Do we as citizens have a societal obligation to be productive?

Although this isn’t at all related to Gestalt’s thread on the ethics of being childless, I found that one sentence in his OP stood out and made me think.

I turned this around a bit tho, and now would ask:

Do we as citizens have a societal obligation to be productive?

If yes, how large an obligation, and how productive must one be?
If no, why is there no obligation?

My $.02: society provides us with food, shelter, protection, schooling, infrastructure, etc. and that has to be maintained and improved, so if you are going to use any of the things that society provides, you need to produce something (labor, goods, services, etc.) so that you can help to pay for all of it, or you need to figure out how (and where) to live so that you aren’t using any of those services.

But is there an obligation to produce as much as possible?
Should every citizen be striving to do more & make more?
Should we scorn and deride people who decide to withhold their output?
Should we heap praise on those who work 24/7?

At what point would you say that people’s obligation to society ends, if at all?

I think you should at least put in as much as you take out, though it’s really not measurable.

You have an obligation to support yourself.

But then, sometimes that’s tough to do, beyond reasonable expectation. So I retract that.

You have an obligation to try to support yourself.

Does this mean that others have an obligation to support you if you need the help? In my opinion, no. People aren’t obligated to be charitable, despite the lack of such charity resulting in shortages for the unfortunate. It’s nice if people are charitable, of course, but it’s not obligated.

People have an obligation, to the best of their ability, to attempt to support themselves and their dependants. “Dependants” obviously includes immature children and also in my opinion broadly includes everyone who lives in that society who is incapable, in spite of their reasonable efforts, to support themselves to a reasonable degree of dignity. This support may come either through taxes or through private means when taxes are insufficient to accomplish the goal.

Obviously, the degree to which a person is entitled to be considered such a dependant, and the level of reasonable dignity they are entitled to, is a matter of continuing debate.

I would say yes, you do have a societal obligation to be productive. When you live in a society, you take from that society in innumerable ways; being productive is how you put back into the society you live in. It’s like any discussion of your rights; along with every right, you also have a responsibility. You have the right to live in a society; you have the responsibility to contribute to that society.

Yes, one is under the obligation to support oneself, and one’s dependents. However -

We live (in the US) in a modern welfare state. Therefore, we are also obligated to produce on behalf of strangers - the disabled, the poor, the unemployed, etc. The degree to which I consent to this is irrelevant - I am obligated by law to pay my taxes.

My moral obligation ends, IME, once I have supported myself and my family and those who I chose to support, as well as contributing my share towards paying for the common means I use to create a living for myself and my family - roads, police, courts, etc.

But no further am I obligated. I may certainly choose to go further, out of altruistic motives, but that is not the same thing.


I would elaborate on this to point out the the obligation to obey the law and support the social contract in that way is separate and distinct from the obligation to support others, and so if there’s a tax in place to provide food for the poor, you’re obligaged to pay the tax because it’s the law, but not because you have an obligation to feed the poor.

Like a few others have said, I think you have an obligation to be productive enough that other people aren’t worse off due to your existence. I do not feel you have a moral obligation to pick up the slack for random strangers.

Shodan But you are not obligated to be productive. You are merely obligated to share the fruits of that production if you are productive.

Definitely an obligation to be productive enough to support myself and my dependents, and to create enough surplus that society (in whatever sense) is capable of taking care of those who aren’t able to support themselves, since therebutforthegraceofGodgoI.

That’s what we have money for.

I would agree with this. When you say “society” provides, basically what you mean is that these things are provided through the fruits of someone elses labor. Someone has to grow the food, build the shelter, enforce the laws, teach the children, and manage and operate the various infrastructure. None of it appears by magic. And that’s why we use money as a medium of exchange. It’s a simplified way of exchanging one person’s labor for another without having to engage is an inefficient barter system.

That’s also really what debt actually is: a promise to perform future work in exchange for some service now.

So assuming someone who is able-bodied and able-minded refuses to work? Is their expectation that other people should labor for their benefit?

Because the government forces you to (via taxes). Or another way to look at it is that taxes are simply a fee the government charges you in order to enjoy the benefits of their services - schools, fire departments, police, etc.

Do we as citizens have a societal obligation to be productive?
IMO, yes we do. Without society we are nothing.

**If yes, how large an obligation
**Very large, as long as our other ethical obligations are met, and as long as Society is meeting its ethical obligations towards us.
and how productive must one be?
As productive as needed to maximise societal good. So, for instance, citizens working themselves into early graves without any leisure time could hardly be considered a societal good, to me. But neither is a citizen *only *taking and never contributing in any fashion.
But is there an obligation to produce as much as possible?**No. Only as much as is sufficient.
**Should every citizen be striving to do more & make more?**No, every citizen should be striving to do and make enough.
**Should we scorn and deride people who decide to withhold their output?**Yes. But it’s really hard for someone to withhold all output from society. Living on a desert island/ survivalist bomb shelter kind of hard.
**Should we heap praise on those who work 24/7?**No. See above.

Money measures value not productivity.

Fine then: “dollar value of what was produced” / “number of hours worked”.

Some people are more productive in one hour than others are in eight. And sometimes the people who are less productive have a higher hourly rate.

If I help an old lady that fell from her walker on the street, how does that contribute to GDP? Was it a productive use of my time? Did the fact that authorities did not have to be alerted have a net benefit to society? How do we measure that as value?

Is a professional poker player that pays $200,000 each year in taxes fulfilling his societal obligation?

Legally, I am obligated to share. Morally, I don’t believe that I am.

But the fact that I am morally obligated to support myself and my family means that I have to earn enough to feed me and my children. And generally earning that much, especially if I want my family to have the best I can provide, means that I am nearly always earning enough that my tax rate goes up above and beyond whatever is needed to pay for the infrastructure. By “infrastructure” I mean roads and police and so forth, not means-tested transfers, or Medicare or Social Security and things like that.

