If, within the framework of modern society, individuals depend on employment for survival, then how can one survive without breaking either their moral aversion to wage slavery or their moral aversion to moving their financial burdens onto others?

Thinkers such as Alan Watts or Terence McKenna have said that by following one's passion, one will find a way to make money. This makes sense to me, but many passions require an initial financial investment, such as attending graduate school.

Edit: Let me be clear, I'm looking for an answer for how to morally earn income and also how to move into such a position. I'm not looking for specific personal advice, but something that can be broadly applied to individuals. There are, of course, changes society could implement, such as universal basic income, but I'm seeking answers for the individual.

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    Mendicancy moves the financial burden onto others. Aug 16 '17 at 16:25
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    dumpster diving and homelessness would be the easiest answer. but seriously, please do NOT do this. not trolling, just not particularly serious about the question. you could try editing it to ask not for practical life advice
    – user28117
    Aug 16 '17 at 16:43
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    Wage slavery is bad enough, but imagine loading a pile of debt on top if it. I would be cautious about graduate school in today's world. Of course, this is all fact sensitive and you are better able to judge the facts which apply to your case.
    – Gordon
    Aug 16 '17 at 17:49
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    @Gordon Actually I already have a massive student debt from my (financially) useless BSc. (I love what I learned at Uni & am a better person for it, but it seems financially dubious have actually found it harder to get a job since the degree.) So, recently I've been looking at moving to Europe for the free education. Also, I did live in the woods for a month. It was amazing, but by November it got very cold and the water table dropped. Anyway, I ask this question not only for my benefit. I've run across many people who object to wage slavery, but have yet to hear a good solution. Aug 17 '17 at 4:51
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    After a comparison of your question, the answers, and the back-and-forth comments, it seems to me that most people are talking past each other. It might be that nobody understood the original question. I suggest another revision of the question. Aug 18 '17 at 19:04

The need for money is part of an existing social contract. If you do need money, you have signed onto that contract. You cannot be both within and outside the contract. You need to set it aside entirely if you find its central tenets morally objectionable.

Money is not what you need. What you need is a means of using your own attributes to support yourself. If you want to morally disconnect from capitalism, that cannot involve money, since the value of money is clearly embedded in the system as a whole.

There are people who have taken this seriously and established a parallel social contract that insulates a sense of value based upon some other criterion from the need for money. Communities like Ammana and Oneida, various tax-resisting Quaker Meetings during the Vietnam War, and the Shaker communities are historical examples. A living example is the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

Such communities do not use money among themselves. To manage this, they have to maintain a buffer between themselves and the economic community. They usually institutionalize this buffer in the form of 'sovereign' land in unincorporated areas that is never allowed to have a monetary value assigned to it. It is too far from public services to involve real estate tax, and it is either free of claim because it is hereditary and has not been sold for an extended period, or it is kept in an endless limbo of mortgage that is never allowed to build equity, so it is insulated from the income tax. It is held in common and not passed down, so it avoids inheritance, which is the other point land that is not sold might be assigned monetary value and have taxes extracted.

This freezes this part of the means of production outside the capitalist system. Those who hold this land may or may not allow you to join them on the assumption you will find away to contribute to the welfare of the community as a whole and that will offset the work involved in maintaining the insulation from capitalism.

Since the rest of our social contract is tied to taxes, this involves leaving the legal system and having some alternative means of government, that you may or may not find adequate, logical or fair. So to some degree there is a risk of a more genuine form of slavery. But you are generally free to leave with nothing and return to the capitalist system through charitable institutions.

  • This was not the kind of answer I was expecting, but it is the most accurate solution. I have heard of these communities, but it hadn't occurred to me as a solution to this quandary. Aug 18 '17 at 6:35

If... individuals depend on employment for survival, then how can one survive without breaking either their moral aversion to wage slavery or their moral aversion to moving their financial burdens onto others?

The premise that employment equals a type of slavery restricts the possible roads to survival. To remain moral, a person would have to (1) find employment which is not slavery or (2) find a source of wealth which does not involve shifting a personal burden onto someone else.

My suggestion is as follows. First, isolate that aspect of employment that makes it similar to slavery. Then, organize a business, commune, or other association that produces wealth, but drops the morally offensive aspect of employment.

Given the assumption that opens the question, that is as far as I can take an answer.


1) In a similar vein to squatting, you could try living off the land. Move to the Amazon or some remote tropical island and become a modern day Robinson Crusoe. Of course, that's very, very hard to do, and you're going to need money to get set up.

2) Work as a wage slave and reconcile your moral objection with the knowledge that you simply have no choice (just as starving people are sometimes forced to resort to cannibalism).

