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March 18, 2011


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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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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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