Exploitation and Unfairness

According to what is now probably the standard view of (transactional) exploitation, it is a matter of someone taking unfair advantage of another (Wertheimer 1996). There have been various attempts to cash out the notion of unfair advantage, but I haven’t found a satisfactory one. I will propose a simple liberal theory, according to which taking unfair advantage is, in a slogan, taking advantage of unfairness. On this view, exploitation is a matter of degree: I exploit someone the more the more their willingness to engage in a transaction on my terms depends on what I will call structural injustice.



Unlike many other theories, mine does not require that the exploited party is used as a means or harmed, or that the exploiting party benefits disproportionately from the transaction, or that the transactional process itself is unfair. It is an account of exploitation in the sense I think is most relevant to political philosophy. We also sometimes use the term for cases where someone takes advantage of another’s bad luck, but that isn’t the same phenomenon at all, as I'll argue later.

To fix ideas, I will focus on a real-life case. I recently hired a poor, uneducated woman, call her Vera, to clean my house. She asked for a ridiculously small amount of money, a sum for which I wouldn’t get out of bed, much less scrub a floor. I paid her almost double what she asked, which she was happy about. There’s no doubt Vera was better off getting the job than she would have been without, especially as she got twice the going rate and the work wasn’t particularly difficult. Nevertheless, I exploited her in the transaction, for the same reason as impoverished but willing organ donors and, arguably, women's labour are exploited in some societies. Without wanting to do so, I took unfair advantage of her, because I got her to do something on terms she only accepted because of structural injustice.

Here’s the basic thesis, which I’ll call the Structural Injustice View (SIV):

A exploits B in transaction x to degree d if structural injustice explains to degree d why B agrees to A’s terms for x.

Two things are worth noting here. First, I grant that it is not easy to spell out what it is for one thing to explain another to a degree, but we do need some such notion for perfectly general reasons, for whenever we want to say that one among many explanatory factors is more important than another. (The amount of sunlight, the quality of the soil, and the genes all explain to some degree how tall a tree grows.) It may well be that what mediates between unjust circumstances and B’s willingness is rational calculation: given what B can hope to get, accepting A’s exploitative offer may be prudential, which explains why she's willing to do so.

Second, structural injustice is a matter of what Rawls calls the basic structure being unjust. I don’t want to commit to the particular understanding of basic structure that Rawls has – perhaps there is good reason to extend the institutional model to more general structural features that significantly influence people’s life chances and form the framework for their choices to include things like deeply entrenched gender relations. What’s crucial is that our choices are influenced by the legal, institutional, and social framework within which they take place, and that this framework can itself be just or unjust.

I obviously can’t defend any particular theory of structural justice here, but a couple of things are worth noting. First, libertarian theories are not theories of structural justice, precisely because they only focus on individual transactions and thereby miss the big picture; Rawls’s critique of Nozick is on the mark. Second, I will assume that liberal egalitarianism of some variety is roughly correct as an account of social justice within a state. Two elements are essential for understanding exploitation: fair equality of opportunity and some type of compensation for bad brute luck. Under fair equality of opportunity, the effects of (morally arbitrary) initial social position are neutralized. Everyone has access to education, nutrition, health care, personal security, and so on, so that by the time they enter the world of work, they’ve had the opportunity and encouragement to make the most of their native talent. They will perhaps also own a share of productive resources, though I’m unsure how this would work in practice. Broadly under this heading – though liberals haven’t traditionally made a big deal out of this – markets have to be regulated to prevent monopolies and cartels, so that would-be-employers and would-be-workers have equal access to the market. Finally, compensation for bad brute luck means, very roughly, that those whose natural endowment is below par need not compete with the lucky, at least not without assistance.

Underlying these demands of justice there’s a broader ideal of equal citizenship – morally speaking, we are a society of equals, and we owe it to each other to ensure everyone has capabilities that are needed for participation in public life on an equal basis, without relying on the mercy or charity of others. What justice demands beyond borders is a huge question that I won’t try to answer, though some stance on it cannot be avoided if we want to talk about Westerners exploiting sweatshop workers in developing countries. (However, in practice such exploitation involves taking advantage of municipal injustice as well.)

Return now to me and my cleaner Vera. To know whether I exploited her, we need to know whether existing structural injustice contributed to explaining why she accepted my offer. That’s obviously not an easy question, but it’s safe to say that had she enjoyed fair equality of opportunity, she would have more marketable skills and would face less class-based discrimination in the job market. Insofar as equal citizenship requires a strong safety net, perhaps a basic income, she would have had even less of an incentive to clean my house on current terms. (Though it is natural to think of the explanatory role of injustice in such counterfactual terms, I emphasize that this is just a heuristic – for one thing, for the society to have been just, so many things would have to have been different that many of our parents might never have met.) Note that this isn’t just a financial matter. Sometimes people in less than just societies accept unfavourable terms because they are lacking in what Rawls called the social bases of self-respect. There are surely jobs, or roles within the family, that people wouldn't accept without far better compensation if they respected and believed in themselves.

