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The division of labour is a "micro-level" as well as a societal phenomenon.

It means that different individuals are "coerced" into doing different parts of larger projects and that the labour is divided rather than produced by any single or by the preferences of a single individual only.

This of course has numerous implications for e.g. the working lives of individuals. Some are coerced into different jobs than others. Some are coerced into unfun or unfulfilling jobs. Some are expressing other than their genuine interests. But some things still need to be done.

How do you tolerate the fact that also working lives can be very unjust. That others are taking more time, doing less satisfying work, doing more stressful or fatiguing work than others. And still it seems like society is portraying us "being in the same boat" and contributing to the benefit of all? Even if we're having different sorts of lives, others having more pleasant than others. Occasionally it seems to me more like some are simply free riding from the benevolence or morality of others that are doing the right things. Or those doing the right things are being e.g. economically tricked into doing them (doing them for money).


This question has puzzled me so much that it has pushed me to consider alternatives to market economies, because market economies to me start to seem to be enabling the above kind "economic tricking" and enforce their own (potentially, hierarchical) control over how labour/work is divided. They are a system of social organization, after all. While pushing their ideological justifications for all this, such as negative liberty. E.g. workplace democracy and "communal" principles begin to look fairer than economics and policies that de facto enable inequality and unjust thinking/behaviour.

The so called "incentives" of market economies can be interpreted to be coercive. That they're incentives enforced by the system to "make us do things" or do them in a certain way. Contrary to the free will of every individual.

  • It beats the hell out of a life of slavery. And for that matter a job in a cube is better than living in a cave. Life is imperfect but humanity stumbles and crawls ever forward. Civilization is very recent and it's a great improvement over what came before. Of course civilization is not without its discontents, as noted by Freud. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_and_Its_Discontents – user4894 Jun 10 '16 at 2:58
  • @user4894 But there have been parallels drawn between chattel slavery and wage slavery. This is actually quite relevant to this question, because we could be legally free and voluntarily employed, but de facto (in practice) being taken advantage of. Also ideological justifications such as negative liberty seem more like hand-waving, unless the individuals really feel like they're free. – mavavilj Jun 10 '16 at 3:10
  • That comparison is disingenuous. There isn't a person alive who would choose slavery over wage slavery. Wage slavery is an ironic figure of speech. It's not in any way comparable to human slavery. – user4894 Jun 10 '16 at 3:21
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The simplest answer is that, yes, there is some unfairness in the division of labour. No matter what the occupation (whether it's hunting/gathering or designing software) there will be some unfairness when an individual works out that they can get away with doing less. We all probably remember the days of elementary school projects when one person in the group would just attach their name to the assignment after doing little to nothing.

There is also inequality in the way that certain people are only able to access jobs which are lower status and/or harder work. Far from Plato's "Republic" (in which people are given the work they are most suited for) our civilization leads to people doing certain types of work depending on the education they afford, what types of connections their families have, and what types of work are available in their region. This is not necessarily a bad thing. With the last example (regional availability) we can see a less sinister version of division of labour: it isn't necessarily that people are coerced into doing unpleasant work because of some cosmic unfairness; but, rather, there are some things (e.g. sewer cleaning) which must be done for society to function and somebody has to do those things. We may all want to do fun artsy jobs but somebody needs to keep the water running. We may also all want high paying/high status occupations (e.g. doctors) but that doesn't work: if everyone had jobs like those then there wouldn't be anyone to do all the less desirable jobs.

Second: it's important to note that, despite what how it is talked about a lot of the time, "society" is not a single, highly coercive, entity. Individual people within society may try and force you to do certain things, and the need to eat may force you to take a job you can't stand, but there is no single mind behind it all that is trying to force people to do certain things.

About "being in the same boat": this is, in a strange way, somewhat true. This goes back to the social contract: we have agreed as a society (in a purely metaphorical sense-see my previous point) that we will work together. This means that anyone who pretends to be going along with societal contracts will reap the benefits of other's labour. We have not yet found a way to solve the "free rider" problem without causing greater harm. What I mean by this is that the only way I can think of to really make someone participate fully would be to be extremely strict with them, removing their ability to make choices about work and leisure This is a reduction of the free will even greater than the "coercion" described in your last statement.

I don't know if I've answered this properly, I'm pretty new to this stack exchange. I'd be happy to make any changes to my answer that are suggested.

