People say that sweatshops exploit their workers. People say the same thing about men who hire prostitutes, price gougers, couples who enter commercial surrogacy contracts, payday loan operations, and people who buy kidneys from the poor (or would do so if it were legal).
Exploitation, as we’ve discussed here before, is usually understood by philosophers to involve taking unfair advantage of a vulnerable person. Sweatshops, for instance, are said to involve exchanges in which multinational enterprises profit off of persons in desperate poverty by offering labor contracts in which workers are subjected to low wages, long hours, and unsafe or demeaning working conditions.
I think there’s a strong case to be made that these labor agreements are not as unfair as they appear at first glance, and that the same is true for many of the other allegedly exploitative exchanges listed above. But I want to put these concerns aside for the moment and assume for the sake of argument that these exchanges are unfair, in some morally significant sense.
Even if they are unfair, there is very good reason to believe that all of the exchanges described above are usually mutually beneficial.[1. There is an argument, popular especially among the libertarian left, that questions the mutually beneficial nature of sweatshop labor by claiming that sweatshops, often in collusion with government, actually close off a number of options to workers. Suppose a multinational corporation colludes with a government to force subsistence farmers off their land, or to shut down unionized labor. And suppose that, after doing this, it offers workers employment at terms that are better than any of their (remaining!) alternatives. This fact would not suffice to show that workers are better of on net with the sweatshop than without. And if this is how sweatshops typically worked, many of the standard moral defenses of them would seem to fail. I will have more to say about this line of argument in a future post. For now, though, let me stipulate that the case I am trying to analyze in this post is not of this sort, and assert (without evidence or argument) that cases of the sort I analyze here are not at all uncommon. In the cases I am interested in here, it might well be the case that workers have suffered injustice – including the seizure of land or the suppression of rights of collective bargaining. What is crucial is that these injustices are independent of the sweatshop’s offer of employment. In other words, what I say below applies to cases where sweatshops allegedly take unfair advantage of an injustice that somebody else has perpetrated, not to cases where the workers’ vulnerability and desperate need for employment are the result of the sweatshop’s own past actions.] In other words, both parties come away from the exchange better off than they would have been without it. This claim is supported, I think, by the rather impressive empirical data on sweatshop wages. But even apart from the empirical evidence, there’s a fairly strong a priori argument to be made in favor of the assumption of mutual benefit. After all, if workers didn’t expect to be made better off by working in a sweatshop – if they didn’t think it was all-things-considered their best available alternative – then why would they take the job? And the poorer workers are, the more dramatic the impact on their overall welfare will be of even slight improvements to their material conditions.
So sweatshops are doing something to make poor workers better off. On the other hand, I assume that most of us do nothing to make any serious improvement in the lives of people in desperate poverty. We might give a few dollars to the Red Cross when a tsunami hits and makes the evening news, but most of don’t do anything on a regular basis that is going to have any real long-term impact on the lives of poor workers in the developing world.
But if all this is true, then we face a bit of a philosophical puzzle. For if exploiters like sweatshops are doing something to make the lives of the poor better, while most of us are doing nothing, then how bad can exploitation really be? We vilify sweatshops, price gougers, and payday loan operators for exploiting the vulnerable. But we give ourselves a pass on our own neglect of those same vulnerable people, even though exploitation is often better for the vulnerable than neglect. As Joan Robinson once claimed, “the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” So why do we think of exploiters as so much worse than us?
Now, I’ve framed the puzzle in a way that suggests that exploitation might not be as bad as we might have thought. But that’s not the only conclusion one might draw from it. The puzzle shows that it’s hard to maintain that exploitation is worse than neglect. But the lesson to draw from it might not be that exploitation is less bad than we thought, but that neglect is worse.
The puzzle here is based on a principle that Alan Wertheimer has labeled the “non-worseness claim,” which holds that where A has a right not to transact with B, and where A’s transacting with B is not worse for B than A’s not transacting with B, then A’s transacting with B cannot be seriously morally wrong, or at least cannot be morally worse than A’s not transacting with B, even if the terms of the transaction are deemed unfair by some external standard. I’ve discussed this principle in relation to questions about sweatshops and price gouging here, here and here.
The non-worseness claim has some counter-intuitive implications (beyond the implication that most of us are worse than price gougers!). Alan Wertheimer, for instance, asks us to
Consider the case of the exploitative marriage. Suppose that A and B have a dating relationship. Let us assume that A would not act wrongly if A were to refuse to marry B . . . Now suppose that A proposes to marry B but only if B will agree to terms that are unfair with respect to the distribution of financial resources, care for the children, the division of household labor, and so forth . . . B would prefer to marry A on nonexploitative terms, but that option is not available. Suppose, as well, that the exploitative marriage is better for B, all things considered, than not being married to A . . . Even so, it does not seem preposterous to say that it is worse for A to enter into an exploitative marriage with B than not to marry B.
I’m pulled by the intuition here. But I’m also suspicious. I wonder if my intuition is being pulled by something special about marriage, or about close relationships in general – something that wouldn’t translate into arms-length economic exchanges. Or I wonder if there’s a trick of moral psychology at work: the badness of the exploitative marriage is described quite clearly. But we are left without any details at all regarding why or how B’s situation is so bad that even an exploitative marriage to A would be better. I wonder, if we described her situation more thoroughly, would A’s action look less bad? (In the same way, perhaps, that sweatshop labor looks less objectionable when we look in detail at the alternatives?) At any rate, the denial of NWC, insofar as it implies that helping some is worse than helping none, is also pretty counter-intuitive. So I’m inclined to bite the bullet and accept whatever counter-intuitive implications NWC might have. Am I wrong for doing so?