You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

~ Archive for Evolving Morality ~

Towards a Utilitarian Metamorality


There are three major approaches that can be used to define a moral philosophy: virtue ethics, where moral good is derived through moral character; Kantian deontology where moral good is arrived at procedurally, through complex duties and rules; and utilitarianism where the consequences of actions, rather than the intent, determine what is morally good. Each of these moral philosophies has merits, yet utilitarianism appears to be the best prepared to operate as a metamorality, that is a guiding philosophy for a multi-tribal society

Utilitarianism succinctly answers two central questions that confront any potential metamorality: who deserves moral consideration and what should the common currency of morality be? Utilitarians believe in maximizing happiness, impartially. So happiness, or more specifically the overall quality of experience, is the common moral denominator across different groups. And everyone deserves moral consideration, equally. Furthermore, utilitarianism is based around consequences — the outcomes of, rather than intentions behind, specific actions are what determine whether the actions themselves are justified. This is not how most people are accustomed to thinking of morality.

For many people, morality is defined by the values of their in group or ‘tribe.’ This more traditional approach is the basis for religious morality and tribal morality more broadly. Virtue ethicists ask what a ‘good’ person would do? The moral philosophy is grounded in the idea of Aristotelian idealism: that things are good when they conform to their natural purpose. [1] The limitations of virtue ethics as a foundation for metamorality are obvious. The definition of a good person is highly dependent upon tribal modes of thinking. For Aristotle, it meant looking at role models within a society and working to emulate those who excelled. Virtue ethics is a philosophical codification of innate tribal ideals. It defines “good” in the terms of what is valued by a single group. While a philosophy of virtue ethics is good for inducing cooperation within a group, it cannot function effectively as a metamorality.

The third model for a normative metamorality comes from Emmanuel Kant. Kantian ethics is highly humanistic — and initially appears as though it would provide a solid foundation for a type of universal morality. It is predicated on respect for humanity, the innate dignity of people and individual autonomy. Kant derives these noble principles through the empiricism of pure reason. For Kant, a good person follows the “laws they give themself.” And all of these self-derived laws should follow the categorical imperative. That is be unconditional moral obligations that is binding in all circumstances; it applies to everyone so must be universalizable.[2] The core tenet of Kantian deontology is that people should not be used as means to an end. The deontological theory of ethics that Kant promotes would run into limitations as a universal metamorality. Kant arrives at his conclusions through some impressive rhetorical acrobatics. He appears to rationalize intuitive feelings about morality rather than providing the foundation for a self-consistent moral system. His theory of self-derived universal rules and duties lacks the symbolic clarity of utilitarianism.

That’s not to say that utilitarianism is perfect. There are two categories of criticism that utilitarianism faces: (1) shallow, naive criticisms based on a facile understanding of the philosophy and (2) deep criticisms that engage with the philosophy and hit upon edge cases that appear morally questionable. This paper will focus on the later category. Criticisms that fall into this category tend to be thought experiments that in which maximizing ‘happiness’ seems to lead to problematic conclusion. This paper will examine three of these thought experiments: Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” Robert Nozick’s “Utility Monster” and the “Repugnant Conclusions” arrived at by Derek Parfit.

In “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas,” noted science fiction author, Ursula Le Guin, describes the fictional almost-utopia of Omelas. It is a idyllic city where its citizens happiness is maximized: “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. … Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”[3] However this utopia is, for reasons that are left unclear, predicated on the suffering of a single, pitiful child who remains locked up, isolated, in the darkness of a cellar. This child has done nothing to deserve this treatment; it is not a punishment. And yet if the child were to be released, the city of Omelas would be crumble within the hour.

This situation encapsulates what is, in many ways, the fundamental critique of utilitarianism: the discomfort of seeing an individual used as a means to an end. There is not justification for the child’s imprisonment, beyond the supernatural supposition that releasing the child would result in the disintegration of the utopia. Everything about this situation feels wrong. Le Guin describes in great detail the child: “It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals… They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas.”[4]

Le Guin asks the reader to weigh the suffering of a child against utopia — and she freely puts her finger on the scale. The vivid details she includes certainly speak to her skill as a writer but perhaps not as a moral philosopher. The same moral question that her short story prompts could be stated more dryly: Is it right for the prevention of single person’s suffering to result in an increase in the suffering of many others? The framing of Omelas accentuates an emotional response to utilitarianism. By flattening the narrative of a child’s torture to a neutral, intellectual question, Le Guin’s critique loses some of its sting.

