Universal basic income, hereafter referred to as UBI, is the proposal that every individual in a society receive regular payments from the government sufficient to maintain a reasonable standard of living regardless of employment status, living situation, or other sources of income. UBI has recently gained more attention due to the predicted near-future replacement of a significant percentage of low-skill labor with automation. Indeed, the first ever delivery run made by a self-driving vehicle just took place recently between our own Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. In what follows I will argue that the unique ethical and social import of UBI makes UBI a moral right in any society in which it is logistically feasible to enact, but the impending wave of automation and consequent rise of unemployment makes this discussion especially urgent.
I follow Kitcher’s Pragmatic Naturalism in my conception of ethics and extend the general framework developed in Kitcher’s The Ethical Project to the realm of rights. In The Ethical Project Kitcher distinguishes between different types of progress and claims ethical progress is akin to technological progress. He writes, “Technological progress is often a matter of discharging certain functions more efficiently or more fully." So ethics and, in our case, human rights, are a social technology aimed at discharging social functions more efficiently by promoting trust, cooperation, peace, well-being, and other social goods. Pragmatic Naturalism holds that ethics and rights follow something like the following developmental path: Taboos and rules of thumb arise organically within cultures due to their social utility. As cultures mature, these taboos and rules of thumb take on a more solid, explicit, codified form and carry more weight due to the momentum of tradition and increasingly complex social interactions that presuppose layers of rules and taboos. Eventually these rules become so central to a culture that they come to be be considered inviolable and are codified as rights. Therefore, Pragmatic Naturalism holds that philosophical work in human rights should not aim to find some antecedent foundation or justification for human rights, but ask whether or not certain existing human rights or proposed human rights produce or are likely to produce the consequences we aim at as a society and desire for individuals.
It may strike one as odd that I am arguing that UBI is a moral right rather than merely a legal one. Indeed, De Wispelaeres and Morales believe it is implausible UBI could be a moral right. They argue that thinking of UBI as a moral right confuses ends and means. The right underlying the motivation to enact UBI, they claim, is the right to an adequate standard of living, and a variety of different policies, not just UBI, can fulfill what this right requires of a government. I argue, however, that the ethical import and societal significance of UBI cannot be reduced to merely the right to an adequate standard of living. Rather, I hold that the ethical import and societal significance of UBI can only be adequately cashed out in terms of a variety of different rights considerations and social goals which UBI is uniquely positioned to fulfill. It may be the case that UBI can be reduced to a set of more basic rights and social goals but the fact that these basic rights and goals can only be provided for by UBI means that it makes sense to call UBI itself a right. In the same way, it makes sense to say that one has a right to medical care adequate to one’s needs even though this could be reduced to a more basic right to the resources necessary to live or simply the right to life. It is important to note that I have claimed the ethical import and societal significance of UBI can only be cashed out in terms of both rights considerations and social goals. It will be helpful to spend a bit of space to highlight the relevance of social goals to the status of UBI as a moral right.
Why are social goals relevant to whether or not UBI is a moral right? The relevance of social goals here derives from a key difference between the traditional approach to rights and the Pragmatic Naturalist approach. It represents both an awareness of the historical situatedness of rights and the natural, functionalist nature of rights. The rights considerations UBI can be cashed out in terms of is the backward-looking movement; what we consider to be rights now are social norms and rules which have become such an integral part of the social fabric that they are now thought of as all but inviolable. The consideration of social goals is forward-looking. There can be no progress in human rights without an awareness of where we want to go. And all of this is done with the present situation in mind. We must take account of our fears, hopes, desires, visions, resources, shortcomings, areas of success, etc. when discussing rights.
These broader social goals offer a justification of rights that obviously goes beyond the traditional scope of a right, but these justifications are available to the Pragmatic Naturalist approach to human rights because it recognizes a few key characteristics of rights that are ignored by more traditional approaches to human rights. First, rights are the product of historical forces. The current human rights regime is a reaction to the horrors of the second world war. We would do well to recognize this historical situatedness and consider what new human rights the changing social landscape might entail. Second, rights are a communal phenomenon. Rights are an outgrowth of morality and ethics which are necessarily social phenomena. It therefore makes no sense to discuss the import of rights only for the individual while ignoring the social fabric she is inextricably woven into and the impact a right will have on this fabric (which will, in turn, have a deep effect on the individual). Third, rights are a social technology. Again, rights are an outgrowth of ethics and morality and these arise and persist in society due to their social and practical utility. And fourth, as a technology, rights have a consequent rather than antecedent justification. As we do not decide the optimal design of a shovel without actually employing competing designs to dig holes, so we must look to the consequences or potential consequences of rights and not merely their theoretical robustness. This last point implies that we cannot discover human rights a priori by reflecting on the intrinsic nature of human beings or some aspect of them, but must consider the past, present, and the future of communal human existence. This also means that rights are tentative and experimental, constructed through trial and error, not pre-given, based on observation and experience and not inward reflection. Indeed, many cities in Europe are already testing UBI and thereby performing the crucial social experiments needed to confirm that UBI should indeed be considered a moral right.
