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Exploitation: What is it? Is it wrong? And what should we do about it?

Professor Ferguson introduces the concept of exploitation in the context of these three debates about what exploitation is, whether it is wrong, and what can be done about it. The masterclass includes discussion of the pros and cons of the various positions in these debates as well as arguments about how they can best be resolved.

Most ethicists agree that to exploit someone is to take unfair advantage of them. But there is widespread disagreement about what exactly it means to take unfair advantage. Some argue that exploitation involves an unfair distribution of benefits; others argue that it is not a matter of how benefits are distributed, but rather of the way that we treat other people. In addition, many ethicists disagree about whether exploitations that are mutually beneficial can really be wrong. Although paying someone an unfair wage seems wrong, when these wages are better than worker’s next best option it is difficult to explain why they are morally wrong since we do not usually think that we can wrong someone by benefiting them. Finally, ethicists also disagree about whether consumers can, and should, do anything to stop workers from being exploited. In many cases it appears that avoiding the purchase of, say, clothing made in sweatshops allows consumers to refrain from exploiting. Yet if consumers buy clothing made by relatively wealthier workers in high income countries instead, this provides no income to poorer workers. Surely this is even worse for these workers? As the Economist Joan Robinson said, the problem is that “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited all.

Professor Benjamin Ferguson

Benjamin Ferguson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick and director of Warwick’s Philosophy Politics and Economics programme. His research is in moral and political philosophy and focuses on the ethics of market-based interactions like exploitation and fraud. He holds a PhD and MSc from the London School of Economics. He has published many books and articles on the ethics of markets, including the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Libertarianism (Routledge, 2022) and Exploitation: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (Oxford, 2023).

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