Ethically and morally, does a person have the freedom or the right to not work? If it is so, is it conditional or not and how?

My first idea is that if everyone in the world does not work, then the world will collapse very soon and social order will collapse. But obviously there are always some people who temporarily or permanently lose their abilities to work, for example:

  1. Sick or disabled
  2. People whose skills set is no longer necessary
  3. Someone who has been laid off and is unable to find new employment

So at least in some cases, it is morally justified that someone doesn't work. However, is it possible claim that one has the right to not work? Or one has right to not work only if conditions A, B, C ...are true? Because conditions are numerous and cannot be listed thoroughly, it looks like not a satisfying solution.

Furthermore, one who does not work and has no savings, will soon starve if they have no other resource. This might be construed as a form of suicide. This then relates to the right to commit suicide, another expanded problem. To prevent this, society and government already provide support including food stamps, medicaid and so on. Do these justify the claim or conditionally? What if one refuses to work?

I don't know whether this is an adequate question and whether there is an definite answer or not. Any guides to books or articles helpful is appreciated. Thanks.

  • 4
    I'm guessing by "ethnically" you mean "ethically"? Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 14:34
  • i think this is a good demonstration that intuitions don't always work we also need to support them with thinking thru alternatives. not really sure what you mean by "right to not work" tho, are you asking if it should be voluntary or permissbale ?
    – user6917
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 22:00
  • 1
    Do squirrels work? What about trees? Is it fact that the world would collapse if man ceased to exist? Commented May 20, 2015 at 16:36
  • 1
    You have the right, but you might end up homeless / dead. 'Work' isn't a social construct, it's a requisite for staying alive.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented May 25, 2015 at 16:16

8 Answers 8


My first idea is that everyone does not work...society will collapse

This is a Kantian type argument; what's usually known as the categorical imperative. You've shown that people cannot not work universally; thus we cannot legislate for it, ie make it into a law.

Thus you have shown people must work. The question is really about the kind of work done; that ought (in the sense of duty) be done; and also must be done; and this touches upon the notion of citizenship and the character and education of a citizen.

All of these topics is touched upon in Plato The Republic, where he argues that in the well-ordered polis or city-state, there are basically three types of occupations - rulers, producers and warriors; a similar system is outlined in the purusha verse of the Rig Veda; except they divide producers into traders and labourers.

(It's remarkable, that also broadly similar analogy/metaphor is used to describe this; in Plato, the polis is seen as analogous to a soul; whereas in the Rig-Veda it is regarded as the body of a man).

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition argues for more; she regards citizens as more than the sum of their private and work life; to which she gives the name social life; she regards it as incumbent that citizens play a role in the political life of the city; citizens should be political, to be properly counted as citizens.

Thus the main argument is that work is neccessary, that it has more useful dimensions than the narrow characterisations found now, and that the city ought or has a duty to find the right occupation for a man.

All of the above is an argument against work that is drudgery, or lacking in meaning, or that is unproductive; or takes a man away from other significant relations. None of this is an argument to * not* work - which is your question.

But given the argument above, the question becomes only if a man is incapable if working - thus either he is a child, or ill or elderly.

In certain societies, for example in poorer parts of India, one can find children who do work; this is in a sense part of their education - vocational; but in general, children are not seen as workers.

Thus the question revolves around with what should a polis do with its sick, short or long-term; and also with its elderly.

Given the human ties that we all have with other; also Rawls Veil of Ignorance argument comes to mind; it is a duty to provide for them; to what extent this is possible, depends on the economic position of the polis as a whole.

  • Is it really a duty to provide for people I have never interacted with, who would hate me solely based on my preferred beliefs? Commented Jul 12, 2018 at 10:03
  • @Callum Bradbury: Well, that would depend on whether you're a guardian of the polis - are you? According to Plato it is the duty of the guardians of the polis to provide the polis with the wherewithal to live. Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 18:28

Some of this obviously depends on how one defines "work."

There are obvious examples in history of people that are considered "virtuous" who didn't have a job that provided them with income, if that's what you mean. Examples include Socrates (who instead of "working" went around Athens asking people questions) and various religious ascetics such as Christian and Buddhist monks. These people lived long before the coming of the welfare state, and survived mostly on charity from others. In this case though, society largely sees/saw these people as performing a useful role (or in Socrates case, society saw him as performing a useful role until it famously didn't, and forced him to drink hemlock).


This depends on what other rights an individual has. We love to ascribe rights to humans, to make sure nobody can take things away from us, and it causes trouble when they conflict. For example, the "right to suicide" is highly controversial, but it meshes well with "the right to not work." If you simply want to stop working at life, feel free to. However, if you have the "right to nationalized healthcare," then the "right to not work" becomes tricky. In the former case, you can strive towards have no negative cost to the world, but in the latter you are obliged to receive healthcare, at a cost to the world.

I have found the discussion in the form of "Does a person have the right to _______" is not one that can be answered simply in a Q&A format. Consider, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a watershed document in the world of human rights. It has not been signed by every country. In particular there are a group of Islamic countries who believe the document contradicts their religious rights, and have counter proposed Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam as an alternate set of basic human rights which better meshes with their religion. They chose to call it "equal human dignity" rather than "equal human rights," and they define a few details slightly differently to better map to their religion.

If we cannot truly agree on the right we already claim to uphold, then the discussion of adding new human rights is rather tricky, is it not?


Some individuals are more productive than others.

It's entirely conceivable that behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, we might have agreed that those who are born with low productivity will be excused from work and supported by those with high productivity. This agreement has the flavor of an insurance contract.

By examining the circumstances and prices at which people are (or are not) willing to sign on to real-world insurance contracts, we can make some quantitative estimates of what the typical person would have agreed to behind the veil.