It would be fair to respond that child of Omelas might experience a degree of suffering that outweighs the happiness of all the people. If this were indeed the case, the city of Omelas would be committing an immoral action. However, it would be immoral by the tenets of utilitarianism, in addition to violating Kant’s categorical imperative.

The second deep criticism is Robert Nozick’s “Utility Monster.” This monster is a hypothetical creature that gets such gratification from eating a person that it outweighs all the enjoyment that that person will experience in their entire lives by many orders of magnitude. He writes in Anarchy, State & Utopia that “[u]tilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sac­rifice of others than these others lose.”[5] According to Nozick, given these conditions, the good utilitarian would sacrifice herself to this “monster’s maw.” After all, this maximizes the total level of happiness.

This obligation feels repellant. The individual asks herself, “Why should I be forced to sacrifice my life in order to satisfy this creature?” But isn’t it possible that this is the appropriate response? People are so grounded in the primacy of their own existence that it is easy to rationalize reasons that they shouldn’t be obligated to end it. Perhaps she would mention her right to life, or her desire to not be used as a means to this creatures’ end. This feels wrong because humans have evolved to value their own existence and this monster triggers a primal desire for life.

When deconstructed, the core of Nozick’s thought experiment is the obligation of a single person sacrificing themselves in order to produce a good outcome — a better outcome than what would happen if they did not sacrifice themselves. The utility monster is one example of this phenomenon, but so is a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to spare the lives of several of his fellow comrades by shielding them from the blast. So is a starving mother giving the meager rations that she receives to her hungry child.

The utility monster triggers outrage because the situation feels unfair and greedy; in fact the thought experiment is intended to do this. The hypothetical is designed to mask the true moral question, which when rephrased sounds decidedly more reasonable.

A third criticism of utilitarianism comes from Derek Parift in the form of the repugnant conclusion that he arrives at in Reasons and Persons. He believes that the inevitable, immoral corollary of blindly maximizing happiness is that morality is reduced to a ‘mere addition’ problem. Consider two possible worlds. In the first everyone has a quality of life similar to what is experienced by those best off in our world, today. In the second, people experience a quality of life that is precisely half of what is experienced by those in the first world. However, in the second world, there are twice as many people as exist in the first, so the aggregate level of happiness is identical across both. Now add one more person to the second world. The aggregate level of happiness is now marginally higher in the second world.

Which world would be better to live in? Most people would say the former. Yet if impartially maximizing happiness is what truly matters then, according to Parfit, the second world is morally superior. This logic seems like it can lead to a bizarre supposition. Does utilitarianism really advocate for endless slums over a small utopia?

But assuming that each world is unaware of the possible existence of the other, this conclusion isn’t actually that problematic. For all we know, our civilization could be the second world in this scenario. It is easy to imagine a hypothetic alternate world with a dramatically smaller population, which is significantly happier. That doesn’t condemn our society to unhappiness — we simply don’t know what we are missing out on!

Parfit has a response to this. He envisions as world of infinite mildly content rabbits. His critique is that, according utilitarian philosophy, this hypothetical world populated solely by rabbits — and not even the happiest of rabbits, mere somewhat content rabbits — is morally superior to our contemporary society. This is an extreme scenario. And again, on an emotional level, it feels like the logic of utilitarianism resulted in a repugnant conclusion.

These critiques, for the most part, rely on hypotheticals — they are not real world situations and likely never could be. But the innate reactions people have when faced with these moral dilemmas is enlightening in it owns way. The common theme that ties these critiques together is their intention to trigger an emotional response: the defenseless, innocent child of Omelas being tortured; the greedy monster that one is obligated to satiate with the sacrifice of their own life; the mundanity of an infinite sea of rabbits replacing the vibrancy of human civilization.

Many of the traditional criticisms of utilitarianism are simply creatively phrased tradeoffs that trigger a negative emotional response. They feel wrong. Yet when the true moral question of the thought experiment is extracted from the language of the experiment itself, the moral disgust evaporates. The answers that utilitarianism provides are intellectually correct, yet difficult to reconcile with intuitive moral reactions.

When utilitarianism does run up against these uncomfortable conclusions, there are two responses. The first is accommodation: that the outcomes, while they do ultimately follow from the basic principles of utilitarianism, are morally abhorrent. In accommodating these outcomes, the utilitarian implicitly acknowledges that blindly following utilitarianism is not always good. Nonetheless, utilitarianism remains a viable philosophy because these bad outcomes stem from unrealistic situations that would not occur in the real world.

