The Foundations and Limits of Employer Authority
Daniel Halliday (University of Melbourne)

May 11, 2023, 4:15pm - 6:15pm
Philosophy, The University of Melbourne

Old Arts, North Theatre
The University of Melbourne
Melbourne 3010


University of Melbourne

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Employment is among the more entrenched and pervasive legal relationships that we participate in. It is also associated with a host of injustices: Employers can dominate workers, invade their privacy, terminate the relationship for bad reasons, or otherwise make objectionable demands. At the same time, it is undeniable that, even under ideal conditions, employment has to be some kind of hierarchical relationship whereby people agree to cede some (limited but real) control over their lives to an employer.  

Political philosophers tend to work on questions of how to remedy some problematic feature of employment without theorising more generally about what sort of relationship employment is, or must be. In this talk, I argue that the employment relationship often occupies a middle ground (or can vacillate between) two opposed categories of cooperative relationship. On the one hand, cooperation can occur between parties that share little in common, and where the goal is merely to coordinate activity for mutual advantage. At the other end are relationships whose success requires a substantial sharing of ends or values. Employment is tricky because it is not always clear where it lies on this spectrum. The solution is to recognise that firms very often cannot function via explicit commands from managers, but on what is misleadingly called ‘workplace culture’. This can be disambiguated as the degree to which a sharing of ends among employees is necessary for the firm to produce its outputs. The limits of employer authority, and thus the range of demands that an employer can legitimately make, should be thought of as sensitive to how well this condition is satisfied. 


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