Work, Ethics, Technology, Democracy: Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies

Dr Anderson is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies. She teaches courses in ethics, social and political philosophy, political economy, philosophy of the social sciences, and feminist theory. Her research focuses on democratic theory, equality in political philosophy and American law, racial integration, the ethical limits of markets, theories of value and rational choice (alternatives to consequentialism and economic theories of rational choice), the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, social epistemology, and feminist epistemology and philosophy of science.  She is working on the history of egalitarianism from our hunter-gatherer ancestors through the 19th century.

Links: ~eandersn/


 Private Government: How Employers Rule our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It)Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

The Imperative of Integration.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Value in Ethics and Economics.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1993.

And numerous articles, including “What is the Point of Equality?” Ethics 109 (1999): 287-337.


NP:   Your recent work, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) is provocative and brilliant. How did you become interested in the subject and what surprised you the most during your research?

Anderson:   My interest in work and the employment relation goes back to my undergraduate days.  In high school, my father had introduced me to philosophy and economics.  As a libertarian, he exposed me to free market ideas, which I adopted.  In my first year at Swarthmore College, I took a philosophy course in which we read Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.  I found Marx’s critique of wage labor to be very powerful.  I had been exposed to Marxist economics before then, but only through the Marxist theory of exploitation, which, from a normative point of view, ties into theories of distributive justice.  I had not found the exploitation critique of capitalism very convincing, because the labor theory of value made no sense, workers were far better off materially under capitalism than communism, and any remaining distributive injustices under capitalism could be taken care of by state policies such as social insurance.

By contrast, Marx’s 1844 critique of the factory system as alienating focused on what actually happened in the work process and its direct negative effects on workers and their relations to others.  Wage workers suffer from domination at the hands of employers and not just from low, exploitative wages.  I couldn’t find any persuasive defenses of capitalist wage relations in the literature.  And, while conditions of work had considerably improved since Marx, the domination critique survived those changes.

Decades later I decided to re-examine early pro-market thinking, especially Adam Smith and Thomas Paine, to see if and how it engaged Marx’s critique of wage labor.  I found that, far from attempting to defend the wage labor relation, early pro-market thinkers actually hoped that freeing up markets would enable most workers to escape it.  Workers’ independence–their freedom from domination by others–was, in fact, a core value for these thinkers, just as it was for Marx.  They thought that free markets would liberate workers by enabling them to become self-employed, to be their own bosses.  However, because these thinkers were writing before or only in the early (pre-mechanization) phase of the Industrial Revolution, they didn’t anticipate that economies of scale would destroy the prospects of the vast majority of workers for self-employment, and tie them ever more tightly to subordination to their bosses within the firm.

This discovery helps us see what is wrong with contemporary libertarian thinking, which continues to find inspiration in thinkers such as Smith and Paine.  Smith and Paine were aware that the employment contract could not be analyzed in the same terms as ordinary market exchanges, which leave the parties as free and independent from each other as before.  They thought that free markets would render the employment contract a marginal rather than a central feature of market society.  Most libertarians today, eager to defend today’s market society, fail to grasp this point, and therefore overlook the fact that the modern firm, based on relations of domination and subordination, is inconsistent with a credible vision of what a society of free and independent individuals would look like.

NPAt will employment is a disconcerting approach to employment when you are seeking loyalty and cooperation.  Is at will the master servant paradigm dating back to the 19th century that affects all aspects of a person’s existence in work, dress and lifestyle choices?

 Anderson:   At will employment means that the employer can hire and fire the worker for any or no reason at all.  Likewise, workers can accept and quit their jobs for any or no reason.  Formally speaking, employment at will describes a symmetrical contractual relationship between employer and employee, in terms of entry and exit conditions.  However, the content of the employment contract involves an authority relation–the employer governs the employee at work, issuing orders that must be obeyed on pain of sanction, including discharge.

In fact, employment at will effectively extends that authority to the worker’s off-duty behavior, since nothing stops the employer from firing the worker for off-duty conduct, such as engaging in politics, sexual relations, recreational activity (including smoking, drinking, and drugs), and speech.  Under U.S. law, there are a few exceptions to at will employment, mostly having to do with discrimination by race, gender, age, and disability.  And in some states, workers enjoy limited protection for their off-duty freedom of speech and choices of sexual partner.  For the most part, however, at will employment amounts to sweeping employer authority over workers’ lives, both on duty and off.

