On the Very Idea of a Just Wage

  • Joseph Heath University of Toronto
Keywords: wages, distributive justice, marginal productivity


The way that wages are determined in a market economy produces results that strike most people as morally counterintuitive, if not positively unjust. I argue that there is an important and easily defensible principle underlying the system—it is designed to channel labour to its best employment, the way that it does any other resource. But many consider this defence too minimal, and so strive to find a thicker, more robust moral principle that can be used to defend the market, using concepts like ‘contribution’, ‘effort’, ‘laziness’, ‘skill’ or ‘talent’—all of which combine to provide a concept of ‘desert’, or ‘fairness’ in compensation. The objective of this paper is to caution against such overreach. I begin by articulating what I take to be the central principle underlying the determination of wages. I go on to discuss three different ways that both critics and defenders of the market have sought to go further than this, by introducing thicker moral concepts to the discussion, and why each of these initiatives fails. My central contention will be that markets are structurally unable to deliver ‘just’ wages, according to any everyday-moral understanding of what justice requires in cooperative interactions.

Author Biography

Joseph Heath, University of Toronto

Joseph Heath is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Trudeau Foundation, Heath is the author of several books, both popular and academic. His most recent, Morality, Competition and the Firm (Oxford, 2014), is a collection of papers on business ethics and the normative foundations of market economies. He is also the author of Enlightenment 2.0 (HarperCollins, 2014) and, with Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell (HarperCollins, 2004).

How to Cite
Heath, J. (2018). On the Very Idea of a Just Wage. Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, 11(2), 1-33. https://doi.org/10.23941/ejpe.v11i2.326