Some comments on Bertram

Chris Bertram writes:

What’s wrong with an employer saying to an employee (who needs the job, has bills to pay and kids to feed): “If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you”?

Rather like the wrongness of slavery, this strikes me as being one of those cases where my confidence that it is wrong outstrips my confidence in any of the explanations about why it is wrong, but, contemplating the case, I experience no great sense of puzzlement about its wrongness. But then, I’m not a libertarian.

Of course, the employer’s actions are wrong. (Okay, maybe I could cook up a weird scenario where this wouldn’t be wrong, but except in unusual circumstances, it’s wrong.) How is that threatening to libertarianism? Does Bertram think libertarians have to disagree? He’s a professional philosopher, so he’s professionally obligated to know better. (Later in the post, he reveals he does know better, but then he should also know better than to write a misleading introduction.)

Libertarianism is not a total moral theory–it’s a political philosophy. It is a theory (or set of related theories) about authority, legitimacy, and the appropriate use of coercion. Libertarianism is silent about a huge range of moral issues. (Similarly, Rawlsian left-liberalism is silent about a huge range of moral issues.) Now, Flanigan has already argued that the case above violates their contract, and so it might well be covered by libertarian principles. However, suppose on the contrary the case above falls outside the scope of all libertarian principles. So what? Libertarianism isn’t a theory of everything. It’s would be wrong for me to curse my mother out for no reason, but libertarianism does not, and is not meant to, explain why.

Of course, there’s an interesting debate to be had about whether the case above counts as coercive, and I’ve seen libertarians go either way.

Is unequal power really the problem here? I’m not so sure. (In general, I think egalitarians tend to misdiagnose what makes morally bad situations bad, and also tend to be too liberal in assuming that equality will cure everything.)

Consider a similar case discussed by Ruth Grant in Strings Attached. Suppose there is a desperately poor mother who needs money to save her sick child. Suppose a lecherous millionaire offers her all the money she could ever use, on the condition that she become and remain his mistress. Suppose she finds this offer and the idea of selling herself repellant.

Is the offer wrong? Grant thinks so. But the problem with the offer, she says, isn’t that there is a disparity in bargaining power. It’s not even that the offer is “irresistible,” given how desperate the woman is. It’s not really coercive. (After all, she says, suppose the woman accepted the offer and the millionaire and she had sex. We wouldn’t want to say that he thereby raped her.) Consider: What if the millionaire had just offered her the money to do gardening for him, or what if he had offered her that much money to participate for an hour in a psychology study he was funding? Neither of those cases seem morally wrong, despite how desperate the woman is. Rather, the problem is that the millionaire’s offer is exploitative, degrading, callous, and expresses contempt for the woman. He knows (or should expect) that she has typical views about sexual intimacy and thus would find the offer degrading. He’s acting in a vicious way.

Go back to Bertram’s case. Suppose the employee doesn’t need the job, doesn’t have kids to feed, and doesn’t have bills to pay. Suppose the employee just has the job to keep himself or herself amused, and could easily leave at any moment. Suppose in fact that the employee has the same or more wealth of the employer. Suppose the employer knows all this. Now suppose the employer says, “If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you.” Even in this case, it’s still wrong for the employer to do so. So, that tells us that wrongness of the employer’s actions isn’t solely explicable in terms of income inequality or in terms of exploitation.

Now, the real issue here is what, if anything, government should do about Bertram’s case or in the lecherous millionaire case. I’m not opposed to governments prohibiting certain kinds of abusive employer behavior, though at the same time, I don’t think we want to make it extremely difficult for employers to fire employees. After all, while I think people have inherent moral rights to economic liberty, I also regard the boundaries of these liberties as conventional and properly set by a wide range of consequentialist concerns. I suspect that the fact that I take this position is enough for me not to count as a real libertarian in Bertram’s eyes.

Bertram says,

The issue seems to me to be emblematic of what’s wrong with the BHL people. They can’t and don’t take seriously the realities of private power, of domination, and of the need for someone (the state or the unions or both) to step in and protect people who have nothing against those who believe they are entitled to do what they want on their private domain. In an unequal world, where access to employment is in the hands of the few, then it is certain that at least some of the few will take advantage of their position to abuse and humiliate their subordinates in various ways, including sexually.

