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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2009

Allen W. Wood
Philosophy, Cornell University


It is commonly thought that exploitation is unjust; some think it is part of the very meaning of the word ‘exploitation’ that it is unjust. Those who think this will suppose that the just society has to be one in which people do not exploit one another, at least on a large scale. I will argue that exploitation is not unjust by definition, and that a society (such as our own) might be fundamentally just while nevertheless being pervasively exploitative. I do think that exploitation is nearly always a bad thing, and wul try to identify the moral belief which makes most of us think it is. But I will argue that its badness does not always consist in its being unjust.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1995

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1 The claim that surrogacy contracts are exploitative can be found in: Singer, Peter and Wells, Deane, The Reproductive Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 125Google Scholar; Warnock, Mary, A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), p. 46Google Scholar; Malm, Heidi, “Paid Surrogacy: Arguments and Responses,” Public Affairs Quarterly, vol. 3 (1989), p. 61Google ScholarPubMed; Field, Martha, Surrogale Motherhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 25Google Scholar; Annas, George J., “Fairy Tales Surrogate Mothers Tell,” in Gostin, Larry, ed., Surrogate Motherhoai (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 43Google Scholar; Tong, Rosemarie, “Overdue Death,”Google Scholar in ibid., p. 45; Capron, Alexander and Radin, Margaret, “Choosing Family Law over Contract Law as a Paradigm for Surrogate Motherhood,”Google Scholar in ibid., p. 62; Anderson, Elizabeth S., “Is Women's Labor a Commodity?Philiosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 19 (1990), p. 84Google ScholarPubMed; and Satz, Debra, “Markets in Women's Reproductive Labor,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 21 (1992), pp. 123–24Google ScholarPubMed. Thoughtful replies to these claims have been made by Arneson, Richard J., “Commodification and Commercial Surrogacy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 21 (1992). pp. 132–64Google ScholarPubMed; and Wertheimer, Alan, “Two Questions about Surrogacy and Exploitation,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 21 (1992), pp. 211–39.Google ScholarPubMed

2 Wertheimer, , “Two Questions,” p. 212.Google Scholar

3 For instance, see Roomer, John, “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” in Roemer, , ed., Analytical Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 260–82.Google Scholar

4 Under the verb ‘exploit’, Wekter's (1966)Google Scholar distinguishes “to turn a natural resource to economic account: to utilize” from “to make use of meanly or unjustly for one's own advantage or profit”; American Heritage (1985)Google Scholar distinguishes “to employ to the greatest possible Avantage” from “to make use of selfishly or unethically.”

5 See Feinberg, Joel, Harmless Wrongdoing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 178Google Scholar; Wertheimer, , “Two Questions,” p. 212.Google Scholar

6 Gorr, Michael J., Coercion, Freedom, and Exploitation (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), p. 147.Google Scholar

7 Plato, , Gorgias, trans. Irwin, Terence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 488b5.Google Scholar

8 “Morally speaking, [modern society] represents a maximum in the exploitation of humanity; but it presupposes those on whose account this exploitation has meaning.… My concept, my metaphor for this type is, as one knows, the word Übermensch” (Nietzsche, Friedrich, Werke [Leipzig: Naumann, 1901], vol. 15, p. 421Google Scholar; see Nietzsche, , The Will to Power, ed. Kaufmann, Walter [New York: Random House, 1967], section 866, pp. 463–64).Google Scholar

9 John Kleinig describes various cases of exploitation, then writes that they all “involve one party's playing on some character trait of the other for the purpose of securing some advantage” (Kleinig, , “The Ethics of Consent,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 11[1981])Google Scholar. In my terms the “playing on” is a-exploitation, while the “securing some advantage” is b-exploitation.

10 These suggestions were made to me in conversation by Elizabeth Anderson and Dan Brock, respectively. But the formulations are my own, based on my memory of informal exchanges, and they may not do justice to what these individuals had in mind.

11 Michael Gorr reminds me of a passage in Marx's early notebooks where it is said that under the system of private property each person regards the other's needs only as sources of dependence and power, with the result that “mutual pillaging” is the basic social relationship between people (see Wood, Allen W., ed., Marx: Selections [New York: Macmillan, 1988], pp. 3738)Google Scholar. Though Marx does not use the term ‘exploitation’ here, I think it would be quite accurate to say that it was Marx's intent in these passages to put all market exchanges in an exploitative light. But the claim that all market exchanges are necessarily exploitative, if taken literally, seems to me simply wrong (and not something the mature Marx ever said or would have been inclined to say). However, there are a couple of points the young Marx is making in this passage that seem to me very insightful and on target. Marx is portraying the standpoint of the political economists, who (then as today) do tend to represent people's interest in one another as exclusively exploitative in a fairly straight-forward sense, since they interpret the needs and desires of others as merely so many opportunities for me to satisfy my utility function. Marx wants to contrast production under such a system with a society in which we might “produce things as human beings,” looking upon the needs of the other instead as opportunities to affirm our human potentialities and our commonality with other human beings, which Ls surely a more attractive picture of what human life might be like than what we see portrayed either in the theories of the economists or in the actual capitalist social order they intend to depict.