Of course, if someone happened to have a brute desire to scrub the floors of strangers, she might still agree to work for me for very little, but that’s presumably a very rare desire (and one that might well call her rationality into question). By contrast, it’s easy to imagine a young adult surfing for very little financial compensation even in a perfectly just society. So we can be confident that I am taking significant advantage of structural unfairness when I employ Vera, and hence am exploiting her.

I believe the point generalizes to other standard cases of exploitation – poor organ donors, prostitutes, and so on. One might worry that it overgeneralizes: perhaps few of us would accept their current terms of employment in a just society. But if we bear in mind that exploitation is a matter of degree, and take note that it is typically misleading to say without qualification that someone is exploited unless it is to some significant degree, perhaps above some threshold, we’ll see that this isn’t a problem. Perhaps, indeed, I am somewhat exploited, but that’s not morally significant.

2. Some Advantages, Challenges, and Implications

How does the Structural Injustice View compare to others? Here I must confess that I am far from mastering the literature at this point. (That’s one reason I’m blogging this – others who know better are most welcome to point me to literature I’ve ignored.) In any case, the view is clearly non-Marxist, though it does share with Marxist views emphasis on the big picture and the causal history of the transaction. Equally clearly, it is an instance of what Snyder (2010) calls a macro fairness approach. A well-known view of that type is defended by Ruth Sample, who appeals, in part, to injustice in accounting for exploitation and its wrongness. She says: “If we gain advantage from an interaction with another, and that advantage is due in part to an injustice he has suffered, we have failed to give him appropriate respect” (Sample 2003, 74). This sounds similar to my view, except for me, it is not the exploiter’s advantage that is due to injustice, but the exploitee’s willingness to agree to the transaction. (This turns out to be significant.) Also, her basic idea seems to be that exploitation is a failure to respect others, as happens when we make use of their need for our own advantage. My account doesn’t involve the idea of need – indeed, it is perfectly possible to take advantage of someone’s needs without thereby exploiting them, unless their neediness is a result of structural injustice.

Perhaps the most influential recent view on transactional exploitation is defended by Alan Wertheimer in his impressive (1996). His view requires us to assess the fairness of transactional gains by reference to some normative baseline determining how much each party ought to get. But there is no such thing as a fair price for something that would be determined apart from supply and demand. Wertheimer’s solution to this problem is to appeal to a hypothetical price in a fully competitive market (Wertheimer 1996, 232). But I don’t think this gets at the heart of the problem: the issue is not in the first instance that the market is not competitive, but that it takes place against an unjust background. There could be a perfect market in Wertheimer’s sense in which some have to sell their labour (or body parts) for very little, for example because of an oversupply of unskilled labour due to restriction of education or ownership of means of production for the children of the privileged. For a kind of empirical evidence, consider whether a larger proportion of people are significantly exploited in the US (with relatively competitive markets) or in Sweden (less competitive markets, but a fairer basic structure). I’m pretty sure the former wins.

SIV does not require a procedural defect in the transaction between A and B either. A need not coerce or deceive B in any way, so we need not to specify a baseline against which to decide whether something counts as coercion. B can give full and informed consent to the exploitative transaction. The presence of standard grounds for questioning consent – coercion or deception or making use of lack of ability – makes for a distinct violation. (As a rule of thumb, the sort of grounds that even a libertarian would agree make a transaction morally problematic won’t make it exploitative.) It may be that the presence of these grounds is itself the result of structural injustice, in which case agreement under threat or due to ignorance will be exploitation on SIV as well.

The obvious challenge to understanding unfair advantage as advantage from unfairness is to deny that transactional exploitation can be understood in terms of structural injustice. Against Sample’s suggestion that gaining advantage of injustice amounts to wrongful exploitation, Matt Zwolinski notes that “Someone who takes pleasure in helping victims of injustice, and performs helpful acts solely in order to receive this pleasure, probably does not act wrongly at all and certainly does not wrong the person whom she helps.” (Zwolinski MS, 24) This is one point on which the difference between my view and Sample’s matters, as nothing in SIV entails that enjoying helping would make it exploitative. There's no transaction to which the victims would agree because of injustice, but a gift of help.