Bertram says BHLers don’t take seriously the realities of private power, etc. In fact, if he’d read some of Zwolinski’s or my work, he’d see he’s mistaken. (What’s going on here? I’ll speculate: Moral psychologists have shown that when others disagree with us about political or moral issues, we are biased to assume that we understand both the issue and the other side’s own reasons for their position better than the other side does. So, we tend to assume they’re just overlooking some obvious point. Or, perhaps Bertram thinks BHL = cartoon Robert Nozick + UBI.)

Yes, he’s absolute right that in an unequal world, some people will take advantage of others. However, in the real world, if we empower governments to fix every social ill,  or if we empower governments to try to make things more equal, then we will still continue to see the powerful abuse their position and humiliate their subordinates in various ways, including sexually. It’s an empirical question what policies would actually minimize unjust domination. And, in the real world, attempts to minimize domination might come at the expense of other things we value. Laws that are intended to protect employees from domination might instead produce classes of insiders and outsiders.

I think many of the political policies Bertram would like to see implemented would, in the real world, make things worse, not better, by his own standards. Bertram no doubt thinks that many of the policies I would like to see implemented would, in the real world make things worse, not better, by my standards. Our political disagreements are as much empirical as they are moral. They concern our disagreements not only about the extent of market successes versus government successes, but about the severity of market failures versus government failures.



  • I’m by no means a well-read person in this area, so I was wondering if you knew of anything written specifically on the relationship between employer and employee in a free society. I think it’s a tricky relationship to think about in terms of spheres of individual responsibility. After all, when we go to work for someone, we are in some sense “joining a team,” developing bonds of loyalty, committing to a “tribe,” etc. It’s possible to be employed but not think of it this way, but in many ways that just wouldn’t lead to as effective of a work environment. So I think often the reasons why people might give in to their employers might be deeper than just economic calculation.

    This goes for human relationships in general, I think. I’ve always been attracted to libertarianism because of the way in which having rules of private or several property can allow us to coordinate with other human beings without knowing their particular desires or motivations–this seems to be the only way of living in a flourishing, global society. But what about our instinctive desire to belong to a group of people, to have solidarity, and to find our identity as members of that group? And what do we do when that relationship goes wrong? Surely there’s more than just an economic calculation that goes on when an abused woman refuses to leave a relationship. There is an instinctive moral calculation, which forbids her from doing what (as we can all see from the outside) is the rational thing. Does libertarianism have anything to say about such situations?

    • One thing that I think most libertarians would say is that you are construing ‘economic’ somewhat narrowly. Any of our economic decisions may involve weighing values which are not ‘economic’ in a narrow sense. The woman in the abusive relationship might stay because she has done a (rough) cost-benefit calculation that takes account of values such as loyalty, being true to some ideal, etc. In fact, usually when we make ordinary economic decisions about what goods to buy, all sorts of values about the kind of person we are, what mum would think, or whatever, may influence our decision. I would guess that almost everyone, when considering changing jobs, takes account of their current work environment, including work relationships, feelings of belonging, and so on: these are all part of the  economic calculation. It is certainly wrong to think that economic calculations take account only of money, even for people who are obsessed by money.

      So, I would not be too quick to dismiss the woman who stays in the abusive relationship as irrational. It may be there are things about it that she values which are not evident to us.

      On the other hand, I would not, like some libertarians, say that her decision must be rational. We all act irrationally from time to time (akrasia being the most celebrated form).

    • Damien S.

      According to Haidt, libertarians tend to have less sense of empathy and group identity, as well as having different moral foundations from liberals and conservatives (who differ from each other.)

      I think a lot of this question comes down to a deep moral difference.  On one side outrage at a moral tainting, a mixing of sex and money and violation of sacred boundaries, on the other side a libertarian struggling to even really see the problem.

      (Note: on this, I’m sympathetic to the libertarian.)

      • SimpleMachine88

        It’s precisely because I think human relationships are worthwhile that I don’t want to make them non-voluntary.  I don’t think that if I make someone be my friend that really counts.  I also don’t think that if you pay someone that really counts either. 

        Libertarianism is about having liberty, not about constantly free exchanging everything.  It’s not like libertarians are incapable of understanding anything that isn’t tradeable.   It’s not like we’re robots going “What love!?”. 

