Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science


Vernon, Richard

2nd Supervisor

Jones, Charles



This thesis argues the widespread promotion of meaningful work can be an important part of a liberal theory of justice that takes nonperfectionism seriously. I begin with a conceptual argument and defend what I call the ‘contributive view’ of meaningful work, which characterizes work as meaningful when it is complex enough to be person-engaging for the worker and involves them in the contributive aspects of the work process. I then turn to the normative argument and claim that undertaking meaningful work so regarded is a social basis of self-respect, for two reasons. First, because it’s connected through reciprocity to the political idea of society as a system of social cooperation, and second, because it relates to personhood and can thereby act as a shared end that brings persons together into a social union of social unions. With this done, I move to consider the institutions necessary to bring about the widespread provision of meaningful work. What is needed is the overcoming of the detailed horizontal division of labour and some parts of the vertical division of labour, and I outline several economic policies that might go towards bringing this about. Turning to political economy, I argue that while the widespread promotion of meaningful work is incompatible with welfare-state capitalism, it is compatible with markets, and could be brought about in either a property-owning democracy or market socialism.

Summary for Lay Audience

Work has a central place in most persons’ lives, in part because many persons in contemporary liberal democracies will spend more time working than doing anything else in their life. This makes questions about the nature of work available in society, how it might be organized, and who has to do it, all central to ethical concerns of social justice – i.e., to ethical concerns about what persons in society are entitled to as a matter of fairness. Meaningful work is one kind of work that is particularly crucial. In empirical studies, workers often report meaningfulness as the feature of work that they regard as the most important. And while the ethical importance of meaningful work is increasingly coming under the attention of political theorists and philosophers, there has to date been no systematic attempt to integrate meaningful work in wider concerns of social justice. Philosophical analysis of meaningful work is currently more necessary than ever, given work is increasingly being reshaped by technological advancement, globalization, and new forms of business organization. This project uses research tools from political theory to develop an account of what social justice requires when it comes to the provision of meaningful work in society. It does this by investigating the so far underappreciated political aspect of meaningful work’s ethical importance, and how it connects to the conditions of persons’ self-respect and their civic status as valued participating members of society. This project first provides new answers on what it is about work that can make it meaningful, and how meaningful work’s ethical importance can best be integrated into a theory of social justice. It then offers answers on the legitimacy and feasibility of various social and economic policies that might be implemented by the state and other stakeholders to promote meaningful work in society.