The other challenge that Zwolinski (following Wertheimer) raises is that some paradigmatic cases of transactional exploitation don’t involve structural injustice at all. For example, if your condition for saving someone from drowning is that they sign off everything they own to you, that is allegedly exploitation though the exploitee’s willingness to agree to your terms isn’t explained by background injustice. My response is simply to say that what goes on in such cases is something different, call it price-gouging. It’s taking advantage of someone’s bad luck, and that’s not the same phenomenon that exploitation in the politically interesting sense. It’s a mistake to try to offer one account of two importantly different phenomena. For one thing, it is an accident of the English language that the same word is used. If we go to a non-Indo-European language such as Finnish, we find to different terms. To take advantage of someone in general, for example in the drowning case, is “käyttää hyväkseen” (lit. to make use for one’s own good); “riistää” is to exploit in the sense that SIV is an analysis of, and it cannot be applied to the price-gouging cases. More importantly, engaging in these transactions has different normative implications. If I gain from price-gouging after a hurricane destroyed your house, it isn’t my duty to undo the effects of the hurricane that explained your willingness to accept my terms. But if I gain from structural injustice, it is my special duty to undo the injustice, as far as I can.

If one did insist on similarities in these ways of taking advantage of another, I don’t see an obvious obstacle to a hybrid account of exploitation that combines SIV with Wertheimer’s notion of terms acceptable in a hypothetical competitive market, which may well make sense of price-gouging. (I think Jeremy Snyder endorses this type of hybrid.) I’ve already tried to accommodate some of Wertheimer’s insight by including regulation of markets with a view to enabling competition among the components of a just basic structure. In ordinary circumstances, this should prevent the sort of price-gouging that a monopoly makes possible, or the sort of unfair advantage that would result from people having only one employer (or a united front of employers) to sell their labour to.

Finally, what are the normative implications of the Structural Injustice View? The natural thing to say is that there is a pro tanto moral reason against exploiting, with the strength of the reason depending on the degree of exploitation. Since exploitative transactions can be mutually beneficial, they may not be overall wrong, if the benefit to the exploitee is sufficiently big, third parties aren’t made worse off, and the degree of exploitation sufficiently low. In fact, it would seem like a good rule of thumb to minimize the degree of exploitation by paying (or asking for, if one is selling) one’s reservation price, the price beyond which one wouldn’t exchange. (Or whatever is the analogue of reservation price in non-monetary contexts.) Minimum wage laws can be seen as a way of avoiding collective action problems arising from doing so – paying higher wages lowers my profits and drives me out of business, unless my competitors do their duty as well.

Even when exploitation is not overall wrong, it gives rise to a secondary, remedial duty on the part of those who benefit from exploiting someone, either directly or indirectly (for example, by buying products that are cheaper because their makers were exploited by some corporation). The beneficiaries have a special obligation to contribute to bringing about structural justice. For example, they should pay higher taxes to be used to ensure equal educational opportunities and health care, or work to change the international trade regime. This may be the case even if exploiters aren’t any better off than non-exploiters. These special obligations will be even stronger if exploiters themselves contribute to structural injustice, by way of exploitative transactions themselves or otherwise.

24 Replies to “Exploitation and Unfairness

  1. I worry that the view will be too symmetric to work as it’s stated. Imagine that you really liked taking an advantage of structural injustices. You wanted to buy clothes made in sweatshops, hire desparate people, and so on. The more unfair the terms, the better it is for you. Maybe this gives you a sense of superiority that you really like. Come to think of, I’m sure that there are people like this (not you).
    In this situation, the following claim would be true:
    Vera exploits Antti in the transaction of cleaning his house for a lousy payment to a high degree if structural injustice explains to high degree why Antti agrees to Vera’s terms for her cleaning his house for a lousy payment.
    So, it would be true on your view that she exloits you, even if at the same time you too of course exploit her. This strikes me as an unwanted conclusion. Thus, I think that in some way the theory of exploitation would need to take into account the prior asymmetric relation.

  2. Thanks, Jussi – I expected counterexamples to come soon! Your point highlights the importance of specifying the causal route from structural injustice to willingness. It’s not clear to me if it would explain Antti’s acceptance in your scenario. It seems to me it’s not because the basic structure is unjust that Antti agrees, but because he’d like it to be unjust. (He’d agree to paying lousy money even in a just society, were someone to accept it.)
    If you’re not convinced of that, what if SIV was amended to include accepting worse terms than would be in B’s interest (or that she would prefer) because of injustice? Vera would be exploited, but Antti wouldn’t, since injustice wouldn’t cause him to accept worse terms for himself.