The second response to criticism of utilitarianism is reform. Not reform of the moral philosophy itself, instead reform of society’s traditional conception of morality. This response asserts that though these outcomes intuitively feel wrong, a true metamorality shouldn’t be based on biologically derived emotional responses. In other words, utilitarianism isn’t producing immoral outcomes; rather, humans are just bad at judging what is moral and what is not.

Utilitarianism is valuable as a metamorality precisely because it arrives at unintuitive conclusions. It is an intellectual mechanism that forces people out of the comfort of their traditional moral beliefs — whether those beliefs are based on Kantian deontology or Aristotelian virtue. Perhaps discomfort with utilitarian conclusions says less about the moral system itself and more about the how deeply tribal beliefs are ingrained in the way people intuitively think.



[3] Le Guin 1-2

[4] ibid 3

[5] Nozick 42

Antibiotic Resistance and the Challenges of Global Commons Problems


There are few technologies that have had as significant an impact on the human condition as the discovery of antibiotics. In a very fundamental way, antibiotics enabled the modernization of healthcare. In the twenty years following the discovery of penicillin, dozens of other antibiotics were uncovered. However, in the last twenty years the number of new antibiotics can be counted on a single hand. If the rate of evolved resistance in bacteria stays the same while the rate of discovery of new antibiotics continues to slow, we will soon find ourselves in a world were the field of medicine is thrown back to the barbarism of the 1800s — where any simple surgery is once again life threatening. Antibiotic resistance is an example of a globalized commons problem. Unlike localized commons problems which have been discussed extensively in academic literature, globalized commons problems, ones that ones that occur in domains that lie outside of the political reach of any one nation, such as global warming and antibiotic resistance, are relatively new phenomenon.

In “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessens, Global Challenges,” Elinor Ostrom examines the nature of common pool resources and suggests alternative institutions for their management, seeing the evolution of cooperative norms as a potential solution. Globalized commons problems are highly difficult to solve — regardless of whether through Ostrom’s proposed evolved norms or through traditional mechanisms, such as increased regulation. In this paper, I will argue that antibiotic resistance is an example of a globalized commons problem and the inability to deal with it, either through state intervention or through the evolution of norms, signals biologically derived principles of cooperation are insufficient and that new supranational organizational structures are needed in order to prevent such problems from metastasizing.

Antibiotics usage exhibits the two features Ostrom suggests characterize commons problems, (1) difficulty of exclusion and (2) subtractability, meaning the “exploitation by one user reduces resource availability for others.”[1] The difficulty of exclusion comes from antibiotics’ ubiquity. They are relied on in hospitals and for medical care more broadly, but also as a supplement in the diet of livestock. A ban on antibiotics would be highly controversial and would have far reaching consequences. Though it could be done, the institutional challenges would be unprecedented and push back would be fierce.

The question of subtractability is more interesting. Antibiotics are not a finite resource in the classic sense. The active ingredients can be synthesized relatively easily. Some knowledge of how antibiotics work is required in order to understand why they should be thought of as subtractable. Antibiotics kill bacteria by targeting specific features, such as the structure of cell walls or the cellular machinery used to build proteins or copy DNA, that differ between bacteria (prokaryotic cells) and the eukaryotic cells that make up multicellular organism like humans.[2] However, when exposed to antibiotics over an extended period of time, with a concentration that doesn’t kill the entire population outright, bacteria can evolve resistance. The bacteria that have a slight natural resistance survive and reproduce, while those that lack the adaptation perish. As a result, anytime an antibiotic is used, its overall theoretical effectiveness decreases as more exposure equates to more potential for a mutation that confers resistance to occur. Antibiotics are a naturally occurring resource that is indirectly made more scarce though human consumption. Unlike with traditional natural resources, the usage of antibiotics doesn’t tax some finite supply, however it does potentially reduce the effectiveness of the drug, globally.

The case of antibiotic resistance demonstrates the limitations of biologically derived principles of cooperation. Evolved norms tend to be more effective on smaller scales and when dealing with lower stakes. At smaller scales, the currency of trust and reputation and the pull of an in-group can serve to force individuals to act more altruistically and think on a longer time horizon, rather than optimize for short-term gains. However, when applied to a more abstract problem like antibiotic resistance, the principles of cooperation seem to incentive short-term thinking. Kin selection is a prime example, showing how what is cooperative on a small scale is actually uncooperative on a larger scale. Parents want their children to have access to antibiotics because (from an evolutionary perspective) they want to see their genes passed on and keeping their child healthy is necessary for that to happen.

