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.
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.