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Should Work Pay?

Color photograph of Haines Hall at UCLA, a large red brick building with lots of Romanesque arches

“The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCLA seeks applications for an assistant adjunct professor,” begins a recent job listing, “on a without salary basis. Applicants must understand there will be no compensation for this position.”

The listing has provoked significant backlash. Many academics have condemned the job as exploitative. They have also noted the hypocrisy of UCLA’s stated support of “equality” while expecting a highly qualified candidate with a Ph.D. to work for free. For context, UCLA pays a salary of $4 million to its head men’s basketball coach, Mick Cronin.

UCLA has now responded to the growing criticism, pointing out:

These positions are considered when an individual can realize other benefits from the appointment that advance their scholarship, such as the ability to apply for or maintain grants, mentor students and participate in research that can benefit society. These arrangements are common in academia.

It is certainly true that such arrangements are fairly common in academia. But are they ethical?

The university’s ethical argument is that the unpaid worker receives significant compensation other than pay. For example, having worked at a prestigious university might advance one’s career in the longer term – adding to their “career capital.” The implication is that these benefits are significant enough that the unpaid job is not exploitative.

Similar arguments are given by organizations that offer unpaid internships. The training, mentoring, and contacts an intern receives can be extremely valuable to those starting a new career. Some unpaid internships for prestigious companies or international organizations are generally regarded to be so valuable for one’s career that they are extremely competitive, sometimes receiving hundreds of applications for each position.

Employers point out that without unpaid internships, there would be fewer internships overall. Companies and organizations simply do not have the money to pay for all these positions. They argue that the right comparison is not between unpaid and paid internships, but between unpaid internships and nothing. This might explain why so many well-known “progressive” organizations offer unpaid positions despite publicly disavowing the practice. For example, the U.N. has famously competitive unpaid internships, as does the U.K.’s Labour Party, a left-wing political party whose political manifesto promises to ban unpaid internships, and whose senior members have compared the practice to “modern slavery.” Not long ago, the hashtag #PayUpChuka trended when Chuka Umunna, a Labour Member of Parliament, was found to have hired unpaid interns for year-long periods.

Besides the sheer usefulness of these jobs, there is also a libertarian ethical case for unpaid positions. If the workers are applying for these jobs, they are doing so because they are choosing to. They must think the benefits they receive are worth it. How could it be ethical to ban or prevent workers from taking jobs they want to take? “It shouldn’t even need saying,” writes Madeline Grant, “but no one is forced to do an unpaid internship. If you don’t like them, don’t take one—get a paid job, pull pints, study, go freelance—just don’t allow your personal preferences to interfere with the freedoms of others.”

On the other side of the debate, the opponents of unpaid jobs argue that the practice is inherently exploitative. The first Roman fire brigade was created by Marcus Licinius Crassus:

Crassus created his own brigade of 500 firefighters who rushed to burning buildings at the first cry for help. Upon arriving at the fire, the firefighters did nothing while their Crassus bargained over the price of their services with the property owner. If Crassus could not negotiate a satisfactory price, the firefighters simply let the structure burn to the ground.

Any sensible homeowner would accept almost any offer from Crassus, so long as it was less than the value of the property. The homeowner would choose to pay those prices for Crassus’ services. But that doesn’t make it ethical. It was an exploitative practice – the context of the choice matters. Likewise, employers may find workers willing to work without compensation. But that willingness to work without compensation could be a sign of the worker’s desperation, rather than his capacity for autonomous choice. If you need to have a prestigious university like UCLA on your C.V. to have an academic career, and if you can’t get a paid position, then you are forced to take an unpaid adjunct professorship.

Critics of unpaid jobs also point out that such practices deepen economic and social inequality. “While internships are highly valued in the job market,” notes Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, “research also shows that 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid. As a result, only young people from the most privileged backgrounds end up being eligible for such roles. For those from marginalized communities, this deepens the generational wealth gap and actively obstructs their path to equal opportunity.” Not everyone can afford to work without pay. If these unpaid positions are advantageous, as their defenders claim, then those advantages will tend to go toward those who are already well-off, worsening inequality.

There are also forms of unpaid work which are almost universally seen as ethical: volunteering, for instance. Very few object to someone with some spare time and the willingness to help a charity, contribute to Wikipedia, or clean up a local park. The reason for this is that volunteering generally lacks many of the ethical complications associated with other unpaid jobs and internships. There are exceptions; some volunteer for a line on their C.V. But volunteering tends to be done for altruistic reasons rather than for goods like career capital and social connections. This means that there is less risk of exploitation of the volunteers. Since volunteers do not have to worry about getting a good reference at the end of their volunteering experience, they are also freer to quit if work conditions are unacceptable to them.