  3. Antti, I like your view a lot. But I worry about the case where market price = reservation price. That is, but for injustice, Vera would have more marketable skills, and so would not need to clean for amount X; but the buyer does not (as things stand) value her cleaning services more than X (the buyer has better ways to spend the money if the price is too high).
    Such cases presumably arise – there are buyers of cleaning services for whom the market price is the reservation price. Now I take it your view is that there is still exploitation in this case, but because the transaction is mutually beneficial it may well not be overall wrong. Is that right? If so, my question is this: does the fact that the transaction is exploitative give the buyer any moral reason against it? I can see that there is a reason to raise the market price to the reservation price, but once they are the same does exploitation provide a further objection to the transaction? What I’m getting at is the idea that sometimes exploitation has no moral implications for the exploitative act; it is simply that the basic structure is unjust. I can see that it is intuitive that there is a pro tanto moral reason against exploitation, but is there an argument for this? The alternative view would be that there’s something more like a default reason or prima facie reason against exploitation.

  4. I know there might be ways around this case. I’m not yet convinced about the first answer. Had the basic structure not been unjust, Antti* would not have accepted the terms. Because of this, it does seem to me that the unjustness of the basic structure does explanatory work – even causal work given the metaethics debates. Now, it might be that you could add something about the *right* kind of causal routes. Right kind of causal routes are of course notoriously tricky. And, Antti* doesn’t probably need to explicitly think that the agreement would be cool because it is unjust – he’d only need to be disposed to behave in a certain, perhaps peculiar, way.
    The second amendment might be more promising. Again, I think there might be counter-examples. If Antti* doesn’t accept Vera’s offer, he might need to pay more to Sara (the only other cleaner available) who would happen to do a far better job and as a result Antti* would end up with a deal which is better for him. In this case, injustice would make Antti* to accept worse terms for himself. But he isn’t still exploited.
    Do we need definitions here? Wouldn’t some sort of cluster account do?

  5. Hi Antti,
    Interesting post. On your view, was it wrong for you to exploit Vera by hiring her at double the going rate? Should you have instead not hired her and cleaned the house yourself even though this would have meant that someone else would have hired Vera at only the going rate? In other words, is exploitation ever permissible or even obligatory on your view? And if it is, do you see this as an unwelcome result?

  6. Here’s a possible counterexample.
    Jones, a wealthy banker, is walking through New York City and comes across a homeless person, Smith, on the sidewalk asking for 25 cents. Smith would never accept any donations from Jones if it were not for the structural injustices that have made Smith homeless. (If he were not homeless because of structural injustices, we can stipulate that he would be too proud to take donations.) Jones takes pity on Smith and gives him $5.
    To the extent that structural injustice explains Smith’s accepting the transaction in question– accepting $5 from Jones– Jones exploits Smith to the same degree, according to your view. If that’s really true, it would look like a vast range of humanitarian actions are exploitative, at least to some degree. Even if Jones has an indirect way of helping Smith by working to resolve the relevant structural injustices, it seems that we do not want it to be exploitation to help him directly.
    It looks like we need either some way of denying that this case is exploitative on your view, or showing how the implications of its being exploitative are benign.

  7. Great – really useful comments! I’ll start with Matt and move back from there. (I’m also looking after a three-month old baby, so it might take a while for me to catch up.) So, I guess I was treating transaction as a give-and-take, an exchange. Perhaps that’s implicit in the notion of accepting terms. When someone gives a genuine gift, it doesn’t involve terms, at least not in the sense of “if I give you x, you’ll do y/give me z”. So I’d say that while Smith accepts a gift, there’s no such terms for him to accept. And if there were, it would probably be exploitation – suppose Jones said, ‘This fiver is yours if you do the Macarena’.
    This isn’t to say there aren’t conditional gifts – gifts that come with terms of a different sort. Jones might say “Here’s a fiver to use for lunch, not for a bottle.” That’s an offer that Smith might accept or reject (and that might be disrespectful towards him), but it wouldn’t be exploitation, either intuitively or under SIV as I intend it to be read.
    A trickier case in this region would be paying Smith a wage, say €30 (which he wouldn’t accept but for injustice) for building a kindergarten for poor kids – a project that would in no way benefit Jones, who is not only rich but also a child-hater. It’s not clear to me whether that would be exploitation. If not, then I’d need to add to SIV something like purporting x to benefit A.