        Libertarians have some pretty important things to say about that, such as you can’t make somebody love you.  I think that’s pretty darn moral of us.

        Yeah libertarians have different moral foundations.  We give more money to charity and we respect other people enough to let them make their own choices.  So there.

  • good_in_theory

    The problem with the offer may not be the power disparity, but the power disparity might be  a necessary condition for making the offer.  I suppose an employee could say, “fuck me or I won’t file those TPS reports.”  Whether the threat has any salience will turn upon the nature of the relationship.  Similarly, a cat call by a guy on the street is different than one by one’s boss.  Is the difference simply quantitative or is it qualitative?  The addition of an employment relationship seems to do a lot of work in changing the dynamics of the situation.

    In general, hierarchical relationships are going to enable abuse in a way undefined or egalitarian relationships do not, and hierarchical relationships of dependency are going to enable even more abuse.  Of course, there are exceptional cases where employers are dependent upon and subordinate to employees, but that’s hardly the typical situation.

    • Yes, disparities in power and influence might magnify the wrongness (or introduce additional grounds for wrongness), and they also make it more likely that certain wrongful behaviors will occur.

      • good_in_theory

        Well, if it takes disparity in power and influence to actually make degradation and lechery possible or effective, then in some sense power disparities are, “really the problem here,” aren’t they?

        Here’s a protean thought: we police things more, the more they have the power to harm – for animal control, a wolf is of greater concern than a raccoon is of greater concern than a cat.  Relative to the cat, wolves are subject to much greater policing.  But apparently such pragmatism is misplaced in human relationships.

        • 3cantuna

          Who will police the police?

        • I think ‘police’ is too strong a term. It is generally recognised that relationships of subordination bring a risk of abuse, and there are standard safeguards put in place, in all large organisations, to counter it. These include policies, procedures, complaint mechanisms, confidential advisors/counsellors, and much else besides. In small organisations, of course, these things are absent.

          • good_in_theory

            I mean policing in a very broad sense as something that encompasses “policies, procedures, complaint mechanisms, advisors/counsellors, and much else besides” (including informal monitoring and social sanctioning, as well as government regulation).

        • adrianratnapala

          Your point might make sense if we were actually arguing about what to police.  But actually everyone here wants to ban the the “If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you” proposition.  The question here is whether this desire is about whether that desire somehow violates a political philosophy.

          My view is that it is not inconsistent, for reasons that Jessica Flanaggan own view is closer to thos of J. Flanigan than those of J. Brennan.  But both of them have *exactly the same actual pragmatic policy* as the left.

  • martinbrock

    What’s wrong with an employer saying to an employee (who needs the job, has bills to pay and kids to feed): “If you want to keep your job, you’d better let me fuck you”?

    If the employee is a prostitute, nothing is wrong with it. If she’s not, she has the wrong employer and presumably doesn’t want to keep her job. You don’t want her to keep this employer, right? You want the employer fired by his employer, and you want the employee reassigned to another employer, right?

    The fired employer now needs another job, right? Is he permitted to starve? Do you and I feed, clothe and house him in prison for a few years before he finds other employment?

    Why not cut out the middle man and let the employee find another employer herself?

    And what if the employer didn’t really say it? You need some due process here, don’t you? What does it cost? Who bears this cost?

    This philosopher is all about protecting victims and punishing the guilty, because he imagines himself in this heroic role, but in reality, he doesn’t solve this woman’s problem, because he cannot solve it. He can only imagine himself heroic.

    • SimpleMachine88

       Woh, there’s a difference between what it is moral to make legal and what is moral.  I don’t think that someone should go to jail for being a prostitute, but I would not be okay if I had a daughter who told me she wanted to be a hooker when she grew up.  I also wouldn’t buy sex for money, because that’s wrong.

      I think people should have liberty precisely out of respect for their ability to make moral decisions for themselves, and restrict their own behavior accordingly.  Liberty isn’t the same thing as license.

      • martinbrock

        There’s a difference between what’s in my daughter’s best interests and what’s universally moral. I don’t believe that buying or selling sex is immoral in any absolute sense, and I do believe, along with Emma Goldman and many others, that marriage is often little more than legalized prostitution.

    • purple_platypus

      “If the employee is a prostitute, nothing is wrong with it.”