On the ethical scale, somewhere between unpaid internships and volunteering are “hidden” forms of unpaid work that tend to be overlooked by economists, politicians, and society more generally. Most cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing, childcare, and caring for the sick and disabled represents unpaid labor.

Few consider these forms of unpaid work as directly unethical to perform or request family members to help carry out. But it is troubling that those who spend their time doing unpaid care work for the sick and disabled are put at a financial disadvantage compared to their peers who choose to take paid forms of work instead. An obvious solution is a “carer’s allowance,” a government payment, paid for by general taxation, to those who spend time each week taking care of others. A very meager version of this allowance (roughly $100/week) already exists in the U.K.

These “hidden” forms of unpaid work also have worrying implications for gender equality, as they are disproportionately performed by women. Despite having near-equal representation in the workforce in many Western countries, women perform the majority of unpaid labor, a phenomenon referred to as the “double burden.” For example, an average English female 15-year-old is expected, throughout her life, to spend more than two years longer performing unpaid caring work compared to the average male 15-year-old. This statistic is no exception. The Human Development Report, studying 63 countries, found that 31% of women’s time is spent doing unpaid work, as compared to 10% for men. A U.N. report finds that, in developed countries, women spend 3:30 hours a day on unpaid work and 4:39 hours on paid work. In comparison, men spend only 1:54 hours on unpaid work, and 5:42 on paid work. Finding a way to make currently unpaid work pay, such as a carer’s allowance, could also be part of the solution to this inequality problem.

Is unpaid work ethical? Yes, no, and maybe. Unpaid work covers a wide bandwidth on the ethical spectrum. At one extreme, there are clear cases of unpaid work which are morally unproblematic, such as altruistically volunteering for a charity or cooking yourself a meal. And, at the other extreme, there are cases where unpaid work is clearly unethical exploitation: cases of work that ought to be paid but where employers take advantage of their workers’ weak bargaining positions to deny them the financial compensation to which they are morally entitled. And many cases of unpaid work fall somewhere between these two extremes of the moral spectrum. In thinking about these cases, we have no alternative but to look in close detail at the specifics: at the power dynamics between the employers and the employees, the range and acceptability of the options that were available to workers, and the implications for equality.

Women, Representation, Revolution

photograph of all the women save Senator Mary Landrieu on the US Senate in 2013

As the midterm election rapidly approaches, one thing is obvious—the number of women running for office is truly historic.  There are 256 women running for Congress, 234 for seats in the House and 22 for seats in the Senate.  The majority of the women running are Democrats. There are 197 Democratic female candidates and 59 Republican female candidates. The previous record for Democratic female nominees to the House was established in 2016, when 120 women were nominated, a record that is shattered by this year’s numbers. Historically, women have never comprised more than one-fourth of the House or the Senate. This year, that might change.

With the possibility of more female governance on the horizon, it seems like a good time to reflect on what this might mean for the country in both the short and the long term. One of the more immediate results of having more women in power might have been one of the main motivators for women to run for office in record numbers this year in the first place: a change in tone with respect to how women’s issues are discussed. To many, it seems as if there are no real consequences when it is revealed that important public officials discuss and treat women in demeaning, objectifying ways. If more women are in position to write and edit the script when it comes to how public officials talk about and treat women, we might be looking at a new normal.  

If there were more women in power, it would make a tremendous difference when it comes to the habituation of children. Female children would be put in a position to see a new range of possibilities for themselves. If these female candidates are successful, becoming a politician might seem like a natural career choice for a young woman dreaming about her future. Male children being raised in a society with more female representation will never be led to believe that political power is held predominantly by men in the first place. A choice to become a politician will seem equally possible for young men, and they’ll be ready to come to the decision-making table and roll up their sleeves with both men and women.

If there were more women in power, decisions about women’s issues could be made with the benefit of the crucial female voice. Of course, not all women share the same opinions, but discussion generated by healthy disagreement among women with different backgrounds and experiences with women’s issues is crucial to constructing sound policy and legislation in these areas.

Of course, it’s not as if the dominant reason for electing women is so that they can have a say when it comes to issues that affect women. That women should be involved in discussion about women’s issues is a pretty minimum requirement for just, fair governance. A female perspective is crucial when it comes to all social policy.  

It might be time for a revolution when it comes to our philosophy of power. There are different approaches to power, each of which might be appropriate in different domains and which may work together to regulate one another. We know that women provide the majority of both paid and non-paid care work. In our current political climate, that work is significantly undervalued. What if we came to recognize the value of care—and saw it for the tremendous source of power that it ought, rightly, to be? This kind of power is not a power over, but a power to, specifically, a power to help. A care relationship arises out of need. For example, a child may have needs for food, clean drinking water, and shelter, among other things. Parents, in their capacity as caregivers, have the power to help to satisfy those needs.

