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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Moral Agency and the Workplace

  • Author(s): Tsuruda, Sabine Juliette
  • Advisor(s): Shiffrin, Seana
  • et al.

This dissertation examines understudied aspects of the relationship between work, law, and moral agency. Liberal egalitarianism conceptualizes a just society as a fair system of social cooperation in which members can regard themselves and one another as social equals. Perhaps because workplaces have traditionally been loci of economic and status-based inequality, liberal discussions of the morality of work have tended to center on fair wages and nondiscriminatory access to work. While wages and access are important, liberal theory has neglected the moral agential dimensions of work, such as work’s influence over our personal identities and associational lives, and the law’s role in securing and communicating our social equality at work. That neglect is regrettable. Workplaces are some of the most pervasive and life-shaping venues for social cooperation, and the liberal ideal of social equality is not merely material. We should also—through our laws and major social institutions—treat one another as equal moral agents, and thus, as equally entitled to the social conditions we need to craft meaningful and moral lives.

Through four case studies, this dissertation illustrates how our legal construction and regulation of work can both compromise and support our equal moral agency. Chapter 1 examines legal norms of managerial control and argues that paid workplaces exert systemic pressures on worker expression. Chapter 2 criticizes agricultural guest worker programs for subordinating nonresidents’ agential interests in associational freedom to host countries’ desires for cheap labor. The second half of this dissertation then argues that workplaces are not merely threats to moral agency, but are also important sites for moral agency. Through discussions of volunteer work and religious workplaces, Chapters 3 and 4 explore the associational interests people have in workplaces as possible venues for sustained cooperation organized around shared values. These interests can be compromised by skill-based specialization and the inegalitarian moral views of employers. While these cases are not exhaustive, they illustrate how workplace equality is not simply material and comparative, but is also a kind of social relation to be fostered through equal consideration of our agential interests in exercising a wide range of expressive liberties.

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