  • This is a good answer, but it doesn't go into the "how to tolerate" bit. As you say, there are jobs that need to be done before e.g. everyone can have a fun artsy job. But how can we tolerate that some are doing fun artsy jobs while some are having less good time. Since it's unfair, then wouldn't it need to be compensated somehow, at least in a political system that claims fairness or equality? Or perhaps there's some sort of "ideology" that enables us to understand the unfairness better. Such as that different people are better suited to different tasks? Or that people have freedom to choose? – mavavilj Jun 14 '16 at 3:13
  • By the way, I've heard mainstream economic thought to not really think of compensation in terms of "how bad the job is", but rather "what factors are pushing the price of labour down, if any". I.e. an unpleasant job will not pay more, if there's too much competition in the labour supply, regardless of how shit it is. This to me adds to the unfairness, since I think that it would be more fair to compensate more for less pleasant work and compensate less for more pleasant work. The reason being that the time in work is spent so differently. – mavavilj Jun 14 '16 at 3:20
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Two possible responses:


From Marx's perspective:

Yes, there is injustice in the division of labor. In fact, the modern division of labor is the main reason for alienation, which is the process by which a worker looses his humanity, and instead becomes a mere commodity like any other equipment or material used in the overall production process. In a capitalist industrial mode of production, a human being does from being a complex being (family ties, tastes and sensibilities, opinions on different matters, etc...) to being a very simple an one dimensional entity (lift operator, web administrator, nurse, receptionist, etc....) and this causes them to loose their human "essence" and become alienated from their work and society around them. Given that their very survival depends on their role as cook, secretary, plumber, teacher, etc...they loose their freedom, their jobs descriptions control them, instead of them controlling their job.

From Marx's point of view, in an ideal (presumably communist) society, people would be free to do whichever activities they wanted. Here is a quote from The German Ideology (1845):

...while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

See this post for further discussion.


From John Rawls' perspective:

No, division of labor is not unjust, as long as it works to the benefit of everyone. If on the other hand, the division of labor, and the various inequalities which come with it, makes the situation of those on the lower levels of society worse of, then it is injustice.

A doctor or a CEO might get more income and more satisfaction from their job, and this is tolerable as long as everyone is better off than they would be without the work of that doctor or CEO.

Moreover everybody has to have the equal opportunity to become a doctor or a CEO, these can't be hereditary positions, or based on race or caste or social class at birth. They should be positions accessible to everyone based only on merit and achievement.

John Rawls adresses these questions in his theory of Justice as Fairness. He discussed these ideas in his book "A Theory of Justice", but I will quote the SEP article on John Rawls:

These guiding ideas of justice as fairness are expressed in its two principles of justice:

  • First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

  • Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle). (JF, 42–43)

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It means that different individuals are "coerced" into doing different parts of larger projects and that the labour is divided rather than produced by any single or by the preferences of a single individual only.

Incentives aren't coercion.

So, no there isn't injustice in division of labor.

As long as it's accomplished by a free market where people have incentives to specialize and the freedom to decide what to do with their life. Like "I can make more money selling 10 great loaves of bread than selling 1 mediocre loaf of bread, 1 mediocre pair of shoes, and 1 mediocre poem". You can still do whatever you want, it's just that other people won't want to pay you as much if you make stuff they value less. There's nothing injust about that. If division of labor was created by government force, then there would be injustice.

The so called "incentives" of market economies can be interpreted to be coercive. That they're incentives enforced by the system to "make us do things" or do them in a certain way. Contrary to the free will of every individual.

they don't make you do anything. if you don't want to specialize, don't – and deal with the consequences.

maybe it's reality some people find unjust – because any arbitrary whim won't have any desired results for their life.

  • "Incentives aren't coercion"? Even if my dream was to produce mediocre shoes and still live like a billionaire? Which is in fact possible, if I am a billionaire. Or even if I wished to afford to be able to not work or to pursue my interests regardless of money or demand? – mavavilj Jun 11 '16 at 7:27
  • if you dream of breaking the laws of physics, that doesn't make them coercive. coercion is when people use force against you and take away your choices. it's totally different than nature, or other people, simply not offering you choices (like to sell them your drawing, or shoddy shoes, for a million dollars). coercion is taking away your choices. it's ok if people react to your choices differently (e.g. pay more for better product). – curi Jun 11 '16 at 7:31
  • But there are limited choices when e.g. one is poor or e.g. when one cannot make a living doing what one wishes. Whereas this is certainly possible, if you are wealthy. Why is there a difference in whether one can afford to do (or not do) something and whether one cannot? – mavavilj Jun 11 '16 at 7:55
  • nature limits your choices. if it's raining you can't stand outside in the open with no umbrella or whatever else and not get wet. reality doesn't offer unlimited choice. in a free society, no one stops you from more wealth and doing things with it, so there's no coercion, it's up to you. just not handing you free stuff isn't coercion. (in the actual world all societies are mixed at best, so there are some barriers put in the way of bettering your situation, which sucks. getting back to the question though, those barriers like dumb regulations do not consist of the existence of incentives). – curi Jun 11 '16 at 7:58
  • Yes, but that's of a very different kind than the limits imposed by social organization. I think natural incentives and natural limits are "fairer" than those of social organization, because one truly cannot affect them. Whereas politics is malleable to be almost anything. – mavavilj Jun 11 '16 at 7:59
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The division of labour is a "micro-level" as well as a societal phenomenon.

It means that different individuals are "coerced" into doing different parts of larger projects and that the labour is divided rather than produced by any single or by the preferences of a single individual only.