At will employment represents a change from the early 19th century norm.  In common law systems from feudal times through the mid-19th century, employment contracts were fixed by law for a full year.  Masters had to keep their servants for that time, and servants could not quit.  Competing employers were barred from offering work to servants under contract to a different employer.  Labor mobility was possible only once per year, when the contract expired.  When the law changed to allow freedom of exit to either side, however, it did not alter the authority relation between masters and servants under the employment contract.

The sweeping legal authority of employers over employees is not much smaller than what masters exercised over their servants in earlier times, when servants lived in their employers’ households and were treated as subordinate members of the master’s family.  Of course, now that workers live in separate households, employers have less interest and practical ability to regulate workers’ off-duty lives.  But legally speaking, they retain their ancient authority to do so, and sometimes they exercise it–much to the shock of workers who find themselves out of a job for some off-duty conduct of which their bosses disapprove.

NP:   In a high-technology work world is the logical next step in resource development the increasing use of machines/robots to replace human workers for the sake of profit?

Anderson: However problematic the employment relation is, people still need to work.  Under current conditions that involves employment for most workers–that is, subordination to a boss.  So we do need to worry that artificial intelligence will wipe out most jobs.  What will truckers, bus drivers, and taxi drivers do when Google cars do all the driving?  Some thinkers, including libertarians, think this problem can be solved by means of a universal basic income, which would free individuals from having to work in order to provide for their basic needs.

I don’t think the problem of automation is just a matter of finding some other way to secure the means of subsistence.  It’s an existential crisis.  Most people feel a need to be useful, to have some purpose in life, some reason to get out of bed or off the couch.  For most people, paid work is a central way they get recognition from others, prove their worth to others, and gain esteem as contributing members of society, people who are doing something worthwhile, helpful to others, important.

For most people in their prime working years, unemployment is a disaster, a major cause of depression.  Just having enough to eat and a roof over one’s head isn’t enough for a meaningful life.  Will various unpaid activities, such as caring for family members, volunteer work, the arts, and athletics be enough to secure meaningful lives for people?  That’s a big question we may have to face.  If good alternatives are not accessible to everyone, we really need to question whether Google cars and other automated labor-saving technologies are worth adopting.

 NP:  In the 21st century will the meaning of gender evolve into sufficient complexity that it will become an obsolete tool of recognition and no longer be useful as a screening device? Will we at long last acknowledge a person’s dignity and worth by their character, knowledge and ability to participate rather than label a person through perceived external gender identity?

Anderson: Following through on your last question, I see the impending replacement of millions of jobs by robots to have a much more severe impact on men than women.  “Women’s work” has always focused on care work, whether this is unpaid work for dependents within the family, or paid work such as nursing, child-care, social work, therapy, and teaching.  All such work essentially involves human relationships of concern and trust.  I don’t see such work going away, because robots and computers are not genuine substitutes.  (Anyone who thinks that a child can get an education by interacting with computer programs rather than with people has not the slightest idea what real education involves.)  “Men’s jobs”–dealing with the manipulation of physical objects or management of data–are far more easily automated.  Hence, in the short-term, automation will disadvantage men far more than women.

However, perhaps in the long run the elimination of the sorts of jobs that men mostly do, will force them to re-think their social roles.  Perhaps they will gravitate to care work of all kinds, and perhaps we will creatively expand the varieties of care work available.  In that optimistic future, a major symbolic gender division will be radically attenuated.  At least as far as the world of work goes gender might become insignificant.  In other dimensions of life, however, such as sexuality, I don’t see gender disappearing.  If anything, gender identities are proliferating as individuals arrive at more nuanced self-understandings.

NP:  Are we experiencing the death throes of democracy or is it already dead, especially within a world-view of wealth, power, greed, competition and nationalistic fervor within the context of corporate government generated myths such as a free-market?

Anderson: We are currently witnessing more than one crisis of democracy.  As inequality steadily grows, and financial interests dominate states via credit markets, the world’s democracies are facing severe constraints imposed by capitalists, and plutocrats are more and more writing legislation, capturing regulatory agencies, and determining who gets elected through their control of campaign funds and media.  At the same time, populist revolts against inequality and the declining prospects of the middle class have taken an authoritarian turn in the U.S., Hungary, Poland, India, and Turkey, and threaten other democracies around the world.  We do see a rise of democratic activism in some places, including the U.S.  I think it is too soon to tell whether that will be enough to rescue democracy here.

There are very troubling signs.  Democracies can’t operate by laws alone.  Social norms are also critical to effective functioning.  Dozens of norms are being shredded.  Moreover, politics has entered a realm in which discourse is no longer evidence-based, but about cheering for one’s own team and denigrating the other.  Democracy cannot function when different parties don’t share a common reality, when facts are dismissed out of hand because they challenge people’s self-conceptions.