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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Should Feminists Endorse a Universal Basic Income?

This essay was the joint runner up in the graduate category of the 7th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by University of Oxford student Rebecca L Clark

  • 1 Introduction

A UBI is a regularly remitted, non-means-tested cash grant which is given to every individual with no conditions attached.[1] Within these constraints, UBI proposals can differ considerably. Firstly, there is a Question of Scope – namely, who constitutes ‘every individual’? Secondly, there is a Question of Specification, which can be broken down into three interrelated issues:

  1. At what level of income should a UBI be set?
  2. Should a UBI supplement or replace existing welfare structures?
  3. How should a UBI be funded?

I will set aside the complexities raised by the Question of Scope and focus on a UBI given to adult citizens. In response to the Question of Specification, I will consider a UBI set at a liveable wage which supplements existing welfare institutions and is funded through revenues from publicly owned assets.[2] This is for two reasons. Firstly, I take this to be the most appealing version of a UBI; hence a conclusion that feminists should reject this version would suggest that feminists should reject any UBI proposal. Secondly, I am wary of building in hard limits of political or economic feasibility into my analysis since this forecloses utopian theorising, which is valuable precisely because it challenges conventional views about what is possible.

  • 2 Gender-Justice Enhancement versus. Achievement

When normatively assessing a policy proposal on feminist grounds, it is useful to distinguish between the objectives of gender-justice enhancement (GJ-E) and gender-justice achievement (GJ-A). GJ-E occurs iff society is rendered more gender-just than is currently the case. By contrast, GJ-A occurs iff society is transformed into a fully gender-just society. It is my belief that the absence of such a distinction has muddied the feminist debate over UBI.

There are a few points to note here. Firstly, I take it to be conceptually possible for a policy to result in GJ-E even if this makes it more difficult or even impossible to bring about GJ-A in the future. This idea can be exemplified in Figure 1, which shows a possible mapping of future societies where GJ-E is represented by A→B and C→D, and GJ-A by A→D. Thus, these two objectives must be assessed independently – one is not reducible to the other. I will assume it is morally impermissible to inflict severe injustices in the present to allow us to reach a fully gender-just society.

Figure 1








Secondly, it is conceivable that a policy is gender-justice enhancing but not, on balance, justice enhancing. For clarity, I adopt a thin conception of feminism and assume that there is an explicitly feminist reason to implement a policy P iff implementing P would promote gender justice.[3] Hence there remains a further question for feminists whose commitments extend beyond this thin conception of feminism as to whether they wish to endorse a UBI all-things-considered, which goes beyond the scope of this paper.

  • 3 The Gender Division of Labour

What criteria should be used to assess a UBI’s capacity for GJ-E? The feminist literature on UBI is united in its opposition to the gender division of labour (GDL)[4], defined as the societal division of activities along gendered lines where the social norm is for men to disproportionately undertake paid work while women are the primary caregivers. There are many ways to motivate a feminist critique of the GDL, whether by appealing to adaptive preferences[5], women caregiver’s unequal access to civil society[6] and social recognition[7], or the negative spill-over effect of the GDL on career-focused women via statistical discrimination[8].

I will assume that at least one of these critiques is successful, and consequently that ‘challenging’ the GDL in some way would result in GJ-E. But what exactly would such a challenge consist in? Suppose that a woman reduced the amount of time spent on housework but experienced feelings of intense guilt and shame as a result, while her husband did the same amount of housework as before with no qualms. Ceteris paribus, the woman’s actions would lessen the GDL, but it is by no means obvious that this outcome is more gender just than before. In response to this, I propose the following as a criterion for GJ-E, which draws on Gheaus (2008):

GDL Criterion: all else being equal, a reduction in the costs of engaging in a gender-symmetrical lifestyle is gender-justice enhancing.

where a gender-symmetrical lifestyle is “one in which women and men engage equally in paid work and family life, which includes unpaid care work for dependents”[9], and ‘costs’ are understood to encompass not just economic but also social and psychological costs.

There is an extensive empirical debate over whether a UBI would meet the GDL criterion. Pateman (2004) and Zelleke (2008) argue that a UBI would lower the costs of engaging in a gender-symmetrical lifestyle by increasing the social status of care-work and thereby lessening the social stigma associated with men performing more ‘feminine’-coded roles; by contrast, Robeyns (2001) and Gheaus (2008) contend that a UBI would remove the economic impetus for women to participate in the labour market, thereby lowering the cost for women to pursue gender-asymmetrical lifestyles.