  8. Hi Antti,
    Thanks for this post! Very interesting stuff here. I take it the paper of mine that you were referring to is “Structural Exploitation”? You didn’t cite it, but another piece that’s highly relevant to this issue is Mikhail Valdman’s “Exploitation and Injustice”. In fact, Valdman is the one who originated the first point you attribute to me. I just took it on board.
    As I argued in my paper, I think that there are some important ways that exploitation is connected to structural injustice. And too much contemporary discussion, perhaps, has neglected that fact. At the same time, I’m doubtful that we can define exploitation in terms of structural injustice. Doing so, I think, winds up putting too big a gap between the exploitativeness of a transaction and the propriety of the exploiter’s conduct.
    Let me explain. The standard account of exploitation, as you note, holds that it consists of taking unfair advantage of another person. Your account, in contrast, holds that exploitation consists of taking advantage of unfairness. But, of course, one can take advantage of unfairness without taking unfairadvantage of unfairness. And unless we can show that the exploiter is in some way behaving unfairly, it just doesn’t seem right to me to call her activity exploitative. Doing so either makes it too difficult/demanding to behave non-exploitatively, or as Daniel worries above, winds up stripping the concept of its normativity.
    So, for instance, you say that hiring Vera at twice the market rate would have been exploitative. (Side note, related to your response to Matt – is the money you paid her above the market rate best thought of as her wage, or as a gift on top of her wage?) Does this imply that it was wrong for you to hire her at that rate? Or at least that you had a strong moral reason not to do so? Would five times the market rate not be exploitative?
    Since you define exploitation as taking advantage of injustice, and not as taking unfair advantage of injustice, I guess it’s open to you to say that exploitation isn’t wrong at all – or at least, that it’s not necessarily wrong. If it is wrong, I guess you’d need to tell some story about why, since it’s not necessarily true that exploitation involves any unfairness on the exploiter’s part.

  9. I’m having trouble seeing why the concept of structural injustice should play such a key role in an account of exploitation. After all, there are many reasons why someone might be susceptible to being taken advantage of, such as disability, bad luck, ignorance, poor judgment, and injustice. Is there something special about being the victim of injustice — and specifically the victim of structural injustice — that raises worries about exploitation? It seems to me just as exploitative to offer Vera an excessively low wage if she is a victim of structural injustice as it would be if she were the victim of her own imprudence.

  10. Daniel and Doug raise the issue of pro tanto wrongness of exploitation. I’m assuming, with Wertheimer and others, that exploitation can be beneficial to the exploitee. If so, it’s possible that in some circumstances, A can produce the the best consequences, impartially considered, by exploiting B. I’m not a consequentialist, but it seems that exploiting is then permissible, and might even be obligatory. But is there then a secondary duty to remedy the underlying injustice (a special duty in addition to the ‘natural duty of justice’), as there would be if you had to break a promise to maximize the good, and why?
    I think so. Assuming, again, that there is some truth in liberal egalitarianism (and bracketing the fact that Vera is an illegal immigrant, since that is not essential), Vera hasn’t got what we owe each other, and it is this very wrong that explains why she’s willing to clean my toilet for much less than I earn during that time, even if all I do is write a blog on something that has caught my interest. She would be entitled to resent the laws and policies that never gave her much of a shot. And here I am, offering her a 20 euro note and a few kind words in Russian, about to get her to do what serves me precisely because of the circumstances she has reason to resent. I’m not going to add to the injury, since I’ll benefit her, but am I not adding to the insult? There’s nothing offensive if I benefit from your own foolishness, but it seems to me I have a pro tanto reason not to draw advantage from the way a wrong done to you bends your will.
    I think it is important for it to be the case that I wrong you that my benefit is gained through the wrong you’ve been done affecting your will, and I either know or ought to know this. If someone shoots the horse from under you and I win the race, I benefit from a wrong done to you, but I don’t wrong you myself. (Still, don’t I owe it to you to endorse your call for reorganizing the race?)
    I grant that the rationale I’ve sketched is still not perfectly lucid, and may propose something better later.
    Daniel, I do think if your acceptance of my reservation price is explained by structural injustice, it is still exploitation. It could be a case of blameless exploitation, depending on what explains the level of my reservation price.

  11. Antti,
    Thanks for your response. I find it somewhat artificial to say that accepting a gift is not an exchange or transaction. It’s certainly at odds with the way many economists and anthropologists would talk about these cases; I think they would happily call them exchanges. A sale of a good to a customer would be considered a transaction, for example, even if the price has been discounted to zero. More substantively, there are still terms in such an exchange, it just happens that for one party the terms do not involve giving anything in return. (Even that might be too strong. Maybe the recipient is expected to show gratitude, for example.)
    So I think the worry remains. Also, with regards to conditional gifts, am I to understand you as taking such gifts not to count as exchanges? That again sounds artificial. The “terms” that the recipient has to accept involve not spending the money in certain ways. Or perhaps you had another way in mind for ruling them out as exploitation?
    In regards to Mike’s concern, it looks like the worry is handled by pointing out that the part about structural injustice is a sufficient but not necessary condition for exploitation according to the way Antti states SIV. It’s then open to Antti to allow that the cases Mike mentions are exploitative.

