans de vie. Deuxièmement, selon une dimension sociale, ont peut examiner l’organisation des différents réseaux de coopération sociale qui relient les différentes formes de travail. Ont peut se demander si ces schèmes sont justes. Ceux qui y participent ont-ils une chance raisonnables de réaliser leurs plans de vie? Ces questions ont pu être abordées avec des angles d’approche différents à travers le temps, mais leurs formulations contemporaines gravitent toujours autour des mêmes thèmes : quel est notre relation avec le travail, quelles sont les frontières du travail, quels droits ou libertés confère-t-il, comment devrait-il être distribué et réglementé, peut-on avoir un droit au travail?, etc.

Le but de se projet de recherche est de faire une relecture contemporaine de ces questions, voir ci-bas pour une description approfondie.

Ethical questions in the domain of work

The central role work occupies in modern life is rarely questioned. Yet, historically, questions about the purpose and organisation of work have always been part of political philosophy. They divide into two basic dimensions. The first, individual dimension looks at work as a project that allows people to realise their life-plans. The second, social dimension examines whether the web of social co-operation that connects the different forms of work is organised in a just manner, giving all participating individuals a decent chance to realise their life-plans. The focus within both of these sets of questions may have shifted over time, but their contemporary formulations can still be said to fit in the following categories:

  • What is our relation to work as individuals and members of society?

On the one hand, work is a response to the need to transform nature’s resources in order to survive. In modern, specialised economies, this natural necessity has been replaced by the social necessity to participate in the labour market to have access to the fruits of social co-operation. On the other hand, even abstracting from the strong hold the modern attitude to work has on our psyche, it is fair to ask what people would do without work. Work can be a fulfilling activity, a means to realise some of the fundamental objectives we have in life.
Cutting across this distinction between necessity and self-realisation, people’s motivation for work is heavily influenced by the social context, too. The notion of the work ethic characterises the strong influence social norms have on our attitude towards work.

  • What are the boundaries of «work»?

It is only since the industrialisation that we «go to work» as it were. Certain activities have been structured in organised work environments like the factory, the office, etc. Yet, other activities clearly constitute work as well. Looking after the family, running a household, participating in the organisation of the community are all activities that easily qualify as work. Especially in a context where work is the primary source of remuneration, the line we draw between formal and informal work has important ramifications for social justice.

  • What are the rights conferred by work? What is its value-added?

The notion of the origins and justification of private property has long been one of the hot topics of political philosophy. While some believe that the principle of self-ownership confers a basic right to the fruits of one’s labour, others are sceptical of this principle and hold a notion of property that is based on social conventions only. In either case, it is instructive to ask what can count as the fruits of our labour – or as the contribution we make to society – in the context of a highly specialised economy. While there is broad consensus that Marx’s labour theory of value for instance is problematic, it is equally clear that work or labour bestows some kind of value onto products and services. What is this value? This is one of the central questions about the distribution of the benefits from social co-operation.

  • Work: a means to freedom or a constraint on freedom?

As already mentioned, participating in the labour market is today’s passport to a decent standard of living. It opens up all kinds of life choices one might have a preference for. However, one fundamental decision lies outside this realm of freedom for many, namely the choice to participate in the labour market in the first place. Should a substantive notion of freedom include this decision? Could and should social co-operation be built on the foundations of an unconditional basic income that gives its members the freedom to decide whether to work and what kinds of job offers to decline?

  • How should work be distributed? Is there a right to work?

Both as a form of self-realisation and as a necessary means to a decent standard of living, work constitutes a social advantage alongside income and wealth, education, health, and so on. How does this social advantage have to be distributed for a society to count as just? While contemporary theories of justice produce detailed principles with respect to other «currencies» of justice, issues concerning the distribution of work are often neglected. Given the status of work as one of the predominant ways of self-realisation in our society, do we have to guarantee an equal opportunity to work? Is there a right to work? How do these notions translate into practice? What is the delineation between individual and social responsibility in implementing objectives of this kind?

Distributive questions also arise between different kinds of work. Some jobs are more dangerous than others; some activities more fulfilling than others. How should the physical risks as well as the risks of alienation be distributed, insured against, or compensated for? Besides, what is the status of work compared to other factors of production, in particular compared to capital? When does work become exploitation?

  • How should work be organised and regulated?

The legal framework in which work is situated has the function as well as the capacity to set powerful incentives for the organisation of work. Many questions, some of them more applied in nature, arise in this context. How should the remuneration of work be regulated – through minimum wages, through wage subsidies, by other means still? What can and should be done to promote part-time work? How should the hierarchies of the workplace be structured in order to respect the individual worker? Under what conditions are race and gender equality satisfied? What can be done to attenuate the impact of mass-migration of labourers to urban centres, particularly in developing countries?

Responsable : Peter Dietsch