To return to my disagreement with De Wispelaeres and Morales, UBI is about more than guaranteeing a decent material standard of living. It is about freedom, about living a maximally meaningful and dignified human life, about exercising one’s capacities and fulfilling one’s potential. It is not about merely theoretical freedom - “no one is literally directly stopping you from doing things” - but about freedom in the real world. One needs a minimum of resources in order exercise freedom and autonomy in the real world. It is also about equality and fairness. Why should some individuals have the opportunity to pursue their art or passion just because they were born into money, while others don’t because of the resource limitations of the family they were born into? A piecemeal set of other policies might achieve the guarantee of a decent material standard of living, but only UBI provides the freedom and flexibility for individuals to actually be able to freely and autonomously follow their interests, desires, and abilities. And it is precisely these conditions which are necessary to achieve social goals such as the promotion of creativity, innovation, and scientific and artistic achievement.
Imagine, for example, if instead of UBI a government provided a variety of free basic services sufficient to meet anyone’s needs who required these services. So, instead of receiving a guaranteed payment, an individual would enroll in food stamp programs or have to frequent a government-run food distribution facility, would have to live in government-owned housing or depend on some kind of government rent vouchers, and would have to sign up for clothes vouchers or obtain clothes from a government distributor. Clearly, these alternatives to UBI represent a considerable loss in freedom, autonomy, flexibility, and, in many cases, dignity, when compared to UBI. For example, many individuals who would have to depend on some suite of government programs instead of receiving UBI would be motivated to stay off of these programs in order to retain the autonomy of using ordinary money and choosing more freely where one lives as well as avoiding any social stigma associated with being someone who has to depend on the government. This would eliminate one of the primary ways UBI benefits both individuals and society. Individuals who feel that both their material welfare and freedom/autonomy are secure are much less likely to accept employment they do not find meaningful or rewarding. They are also probably more likely to pursue more adventurous and creative ventures benefiting both themselves and society as a whole. A society full of individuals who are free to pursue what they are best at or most interested in is a society of happier individuals and one which will likely have higher levels of creativity, innovation, and scientific and artistic output. A staunch Capitalist might object that creativity, innovation, etc. will decrease without the profit motive, but I hold it is only a deeply impoverished anthropology that insists human are exclusively motivated by profit.
Consider the current situation in academia as one example of the benefits of UBI for both individuals and society. We are currently producing far more PhD holders than there are available paying research positions. As a consequence, much intellectual power is going to waste. The individuals who receive this high level of training and are unable to use it suffer from not being able to exercise their skills and capacities and society suffers from the lack of whatever creative or intellectual output they would have been able to produce had they been able to obtain a research position rather than being forced into some occupation just to make ends meet. With UBI in place, universities and private research institutions would not be as restricted by funding in the number of researchers they could take on because they could accept researchers who are willing to work without receiving a salary from the institution - and the researchers wouldn’t have to starve.
I am sure the previous example strikes some readers as high-brow and involving such a small percentage of the population as to be irrelevant. What about the masses in retail, manufacturing, customer service, the food industry, and other low-skill jobs? UBI will benefit people in low-skill occupations as much as it will benefit academics and intellectuals. The level of monotony and tedium involved in many low-skill jobs is unprecedented in human history (or at least before the Industrial Revolution). It is of course true that intelligence is highly variable and not everyone is intellectually capable of performing work in the arts and sciences. This misses the more basic point, however. Virtually every human possesses intelligence in vast excess of what is required to drive a truck, ring up items at a supermarket, or do any of the other multitude of repetitive tasks demanded by low-skill jobs. The human brain evolved in a natural setting that required an understanding of a multitude of different plants, animals, seasons, cycles, natural variables, and a broad knowledge of tool use and tool production. It is generally accepted that meaningful, rewarding, and engaging work requires that one’s capacities and capabilities are engaged. It seems far-fetched to claim that the sterile, mechanical, repetitive, mathematically streamlined and simplified tasks demanded by most low-skill jobs engage even the below average intellect at a level that is intrinsically meaningful and satisfying.