I use fossil fuels every time I jump on a bus, and it bothers me, but I just shrug and accept it as the only alternative.

3) Work as a wage slave, then use some of your free time to plot reform or revenge. I've taken on some corrupt supervisors, officials and unions and publicly criticized my employer. It can be dangerous, but it can also be very satisfying - and even little exciting.

In plain English, discover a cause bigger than yourself and become an activist.

Alan Watts! I remember that guy from my college days. He was so cool.

But telling people that they can make money by following their passion is cruelly deceptive. Sure, it's possible. But Google the term "starving artist."


The problem is in the question.

Deciding that working for someone is slavery may be your opinion, but it is a subjective opinion, and not necessarily indicative of objective reality.

People have been doing work in order to survive for as long as there have been people, and at no point during that time did these people get to dictate what they did anywhere outside of the system they were born into.

In other words, as human societies have progressed, the nature of work has taken on slowly evolving concrete forms that make up the reality of the population. At any point in time, there can be no other way.

Within that context, I don't see a reason why 'ethics' or 'ideals' should enter anywhere into the equation. Following your passion is a great concept, but if it leads you into a place within the system you live in where you can't find work or support yourself, what have you gained?

I'd think when it comes to work one should first attempt to understand the market in which they live, and then further how they would best like to use it to their advantage.

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    As with the answer below, you have misrepresented the term wage slavery, it is not, and never has been, used to define the fact that people have to work for their sustenance, please at least read the Wikipedia link already provided by the OP before answering. The term 'Wage Slavery' refers to the concept that employers (or the marketplace) get to dictate both the nature of the works that must be done and the volume of work that must be done in order to sustain ourselves, rather than the physical laws of biology. You may disagree, but please at least give the philosophy some respect.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 18 '17 at 6:15
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    If it were legal to live a hunting & gathering lifestyle I would have done that ages ago. Still, some people have decided to subsist on urban foraging and is an option to consider. But, yes, like Isaacson the question isn't "How does one survive without working?" I enjoy working, particularly when it is work that I'm good at. Aug 18 '17 at 6:29
  • Respectfully, I don't think I have misrepresented the term wage slavery, I understand exactly what it's intent is. My point is: 'wage slavery' is a subjective method of defining our current situation, not an objective one, and put in another light what people face could also be seen as physical reality. There can be no other way. It's like a North American native in 5000 BC asking how they can subsist without hunting. In our times there may be ways to actually persist without wages, but the term 'wage slavery' doesn't seem particularly helpful here. Aug 18 '17 at 13:23
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    Philosophy.SE is not a place for simply listing your opinions, your view that "... there can be no other way" is simply stated as fact without any argument to back it up. Whilst you're perfectly entitled to hold such opinions, an answer on this site is not the place to espouse them. If you wish to demonstrate that 'wage slavery' is just an unavoidable reality, then either construct or reference arguments against things like minimum wages, restricted working hours/contracts, common land movements, communism... etc. Then your answer (albeit tangential) will meet the requirements of this site.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 19 '17 at 6:41
  • @Isaacson the overwhelming brunt of philosophy references I could add here would amount to pseudo-scentific thought, just as the philosophy in the original question itself is pseudo-scentific. So my 'thought' is just as valid as anything that some guy has managed to get published with no basis in scientific reality. If you're going to restrict answers to references in journal articles or books, then you have to take into account the veracity of the questions themselves, and you're also limiting yourself to published thought. Jun 21 '19 at 14:01

You could look into squatting, and how you might find food and otherwise stay healthy in such an environment.

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I imagine you'll find some share your sympathies, for what it's worth.

Which you seem to have defined conservatively enough to not be self contradictory. Not sure what Watts would say about your dilemma, but I don't think I see how making money from your passion is any different to investing money, perhaps a loan, to pursue your passion, given that what you earn would then be supporting you to pursue it, and you e.g. pay back the loan. I don't see how loans are slavery if they're paid back with work you love.

Which was the reason for my facetiousness in the comments: if you're just saying you don't want to do certain forms of work but must be self sufficient this is not really a philosophical question.

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    For example a painter who works as a waiter to support himself is spending time and energy working a job to barely get by and has little time to hone his craft. But, a Renaissance painter lucky enough to have a patron can spend as much time as he likes on his passion. A painter who takes out a loan can as well, assuming he can pay back the loan by selling his paintings, but of this there is no certainty. Alternatively, a painter in an economy with UBI has none of the above worries about starvation, debt, or allegiance to a single patron. Aug 17 '17 at 5:01

You have proposed two moral principles: 1) You don't want to be a "wage slave" (as you define it). 2) You don't want to live on the resources of others. There are two assumptions a) working for yourself is not readily available and b) you want to survive. In the context of the assumptions, the two moral principles are, on their face, inconsistent -- a common human problem. We usually try to live with the inconsistency, using one principle at one time and the other at another depending on the situation or our emotional state. Alternatively, you could choose one and jettison the other. In doing so you will have to compare their value. Which principle does the most good? Which one can you live with? Under what circumstances would you be able to change your mind? As is typical, I have answered a question with more questions.