      Bullshit. At BEST you’re confusing “employer” with “customer”, but even there it is absolutely fundamental, if you want to legalize sex work, that the conditions of employment include the right to refuse service to anyone.

      And of COURSE it’s not okay for her boss to do this, any more than it is for any other employee. You seem to be suggesting prostitutes are somehow less than human.

      • martinbrock

        I make little distinction between “employer” and “customer”.

        If a prostitute has contracted with me for specified services, refusing to provide the services violates the contract. I agree that this right of refusal should exist in every case, not only in sex work, but the violation of contract still exists. Why would I not refuse to contract with her further? You would compel me to contract with her further?

        If a house of prostitution employs the prostitute and if the prostitute refuses to perform the services of a prostitute consistent with her employment contract, even to a proprietor of the house, why wouldn’t the proprietor terminate the employment?

        I never anywhere suggest that prostitutes are less than human. They are people exchanging sex for an employer’s money, and I see nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Obviously, no one should be forced into this business, but if one chooses the business, one must expect to perform the work.

        • purple_platypus

          I agree that in the totally different scenario to which you have now moved the goalposts, there is as much obligation to perform as there is in any other case where money is exchanged for a service. (I.E. quite a bit, but still in no way an absolute obligation.) This, however, does not in any way imply what you actually said in the post that I was replying to – that it is, quite generally, okay for an employer to make such a demand so long as the employee is a prostitute. You can defend that statement, or admit you erred, but I don’t see where conjuring up new and quite different scenarios helps you.

          • martinbrock

            Rather than moving a goal post, I specified the meaning of “the employee is a prostitute” in my hypothetical. Apparently, you inferred a different meaning and then disputed your meaning. If you need someone to admit an error, you may satisfy yourself without relying upon me.

            In my way of thinking, you may offer anyone a contract for prostitution services at any time, and the object of your offer may refuse. If she refuses, you may choose not to do other business with her.

            You may not violate an existing contract, but if the object of your offer has only an at will employment relationship with you, you may terminate the relationship at this point. She may also terminate the relationship for this reason. Either or both of you might be foolish to terminate the relationship.

            If the contract is for computer programming or bathroom cleaning rather than prostitution, the logic is the same. Prostitution is not fundamentally less honorable than computer programming in my way of thinking. I understand why someone might refuse any of these offers, but I don’t know why anyone should be offended by the offer, and I don’t believe that being offended by any of these offers should be grounds for a law suit.

  • martinbrock

    Is unequal power really the problem here?

    Does she have other employment options with similar compensation?

    • Bertram says, “People can be subject to exploitation by their employers. To protect them, I want to make it hard for employers to fire people.”

      One might say instead, “To protect them, I want to make everybody rich and to have lots of opportunity, so they can walk away with impunity.”

      If the second option is available, it’s more desirable than the first.

      • Why not a third option: to protect them I want to make sure the market is competitive, so that the employee can find employment elsewhere – and that means rolling back the state.

      • martinbrock

        A person need not be rich to walk away. A person need not walk away with impunity to walk away. If walking away beats the exploitation, I can improve my lot by walking away, or I can endure the exploitation until Barack Obama rides in on white horse to rescue me, assuming that he doesn’t decide at the last minute to side with my exploiter.

        Since states give employers any power to exploit that they possess, expecting states to protect the exploited seems a little naive.

        • purple_platypus

           This is the sort of comment that makes people wonder if Libertarians live in the real world. Please, try thinking for thirty seconds about why these might not be good options in real life, however attractive they sound to you when theorizing.

          • darius404

            1) As for walking away, I would say that most certainly IS a good option, in comparison to continuing employment with the harassing employer. What I think you mean is that the employee should not HAVE to walk away. However, this possibly runs afoul of some of the above arguments against increased government oversight.

            2) As for continuing employment under such an employer, he is clearly being sarcastic (Barack Obama on a white horse should be a dead giveaway).

            If you think his being sarcastic about this matter isn’t helpful for persuading non-libertarians, you may be correct. However, I don’t think his comment was an attempt at that (though since this site and its comments are open to anyone, it might not be wise anyway).

          • martinbrock

            I don’t say that walking away is the most attractive option imaginable, but real life is my subject.