My claim that low-skill work is not especially meaningful, fulfilling, or interesting may seem arrogant and possibly false. Who am I to contradict the opinion of a truck driver who finds driving a truck 2000+ hours a year a meaningful and interesting occupation? I fully recognize it is possible an individual could find this work meaningful and interesting. The problem is that economic circumstances cast doubt on the truck driver’s self-evaluation. How much of his positive evaluation of his profession is the result of making the best of what he has been forced to do in order to survive? How much force is being exerted on his evaluation by the momentum of habit? Would he choose the same profession if presented with workable real-world alternatives? I hold that any human being, given the right opportunity and training will find many professions and activities more interesting than many of the mechanically repetitive jobs low-skill laborers are currently forced into. Further, it is important to remember that UBI does not eliminate the possibility of driving a truck or doing any other low-skill labor. Rather, it simply provides the possibility of not doing so. In a society which enacts UBI, truck drivers are free to keep driving trucks.
The above examples may seem like nothing more than a list of possible practical benefits to UBI, but what they are intended to be is concrete examples of how UBI promotes values and outcomes that are virtually universally assented to as good and which are also at the foundation of traditional theories of human rights. These include more traditional human rights values like freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning and universally valued social goods such as scientific and artistic output and innovation and creativity in general. UBI produces these goods by freeing individuals (if they so choose) to pursue professions and activities that more fully engage their capacities and capabilities thereby increasing the quality of what they produce and leaving the individual more fully satisfied.
The Pragmatic Naturalist approach to thinking about UBI and rights in general may be foreign to some readers but it is a much more historically conscious and realistic approach to thinking about these issues. The last few centuries have been a history of rising social safety nets and increasing expectations for quality of life and humaneness of treatment of our fellow human beings. These rising nets and expectations have enabled humans to flourish and to produce works of art and science which would have been impossible in an earlier social state. Many European countries, for example, now provide free higher education to anyone who chooses to go on to study at this level and has performed well enough in their educational past. Because of this, many Europeans have come to expect access to free higher education to the point where many consider it a right. Further, society at large benefits from this as it is virtually universally acknowledged that a well-educated society is better off than a poorly educated one overall, as well as in many specific areas such as innovation, economics, and political engagement. One short century ago in Europe it would have been absurd to insist that higher education was a right; now it is commonplace. And this is precisely how all ethics and human rights progress. Historical events, good or bad, suggest new possible directions for ethics and human rights to evolve in. Cultural sentiment shapes which of these paths a society travels down and new ethical norms and rights arise.
This, however, is not to say that ethical norms and rights necessarily always promote some objective good. Rather, as stated before, they are a social technology for discharging social functions more efficiently and achieving social goals. Cultural factors will determine which functions a society agrees to carry out and the goals it agrees to pursue. It is possible that a society will agree to carry out certain functions and pursue certain goals that entail ethics and rights (or lack of rights) that we find reprehensible. UBI is a moral right only in those societies that have agreed to pursue goals and carry out functions in line with liberal post-enlightenment ideals such as freedom, autonomy, self-criticism, and scientific and artistic achievement. I do hold it can be convincingly argued that projects and goals informed by liberal post-enlightenment ideals are, in a real sense, objectively better than projects and goals informed by other value systems, but there is no space to argue for this here.
One might wonder if it makes sense to speak of human rights at all under the Pragmatic Naturalist picture. In what sense is a human rights violation wrong if it is a social technology, if there is no actual right and wrong to the matter? One Pragmatic Naturalist response is that it is useful to give rights and ethical norms a designation stronger than “useful.” The strength of the terms “right” and “wrong” help convey the integral role that human rights play in society. By the time an ethical norm becomes a right, it has woven itself so deeply into society that it has become more than merely useful, it has become essential, it has become “right.” William James wrote, “Truth happens to an idea.” So too, moral rightness happens to a social norm.
One might further object that what has been outlined here represents a convincing list of reasons why, from a social utility perspective, we should enact UBI, but fails to demonstrate that UBI is a moral right, i.e., that any person or organization has a moral duty to provide UBI. But from the Pragmatic Naturalist perspective, these are precisely the kinds of considerations that underlie even the most widely agreed upon human rights, such as the right to life. Rights are never anything more than policies and standards for human action that arose due to their social utility and became, over time, more or less inviolable due to the momentum of tradition, cultural zeitgeist, the integral role they play in social order, or some combination of these.
It has been argued that in societies which possess the level of economic development
necessary to enact UBI, UBI is a moral right. Due to the unique benefits that UBI has for
individual freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning as well for broader social goods like
scientific and artistic achievement, societies which have the practical means to implement
UBI are morally obligated to do so. Insofar as we consider infringing on individuals’
freedom, autonomy, well-being, and meaning in life a violation of basic rights, we should
consider the failure to enact UBI a similar violation.