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.