For the sake of argument, let us grant that the implementation of a UBI would lead to an entrenchment of the GDL. According to Gheaus, “introducing a basic income would be compatible with gender justice… only if it does not raise the costs of engaging in gender-symmetrical lifestyles”[10] [italics added]. However, she provides no compelling reason to think that a reduction in GDL is the sole criterion against which to assess a UBI’s capacity for GJ-E; unless such a claim can be established, it remains possible that a UBI is gender-justice enhancing all-things-considered.

  • 4 Competing Concerns

I now turn to a second criterion for gender justice enhancement, which I deem to be highly plausible:

Anti-Exploitation Criterion: all else being equal, a reduction in gendered exploitation is gender-justice enhancing.

I consider a form of exploitation to be gendered if it is systematically the case that, in a given type of exploitable dependency relationship, the subordinate agent is a woman[11]. Fraser identifies three common types of exploitable dependencies: on a family member, on a boss, and on a state official.[12] A UBI would mitigate the exploitation of each of these types of dependencies, which are plausibly construed as gendered, and hence is prima facie gender-justice enhancing.

Firstly, consider the exploitable dependence of wives on their husbands in many traditional heterosexual marriages. Their relative lack of economic independence renders these women exploitable by their husbands with respect to the allocation of unpaid housework, the satisfaction of sexual desires, the provision of emotional labour, and more. A key advantage of a UBI is that it is given to individuals rather than households; this reduces the exploitable dependence of women on their partners in two ways. First, it gives women a credible means to leave emotionally or physically abusive relationships, thereby directly lessening their exploitation. Second, even if this exit option is not in fact utilised, its mere existence lessens the asymmetric vulnerability of women within a marriage.

Secondly, a UBI would reduce gendered exploitation in the market for intimate labour, defined as “work that is done primarily be women with intimate parts of their bodies or their intimate physical capacities in exchange for money, favours, or goods”[13] such as sex work or commercial surrogacy. Many women undertake intimate labour solely due to economic deprivation, a concern which a UBI would alleviate. Moreover, even a UBI set below a liveable wage would meaningfully improve the negotiating power of women who perform intimate labour, giving them greater freedom to turn down more dangerous clients such as those who insist on having unprotected sex.

Thirdly, the undemocratic discretion of state officials opens the door to the exploitation of welfare recipients. Due to its unconditional nature, a UBI would protect individuals from low-income households from being as vulnerable to the whim of bureaucrats. To the extent that welfare recipients are disproportionately women, this would mitigate gendered exploitation.

It would thus appear that we are faced with a conflict between the GDL and the Anti-Exploitation criteria.[14] I propose the following principle to resolve this:

Prioritisation Principle: in cases of conflict, the Anti-Exploitation criterion takes precedence over the GDL criterion with respect to gender-justice enhancement.

There are two possible ways to motivate this principle. First, I take it to be extremely plausible that feminism ought to be most concerned with improving the lives of the most marginalised women in society. Second, exploitation is morally egregious and calls for urgent rectification; the GDL criterion simply does not carry the same ethical urgency. If one accepts either argument, it follows that there is a prime facie feminist case for endorsing a UBI in terms of its capacity for GJ-E.

  • 5 Utopian Horizons

I now turn to the issue of GJ-A. I follow Nancy Fraser in taking her Universal Caregiver model[15], whereby social institutions are arranged on the assumption that all individuals undertake both paid work and informal care work, to characterise a fully gender-just society. Could a UBI help us to realise such a society?

Even if a UBI entrenched the GDL in the short run, it might nevertheless create a political impetus to redesign social structures in line with the Universal Caregiver model by transforming cultural attitudes. For instance, Weeks contends that demanding a UBI would highlight to the public the numerous ways in which capitalist production freerides off women’s unpaid housework and childcare[16] by recognising the multitude of ways in which all citizens contribute towards society.

