Elon Musk doesn’t like people who work from home. A year ago he announced the end of remote work for employees of car manufacturer Tesla.
Now he has called the “laptop class” desire to work from home “immoral”.
“You’re going to work from home and you’re going to let everyone who worked your car work at the factory?” he said in an interview on the American news network CNBC:
It’s a productivity issue, but it’s also a moral issue. People should get off their goddamn moral high horse with this nonsense about working from home. Because they ask everyone not to work from home when they do.
There is a superficial logic to Musk’s position. But take a closer look and the argument falls apart. While we have a duty to share the workload with others, we have no duty to suffer for no reason. And for most of human history, working from home has been normal. The peculiarities are the modern factory and office.
Working from home and the industrial revolution
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which the historian dates from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, working from home or close to home was normal for most of the world’s population. This included skilled production workers, who usually worked at home or in small workshops nearby.
For the skilled craftsman, working hours were what we might call “flexible”. British historian EP Thompson plates the consternation among the upper class about the notorious “irregularity” of labor.
Conditions changed with the rapid growth and concentration of machines in the industrial revolution. These changes began in England, where the most protracted and tense conflicts took place over the new working hours and discipline demanded by factory owners and managers.
Judgments about conditions for workers prior to industrialization vary. Thompson’s Masterpiece Study The Making of the English Working Class (published 1963) tells bleak stories of families of six or eight wool rammers, huddled at work around a charcoal stove, their workshop “also the bedroom”.
But it also mentions the Stockinger with “peas and beans in his cozy garden, and a good cask of rumbling ale”, and Belfast’s linen-weaving district, with “their whitewashed houses and little flower gardens”.
Anyway, working from home is not a new invention of the “laptop classes”. It was not until the industrial revolution that workers were obliged to live under one roof and for fixed hours.
Misapplying a concept of justice
Musk’s moral argument against working from home says that because not all employees can do it, no employee should expect it.
This bears some resemblance to the “categorical imperative” articulated by the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Act only upon that maxim by which you may at the same time will that it become a universal law.”
But acting according to the same principle doesn’t mean we all have the same options. For example, we may want all employees to have the maximum freedom their duties allow.
The broader mistake Musk seems to be making is misapplying what ethics researchers call distributive justice.
Simply put, distributive justice is about how we share advantages and disadvantages. As the philosopher John Rawls explains in his book Justice as Fairnessin distributive justice, we see society as a cooperative activity, where we “regulate over time the distribution of benefits arising from social cooperation”.
Research on distributive justice in the workplace is typically about how to pay workers fairly and how to share the suffering or “toil” that is required. But there is no compelling moral reason to share the unnecessary suffering that work causes.
Clearly, professionals benefit from employment in many ways that we could argue are unfair.
As economist John Kenneth Galbraith satirically pointed out in The economics of harmless fraud, those who enjoy their work the most tend to be paid the highest. “This is accepted. Low pay scales are for people who do repetitive, tedious and painful work.”
If Musk wants to split pay or work at Tesla more equally, he has the means to do something about it. For example, he could pay his factory workers more instead of taking a pay package will likely pay him $56 billion in 2028. (This depends on whether Tesla’s market cap is 12 times what it was in 2018; it’s about 10 times now.)
To distribute the “toil” of work more fairly, he would not just be sleep at work. He would be on the production line, or in a mine in Central Africa, towing up the cobalt batteries for electric vehicles, for a few dollars a day.
Elon, the floor is yours
Instead, Musk’s idea of fairness is about creating unnecessary work, shaming employees who don’t need to be in the office to commute anyway. There is no compelling moral reason for this in the major Western ethical traditions.
The fruits and burdens of work must be shared fairly, but unnecessary work does not help anyone. Commuting to work is the least enjoyable and most negative time of a working day, studies show. Insisting that everyone must do it does not benefit those who must do it. They are no better off.
Denying some employees the freedom to work from home because other employees do not now have the same freedom is ethically perverse.
Musk’s hostility to remote work is consistent with a long history of research documenting managers’ resistance to losing track of employees.
Working from home, or “work anywhere“, has been discussed since the 1970s, and technologically viable since at least the late 1990s. Yet it only became an option for most workers when managers had to accept it during the pandemic.
While this forced experiment of the pandemic has led to the “revelation” that working from home can be just as productive, the growth of surveillance systems to monitor employees at home proves that managers’ suspicions remain.
There are real moral issues for Musk to grapple with at Tesla. He could use his fortune and influence to do something about things like modern slavery in supply chainsor the inequality of executive pay.
Instead, he is annoyed by working from home. To make work at Tesla truly more equitable, Musk’s moral efforts would be better directed towards a fair distribution of Tesla’s profits, and alleviating the suffering and toil that industrial production systems already cause.