November 2, 2012, by Jonathan

Philosophy and the Living Wage

A report by accountants KPMG this week claimed that one fifth of the UK’s workers are paid less than is required for a basic standard of living. The current hourly ‘living wage’ is calculated to be £8.30 in London, and £7.20 in the rest of the UK. The current minimum wage throughout the UK is £6.19. Nearly five million adult workers in the UK earn less than the living wage.

Next week (November 4-10) is Living Wage Week. Employers are being encouraged to consider paying at least the living wage. The voluntary aspect of this is a prominent feature of the idea. Advocates of the living wage claim that the productivity benefits to employers of having less tired and better-motivated workers will compensate the increased labour costs, in many cases.

It is rarely easy to draw direct connections between social policies and philosophical principles, because social policies are designed with particular circumstances in mind, while philosophical principles usually aim to be valid across a very wide range of circumstances. This means that, for any given philosophical principle, it is possible to imagine a range of policies that it could support – sometimes a very wide range – depending on the assumptions one makes about local conditions and such things as what is politically feasible. This presents a danger for philosophy of becoming, or looking, too disconnected from real discussions.

Can philosophical ideas help us to understand, or evaluate, the arguments for or against the living wage? Not many philosophical positions would object to the idea that employers should pay their workers at least the living wage if they wish to do so. But what about the idea that the living wage should be mandatory?

One could try to argue for this based on several different ideas about what justice requires – reduction of inequality, or raising the level of advantage of the worst off, or increasing aggregate wellbeing. But perhaps the strongest resemblance is with the idea that justice requires sufficiency. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it, ‘With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough’.

This idea is appealing to many for a number of reasons. It shifts attention from inequality in a way that can make it seem refreshingly modest or practical. It resonates with the idea that it is more important to meet basic needs than to satisfy mere desires. Philosophers have, of course, pointed out some potential problems with the idea. The most obvious is that it may be difficult to specify exactly what counts as enough. More intriguingly, in some versions at least commitment to sufficiency appears to recommend abandoning those who are well short of it in favour of getting those just beneath the threshold above it.

Advocates of a mandatory living wage – or even those who want to add some moral pressure to the campaign’s appeal to employers’ self-interest – could try to find philosophical support by pursuing these controversies further. But note one deep difference between the idea of sufficiency and the idea of a living wage. The idea of sufficiency does not say that people who work full time should have enough; it says more simply that people should have enough. The idea of a living wage, in contrast, ties receipt of ‘enough’ to working full time. Thus advocates of sufficiency could embrace the idea of a mandatory living wage only as part of some broader package of measures designed to ensure that everyone has enough.


Chris Woodard

Posted in EthicsPolitical Philosophy