            Appealing to Justice and expecting Justice to dismiss or discipline the harassing employer while reassigning the harassed employee to a non-harassing employer and somehow compensating the harassed employee for the harassment is an imaginable option, but I don’t at all believe it a more realistic option. Imagining this option is far easier than realizing it.

            Walking away is not a difficult option in reality, even if it is costly in the short run. The imaginary option is also costly, and it offers no assurance of solving the problem, because Justice need not side with the harassed employee in reality.

  • billwald

    Libertarian solution? Employment/moral problems are resolved by working under a union contract.

    Don’t like unions? Libertarian solution? “You pays your money and makes your choice” or “The one who pays the piper names the tune.” 

  • We all agree that protecting workers from arbitrary firing is an important goal. Here’s what needs to happen:

    1 – Figure out the most effective means for achieving this goal.
    2 – Out of these means, select the ones that are most compatible with our other moral commitments, making tradeoffs as necessary.

    Liberals and BHLs will probably still disagree on (1) and especially (2), but I think this approach will help get at the root disagreements.

    • martinbrock

      We don’t all agree. My right to leave an employer at will is indistinguishable from the employer’s right to fire me at will. Who employs whom is an arbitrary distinction. I certainly do not want anyone telling me when I may leave one employer for another.

  • SimpleMachine88

    I think that this was a silly retort to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism. 

    First off, as plenty of people have pointed out, the libertarian part is about making sure the employee is free to choose other employment.  She can’t do this if you make her a scab.  Reducing unionization increases labor mobility, remember?

    The bleeding heart part is about how even if she, for whatever reason, is incapable of finding employment, she should still be receiving enough welfare to “feed her kids”.  Not Randians over here!

    • martinbrock

      Reducing unionization increases labor mobility, remember?

      I don’t understand how reducing unionization increases labor mobility, assuming that labor unions themselves are free associations.

      … she should still be receiving enough welfare to “feed her kids”.

      In my BHL way of thinking, she should be entitled to sufficient credit to invest in her kids and in herself until she can become employed and repay her creditors, and her creditors should share her losses if these investments do not pay off.

      If she cannot find creditors willing to extend her credit under the circumstances, wealthy proprietors should be forced to extend her the credit with as little disruption to their other business as possible.

  • Justathot

    From a truely libertarian (as opposed to liberal) POV, the important distinction is that the employee already has the job… which presumably was not advertised as a Whore-for-hire.  Given this assumption, I think the empolyer’s demands are clearly wrong, and the emplyee should have cause (from the libertarian POV) for legal action. 

    However,  in a truely libertarian government (that assumed people were FREE to engage in jobs of a sexual nature) AND, if the employee were hired for a job that was known to have a sexual component when the employee was hired–then I think the employer should have the right to require the employee to do what she was hired to do. 

    It seems to me that (again from a truely libertarian POV) it might not be unreasonable for the government to require that all sexual oriented jobs be isolated from jobs with none sexual aspects.  Thus, if a secretary is hired she can only be hired as a secretary. If she takes a second job with the same employer, which involves sexual activity,  and she refuses to perform the required activities, then she can be fired from the second job for that reason–but not from the first job as secretary.  This way, both the employer’s and the employee’s rights are protected.

    • The employee will have a contract that specifies a notice period. The employer is (or should be) entitled to give the employee the required notice and simultaneously to offer her a new contract which involves providing sexual services, the new contract to begin when the old contract expires. It is then up to her whether she takes the new contract or finds a different job.

      What is wrong with the employer who says ‘if you want to keep your job you must let me fuck you’ depends upon circumstances. If the employer is the business owner, all that is wrong is that he has been a bit blunt: there was no need to swear! If, however, he is himself employed by the organisation, then he will be acting outside of his own contract and against the interests of his employer: it will be a breach of contract.

  • purple_platypus

    “Of course, the employer’s actions are wrong. (Okay, maybe I could cook
    up a weird scenario where this wouldn’t be wrong, but except in unusual
    circumstances, it’s wrong.) How is that threatening to libertarianism?
    Does Bertram think libertarians have to disagree?”

    No, but he does think it’s a harder case for libertarians than for non-libertarians, and that this is already a problem for libertarianism. And time and again, Libertarian discussions of topics like this, including this one, back him up on that.

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