Furthermore, the notion of evolved norms implicitly assumes the failure of models that didn’t effectively deal with the problem. On a localized scale, this is acceptable. However, when a failure case has potentially global impacts, even a single error is one too many. To give somewhat of a contrived example, nobody would suggest that evolved norms be applied to the safeguards of nuclear weapons, as a single evolutionary dead-end would have cataclysmic effects. As the scope of the commons problem increases, the consequences of inaction or faulty action increase as well.

Traditional regulatory solutions, that require a centralized arbiter who can allocate the resource optimally, are also insufficient. Regulatory frameworks for localized common problems are usually tied to sovereign nations. Globalized commons problems, on the other hand, are large enough that they fall outside the scope of traditional, unilateral government regulation. Unlike most localized common resource problems, a single government cannot regulate a solution here. Even if the United States severely restricted the supply of antibiotics tomorrow, developing countries like India and China could still use continue their overuse. And when resistance develops anywhere, the interconnectedness of today’s society allows the mutation to spread rapidly.

The scope of the globalized commons dwarfs the regulatory scope of any single nation and thus requires extensive cooperation between multiple nations. Such problems require novel organizational structures that operate on the supranational level. Indeed, these challenges may serve as a critical impetus for breaking through to the next level of cooperation.

[1] E. Ostrom, “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges,” Science 284, no. 5412 (1999): 278-279, doi:10.1126/science.284.5412.278.


[2] “What is an Antibiotic?” What is an Antibiotic? Accessed February 17, 2017.


A Post-Work Proletariat? Marxist Thought and The End of Labor



In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could. — Rüdiger “Rudi” Dornbusch


Technology fundamentally changes the relationship between labor and capital. As machines get better producing the things that people need and want, humans may find it difficult to generate economic value from their work. In a future where this connection has been entirely severed, capitalism and economic self-interest cease to provide structure for society. New organizing principles are needed. Utilitarianism is well suited to fill this vacuum and Marxist thought offers a pragmatic framework for implementing utilitarian impulses in the political and economic domain.

In his seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx popularized the notion of the proletariat as an impoverished class of industrial wage-laborers. By his definition, the class of people that compose the substrate of the proletariat has not existed in developed countries since the early 1900s. Furthermore, the potential for a worker’s revolution seems to be rendered inert if we posit that the end of labor itself is near.

However, the etymology of the word, rather than its Marxist usage, suggests something different. The origins of the word ‘proletariat’ can be traced back to the Latin, proles, a word used in the Roman census to describe the lowest class: those whose only contribution to society was having children. In a future where human labor has been entirely divorced from economic productivity, most individuals in society would have no utility beyond passing their genes on to the next generation. Severing the link between economic productivity and human labor threatens to create an idle class, a new proletariat, who are incapable of providing economic value to society. This post-work proletariat will not be defined by wage-labor, but by an idleness brought about through labor market inadequacies.

Will this idle class be destitute and penniless: abandoned by a system of resource allocation that made their labor an anachronism? It is not difficult to imagine, in a society such as this, an elite class, that controls the means of production, consolidating an unprecedented degree of power and wealth. This Luddite vision of the future conceives of automation as a profoundly destructive force, one that could transform inclusive democracy into a bourgeois oligarchy.

However, to others, automation is a panacea. These proponents of technological innovation envision a type of fully-automated “luxury communism” — the means of production owned collectively and operating autonomously — where every material desire can be made real (for free!) by an intelligent robot. For these people, the end of labor is not a harbinger of collapse, but rather a freedom so elusive that humanity had myopically believed it impossible. Should we dare to hope for such an outcome? What should be our aspirations for a society without work and what principles should guide us?

Outcomes are important. This is the lesson taught by utilitarian thinkers. Actions, individuals and societies should be judged upon their consequences, their outputs. Society should aspire to produce the best outcomes for the greatest number of its citizens. When viewed through this lens, success is merely a maximization problem. How should society allocate finite resources in a manner that maximizes the quality of life of individuals living in it?

