Las Torres de Lucca. International Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol 3, No 4 (2014)

Unemployment, recognition and meritocracy

Gottfried Schweiger


Unemployment is one of the greatest social problems all around the world including in modern capitalistic welfare states. Therefore its social critique is a necessary task for any critical social philosophy such as Axel Honneth's recognition approach, which understands social justice in terms of social conditions of recognition. This paper aims to develop an evaluation of unemployment and its moral weight from this perspective. I will lay out the recognition approach and present a moral evaluation of unemployment as socially unjust based on the knowledge of its negative consequences for those affected. I will then discuss two objections to this conclusion, namely that a mere correlation of suffering and moral wrongness is not enough and that there are legitimate differences in the experience of recognition which could justify the existence of unemployment as deserved. In the next section, I will then refute both objections and first show that unemployment can be understood as socially unjust based on the knowledge that it is involuntary and that the unemployed are not responsible for their condition. Then I will discuss the relationship between the idea of meritocracy and unemployment to examine the assumption of unemployment as being deserved. I will finally conclude that unemployment is not a necessary side effect of meritocracy and that there are good reasons to argue for a moral and justified obligation to provide an actual access to paid work for all who want to work. However, such changes face serious obstacles and are not likely to happen under the current interpretation of meritocracy and social esteem which are one-sided and flawed.