Rawls and Robots

John Rawls is perhaps the most influential political philosopher since Plato. His works (but mainly the flagship A Theory of Justice), have influenced government policy and thought throughout the world.

In many ways, his ideas are great. He supports the idea that all citizens should have their basic needs met. He believes that inequality in incomes should only be allowed if such inequality is to the benefit of those who are the least well off. He believes that everyone should have equal opportunity to be educated and to gain employment, barring those with excess means to buy their children’s future through training or nepotism.

However, he also thinks that the only people who count as citizens are those who work (though some interpret him more broadly as also include potential future workers (e.g. children) and past workers (retirees). I think this is an idea a lot of people might empathize with- the idea that we are only deserving as citizens, as people, inasmuch as we can produce. I also think that it is dead wrong, and only made more wrong by the invention and proliferation of automation.

Automation and Work

There have been many doomsday scenarios posited about the future of automation- the loss of jobs being foremost of these. But, there have also been thinkpieces which rightly point out the problem with this thinking. If the work is getting done, why do people need to be in jobs?

People, generally speaking, enjoy work, and will do work without getting paid for it- depending on what your definition of what work is. This blog, for example, is work that I do not get paid for, and that I do because I know that even though no one values it enough to pay me for it, it creates value in the world, and my creating value in the world is important to me. Still, this does not mean that there should be an expectation that everyone should have a job or that everyone should have to work within the capitalist confines of the typical job market which devalues labour, and is discriminatory towards many marginalized groups.

The reason that everyone is afraid of people not having jobs due to automation though, is because the fruits of automation are not distributed, but rather are held as capital and become part of inter-generational wealth- something that Rawls was vehemently against, and yet, it is something desperately demanded by employers. But, without the redistribution of the benefits of automation, there’s no reason for those who own automation to cooperate, to participate in society, because they no longer need other people in the same way.

Automation could allow us to properly, rightfully, broaden our ideas of what counts as “work”, offloading repetitive, menial tasks in favor of humanistic skills like connection and care- things that are much more accessible to a broader range of people.  It also can allow us as a society to function without needing work, therefore eliminating that (already incorrect) angle of discrimination against disabled folks.


Like all issues of technology, the problem is regulation, or rather, the lack of will to regulate. And, like many issues in capitalism, the problem is the idea that all property can be privately owned to the detriment of society and the planet, and that taxation is the absolute worst thing a government can do.

Rawls is salvageable. In fact, Rawls tells us that this regulation is something we must do, or else we risk the tentative underpinnings that our entire social contract is based upon- the fact that we are better and that we can only lead our best lives through collaboration. The path towards liberal egalitarianism requires regulation of automation, but in a way, automation also saves liberal egalitarianism from being something a lot more like liberal elitism in which the only time the genetic lottery matters is if you or someone you love loses it in such a way that they cannot work under the framework of the job market- which really makes the whole thing a lot more discriminatory.

A Way Forward

Van Parijs’ a famous proponent of Universal Basic Income, likens the idea of automation to the idea of land. Now, I’m not going to get into here the way in which land has been appropriated to commit violence against and impoverish POC but the similarities between automation and land are striking. They both need some maintenance, but once developed are huge producers of growth. They both do not come out of nowhere, but rather out a system where landowners can then leverage that land to create more wealth for themselves and continue to own more and more property, and in the same way, automation is a tangible property that can create more and more property and is also a high impact thing to own. And finally, like land, technology is a huge source of our standards of living, of the things that we think make our lives go well. This means it cannot simply be hoarded by those with means.

Sometimes I wonder what our world would look like if the good things in it were distributed more equitably, if we all could have a small slice of sparkle instead of giving privileged few a whole honking pie. Things do not need to be the way they are. The future can be bright, but we need to build it that way, and we need to build it for those who need it the most.

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