12 Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 184–92.Google Scholar

13 This can be illustrated by the example of the tabloid mentioned above. The tabloid a-exploits the public's tastes, and these tastes do enable the tabloid to reap benefits. But various things suggest themselves as the means it uses: for example, these tastes themselves, or the public's purchasing power, or the market system through which the papers are sold; and none of these is readily identifiable as a distinct object of b-exploitation neatly correlated with the tabloid's a-exploitation of the public's tastes.

14 On the other hand, I think it would be hyperbole to say of an exploitation film, which exploits the public's bad taste or morbid curiosity, that it also exploits the public. Pornography is sometimes alleged to exploit woman-not just the women who pose for pornographic pictures, but all women (see, e.g., Dworkin, Andrea, Intercourse [New York: Free Press, 1987]Google Scholar, and MacKinnon, Catharine, Only Words [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993])Google Scholar. The idea appears to be that pornography encourages a one-sided image of all women as sexual playthings, as objects of domination and humiliation, and this is seen as creating for all women a wide range of vulnerabilities which make possible various forms of a-exploitation with women as their victims. The claim that pornography exploits all women strikes me as hyperbole; but if the issue of whether a person is exploited turns on “how much of the person” is included in the exploitation, then we might expect that there will be a tendency to hyperbole on the part of those whose aim is to persuade us of the seriousness of a given kind of exploitation.

15 Roemer, , “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” p. 260Google Scholar; Reiman, Jaffrey, “Exploitation, Force, and the Moral Assessment of Capitalism: Thoughts on Roemer and Cohen,” Philosoplty and Public Affairs, vol. 16 (1987), pp. 341Google Scholar. I call these “Marxist” accounts only because that is the way their authors advertise them. There is no reason to ascribe any of them to Marx himself, since he has no technical concept of exploitation. Marx's economic theory does have a technical concept of the “rate of exploitation” (slv, the ratio of surplus value to variable capital). But Marx gives it this name only because he already believes, on perfectly reasonable grounds that do not depent on his theory of value or any other technical notions, that capitalism involves the exploitation of wage labor; slv, is merely a technical device for measuring this exploitation. Marx need not think that every conceivable instance in which these technical concepts might be employed would be an instance of exploitation only that the economic relations to which they apply in actual capitalism are in fect exploitative economic relations. Thus, it is beside the point that Roemer can construct examples of ‘exploitation’ in his technical “Marxist” sense which do not intuitively strike us as unjust. For instance, Karl has fewer assets than Adam, who prefers more work and more consumption, he loans some of his assets to Adam, who prefers more work and more consumption, and who pays Karl “interest” on what he borrows. Here Adam is “exploited”—in the technical “Marxist” sense—by Karl, even though Adam has greater initial assets and becomes progressively reicher over times than Karl is (Roemer, , “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” pp. 272–74)Google Scholar. But as Roemer presents it this is not really an example of exploitation at all (except in the technical “Marxist” sense he has defined), because neither Karl nor Adam is depicted as being in any way vulnerable to the other; they simply have different preferences and find a mutually satisfactory arrangement for satisfying them. Such examples, needless to say, bear no resemblance to the extraction of unpaid labor from workers by capital under real-life capitalism, where the weakness of the worker's bargaining position and its systematic exploitation by capital is the fundamental structural feature defining the entire economy.

16 Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 199, 192Google Scholar; Wertheimer, , “Two Questions,” p. 213.Google Scholar

17 Gorr, , Coercion, Freedom, and Exploitation, p. 162.Google Scholar

18 Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 176, 191, 195–96Google Scholar; Wertheimer, , “Two Questions,” pp. 213, 222–23.Google Scholar

19 Wertheimer, , “Two Questions,” p. 223.Google Scholar

20 Reiman, . “Exploitation, Force, and the Moral Assessment of Capitalism,” p. 3Google Scholar. Coercion is also made a requirement for exploitation in other interpretations of Marxist claims; see, e.g., Arneson, Richard, “What's Wrong with Exploitation?Ethics, vol. 91 (1981), pp. 202–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 See Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 184, 191Google Scholar; see also ibid., ch. 32, in which Feinberg tries to resolve many controversial issues surrounding wrongful gain.