This of course has numerous implications for e.g. the working lives of individuals. Some are coerced into different jobs than others. Some are coerced into unfun or unfulfilling jobs. Some are expressing other than their genuine interests. But some things still need to be done.

The division of labour is just another name for people specialising on stuff they are good at.

It is true that some things need to be done. Sometimes they are done as a result of people doing stuff that is boring. For example, working on an assembly line may be boring if the worker has to do the same task over and over again. But why should a boring task should have to be done by a person? If a person can do X, then why doesn't he write down an explanation of how to do X and construct a machine to do it? The answer is that he doesn't know how to do this, and he doesn't want to learn.

A machine to do the assembly worker's task would be an improvement in the vast bulk of cases. Machines don't need to go to the toilet or to lunch. They don't make mistakes through boredom or carelessness. So there need not be any downside.

Sometimes an employer would not welcome such an innovation and wouldn't know how to evaluate it. But in that case, there is nothing to stop the worker from solving the problem in his spare time and starting his own business, other than lack of inclination to do what is required.

You might say that this amounts to coercing the assembly line worker. But what has happened is that the worker has been offered a range of options for how to live his life, and has picked one of the options. He could have decided not to take the options on offer but create his own opportunity. As long as other people will voluntarily provide resources, he can do whatever he wants on the free market. There are people who play video games professionally. There are people who have sex professionally.

The only alternative to people voluntarily providing resources is to use or threaten physical violence against them. This is a bad idea partly because it will prevent people from acting on objections to the plan being imposed by force. If another person objects to some idea and declines to provide resources, you should be interested in understanding his objection. You might be able to answer the objection. And if you can't meet the objection, you may have a bad idea and you should want to replace that bad idea. If you don't want to replace your bad ideas, that's your fault: you suck.

"Oh, Alan," I hear you cry. "You've got me all wrong. I don't want to use force. I just want the workplace to be democratic. Everybody will help make the decisions about what to do." But this does not address the actual problem that leads to people doing stuff they don't want. The problem is that some people don't want to create new knowledge and take real responsibility for their lives. Such a person prefers to do a shitty job he hates instead of taking responsibility. If you want such people to take responsibility, you will have to coerce them unless you first come up with an argument to change their minds.

There is a further problem. Democracy doesn't fit this situation. Democracy is an attempt to solve the following problem. A society with millions of people needs laws but not everybody is inclined to help write them. So then you have some people who specialise in doing that sort of thing: politicians. Voting is a mechanism to throw out incompetent or malicious politicians. If enough people vote for some other candidate, the politician loses his job if people don't like the results he produced. They don't have to argue with him about it, they can just remove him from office. But if you are in a small group at work, you need not vote. You can discuss a topic until you all reach a position you find unproblematic. If you adopt voting instead, then you won't reach such a position and some people won't like the position that was adopted as a result of the vote. You will just recreate the problem you wanted to solve.

If you want to understand more see

http://fallibleideas.com/

and ask questions at the associated discussion group:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/fallible-ideas/info.

See also

http://capitalismmagazine.com/2002/08/franciscos-money-speech/.

  • How do we know that resources are traded voluntarily? There are some resources that still e.g. exploit labour, such as cheap electronics, clothes made in sweatshops and cocoa. That's the same sort of argument as "both parties benefit from voluntary trade", even if the circumstances of the trade were inequal. – mavavilj Jun 10 '16 at 12:24
  • Also, "There are people who play video games professionally. There are people who have sex professionally.". This is what I'm trying to get at. If there was no mechanism of "making a living" and "being free to do what you want", then maybe there wouldn't exist such "free riding", where others do all the labor while others basically just play. I bet professional video gamers aren't solving many real problems either. Their job may be only for personal satisfication. – mavavilj Jun 10 '16 at 12:34
  • "Sweatshop" means "an establishment that I would not choose to work at, and therefore nobody should have the choice to work at it even if it would improve their lives by their own lights." I don't presume to coerce people out of working in circumstances just because I wouldn't work in them. And both parties can benefit from voluntary trade, regardless of their circumstances econlib.org/library/Topics/Details/comparativeadvantage.html If somebody feels he is not benefiting he should try to solve that problem, but it's not the responsibility of the other party to solve that problem. – alanf Jun 10 '16 at 19:32
  • > If there was no mechanism of "making a living" and "being free to do what you want", then maybe there wouldn't exist such "free riding", where others do all the labor while others basically just play. If a person doesn't like his work he should change it, either by doing something else or by automating the boring parts. If he does neither of those things, that is his responsibility, not somebody else's. – alanf Jun 10 '16 at 19:43
  • > I bet professional video gamers aren't solving many real problems either. You "bet"? In other words, you don't know anything about professional video gaming, but you're willing to condemn people out of hand. You are a bigot. > Their job may be only for personal satisfication. They make money by getting people to pay them because their gameplay is entertaining to watch. So their playing is not just for their satisfaction. But people who are good at producing entertaining gameplay will play games they enjoy and find interesting. – alanf Jun 10 '16 at 19:50

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