  12. Antti,
    You say there’s nothing offensive if you benefit from another’s foolishness. But I’m not so sure. If I foolishly wade into rough waters and then need rescue, and you’re the only available rescuer, it would surely be deeply wrongful if you demand, say, my house in exchange. In general, I just don’t see why the reasons B is desperate (whether it is because of bad luck, injustice, etc.) are relevant to assessing the wrongness of A’s taking advantage of his desperation to extract excessive benefits from him. If you discovered that Vera is badly off because of a poor investment, and not because of structural injustice, would it then be okay to pay her as little as possible?
    You say also that there is a pro tanto reason not to draw advantage from the way a wrong done to another bends his will. But imagine a case in which the victim of a wrong is also its beneficiary (had B not been wronged, he would not now be fabulously wealthy). Now, suppose that, because of B’s wealth, he is willing to transact with you for almost no money, since money isn’t important to him any longer. On your account, this would seem to qualify as wrongful exploitation, but I have a hard time believing that to be so.
    These thoughts suggest to me that wrongful exploitation involves not merely taking advantage of those “affected” by structural injustice, but taking advantage of those who have been disadvantaged by it such that they are now in a bad bargaining position. But I also suspect that if you go in this direction — if you stress B’s desperation or the badness of his bargaining position — that will end up doing much of the moral work, and the bit about structural injustice will become irrelevant.

  13. Hello Antti,
    Very interesting discussion here. As you suggest in your post, I’m supportive of the view that structural exploitation is a distinctive kind of exploitation and carries with it an obligation to address the underlying structural injustice. I wonder, though, why you wouldn’t extend a similar obligation to what you call price gouging cases. In price gouging, the vulnerability is caused by luck rather than human-created unjust structures. Thus there wouldn’t be an obligation to eliminate the causes of natural disasters. However, there might be an obligation, based on fairness, to maintain a price for goods similar to that given before the disaster in order not to take advantage of another’s bad luck.
    I understand price gouging to be a form of exploitation, though I wouldn’t endorse the reasoning above. I’m curious, though, why you wouldn’t on your view. That is, what’s special about taking advantage of injustice that you haven’t caused vs. taking advantage of bad luck that you haven’t caused?
    Jeremy Snyder

  14. Matt,
    I take your point about structural injustice being sufficient but not necessary for exploitation. But I took Antti to be suggesting that there is something morally special about being taken advantage of when one is a victim of structural injustice, and I’m just not sure what that is, or why that case warrants special consideration.

  15. Thanks again for all the comments – it’ll take me a while to think them all through, and I won’t try to respond to everything right now.
    Anyway, giving just a sufficient condition was a bit of a cop-out – I wanted to strengthen it to necessary, but the post was already running too long. Because I would go to a different direction in doing so, I do accept Mike’s challenge.
    So let me try out just saying structural injustice is necessary. The reason why I don’t want to talk about excessive benefits, for example, is that we need a baseline for that, which I don’t think we have, though we certainly do have intuitions about particular cases. I think people can make all sorts of bad deals without being exploited.
    Now, Mike presents two kinds of cases where people are in a bad bargaining position without structural injustice. First type has someone badly off because of bad option luck, in Dworkin’s terms. It’s famously a contentious issue among egalitarians what to do with bad option luck. I’m with the Anderson-Scheffler camp that says we still owe you a chance – you still need to be in a position to rightly respect yourself as an equal who isn’t at the mercy of others. I’ll just say for short we need to have a safety net that catches the bad investors as well. If that’s the case, then you won’t accept just any terms in a just society. So if we remove injustice as an explanatory factor, the failed-investor-Vera isn’t going to be destitute. I will be able to hire her to do anything on worse terms than I would had her investment gone well – her bargaining position will be worse. But that’s the risk she took in making the investment. (It could have been foolish to begin with – it’s this kind of foolishness I meant earlier.) It’s just what option luck is. When I drive a hard bargain, I’m not exploiting her. There’s nothing unfair about my advantage, given the causal history of her willingness. The point of talking about structural justice is to allow people to win fairly as long as they play by the rules. When the playing field really is level, it is okay to pay as little as possible.
    Mike’s second type of case is one in which the victim of a wrong is also its beneficiary. One thing it highlights is again that I’ll need a more precise story about how the wrong done to someone influences their will. In Mike’s case, the wrong results in a benefit, which in turn results in willingness to agree. Without a theoretical account, it seems intuitive that with such an explanatory chain, transitivity fails: it’s not the wrong that was done to him that explains why he agrees, but the benefit that resulted from it.
    In any case, the case would be a counterexample only to my suggestion about what makes exploitation pro tanto wrong, not to SIV, since the wrong in question isn’t structural injustice.