What if the popular understanding of the relationship between representative and constituent changed? Currently, we tend to have a pretty paternalistic conception of the way that political representation works. People vote along party lines and then largely check-out, trusting the elected official to make decisions in ways that are consistent with their values. Politicians, on this model, are given wide berth to engage in dubious political machinations and place themselves in the pockets of lobbyists. But care relationships don’t work this way. What would change if we came to view the relationship between the representative and the constituent as a relationship of care, where the power wielded by politicians was the power to help? Care depends on need, and addressing needs requires paying attention. So a politician fails to satisfy their obligation of care when, for example, they fail to respond to constituents who overwhelmingly express a need for change in firearm legislation. The representative would retain some autonomy and authority over the precise way in which this need gets pursued, but they can’t just ignore it altogether. If a child expressed an urgent and legitimate need for medical care, we’d view a parent as negligent if they didn’t attempt to satisfy that need to the extent that they were able. Should we respond any differently when it is our fellow citizens drowning themselves in debt to pay for essential medical needs while our representatives look on, unresponsive?

People have different personalities and interests and express power in various ways, irrespective of gender. We’ll avoid generalizing. But if, as the numbers bear out, women often voluntarily engage in care work regularly in an earnest desire to help, this new way of conceiving of power results in the conclusion that many women would be quite well-suited to take on the political mantle. In many of the locations in which women are running this year, they have little chance of being successful. But some races look promising. It’s a start.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Where Should Your Money Go?

Photo of five boxes of girl scout cookies

We’ve all experienced pitches for donations that tugged on our heartstrings.  During certain times of the year, when you walk into a supermarket, you can’t help encountering smiling, toothless young girl scouts pleading with you to buy cookies.  On other occasions, you may run into firefighters who encourage you to put money into a boot to support the local fire department. On yet other occasions, you may be asked by a cashier at the department store if you’d like to donate to the Make-a-Wish foundation or the Special Olympics. I’m sure that all of us have, at one time or another, capitulated to these requests.  Are we right to do so?

To be sure, a lot of good comes from charitable giving.  The Make-a-Wish foundation makes lots of suffering children happy every year.  The Girl Scouts provide valuable, formative experiences for young women. The good that firefighters do is quite obvious. If we are assessing the consequences of our donations to these causes, there is no doubt that our giving brings about something positive.

What’s more, donating to these causes makes us feel good because we observe firsthand the good that is done for our communities.  These are people who, in many cases, we know. At the very least, these causes are closely related to people and institutions that we care about.  Caring is an important component of moral motivation. What’s more, when we actually see the good that is being done with the money we’ve given, we might be more likely to give to good causes again in the future.

One question we can ask, however, is whether our money should be going to promote a modest amount of good when the same amount of money could, instead, be spent preventing a significant amount of harm.  Consider, for example, that delicious box of thin mints that you bought from an adorable girl scout. Recently the price of girl scout cookies went up from around $4.00 to around $5.00.  On its website, the Girl Scouts proudly advertises that, “100 percent of the money stays local! That means you’re not only supporting girls’ success, but the success of your community too—sweet!”  Individual troupes have the option to donate the money earned by individual camps back to the troupe or to donate it to another worthy cause. The values that The Girl Scouts are trying to instill in young members are laudable.  Scouts are being taught the importance of good decision-making, goal setting, money management, people skills, and business ethics. If The Girl Scouts as an organization is effective in its endeavors, young girls develop crucial virtues and, ideally they spread those virtues to other members of society as they develop into citizens, professionals, and parents.  But is it a good thing that the money you donate is staying local?

If we are reflective about our charitable giving practices, one important question we must ask ourselves is whether it is better to spend money doing good or preventing harm.  We aren’t preventing harm when we choose to buy a box of Girl Scout cookies, though we are doing good. On the other hand, another way that we could spend that same discretionary five dollars is to donate to, for example, a cause like the Against Malaria Foundation.  Malaria is a preventable and treatable disease, but in impoverished nations, it is a deadly and destructive one.  Ninety percent of malaria cases take place in sub-Saharan Africa. Even when people afflicted with malaria don’t die from the disease, it can have significant effects on the body, including severe cognitive impairment.  A $2.50 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation provides a insecticidal bed net that can help prevent two at-risk Africans from contracting Malaria for up to a year. This means that the $5.00 we spent on buying a box of thin mints could prevent four people from being infected with malaria for a year.