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    jobermark's answer shows that principles 1 & 2 do not have an XOR relationship. I.e., there is at least one solution that involves neither wage slavery or burdening others. By the by, I actually didn't define wage slave. Cicero was the first to state the idea. Aug 18 '17 at 6:44

If, within the framework of modern society, individuals depend on employment for survival, then how can one survive without breaking either their moral aversion to wage slavery or their moral aversion to moving their financial burdens onto others?

People who work for a wage aren't slaves and slavery is not an apt metaphor. A person must have food, shelter etc. to survive. Nobody is obliged to provide you with these goods. If you maintain otherwise, then you are saying the person who can provide those goods should be forced to work to provide you with them: he is your slave. The person who can provide those goods should do so only if he has been persuaded to do so by argument, or by receiving goods he wants in exchange.

One of the options for obtaining goods that you can exchange for food and shelter is that you can agree to do stuff another person asks you to do in exchange for money to be paid in a short time - a wage. In order to pay a wage somebody has to gather the resources necessary to pay that wage and do without them for the period required to produce something that can be sold.

Some people say the employee and employer have unequal bargaining power and that this is unfair in some way. A person looking for wage work can consider an offer and negotiate or reject the offer. He need not accept the first figure that the employer proposes. There are books on salary negotiation if you don't think that's an option. If an employee wasn't providing value nobody would want to hire him. If the employee fails to think about this issue and look for information about how to use it, that's the employee's responsibility. The employer is not obligated to do this for the employee. There are other options, like starting a small business, or a large business. Promoting the idea that employers have power over employees is a vicious lie. That lie demonises employers and claims that employees are not moral agents who can make choices about what they value and how they want to obtain it.

A commenter below complains about employers treating employees as a means to an end. An employer does not treat an employee like a cog in a machine because the employee can resign. The employer would then have to find a replacement. However, the employer won't pay someone to watch cat videos on youtube. The employer will demand and should demand that the employee will do something of value to him to get paid.

The current system has many defects, like lots of burdensome govt regulation that stop people from starting some kinds of businesses, but that's govt slavery not wage slavery. If you complain about wage slavery, then you have a beef with the laws of physics since they don't require cooked roast chickens to fly into your mouth with no effort on your part.

It would be a good idea to learn some political economy. See "Time will run back" by Hazlitt for an explanation of the relevant economic issues that you might find interesting:


A short explanation of the moral issues can be found in "The virtue of selfishness" by Ayn Rand.

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    You have misunderstood the term 'Wage Slavery' which has been used frequently throughout history to describe the unequal bargaining power between the business owner and the worker, thus rendering the worker unable to anything but accept whatever term the business owner wishes to offer. It has nothing to do with requiring "...cooked roast chickens to fly into your mouth with no effort on your part", it is about treating humans not mere means to an end, but as ends in their own right, that humans deserve more dignity than their economic value as parts in a machine.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 17 '17 at 11:29
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    I have altered my answer to address your misunderstandings of the economic and moral issues involved.
    – alanf
    Aug 17 '17 at 14:42
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    Torture cannot be made morally acceptable simply by allowing the victim to choose which torturer they wish to submit to. Likewise, choice of employment has no bearing on the argument. As the ownership of land is supported by force of arms, the option to not be employed at all, but instead fend for oneself, is removed, by force. This, to some people, is a form of slavery. I'm well aware of the moral and economic arguments, it does neither side any service to simply misrepresent them.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 17 '17 at 15:56
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    Getting resources from people voluntarily isn't torture. If you feel bad about having to provide value to get stuff, you are irrational. You can't take land from other people who already own it. You can go looking for unowned land. That's not any kind of slavery. It's just a policy that you are not allowed to force other people to provide you with stuff for free. Its a policy to prevent slavery.
    – alanf
    Aug 17 '17 at 23:22
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    I didn't say getting resources from people was torture, I said that giving someone a choice of torturer did not affect the morality of torture, likewise giving someone a choice of employment does not affect the morality of employment. Nor did I say anything about taking land from people who already own it, all land was unowned until someone staked a claim to it by force, successive governments have defended that claim by force, therefore the situation we are currently in whereby one does not have the choice to fend for oneself is one imposed on us by force, hence the comparison.
    – Isaacson
    Aug 18 '17 at 6:04

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