  16. Picking up from yesterday, I’ll begin with Matt Z. Thanks for the links – it was reading your paper after a Philpapers announcement that prompted me to finally write down the idea I had a while ago in a Facebook discussion. (Facebook + philpapers -> PEA Soup. Ten years ago, philosophy wasn’t done like this.) I didn’t come across Mike’s paper, but will now read it.
    As is perhaps clear from my previous responses, I want to resist the idea that there’s a distinction between taking unfair and fair advantage of unfairness. That is, taking advantage of unfairness, or more precisely the influence of unjust circumstances on the will of a person, is always taking unfair advantage. To be convinced otherwise, I’d need to see a case in which A gets a victim of injustice to agree to his terms precisely because she’s a victim of injustice, but lacks a pro tanto moral reason against driving a hard bargain. (In fact, I might need to see more than a case – I have my doubts about the informational value of convoluted counterexamples. A recipe for creating a set of uncontroversial ones is a different thing.) And of course I think that not every way of taking unfair advantage is exploitation, at least not in the politically interesting sense.
    Still, the case of paying five times market value suggests I may need a proviso. It may be that while B’s willingness to x for 5M is in fact explained by injustice (since, for example, B wouldn’t be in the business of x-ing in the first place but for injustice), B’s counterpart B* in a just society would agree to x for 5M. (There’s a lot of things I don’t in fact do that I would do if you paid me enough.) In that type of case, injustice might be inessential to B’s accepting the terms. If so, it probably wouldn’t be exploitation.
    The question of whether the extra paid on top of market price is a gift is a really interesting one. I think the way to find the answer is asking whether the extra bit makes a difference to A’s standing to complain about B’s performance, if it just meets the minimum contractual requirements. If it’s payment, A may say “You should have done a better job, I paid you well”. If it’s a pure gift, something for which you expect nothing in return, A lacks such entitlement. This only works for jobs where there’s a difference between minimum requirements and doing things really well, but I think that includes most jobs.

  17. Jeremy, one thing I didn’t discuss in the original post is that I think Marx was right to distinguish between labour and commodities. It seems to me that buying labour low is prima facie very different from selling commodities high, though both involve taking advantage of bargaining position. I really am a novice to this debate, so I’d be very happy to hear why people think this difference doesn’t matter.
    Assuming it does matter, let’s see whether we can construct a case that shows there’s a further difference between bad luck and injustice. Consider a situation in which brute bad luck reduces the market value of someone’s skills. I’m a flood protection engineer, and a freak flood destroys the only town in the continent that would have needed flood protection, and it’s decided not to rebuild it, so I’m out of a job. To ensure that injustice is out of the picture, let’s assume the society is just, so I’m not left destitute. Still, I’ll have to take a job I wouldn’t have done but for bad luck.
    Am I exploited by the person who makes me the offer? I don’t think so. My employer does take advantage of my hardship, but it’s a hardship of a sort that goes with the human condition. My fellow men and women ought to pity me and help me back on my feet, but they can’t be expected to render me invulnerable to fate and return me to where I was. I can’t resent them for failing to do so, nor consequently someone who gains from my situation. Things would be otherwise if I had never received a training in the first place, and found myself in an identical bargaining situation because of that.
    Matt H, if my original formulation doesn’t rule out gift ‘exchanges’, I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t stipulate that it only covers exchanges of money, work, and goods. After all, we both presumably agree that these are different kinds of transaction, and that the gift cases aren’t exploitative. I would like to say, though, that in my misspent youth I read a bit of Derrida and Levinas, and still find persuasive their insistence that a true gift comes without any expectation of getting something in return, even gratitude. (A gift exchange, if not an oxymoron, is then a very special kind of exchange.)
    I still have some points to respond to, but I’ll take a break now and see if anyone finds the responses so far persuasive.

  18. I have not read everything above but wanted to make sure that a quick worry I had was misguided. Consider a situation in which your predicament is unjust and I can help make it less unjust. Suppose that there are many reasonable paths to making your situation less unjust and I should co-ordinate with you about which paths you think best, but not just defer to you as some paths might be too demanding on me. Might it not be the case that what path you agree we ought to pursue will depend on your being in an unjust situation and thus that your view calls my aid exploitation?

  19. Hi Antti,
    Very quickly – since I have a little one of my own to look after today! You write that in order to be convinced that there’s a distinction between taking fair and unfair advantage of injustice, you would “need to see a case in which A gets a victim of injustice to agree to his terms precisely because she’s a victim of injustice, but lacks a pro tanto moral reason against driving a hard bargain.”
    But I’m not sure how “hard bargain” is doing any work in your account. To my ear, “hard bargain” suggests the kind of thing that you describe as price gouging. But on your account, A would seem to be exploiting B whenever B agrees to A’s proposal because of structural injustice. And that’s compatible with A’s bargain being not hard at all. I may have given a case like this in my paper, but imagine someone whose house is burned down in a racist act, and assume that the racist act is not merely an isolated incident but the product of a deeper structural injustice. The person goes looking for a contractor to rebuild the house and finds you. You do this kind of job every day, and have a set fee that you charge for it. So you charge this person that fee. You make a bit of profit from the job, but no more or no less than you would from any other job.
    To me, it doesn’t seem like you’re taking unfair advantage of the victim here, though you are taking advantage of injustice, since without the injustice he would not be looking to have someone rebuild his house. It also seems wrong to me to say that you are acting exploitatively (or at least, wrongfully exploitatively) in this case, but your account seems committed to saying that you are.

