The need of a theoretical foundation for basic income

In an article entitled « Is universal income fair? (1) Floran Augagneur, philosopher, asks the question, on the one hand, to know « why the idea of the basic income exceeds the classical ideological divisions » and, on the other hand, « why it finds opponents and supporters within each ideological family « .

Without taking any position in favor or against the basic income, this one suggests the use of a grid of reading directly inspired by the moral philosophy (2).

To the question posed in its title itself, this article outlines an argument that highlights the need to anchor the idea of basic income in a theoretical architecture, therefore the definition of strong principles. Here is a summary.

In his article, Floran Augagneur first recalls that reasoning in moral philosophy can be done on the basis of three main criteria : principles, aims, consequences. These criteria constitute the angle of attack of doctrines which make it possible to give a definition to a « just institution« , which is rational and desirable. Thus, « deontologists » (in the vein of Kant) will focus on the principles of universal income to determine if it is right, while « teleologists » will try « to identify the purpose, intentions or consequences  » .

For each of these approaches, the points discussed in this article are certainly not exhaustive. Their only purpose is to illustrate the incompleteness or inconsistency of certain reasoning.

A principles-based approach

The deontological doctrine gives priority to principles. In this approach, universal income would be just, moral or desirable depending on the principles on which it is based, regardless of the ends it pursues. The thought of the philsoopher John Rawls (3) is part of this trend. An institution can be described as « just » (therefore rational and desirable) provided that the principles that justify it are just. It tries to build an alternative to meritocracy, and the principles of justice that emerges can serve as a base for a reasoning opening to the advocacy of a basic income.

But Rawls was not in favor of an unconditional income. The main reason is that his philosophy is based on the social contract theory,  according to which people must contract and cooperate. It excluded the payment of a minimum income for the benefit of the surfer who, in Malibu, spends his days playing with the waves. It would therefore be necessary, in order to support the basic income, to « develop an alternative philosophy to that of the contract, or to acknowledge that this contract is no longer in a position to be respected. « 

The goal-based approach …

The teleological doctrine favoes the ends. According to this doctrine, as written by Augagneur « the universal income would be fair not because it would be based on just principles but because it would have a laudable goal or be an instrument to maximize a fair end : to short circuit or dynamize a system that we wish to weaken or transform (wage labor, job market, capitalism, productivism, etc.) « .

If we adopt a « distribution » logic, universal income is considered as a primary income. The question then arises of the nature of the work. For example, the digital labor (4) can be analyzed as a hidden job. Likewise, a large number of daily activities outside of paid employment can be analyzed as having a social utility, like a job.

But if to consider the universal income as a primary income makes it possible to reconcile the universal income with the contractualism, the question arises then to know if there is not a contradiction between, on the one hand, the wish of questioning work in society and, on the other hand, wanting to pay for all work, including non-market work.

If, on the other hand, one puts oneself in a logic of « redistribution », then the basic income must be considered as a transfer income. It will undoubtedly provide answers to many of the dysfunctions of the current system, especially those related to non-recourse and trapping effects. But in no way could it be considered in itself as a tool in the fight against inequalities. Indeed, it would depend more on the system of tax levy adopted, proportional or progressive.

… and the one based on the consequences

The right consequences approach is filled with « uncertainties and contradictions ». Indeed, in the absence of full-scale experiments, these consequences are only desired or hoped for. For example, there is no evidence that, instead of reversing the balance of power by improving the bargaining power of workers, universal income would not force people to accept any job to supplement that income, which by definition does not can never be very high, becoming a subsidy in favour of companies.

Similarly, some consider that the basic income « would strengthen cooperation », while others think on the contrary that there is a risk of desocialization.

Finally, an approach based on the utilitarian argument would lead to amalgam. For example, wanting to link the implementation of a basic income to a goal of economic growth would make it considerably more fragile.

Indeed, becoming dependent on « economic conditions and economic theory », it would be no more than a simple adjustment variable, and would risk knowing the fate of the welfare state, systematically attacked by the neoliberal wave since the 1980s.

A necessity : strong principles

The result of these uncertainties and contradictions is that, by observing debates or reading articles about the basic income, one can realize that the arguments are often adapted, tinkered, in order to put in phase principles and results that are in fact contradictory. This type of contradiction appears, for example, in an article by Michel Foucault (5) in which he « seems to support the principles of universal income in the form of the negative tax », but at the same time, « criticizes the finality, whether it is the intentions or the consequences « .

It is therefore clear from reading Augagneur’s article that, in the dual perspective of a robust argument in favor of the basic income for the short and medium term, as well as its perpetuation, a solid theoretical architecture, therefore the definition of strong principles, proves absolutely indispensable.

The search for philosophical justifications is in the long term

This synthesis of the particularly enlightening article by Floran Augagneur represents the first act of a reflection begun several months ago on the question of philosophical justifications for basic income. The intention here is to put this quest into a broader question: « What is a just society? « .

For the non-specialist, this approach is a real initiatory journey, beginning with the origins of the political and moral philosophy (« Nicomachean Ethics » of Aristotle), leading to, in particular, « Theory of Justice » By John Rawls and the analyzes of his opponents, up to recent attempts to justify a universal allowance by Philippe Van Parijs.

This is a long-term activity. It will take the time that will ne needed. It remains to be hoped that this article and those that follow will pave the way for reflection and will elicit comments from their readers. Those who wish to join this course are very welcome.

Robert Cauneau, activist for a Basic Income, member of MFRB


(1) Floran Augagneur, « Is universal income fair? « In the Revue d’éthique et de théologie morale, 295, September 2017, pp. 57-68 (Revised and expanded edition of the article published in the journal Projet, 2017). The quotes come from this article.

(2) Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy, and more specifically of practical philosophy, whose object is the putting into practice of morality itself based on ethical reasoning.

(3) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971.

(4) Dominique Cardon and Antonio Casilli, What is Digital Labor ?, Ina, 2015.

(5) Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Course at the College de France (1978-1979), Le Seuil, 2004.

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