However, whether the demand for UBI can play this role depends upon the wider political environment in which it is articulated. The 1970s Wages for Housework campaign was able to draw attention to the ways in which capitalism depends upon unpaid social reproduction due to its reliance on the historically specific dual role of the wage as both material and symbolic.[17] In this context, demanding that women receive material resources as compensation for housework necessarily involved recognising the effort which women put into such work. By contrast, a UBI is often framed as a means to decouple this dual role by providing individuals with resources without any corresponding recognition of effort, in response to concerns over automation-induced future technological unemployment. Given this, it is highly unlikely that a UBI would result in a cultural revaluation of unpaid reproductive labour.

  • 6 Conclusion

To the extent that a UBI would mitigate the gendered exploitation of women, a UBI would be gender-justice enhancing even if it entrenches the GDL. However, if this is the case, then there is consequently a divergence between the objectives of GJ-E and achievement. Since allowing gendered exploitation would inflict severe injustice on women at the sharpest end of power, GJ-E should take precedence over improving the prospect of realising a gender-just utopia. Hence, there is strong reason on explicitly feminist grounds to endorse a UBI. Nevertheless, whether feminists should ultimately endorse a UBI all-things-considered will depend upon their broader political commitments.

[1] Bidadanure (2019), p483-486.

[2] Henceforth, I refer to this proposal as ‘UBI’ unless otherwise specified.

[3] In general, I am broadly sympathetic to the view that feminists must oppose other oppressive structures besides patriarchy, due to (a) the normative underpinning of feminism (construed as an opposition to unjust hierarchy), and (b) insights from intersectional feminism. I leave it up to the reader to decide.

[4] See, for example, Robeyns (2001), Gheaus (2008), and Zelleke (2008).

[5] Gheaus (2008).

[6] Davis (1983).

[7] Fraser (2013).

[8] Robeyns (2001).

[9] Gheaus (2008), p2.

[10] Gheaus (2008), p3.

[11] A dependency relationship is exploitable iff there is a power imbalance between agents, and the subordinate agent depends on a particular superordinate agent for a resource over which the superordinate agent has discretionary control. See Goodin (1988), p175-76.

[12] Fraser (2013), p118

[13] Panitch (2019).

[14] I remain neutral as to whether there are further criteria for GJ-E.

[15] Fraser (2013), p123-135.

[16] Weeks (2011), Chapter 3.

[17] Federici (1975).


Bidadanure, J. (2019). ‘The Political Theory of Universal Basic Income’. Annual Review of Political Science, Vol 22, pp.481-501.

Davis, A.Y. (1983). Women, Race & Class. 1st Vintage Books.

Federici, S. (1975). ‘Wages Against Housework’. Power of Women Collective.

Fraser, N. (2013). Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Verso.

Gheaus, A. (2008). ‘Basic Income, Gender Justice and the Costs of Gender-Symmetrical Lifestyles.’ Basic Income Studies, 3(3), pp.1-8.

Goodin, R. (1988). Reasons for Welfare. Princeton University Press.

Okin, S. (1989). Justice, Gender, and the Family. Basic Books.

Panitch, V. (2019). ‘Basic Income and Intimate Labor’. In Cholbi, M. & Weber, M. (Eds.). (2019). The Future of Work, Technology, and Basic Income (First Edition, pp.171-188). Routledge.

Pateman, C. (2004). ‘Democratizing Citizenship: Some Advantages of a Basic Income’. Politics & Society, 32(1), pp.89-105.

Robeyns, I. (2001). ‘Will a Basic Income Do Justice to Women?’. Analyse & Kritik 23(1), pp.88–105.

Weeks, K. (2011). The problem with work: Feminism, Marxism, antiwork politics, and postwork imaginaries. Duke University Press.

Zelleke, A. (2008). ‘Institutionalizing the Universal Caretaker Through a Basic Income?’ Basic Income Studies 3(3), pp. 1–9.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. This is a great piece, which I very much enjoyed reading, and I agree with your overall argument. I also think you are right to criticise Gheaus (2008), when you write that “she provides no compelling reason to think that a reduction in GDL is the sole criterion against which to assess a UBI’s capacity for GJ-E.” In fact, and for this reason, I have changed my mind about the overall feminist desirability of a UBI (without changing my mind about the potential of an UBI to entrench the gendered division of labour, and to worsen women’s lack of equal opportunities for certain kinds of desirable jobs.) My current views on how feminists should think about UBI – and about other care-supporting policies – is here:

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