The idea of a progressive tax system is nearly always coupled with the notion that the government ought to be in the business of charitable relief. It can be, and in the West generally it is, but I do not see that as a moral obligation. It is not morally wrong, IOW, to try to pay the minimum (legally) that you can in taxes.

I can envision a society where the government did only things like infrastructure and police functions (and, I suppose, education, although that is somewhat murkier), and did not engage in things like Medicare or Social Security or Medicaid at all. Those functions would be entirely driven by private charity.

The usual objection to such a society is that there would not be enough voluntary charity to take up the slack, and therefore people must be compelled to be charitable by government coercion. Whether or not that is the case is another question.

I should add the caveat that I am describing a society that is not specifically Christian. As a Christian, I would say that I certainly have a moral obligation to do acts of charity. What I am describing above is my duty merely as a citizen.


Part of the rationale for using taxes to provide aid to the disabled, unemployed, poor, etc is as insurance for those who do not currently fall into those categories. Thus, I worked hard for 25 years, paid my taxes, and when I was laid off I took unemployment insurance until it ran out without guilt because part of the reason I paid taxes was to provide that very safety net. As it happens, although I have found some employment it has not been enough, and after two years my savings ran out. So now I am receiving food stamps. Again, I feel part of the reason I paid taxes was to provide a safety net for those people in my exact situation. And I hasten to add that that aid DOES come with strings attached - I must attend workshops on job hunting, interviews skills, resume writing, and so forth all provide with the idea of increasing my chances of becoming fully employed once again, back to paying taxes rather than receiving benefits. I must document a certain number of hours per week, every week of serious job searching. Failure to comply will result in penalty. If I exert every effort and remain unemployed due to, say, no one in the area hiring then my benefits may be extended… but only if I continue to make effort to find work.

The fact is, all but the very wealthiest may one day find themselves destitute. As for the disabled - any one of us could suddenly join that club without warning.

But perhaps someone will be along to throw up the example of “generational welfare”. Yes, there are some families of that nature, sad to say. Nonetheless, under the current system they, too, are obligated to find work. It makes sense for society to invest something in getting these people employed, rather than throwing them out on the street. Particularly children, who should not be penalized for the mistakes and shortcomings of their parents.

It is in my self interest to see my neighbor’s children educated, as that makes them more likely to be contributors rather than the needy, or worse yet, criminals. It is in society’s interest to provide sufficient medical care to prevent disability where possible because, likewise, that makes it more likely a person will be a contributor. The problem is finding the balance between cruel deprivation and such generosity it fosters dependence.

Right now, I’d say the obligations for receiving the aid I do are sufficiently annoying as to be an incentive to get back to work (not that I haven’t been trying!) but not so much as to be onerous. Basically, I just need to document to the state’s satisfaction mostly activities I’ve already been doing for the past two years.

I do, however, see two potential areas for trouble:

  1. Those who don’t have the necessary life-skills to pull this off. People who are under or not educated. People who have never been taught to be responsible (frequently because their parents are thoroughly screwed up). That sort of thing. Now, not all of these people are hopeless - in one of my mandatory meetings this week we had a gal who had dropped out of high school, had realized her mistake, and was working on her GED. As it is in the state’s interest for her to have at least that much of an education (she’s effectively unemployable without) not only does it count towards her weekly work/job-search/education requirement, but her case manager was discussing the services and aid available to facilitate her completion of this. For example, does she have reliable transportation, and if not, how could she obtain it? Does she need a quiet place to study? (The facility we were in does provide space for that, as in some cases too many people are jammed into too small a living quarters which makes study very difficult) Does she need tutoring in any subject? This young woman is at a serious disadvantage but she is trying to fix her problems. By eliminating obstacles that may be in her path the chances of her getting her act together and becoming a fully independent adult are vastly increased, and that’s worth a small investment. It can, however, take years to remedy the effects of bad parenting even with a highly motivated individual. It may in some cases require more years than the system currently will provide. That, and there are some people who just can’t be fixed, which is tragic, but then what are we to do with them?

  2. The length of time one can receive benefits is strictly limited. However, that rule was put into place during a booming economy. If we were still in that booming economy people such as myself would not be entering the system in droves today. Prior to this economy fuck up, I’d never been unemployed longer than two weeks. Never. Now it’s two years and counting. Nor am I the only long-term un- or under-employed. What’s going to happen if this situation continues for two or three more years, which is not impossible? By that time not only will people have exhausted unemployment they will also have exhausted all their other benefits as well… leaving them nothing. Other than the charity of family and/or strangers, all of whom may also be hurting. This would be extremely ugly. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is even more incentive to find SOMETHING profitable and rebuild a nest-egg with it, but few people look so far into the future as that.

I’d like to throw in a question. What, exactly, does “productive” mean? Is it confined strictly to “employed and paying taxes” or do we mean “doing positive work in the community, whether paid or not” or do we mean “having a socially useful job” or what?

For example, about half of the caring work that happens in this country, if not more than half, is unpaid. If it was part of the GDP it would be an enormous part, but it is work done without a paycheck. (That may include such things as childcare, education of another person, medical work, care for the incapacitated or less-able, and if we add home maintenance and housecleaning it goes way up.) All that work is socially useful, but it is unpaid. Is that included in the term “productive?” Does it count more if it’s done for a paycheck?

What about someone who makes plenty of money, but does it in a way that constitutes a net drain on society? Let’s say an advertising executive for a tobacco company or someone equally easy to dislike. :wink: Is that work truly “productive?”

I think it’s going to be a little difficult to discuss the question until we’ve defined the terms better.

If we do, I’ve been in violation for quite some time, now.