There is certainly a plausible argument that these behind-the-veil agreements should be enforced, on the grounds that we'd all have voluntarily signed on to them if it had been possible.

Figuring out exactly what we'd have agreed to is the hard part, but there's a vast literature on this, beginning with James Mirrlees, whose insights were worth a Nobel prize. (Rawls did a lot of speculating on what we'd have agreed to, but unlike Mirrlees and many others, Rawls made, as far as I am aware, no plausible argument to supported his speculations.)

  • This is a nice way to think about the problem, I think. IMO signing the contract is the easy part, the more tricky issue is how you're going to enforce that contract once people actually know their "draw" on the productivity scale. In theoretical political economy, even if the optimal policy is somehow legislated into existence (and this is unlikely), you face an additional set of constraints (known generally as "incentive-compatibility" in contract theory) in which high-productivity workers can pretend to be low-productivity and vice versa, if that the state has asymmetric information.
    – Yang
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:39

I think the answer to this question lies in the question "Does anyone have the right to expect to be supported by others".

Work is just a means to support yourself and even if you cannot do this does it give you the right to expect someone else to. The answer, I believe, is no. No one has that right no matter what the situation. However, in a civilized society, we can hope that those that truly cannot support themselves will be supported by those that can.

If you can support yourself without working then yes you do have a right not to work.

Obviously, there are exceptions. I.E When you bring an infant into this world they have the right to expect to be supported until such time they can do it for themselves.

  • idealism - my family would have supported me easily if not for all the tax they paid to support others. the nhs etc.
    – user6917
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 14:32
  • @MATHEMATICIAN And that is admirable, I would do the same for my family. But do you have the right to expect them too?
    – Fred
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 14:36
  • do they have a duty to? i don't know, maybe not i am no expert in family dynamics
    – user6917
    Commented Mar 13, 2015 at 14:47

Ethically, under a system that has true freedom for it's people, by inheritance, one is not required to work. In such a system, you are also free to starve to death or die of dysentery.

That being said, if one wishes to receive the benefits of the societal system, then some contribution is necessary -- have to give to get. Continued hand-outs and support for those capable of contributing, only spirals the decline of society as boredom ensues.

Proverbs 16:27

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop

All too often, those with nothing to do, find things to do such as reproduce (adding more strain to society through more dependants), or even crime. Not saying that is the case with 100% of those on support systems, but it is very commonplace.

Continually adding stress to society, without contributing anything back will eventually lead to collapse of it, or at the very least, the support systems in place.

While you may not be required to contribute back, I feel it is your duty to humanity to do something more than simply exist as a black-hole for resources.

  • Interestingly, in France, labour laws about the 35-hour week coincide with a bunch of laws that encourage and regulate the development of clubs where people can practice hobbies, sports, arts, volunteering, etc. It seems the government was scared that the 35-hour week would result in people having idle-hands and that this would be a source of trouble, so they had to encourage hobbies.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 22 at 19:51

One lesson from Nietzche's genealogy of morals that the ability to define power is itself a very high-leverage source of power, and that being handed a definition of power, one should probably not accept it. Defining work is implicitly defining power. Without accepting a definition, it is impossible to demand it. This is not so much a right, as a moral deduction, and perhaps we should not strive too hard to deny it.

Given your deduction about starvation, you seem to be defining work economically. That might be a mistake.

From a Montessori point of view it is virtually impossible for a human being not to work. Work is adding value to others' lives, and in that sense even providing the opportunity for others to care for you is a form of work. (If it is better to give than to receive, what is the best gift? Gratefully receiving!) A Montessori teacher sees the opportunities offered to care for the child as the child's working -- not because it is difficult for the child, but because it gives the culture the opportunity to shape them, which adds importance to the parents' lives.

Economics produces a specific division of work into opportunity and obligation. This merely reduces the chance that obligations will be fulfilled, or that opportunities will be enjoyed -- what will instead be valued is social competition. One way of interpreting cognitive dissonance studies (originally Festinger and Carlsmith: https://explorable.com/cognitive-dissonance but also later studies of cult behavior) is that if I am excessively manipulated into doing something, I am likely to forgo the opportunity to learn to enjoy it for its own sake or value it for other reasons, and I am less likely to undertake the activity freely without continued manipulation.

This creates a disincentive to do things that might otherwise get done. The logical way of avoiding it is by limiting manipulation. And that requires allowing some individuals to do work that is not putting them to the best use for the rest of us.

As can be seen by the behavior of traditional Western women outside the poverty class for centuries, some religious orders, and the fact that 'sovereign' institutions like the Rainbow Family actually function, defining work in this broad a fashion can, in fact, be productive. Contrary to all of economic theory, if values are aligned appropriately, there is a continuum of stable positions that evoke work on behalf of a community or oneself, and some of them confer the right not to be forced to do work one might not choose.


If a Universal Basic Income (UBI) were introduced, there would be a right to not work. Some people might see the choice then as ethically or morally dubious, just as some do of people who claim any benefits. But it's likely that would diminish as the system got more accepted.

Your question is really a non-starter, it depends on the society, the reasons etc etc. So, in almost every society the answer is sometimes, it depends.

Earlier retirement has been associated with earlier death https://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2016/03/21/jech-2015-207097.short?g=w_jech_ahead_tab But we force people to retire at a fixed age, they no longer have a right to work.

We should note the health benefits of having control over our lives: "having more control over your actions can also make you happier" https://www.nbcnews.com/better/careers/how-be-happier-work-it-s-easier-you-think-n738081 Which UBI may undermine. Self employed people with longer hours and more uncertainty, tend to be happier than people in more routine jobs with no autonomy, even paid more with higher prestige and shorter hours.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .