Working for each other : an account of the need for work in society

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This dissertation evaluates a need for work. In doing so, it addresses a neglected topic – by systematically exploring the concept of work and its relation to basic needs – and situates that contribution in the context of existing philosophical literature on work and adjacent research in the humanities and social sciences. Second, it offers up new conceptual tools – by arguing for the usefulness of a needs-centred perspective on work – which can aide in our deliberations about how to construct a more human(e) future of work. The project defends an account of a need for work which is grounded in the basic, non-contingent needs we hold, not as individuals, but as a society. It begins by defining work and need, and clarifying the meaning of the question, “Do we need work?” in light of these definitions. It then draws a distinction between the different levels of social life at which we can be understood to hold needs: as individuals, as a community, and as a society. I argue that it is possible, at each of these levels, to ask and answer a different question about work’s relationship to our basic, non-contingent needs. Subsequently, I find that work is important, but not necessary for our ability to meet such needs as individuals and members of a community, since we can do so through non-work activities. It is, however, necessary at the level of society. As a society, we have a need for a shared system of reciprocity to govern how we recognise and communicate about contribution. Work allows us to meet this need by functioning as a signalling mechanism for value. In fulfilling this function, it cannot be straightforwardly replaced by non-work activities, since activities like leisure are not connected to contribution in the same way.
Date of Award12 Jun 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorAlexander Xavier Douglas (Supervisor)


  • Work
  • Labour
  • Leisure
  • Basic needs
  • Social contribution
  • Reciprocity

Access Status

  • Full text open

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