  20. It now looks to me like I am urging considerations of the sort that Matt was urging above, perhaps with a small twist to avoid the appearance of the situation merely involving a gift.

  21. Matt Z, that’s a nice case! I wonder if it would suffice to avoid the counterexample to make the sort of modification that I suggested in response to Jussi early on in the discussion – namely, that it’s only exploitation if structural injustice explains why B accepts terms that are more advantageous to A than B would otherwise prefer (that is, accept in the absence of injustice). (I’m sorely tempted to add a bit of magic and say “reasonably prefer”, which would probably solve all my problems.) Injustice or not, in a free market A and B will only strike a bargain that appears beneficial from the perspective of each. So the fact that B accepts terms that are beneficial to A isn’t as such explained by injustice. In fact, in your case, B accepts exactly the same terms for the transaction with A that she would were she not the victim of injustice, so injustice doesn’t explain B’s willingness to agree to worse terms. Hence, no exploitation. (If A was the only contractor willing to build for B’s minority, and used that position to charge more, A would indeed exploit B.)
    Now, of course B is ex hypothesi only in the market for a house because the basic structure is unjust. Presumably the police look the other way when the houses of B’s group are burned, and may even participate in it. B is certainly vulnerable to exploitation, but not necessarily exploited, in case she’s lucky enough to meet with a honourable person such as A. This description suggests that my slogan should be that exploitation is a matter of taking advantage of unfairness in the context of bargaining. (More clumsily but also more precisely, taking advantage, in the context of bargaining, of unfairness – the bargaining isn’t unfair, but the situation of which A takes advantage is.) If injustice places B in a situation where she needs to bargain with A, that may benefit A, but A need not make the injustice work for her in improving his terms, and so need not exploit B. (‘Bargaining’ needs to be read in the widest sense to cover informal negotiation over terms of a relationship to cover that class of exploitation.)
    One might worry this leaves Vera unexploited. But it doesn’t; assuming her work is hard and unrewarding, injustice does its work in improving my terms all by itself. Taking advantage needn’t be an intentional process.

  22. Hi Antti,
    I haven’t had a chance to think this through as much as I would like. There’s something plausible about that line of response. But I wonder. You write:
    “it’s only exploitation if structural injustice explains why B accepts terms that are more advantageous to A than B would otherwise prefer”
    and later:
    “of course B is ex hypothesi only in the market for a house because the basic structure is unjust.”
    Taking both of these together, can we really say that B has not been exploited? After all, the terms to which A and B are, in fact, more advantageous to A than B would otherwise prefer (or, at least, more disadvantageous to B than B would otherwise prefer). What she would prefer, and what she would have in the absence of injustice, is not to have to spend any money to have her home rebuilt.
    I suppose you could say that given that she has to strike some bargain, the details of the bargain itself are not themselves determined by injustice, and that’s what makes the exchange non-exploitative. But I worry that separating the details of the bargain from the need to strike a bargain itself is going to be a bit ad hoc, and hard to defend in a theoretical way. I worry that, though as I said I haven’t thought it through enough to be sure that this is the case.

  23. Hi Antti,
    You might be interested in a series of Hillel Steiner’s papers on exploitation, since the view you propose looks quite similar to his.
    The latest statement of Steiner’s theory is ‘Exploitation Takes Time’ in Economic Theory and Economic Thought: Essays for Ian Steedman, John Vint, J. Stanley Metcalfe, Heinz D. Kurz, Neri Salvadori & Paul Samuelson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2009).
    His early papers on this topic are:
    Steiner, ‘A Liberal Theory of Exploitation,’ Ethics 94 (1984), 225–41.
    Steiner, ‘Exploitation: A Liberal Theory Amended, Defended, and Extended,’ in Modern Theories of Exploitation, Andrew Reeve ed. (Sage, 1987).

  24. Matt, I have the same worry – I don’t want the move to be ad hoc. I’ll think about it more if I turn this into a paper, and may bother you again then.
    That will depend, in part, on how close my view is to Steiner’s. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet – I hope I’m not entirely reinventing the wheel. Thanks for the references, Jonathan!

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