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For Those Who Believe a Basic Income is Morally Wrong

Scott Santens
Scott Santens
6 min read

You obviously have very strong feelings of morality, and especially the "rightness" of your own morality, so I'm certainly not about to attempt to change your mind, or to show how basic income can be seen as somehow being moral in your eyes.

However, I would like to ask you a series of questions in response, if that's okay.

Question 1: Would you agree that morality is not an absolute but something that exists along a spectrum, such that things aren't necessarily always right or wrong, but degrees of right and wrong, with some things being more right or more wrong than others?

The popular example of this type of thinking is the idea of facing the choice between stealing and saving the life of a member of your family. Is it more wrong to steal food or medicine, or is it more wrong to let your family suffer or die?

Now, I don't know your answer to this question, but if you do recognize that some things are more wrong than others, the question of basic income then becomes "Is basic income more wrong or less wrong than _____?" And this leads to the next question.

Question 2: Can you think of any situations in which the choice between working and not working is again like the example above, in that your choice is between something wrong (not working in the labor market to earn an income), and something more wrong?

I can't answer this question for you, but I can provide some examples that would fit for others. Karl Widerquist has thoughtfully provided a list of possible objections in chapter 4 of Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income, 14 of which I will share here:

An objection to the goal or some of the goals of the joint project or of a specific task: One person might believe that the economic system is wrong, because she believes (even if heavily regulated) that it is too materialistic and detrimental to human wellbeing. Another person might believe that the economic system is wrong because it is overly regulated because society is too concerned with environmentalism or with solidarity and not concerned enough with the flourishing of the strong.

An unrecognized or unrewarded contribution: Some individuals do things that benefit the community but go unrewarded (e.g. caring for children, volunteering, producing art); others might think they benefit the community when they do not. Some people might choose to fulfill care responsibilities rather than recognized contribution without considering whether it should count as a social contribution.

Insufficient pay (under-recognized or under-rewarded contribution): Some people might have access to jobs they would be willing to do if the pay or the recognition was reasonable to them, but do not find the jobs offered to them to have sufficient rewards. Anyone might think they are underpaid, but only some (probably mostly those near the bottom of the income distribution) object so strongly that they would rather live off a social minimum than accept employment.

Difficult or unpleasant working conditions: Laborers might object that their contributory obligation requires them to perform relatively difficult work, while others are (for whatever reason) allowed to satisfy their contributory obligation with more pleasant possibilities.

Unfulfilling opportunities: People whose only job opportunities are relatively boring, low-status, or unfulfilling might decide to refuse unless they are offered something better.

Insufficient opportunities and unemployment: Some people might want to contribute in a way that is well rewarded by the community, but for whatever reason can’t get that job. Some people might have lost their job or be unable to find the kind of job they are looking for. Some might lack the required ability, and some might simply lack recognition of their ability.

Improving skills: Some people would like to drop out of participation temporarily to improve their skills or to begin a project that will allow them to reenter with more desirable opportunities. Society might recognize some reimprovement of skill as a contribution, and so for this to be considered a refusal to cooperate the individual must be improving her skills in some unapproved or unrecognized manner.

Objection to hierarchy: Some people might be perfectly willing to perform the functions they are offered but might object to the hierarchical structure in which those jobs are placed. But of course, it is always possible that someone might object that the structure of society is not hierarchical enough.

Objection to the specific place in a hierarchy offered to an individual: Some people might not be opposed to hierarchy in general, but object to the low position in the hierarchy that their functions place them. Individuals might have good or bad reasons for believing they merit a higher place.

Objection to the standard of fairness of the system (including the role of luck, discrimination, nepotism, social advantage, etc.): Any system with different roles for people and an imperfect ability to give maximal opportunities to everyone will run into somebody with a legitimate complaint about bad luck. Discrimination and social disadvantage are not simply bad luck; they are socially created arbitrary factors. They create similarly arbitrary outcomes that could inspire a similar unwillingness to participate. There might also be people who accept only unfairness in their favor, such as racists who are not willing to cooperate in any project that includes other races. Society might try to reduce these problems, but it is unlikely that they will have the ability to eliminate them.

Objection to the required level of effort: A person might believe that the effort demanded of her is larger than necessary even if others work hard. Or, she might believe that no one else works hard enough or that her extra efforts are not rewarded sufficiently.

Grievance: Someone might refuse social cooperation because she believes that she or a member of her family had been wrongly punished or wrongly deprived of rights, property, or privilege.

Insufficient range of options: A person might refuse to participate just because there aren’t enough varied choices of how to participate. I hesitate to include this objection, because presumably most people who object to the range of options have some specific objection to each offer in the range of options. However, it is conceivable that someone might refuse an option they genuinely like just because they believe they have too few options to choose from.

Mental or physical disorder: Some people might appear lazy, gaming, or weak-willed who actually suffer from depression or some other mental disorder that inhibits their ability to interact with others and hold a position. Physical disorders (whether recognized or not) might have a similar effect.

If you think none of these possibilities have or could ever possibly apply to you, then it will probably continue to make sense to believe in the absolute moral rightness of work and the moral wrongness of not working. But if you think any of these could apply, and that the possibility exists for the moral wrongness of a job to outweigh the moral wrongness of not working, then perhaps enabling the option of not working empowers people to make that choice?

If you faced a choice between:

  • Working for someone who greatly injured or even killed someone you love
  • Working for a company that sells snake oil
  • Working for a business that dumps toxic waste in your backyard
  • Working with other workers who make your life miserable
  • Working for slave wages insufficient to cover your basic needs
  • Working a job you love for zero pay, making you unable to live despite all your hard work
  • Working a job that promises a shortened life, like breathing in asbestos and guaranteeing cancer
  • Not working until you can find a job or situation that is none of the above

Would you appreciate that last choice as an option?

If a side-effect of enabling that option of not working is that it directly results in everyone working suddenly earning larger incomes than anyone not working, then does that not improve upon the current situation of people working earning the same incomes of people not working? Isn't that then too an example of something that is more right or less wrong than what we have right now?

Right now someone can get $12,000 for not working while someone working gets the same. Basic income would double the pay of the worker.

If another side-effect of enabling the option of not working is that it directly results in everyone who pretends to work in their job but actually gets paid to do nothing suddenly gaining the ability to quit their job, while also enabling those who really want to work but can't find work to fill these same jobs, in a way that these jobs are actually done and done happily/well instead of just pretending or done unhappily/poorly, doesn't this too provide an example of an outcome that is more right and less wrong than we have right now?

Do we want to pay people to do nothing at work while preventing those who want to actually work from working?

If you can consider all of these questions and still feel as strongly as you did before you considered them of how wrong basic income is compared to anything/everything else, then that's that and I have no desire to change your mind. Nor will I pass judgment.

But if you can consider all of these questions and feel a bit less strongly, concluding that there are possibly some circumstances no matter how remote, where you yourself would not want to be forced to do something even more wrong in your eyes than not working, then I think that's really something to consider in your judgment of the idea of basic income and those who support it.

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Unconditional/Universal Basic Income (UBI) advocate with a crowdfunded basic income; Founder and President of ITSA Foundation, Author of Let There Be Money; Editor of