One proposal we might consider is the following: as a general rule, we should focus our charitable giving on reducing and eliminating harms first.  Harms should be, as far as is possible, ranked in terms of severity. Once we have dealt with the most significant harms, we can then move on to the harms that are less significant. Only when we have dealt with all of these harms can we finally move on to charitable causes that seek to provide benefits rather than to reduce harms.  This kind of strategy is predicated on the idea that, in our charitable giving, we should strive to do the most good we can do, which means that we should seek to donate our discretionary funds as effectively as possible. This is a strategy endorsed by a growing group that calls themselves effective altruists.  Effective altruism is a movement that maintains that charitable giving should be motivated not merely by fellow-feeling (though empathy is, of course, not discouraged), but instead by the results of careful inquiry and evidence collection on the subject of where the money could really do the most good.

This is a rational, evidence-based approach.  On the other hand, some argue that important features of moral behavior and the development of virtuous character are missing when the issue is approached in this way.  One lesson we can take from care ethics, for example, is that morality is a matter of developing relationships of care with others. This involves putting ourselves in a position to understand the people involved and be receptive to their needs.  This is a practice that involves more than brute calculations. It involves really getting to know others. It may follow from this view that we are in a better position to care for the local Girl Scout than the malaria ridden person oversees. The care ethicist wouldn’t argue that we shouldn’t help those who are struggling in distant countries, however, they would argue that morality can’t simply be reduced to math.    

Good people can all agree that charitable donation is important. We all need to ask ourselves which set of moral considerations should guide our decision making.  Is a decision fully moral if it relies on rationality alone? Do we need to be emotionally invested in the causes to which we commit our resources?

The Moral Messages of Violence in Media

Season two of the The Handmaid’s Tale returns with darker themes and more overt torture and sexual violence directed at the majority female cast. The dystopian drama depicts the practical consequences of misogynistic theocracy that takes power in the face of environmental collapse and widespread infertility, set in an eerily similar near-future America.

The violence in The Handmaid’s Tale is often compared to another hulking series, Game of Thrones. Both use liberal amounts of violence against women to keep their plot moving, but to different effect:

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t glamorizing atrocities against women, exactly, or sanitizing them in the way that Game of Thrones or other prestige dramas might sanitize rape. The brutality is the point—the show wants us to experience the logical extension of institutionalized misogyny and theocratic governance.”

Indeed:

In shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones, the focus on female debasement is often criticized precisely because female suffering is positioned as entertainment. What happens on The Handmaid’s Tale is different, as violence against women plays out as a kind of morality tale.”

Visceral scenes in books, TV, and movies are a way of conveying the lived experiences and realities that audiences might struggle to relate to. In speculative fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, showing in detail what would result from misogynist value systems and authoritarian, theocratic regimes can bring home how horrible the lives of the oppressed would be.

Art helps us to relate to experiences and realities that are different from our own, and can have a positive moral impact for this reason. People that read more novels have been shown to have greater emotional intelligence. However, when the perspectives and experiences are particularly graphic and violent, or run the risk of normalizing or sanitizing the persecution or rate of violence against an oppressed group, this raises questions about the ethics of continuing to portray the experiences of violence in detail.

Should we need to experience the pain of others to have their suffering be morally salient to us?

Legislators who become more feminist when they have daughters occupy an interesting dialectical space. While it is a positive step of course, it is good to adopt policies that recognize the fundamental equality of people the fact that they had to care for a daughter in order to tap into the moral reality is more than a bit distressing.

A further complication is the notion that there may just be an epistemically unbridgeable gap between communities that rely on one another for support regarding their experiences. It may just not always be possible to fully grasp another person’s everyday reality. It would be a great misfortune to discover immovable obstacles might bar someone from fully sympathizing with another person and experiencing the appropriate moral emotions regarding their plight.

Moral emotions such as sympathy, indignation, care, and regret play different roles of significance depending on the ethical theory you favor. Consequentialist views such as utilitarianism focus not so much on the emotional or motivational landscape that leads to action, but rather the result of our behaviors. If you make people have a better life out of indifference or kindness, it amounts to the same thing from an ethical perspective for utilitarians. Other views on morality heavily favor the emotions; care ethics and feminist views focus on our relationships to one another and tending to our roles appropriately. A behavior done out of sympathy would have a different moral assessment than the same behavior done out of indifference.

Given these considerations, we could reflect on art that attempts to bring pain and suffering into view in different ways. If the value in question is one of developing the appropriate moral response to suffering, we may ask: is this really necessary? (Isn’t this a case where we should really be able to get to the moral emotions on our own, as in the case of the legislators realizing women are people only when they’ve faced a daughter of their own?) Or, are there countervailing concerns, such as those raised in the discourse around the sexual violence in Game of Thrones? (Is this violence normalizing an already troubling reality?)

There are rich and nuanced questions regarding the consumption of art that includes graphic and detailed violence against marginalized groups. It puts pressure on how we conceive of our moral burdens in relating to one another, and how we experience the messages media sends us.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.