Marx provides a utilitarian theory of allocation: communal ownership. Rather than following the capitalist model, in which certain individuals are entitled to the immense wealth spun off from their private enterprises, Marx contends that the profits of industry should be distributed “to each according to his need.” In The Utilitarianism of Marx and Engels, Derek Allen discusses the utilitarian underpinning to Marxist teleology:

Marx contends that, since wages and profits vary inversely, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed.” Whatever enriches the capitalist impoverishes the worker. … Whatever is in bourgeois interests is against the interests of the majority of society. To secure freedom for the majority wage labor must be abolished

The nature of the accumulation of capital results in an expanding underclass of laborers and a shrinking bourgeois minority. The end point of capitalism, as Marx understood it, is extreme wealth inequality. When a vast majority create no economic value and are therefore incapable of providing for themselves, the system is broken. Utilitarianism does not privilege the rights of the minority at the expense of the majority. Thus, the utilitarian response to this inequality is to strive for a more equitable distribution of wealth.

However, there is no use in pining for a utopian society that only can exist in theory. Progress is path dependent. Humanity’s future is a function of today’s conditions. Rather imagining the elements of an ideal society, pragmatism suggests looking for sources to guide the development of an attainable one. The work of Karl Marx not only provides a theoretical optimum — communal ownership of the means of production — but also a realistic pathway to its realization. While his original theory of an industrial working class rising up against its capitalist oppressors has proven false, an updated teleology predicated on the end of labor regains intellectual vitality.


Automation and Society After Labor

Automation ultimately renders human labor obsolete and magnifies the return on capital. While vast swaths of workers face declining wages, a small class of capitalists capture the growing profits that previously were spread more broadly. The end of labor centralizes wealth, while simultaneously seeing the emergence of an idle proletariat.

The age of automation became inevitable the day the first computer was created. The steady march of innovation has reduced the typical computer’s physical size, lowered its price, and simultaneously increased its computing power. For decades, this ongoing technological innovation complemented, rather than replaced, human labor. Computers could not perform the physical tasks done easily by humans. Basic intuitions about cause and effect were out of the reach of machines. In the words of Steven Pinker “hard problems [were] easy and the easy problems [were] hard.” This paradox seemed to be an inviolable law of artificial intelligence. However, in recent years skills that were once considered deep within the domain of human expertise, such as vision and the language processing, have been replicated by deep learning programs.

“The Great Decoupling” that Andre McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson describe in The Second Machine Age is the manifestation of the shift from technology that enhances human labor to that which supplants. While economic productivity continues to increase, wages stagnate. The wealth generated by artificial labor is captured by a tiny fraction of society, those who control capital, rather than the broad middle class that used to work for wages.

The dynamics that Marx witnessed during the industrial revolution now play out again with greater intensity. Marx, while wrong in many ways, was prescient in others. In Wage-Labor & Capital, he outlines the cyclical force of competition, the tension between the wage-laborer and the capitalist, and the teleology of capitalism. He describes the dynamics of automation: “Machinery produces the same effects [as competition between workers], but upon a much larger scale. … [W]here newly introduced, it throws workers upon the streets in great masses.” Automation is the process by which capital is substituted for labor. Automated machinery replaces human labor at a fraction of the cost, often with greater accuracy and speed. Human workers simply cannot compete. In discussing how machines reduce the wages of workers, Marx also explains how automation expands the size of the new proletariat:

In addition, the working class is also recruited from the higher strata of society; a mass of small business men and of people living upon the interest of their capitals is precipitated into the ranks of the working class, and they will have nothing else to do than to stretch out their arms alongside of the arms of the workers. Thus the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work, grows ever thicker, while the arms themselves grow every leaner.

Automation devalues labor and multiplies capital. Economies of scale and winner-take-all effects sharply bifurcate society. The winners, who control the automated machinery, win big. Yet the losers, far greater in number, are left with virtually nothing. This includes the middle and upper-middle class that succeeded in a society where labor retained its value. The lawyers, the doctors, the civil engineers that composed the professional class will also join “the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work” as their jobs are automated.

Eventually society reaches an inflection point. Without new rules, the end result is dystopia. With new rules, utopia is possible. The outcome depends on whether society adopts inclusive, redistributionist policies or chooses to continue traditional practices of laissez faire capitalism. If the political economy can adjust to the realities of automation by providing for the idle class, the future will tend towards “luxury communism” rather than Luddite dystopia. However, if no changes take place, the gap between the richest and the poorest will continue to grow.

Marx would predict that the new proletariat, by nature of its majority, should be able to enact socialist and redistributionist policies. Though he foresaw the need for violent revolution, it is possible that an inclusive democracy might make such extremism unnecessary. If these changes are enacted, society might look radically different than it does today, but the outcomes would be broadly beneficial. The immense wealth generated by automation could be shared with the workers whose labor has been replaced. The means of production do not need to be seized, but the profits generated would redistributed to those made idle.

