Exploitation –

In a recent talk (available in full length at Youtube; see embedded below) Matt Zwolinski, a political philosopher at the University of San Diego, argues that what is usually considered exploitation can at least be perceived to be morally better than the behavior most of us demonstrate in face of catastrophes and emergencies – namely neglect/ignorance/inactivity.

The argument presented by Zwolinski is pretty powerful, especially when considering morality (as consequentialists do) as aiming at the creation of the greatest good for the greatest number (or the minimization of suffering). When looking at cases of exploitation (such as price gouging or the working conditions in sweatshops in developing economies) with a rational, logical perspective, it seemingly is difficult to object to Zwolinski’s argument – even though our moral intuition, our gut feeling and emotions, might clearly say something different: The exploiter does at least provide some value/benefit to the victim of the exploitation, but the inactive people (like ourselves) don’t do anything for them. So how could exploitation be bad but neglect acceptable?

How can we resolve the puzzle? Should we ignore the moral intuition on basis of the rational argument and just move forward by accepting exploitative behavior on basis of the benefits for all involved parties? When looking at the situation short-term this seems to be a compelling conclusion, but I would still tend to disagree: One possible reason to condemn exploitation (and even to introduce legislation against certain types of exploitation, such as price gouging) can be understood to have a social dimension: Through the condemnation of exploitation and through anti-exploitation legislation, we all (and as a consequence entire societies) signal to all of their members that unfair behavior is not acceptable.

In the short-term exploitation might bring real benefits for the involved parties of the exchange (individuals, groups, organizations) – be it the exploiters or those that are being exploited. But in the long-run societies might have a significant benefit, from punishing (through moral despise or possibly even through legal sanctions) the exploiters. To substantiate this point: let’s look at examples of exploitation that Zwolinski doesn’t address: How about black-mailing? Such cases might also bring benefit for all both involved parties, but there are good reasons to morally condemn them and I guess that even Zwolinski wouldn’t defend them.

I fully agree with Zwolinski’s point that neglect / inaction is morally vastly undervalued – and that we should pay more attention to driving people to become active for the benefit of all involved parties. But I just don’t buy the argument, that this would be a good reason to accept exploitation – not even from a normative perspective.

I believe that Zwolinski’s argument against neglect (by criticizing three types of biases) is well substantiated – but there are at least two fundamental problems:

  1. The overall presentation commits a logical fallacy: Just because Zwolinski can show that neglect is bad doesn’t make exploitation any better (not even if exploitation was less bad than neglect). There are good reasons to sanction exploitation to ensure that those who act, act positively in a more general sense, irrespective of benefits for the exploited party. Exploitation is not only appalling because of “the way in it affects the vulnerable people that are taken advantage off” (32:20 min), but also because it is a behavior that if generalized/generally accepted will be (a) either a violation of basic moral principles/rules (Deontological perspective), (b) or yield severely negative long-term consequences (Consequentialist perspective). And there is of course no reason to believe that there are only two options – neglect or exploitation. The moral disdain people show for exploitation might aim at opening our eyes for the simple fact that we could look for non-exploitative ways to solve our problems. Just to use Zwolinski’s examples: After a natural catastrophe – why can’t business help to supply the goods to people in need in a non exploitative way? Couldn’t they simply set maximum amounts of goods to be handed out per customer to avoid out-of stock? Couldn’t they try to get more goods and simply add the additional cost to the price, instead of charging the truly excessive prices that have frequently been charged in the past? How about sweatshops: Even if life and working conditions in sweatshops are already above the average in certain countries, couldn’t the large importers of textiles do more in order to ensure good and safe working conditions, e.g. through collaboration with broader stakeholder networks?
  2. A recent study by Jim A. C. Everett,  David A. Pizarro, and Molly J. Crockett (Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology; see also here and here) came to the conclusion that “agents who express dontological moral judgments are more valued as social partners”. Now this is obviously irrelevant from a normative perspective (because all people or at least in the people in the study might all be showing a morally undesirable behavior), but I rather would read this as an example of the social dimension that Zwolinski seems to neglect or at least down play: Only looking at marginal improvements/better consequences (which – I agree – can sometimes [at least seemingly] be morally imperative) might on the other hand sometimes have negative long-term/overall consequences. And in the cases that Zwolinski discusses (namely price gouging and sweatshops) I do believe that the moral condemnation is justified as defending it might bring relatively better results than the neglect/inaction that most of us show. But it comes at the cost not only of the people who are being exploited but also at the cost of seemingly accepting a behavior that should (normatively) change.

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