22 Gorr, , Coercion, Freedom, and Exploitation, pp. 163–65.Google Scholar

23 Compare John Kleinig's view that the exploitation of another's weakness is wrong even when it does not violate another's right, does not wrong the other, and does not treat the other unfairly (Kleinig, , “The Ethics of Consent”).Google Scholar

24 Do these objections to exploitation rest on Kant's prindple that we must not treat others merely as means, but always at the same time as ends in themselves? Both Kant and the moral belief I have ascribed to us permit us sometimes to use others as means. Kant permits this when we treat them at the same time as ends, and the belief I ascribe to us permits it when our use does not involve taking advantage of another's vulnerability. But Kant's principle is sometimes interpreted in such a way that it is a sufficient condition for treating another as an end that the other consent (or even be able to consent) to this treatment. For example: “If we treat other agents as mere means, … it is not merely that we act in ways to which they do not consent; we act on maxims to which they could not consent” (O'Neill, Onora, Constructions of Reason [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], p. 138)Google Scholar. If is is a correct interpretation of Kant's principle, then it is much weaker than the belief I ascribing to most of us. For on this belief we find exploitation objectionable even when People can and do consent to it. On the other hand, perhaps treating others as ends in them-selves demands far more than that they be able to consent, or even than that they actually consent, to the way we treat them. Perhaps in order to treat others as ends in themselves we must also refrain, at least in a great many situations, from making use of their vulnerabilities for our ends, whether they consent to it or not. In that case, Kant's principle might turn out to be equivalent to the belief I am ascribing to most of us, which accounts for our moral objection to exploitation.

25 The difference between innocent and noninnocent exploitation is quite comparable, I think, to Richard Miller's distinction between innocent and noninnocent competition between people (see Miller, , “From Responsibility to Justice,”Google Scholar unpublished manuscript). Exploitation, as playing on others' weaknesses, is a typically competitive type of behavior; thus, generally speaking, it will be innocent only where human competition is innocent. I take Miller to agree with my view that noninnocent competition, which is pervasive in many social forms, including our own, constitutes the essence of some of the largest and worst social evils.

26 Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 203, 207.Google Scholar

27 It seems to me a misinterpretation of the film, moreover, for Feinberg to suggest that what the grifters do to Lonnegan is supposed to be morally acceptable, all things considered. For the movie is not supposed to leave us righteously rejoicing in the triumph of virtue; on the contrary, we smile wickedly along with the story's low-life heroes, who—liars and con-men though they are—have at least the honesty not to seek any moral justification for their crooked schemes. If we take satisfaction in Lonnegan's being exploited, this is simply because the evil of that exploitation is more than offset by the fact that this character receives a particularly delicious kind of poetic justice: for the scam brings low a powerful man who has lived by exploiting others, and the very weaknesses in Lonnegan which the grifters a-exploit—his greed, arrogance, vengefulness, cruelty—are precisely the vicious qualities which have made him an especially odious exploiter.

28 Feinberg, , Harmless Wrongdoing, pp. 184, 193–94.Google Scholar

29 Such examples also occasion the observation that, contrary to many dictionaries, there is nothing necessarily selfish about exploitation. H is true that those who use the weakness of others for their own ends typically do so for selfish ends, but there is nothing requiring that the ends be selfish. Imagine a nation struggling to free itself from the dominion of a foreign power which has set up a puppet government. A patriot learns that a collaborationist official is hiding some scandalous secret, and blackmails the official to cooperate in a resistance plot to overthrow the puppet government. Here the patriot clearly exploits the official: he a-exploits his vulnerability to blackmail and b-exploits his governmental position. The patriot's ends are not in the least selfish, however; the patriot may reap no personal gain from the overthrow of the puppet government, and we may even imagine that he knows all along that he will have to sacrifice his life in the course of carrying out the revolutionary plot.

30 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. Sher, George (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979), p. 52.Google Scholar

31 “Interference” includes the prohibition of acts through which exploiters might make use of their power, but perhaps it more often involves the refusal of the state to recognize and support exploitative arrangements; consider, for example, the law's refusal to support the collection of interest on loans at usurious rates, or the proposal that surrogate motner-hood be permitted but that surrogacy contracts be legally unenforceable against the birth mother.

32 In this way, I wholeheartedly agree with John Roemer that the basic issue involved in capitalist exploitation is one of the initial distribution of assets (Roemer, . “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?” pp. 262–63, 274, 281–82)Google Scholar. I fault Roomer only for employing a technical definition of ‘exploitation’ which makes exploitation a matter entirely independent of initial distribution. For that obscures the fact that this has always been the main issue about capitalist exploitation.

33 This is an exegetical thesis I have explained and defended in many places and overa long period of time. See Cohen, M., Nagel, T., and Scanlon, T., eds., Marxt Justice, ana History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 341, 106–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wood, Allen, Karl Marx (London: Routledge, 1981), ch. 9.Google Scholar

34 Some might prefer to speak here of injustices whose rectification is prohibitively costly. That would require a modification of the Millian analysis of rights and justice which we have been using. From this analysis it follows that if it would be prohibitively costly for society to protect me in the possession of X, then society should not protect me in the possession of X, and so I do not have a right to X. and my being deprived of X is no injustice. Perhaps this is a basis for objecting to Mill's analysis of rights, but it does not seem to me a serious objection in practice. For it seems to me not to make a great deal of difference in Practice whether we say of wage laborers or surrogate mothers that they have no right to be protected from exploitation, or that they have such a right but it is prohibitively costly for society to enforce it.

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