Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Ethics and Politics of Mutual Obligation

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Ethics and Politics of Mutual Obligation

Article excerpt


Over the past decade there has been a considerable shift in Western governments' treatment of unemployed welfare recipients. The post-World War II system that placed only minimal obligations on the unemployed has given way, especially in Australia, Britain and the United States, to a system in which welfare benefits are made conditional on the recipients' satisfying certain obligations to the state. It is now commonplace for governments to claim that people are not straight-forwardly entitled to an unemployment benefit; rather, that benefits are conditional on their fulfilling an ever expanding range of duties. The shift from a system of entitlement to one of increased conditionality has been accompanied by a shift in the moral and political assumptions underpinning those welfare systems. In Australia this has been accompanied by the introduction of progressively harsher requirements which the unemployed have to fulfil under the requirement that they `give something back'. This process has been justified by reference to the obligation supposedly generated by the act of receiving an unemployment benefit. Yet, even though the idea of obligation is clearly central to the Mutual Obligation Scheme, it has received far less scrutiny than it deserves. The new range of enforceable obligations the unemployed are now presumed to have to `society' raises the question of the sort of obligations citizens of a liberal democratic state have to it, and on what basis they owe such obligations. This more general question of political obligation and its moral basis is seldom discussed in the welfare debate. However, one of the costs of this omission is that there is a risk the debate will lose sight of the rationale behind widely held notions of political and mutual obligation at the very time practical obligations are being significantly increased.

The shift towards greater conditionality of benefits has occurred without any convincing justification. Indeed, other than (numerous) throwaway lines and slogans -- which in any case are often inconsistent -- there is little but a general appeal to `fairness': the argument being, roughly, that it is fair to impose obligations and sanctions for breaches of those obligations because the state has supported someone when they are in need and that person, therefore, should do something in return.

The idea of fairness is one way of cashing out the Scheme's rationale, and a superficially plausible source of justification for the obligation-generating nature of welfare payments. However, it is apparent from the literature surrounding the Mutual Obligation Scheme -- the guidelines, tender documents, reports, Ministerial Statements and so on -- that there is often no direct appeal to the notion. The Scheme's authors and administrators do not explicitly demonstrate how the value commitments contained in the Scheme are obligation-generating. Their assumptions are left, if not ambiguous, then at least not made clearly. It is therefore necessary, with caution and disinterest, to do their job for them.

So, in a sense, what I am proposing to do is reconstruct a plausible account of obligation and then subject it to scrutiny. It is, so to speak, an unauthorised moral biography. I should note that mine is not the only possible justification, merely the one that I think best accords with the Mutual Obligation Scheme.

Through this reconstruction I want to question the idea that receiving a welfare payment is obligation-generating on at least two grounds. The first concerns whether or not people who receive a welfare benefit actually have much choice in the matter. If they do not, then it is a poor basis for an obligation-generating contract. Secondly, the compulsory work and training requirements that surround Mutual Obligation are justified in terms of the mutuality that is supposed to exist between the state and the individual, the so-called `social contract'. …

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