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Mutual obligation: ethical and social implications

By Pamela Kinnear - posted Friday, 15 December 2000

On the surface, the idea of mutual obligation appears to be reasonable and uncontroversial. This is reinforced by a Government that tells us repeatedly that the idea is ‘simple’, ‘compelling’ and ‘fundamentally fair’. Although there has been vigorous criticism from numerous quarters, including ACOSS, about how the idea is implemented in Government policy, the concept of mutual obligation itself now has a ‘motherhood’ quality about it and is accepted largely uncritically as a reasonable basis for social security policy.

A closer inspection reveals that the idea of mutual obligation applied to welfare policy has a number of serious ethical and logical flaws. This article leaves behind specific critiques about implementation and ‘unpacks’ the philosophical and ethical basis of the concept in relation to welfare policy.

A questionable link with the ‘Social Contract’?

We are often told that the Mutual Obligation policy has its origins in liberal democratic philosophical traditions – in particular, in the idea of the ‘social contract’ and the idea that rights have correlative duties or obligations. Indeed, this has become a key selling-point to strengthen obligations on recipients of social security payments. However, the link between current policy and philosophical heritage is made loosely in public debates. When rigorous analysis is undertaken, the surface plausibility of the idea of mutual obligation disappears.


The idea that society is constituted by actual or implied contractual obligations among its members who cooperate in the pursuit of mutual advantage has its origins with 17th and 18th century philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. In the pursuit of a democratic alternative to the monarchical State, social contract theory was principally concerned with the duty of citizens to obey the authority of the State. Philosophers argued that because of the precarious and dangerous competition in pre-political society (the ‘State of Nature’), individuals rationally decide to enter into political society and consent to the rule of the State, agreeing to sacrifice certain liberties in return for the State’s protection of their lives and property. Citizens’ duties to each other are acknowledged by the principle that if individuals sacrifice certain individual freedoms which yield mutual advantages to all, then others have a moral obligation to do the same.

Linking contemporary debates about welfare with this philosophical tradition, however, is fraught with difficulty.

First, the idea has certainly never enjoyed a consensus amongst philosophers and is widely acknowledged to have significant problems. Although rights and obligations are conditional on an expression of individual consent, contract theorists have not been able to convincingly identify how, if at all, individuals express such consent. Nor have theorists been able to identify realistic alternatives for those who do not consent to political society. In short, it is a fairly weak contract in which the time, place and nature of the initial agreement cannot be identified and in which no realistic alternatives to contractual membership are available.

Second, because of its primary focus on political obligation, traditional contract theory is of marginal relevance to current debates about how to make fair welfare policy. Citizens’ obligations to ‘do their part’ in the pursuit of mutual advantage is a non-specific ethical principle and is of little help in determining the nature and distribution of specific obligations amongst citizens in unequal societies. When the contemporary contract theorist, John Rawls, attempted to identify guiding principles to address this problem, he concluded that obligations only arise when institutions are just and individuals are able to freely accept social benefits in a context of meaningful alternatives.

With trends such as widening inequality and stubborn levels of structural unemployment, it is far from clear that Australian institutional arrangements are sufficiently just to generate specific and enforceable obligations on marginalised people. Nor do social security recipients freely accept benefits in a context of meaningful alternatives. Although mutual obligation is based on the belief that recipients choose to accept welfare benefits over paid employment, in reality choice is limited and few meaningful alternatives to welfare benefits exist. In assuming that the inability to achieve self-reliance is a result of the failure of individual motivation, mutual obligation is little more than an intellectual justification for the ‘dole bludger’ myth.

A shared journey of citizenship?

The idea of mutual obligation falsely polarises ‘givers’ (working tax payers) and ‘receivers’ (non-working, non-tax payers). In fact, not only have income support recipients paid income taxes in the past and are likely to do so in the future, they are also current tax-payers due to various forms of indirect taxation and the GST, as well as through direct taxation of some benefits. The decision to finance Australia’s social security system from public revenue rather than from wage-based contributions was an explicit recognition of these essential interdependencies.


The broad ethical ideal that citizenship is a shared journey in which everyone does their part for the mutual benefit of all is distorted when attempts are made to match benefits with a corresponding obligation in a quid pro quo manner. This is especially true when this is selectively enforced in specific and intrusive ways for income support recipients while many other recipients of public resources are free to exercise discretion in relation to their social obligations. When they are not free to exercise discretion, as in the case of legislated responsibilities, government policy generally favours strategies of self-regulation or persuasion over immediate resort to direct penalties.

Mutual obligation gives little recognition to the fact that the way our economy is structured places serious limitations on the extent to which the exercise of personal responsibility is able to produce better outcomes for marginalised people. In fact, through microeconomic reform and trading off employment growth for inflation control, the Australian economy has relied on creating joblessness.

Since the downturn in the global economy that began in the 1970s, governments have experienced difficulty in living up to the goal of full employment. Indeed, in practice Australian governments essentially abandoned the commitment to full employment in the mid-1970s, favouring low inflation in the trade-off between price stability and unemployment. As a result, during the 1980s and 1990s, because Australian governments accepted quite high levels of unemployment for the sake of what they considered to be ‘good economic management’, long-term unemployment in particular has remained stubbornly high. The consequence of this is structural unemployment – a situation in which increasing numbers of unemployed lose work skills. The policy of deliberately slowing employment growth when the economy is at risk of overheating is based on the belief that pursuing full employment can be poor economic management.

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About the Author

Dr Pamela Kinnear is a Research Fellow at the Australia Institute. A sociologist by training, Dr Kinnear conducts research across a wide range of social policy areas including welfare reform, the role of the community sector, demographic change (family and ageing), and higher education. Her report, Population Ageing Crisis or Transition? was released in December 2001.

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