From this perspective, the post-labor society should be judged by how effectively it implements utilitarian principles. To be sure, such redistribution infringes on deontological property rights and would be judged harshly by libertarians. However, a utilitarian would see that, while a minority is dissatisfied when their wealth is taxed, the benefits to society overall outweigh their concern.


Criticisms of Teleology & Marxism

Of course it is necessary to defend any teleology against events that change fundamental assumptions. Teleology is merely an extrapolation from present trends that seems to lead inexorably to a singular outcome. Marx’s original teleology suggested that industrial manufacturing would be the final iteration of the capitalist system — he did not foresee the shift among western nations to a service-oriented economy or the massive wealth that would be unlocked by the Internet revolution. In presenting a similar, albeit updated, teleology, it’s important to outline the most important assumption that are necessary for its realization: human labor must become, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. If there were still ways for a critical mass of individuals to engage in economically productive behavior, transitioning from capitalism would remain difficult.

It’s also important to address the criticisms of Marxism more generally. Marx’s revolutionary teleology has proven incorrect in many ways. The industrial collapse envisioned by Marx failed to occur. His imagined legions of revolutionary workers never materialized. His ideology of revolution coopted by professional revolutionaries, rather than the workers who it was meant for. Criticisms of Marxist thought tend to fixate on its inability to forecast the broad prosperity that would spring from capitalism.

This is a misunderstanding of Marx’s argument. The proletarian revolt is but a revolution deferred. Marx believed that the worker uprising would come at the peak of capitalism, as the system imploded — not that worker’s could never benefit under a capitalist system. Indeed, in Wage-Labor & Capital, he writes that “the rapid growth of capital is the most favorable condition for wage-labour” as the growth of capital implies increasing employment, other externalities of capitalism notwithstanding. By replacing labor entirely with capital, automation will bring about both the peak and the end of capitalism. This is the critical moment when the capitalist system could evolve or be replaced. Whether this development takes the form of abrupt revolution or incremental change depends on how the transition is managed.

Beyond Marx’s failure as a prognosticator, further criticisms of Marxism attack the expropriation and redistribution that is inherent in the theory. This is the libertarian critique. Property rights are at the core of libertarianism. To philosophers like John Locke and Robert Nozick, the defense of such rights is the sole legitimate purpose of government action. A strong defense of property seems to preclude redistribution. Yet a reexamination of Locke’s Labor Theory of Property, under the assumption that human labor is economically irrelevant, shows that Locke’s and Marx’s views are quite compatible. The Labor Theory of Property, which provides the intellectual underpinning for the libertarian conception of property rights, states that property is derived through mixing personal labor with a natural resource:

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Without labor, the libertarian understanding of property breaks down. In a future where robot automatons can  produce any good, who owns their output?  If no labor input was required, by what principle should the capitalist be the sole beneficiary? There is no obvious justification for property rights. Indeed, An elite bourgeois minority that captures all the economic output without mixing in their (or any) labor is an easy target for redistributionist efforts. Separating human labor from economic productivity debases the Lockean justification for property rights. In this context, the abolition of property rights is hard to criticize when the institution of private property itself has been rendered obsolete.

This paper is not intended as a broad defense of Marxism as it could exist in the world today, but rather an exploration of whether Marxist principles have anything to say about organizing society after the end of labor. Automation, by substituting human labor for capital, accelerates the centralized accumulation of wealth. Those who control capital stand to benefit disproportionately, while workers who are replaced lose their income. The structure of society must change if it is to withstand the economic shock of the end of labor. Marxist thought is relevant as it suggests a vision for society, undergirded by sound utilitarian logic, which would be capable of doing so.

While “luxury communism” seems somewhat fantastical, I am hopefully optimistic that, in the short term, redistributionist policies such as a negative income tax or a universal basic income will ease the transition from a labor to a post-labor economy. A socialist society, where the economic benefits of automation are distributed more broadly, will be better equipped to manage and mitigate wealth inequality than a capitalist society that refuses to address the problem.




Allen, Derek P. H. “The Utilitarianism of Marx and Engels.” American Philosophical Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1973): 189-99.


Merchant, Brian. “Fully automated luxury communism.” The Guardian, March 18th, 2015.


Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in the time of brilliant technologies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.


Marx, Karl. 1978. Wage labour and capital. Foreign Languange Press Peking.


Locke, John, 1632-1704. The Second Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford :B. Blackwell, 1948.


Log in