“Hey, won’t you play another somebody done somebody wrong song”

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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169 Responses

  1. the innominate one says:

    If you’re both speaking from an ethical/ moral perspective, rather than a legal one, then the question of what he owes them is subjective opinion. You’re both right, to a certain extent.Report

    • Will H. in reply to the innominate one says:

      That’s what I was thinking.
      Both are equally correct.
      To a certain extent, the issue is one of who it is these workers consider their contemporaries. If their concept of community is large enough to encompass those outside of their own circumstances, they could well be exploited.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

        Is it possible that one of us has premises that are just flat-out wrong? Is it possible that my claim that Mr. K owes them nothing is not a position based on a moral/ethical perspective?Report

        • RTod in reply to James Hanley says:

          I would say rather that one is moral in a short-game kind of way, the other in a long- game.Report

        • Will H. in reply to James Hanley says:

          No, James, I think that misses something.
          That assumes that Mr K is acting alone rather than in concert with the employees.
          This is an agreement between two parties.
          Not trying to alleviate any guilt in exploitation; it’s just that not all such situations constitute exploitation.Report

          • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

            I want to put some particulars to this, but I’ll go to the bottom, because I have a feeling this one is about to explode.Report

          • RTod in reply to Will H. says:

            I agree with James, but this may be going too far for comfort for me. I am picturing an impoverished country, with people with almost no options. And while I still think James is correct (and it will lead to better things over time) thinking of it as two mutually powerful parties negotiating a contract of equal values seems a bit head in the sand.

            I think you have to acknowledge that one party holds all the cards.Report

            • James K in reply to RTod says:

              I see where you’re coming from RTod, but here’s my problem with your logic.

              This factory Mr K (no relation) is running provides additional options to these option-deprived people. That makes them better off, how much better off depends on the alternatives these people have, but unless Mr K is threatening them or tricking them, he can’t be doing them any harm on net.

              If Mr K is helping them on balance then for his actions to be morally blameworthy you must believe one of two things:

              1) Everyone has a moral obligation to help these workers to a greater extent than Mr K is. This would mean that people who aren’t helping 3rd world workers at all, such as businesses that make a point of only hiring 1st world workers or people who could spare money for charities that help 3rd world workers but spend it on less worthy causes, are even more morally blameworthy than Mr K is. This seems inconsistent with the degree of criticism these groups receive.

              2) People have a moral obligation to either not help at all, or help by at least some given amount. Any help offered below this threshold is worse than nothing. This strikes me as a very strange proposition.

              Is there some other means of reconciling the logic here that I’m missing?Report

              • RTod in reply to James K says:

                No, and I tried to state that in my post.  I still think you and James are right, and I believe in a far bigger picture Mr. K (even if he is a complete asshole) needs to happen before things get better for the village workers.
                And yet, I can’t help but notice that in labor situations where management holds all the negotiating cards and there is zero government regulation, things can be really bad for workers – especially when they have no real options.
                So I agree, but I feel uncomfortable regardless…Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

            Will, are you under the impression that I’m saying it constitutes exploitation? If so, please re-read more carefully. If not, forgive me for misinterpreting you.Report

            • Will H. in reply to James Hanley says:

              No, I was looking at his side.
              The example you give in the addendum is explicitly exploitation.
              I think you’re focusing too much on results rather than process.
              Part of the human condition is that we live within process.
              An emergency situation is an emergency.
              It’s not even an appropriate example.
              A better one would be if a raise is given or not, dependent upon the sex act, or a promotion maybe.
              The presence of various options means nothing if each of the options is particularly heinous.
              Ok, say I make you the chair of PolSci if you agree to murder your grandma. Fair or not?
              I’m thinking that it has more to do with observation and deviation from standards rather than any one thing in specific.
              But what constitutes an emergency situation is something which is much more common across peoples and cultures.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

                say I make you the chair of PolSci if you agree to murder your grandma. Fair or not?

                Inappropriate analogy, because an innocent third-party is involved. Only analogies restricted to the two parties to the contract will be allowed.Report

              • Will H. in reply to James Hanley says:

                No person is that separated from things.
                My take-home pay is about 3 times what it would be otherwise if I agree to go work out on the road.
                It’s a harsh toll, granted. But at this time, I would rather have the money.
                People are not one-dimensional, and their employment is no exception.
                There are always other people involved, if not so explicitly.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

                You make a claim that other people are involved, but you don’t actually demonstrate in your argument how that is so. Making you suck my cock in exchange for a life-saving operation is fundamentally different than making you kill your grandmother in exchange for that life-saving operation.Report

              • E.C. Gach in reply to James Hanley says:

                But in the case of employee pay of course, that affects them, their families, communities, etc.
                I’m still getting through the thread though, so someone else might have already addressed this.Report

  2. RTod says:

    I tend to agree with you , James, though I have a follow up question out of curiosity:

    Were Mr. K’s employees to unionize and force collective bargaining, even if Mr. K wasn’t being an especially bad employer, would you continue to see this as an exchange through negotiation, even though the negotiating power shifted form one side to the other, or would be less comfortable with it?

    If you were OK with it, how about if the workers went out and got American media types to rally around them and create consumer pressure against Mr. K to continue to strengthen their negotiating position?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to RTod says:

      RTod, as a libertarian, I would have to “forcing” collective bargaining would be dubious at best (although to be honest, I have been a collective bargainer myself–self-interest trumps ideology). But I would have no problem at all with his workers getting the media to whip up consumer pressure. And a boycott by outraged consumers against Mr. K’s products is entirely legitimate.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        And when Mr. K’s foreign factory closes down and comes back stateside, 99.44% of the folks most outraged about the exploitation of the poor stop giving a shit.Report

      • LarryM in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’ve always had some problem understanding how libertarians, who rightly trumpet rights of free association and the right to contract, have such a huge problem with labor unions (I’m excepting unions which, as a result of coercive state power, have the ability to force people to join them). Probably partly a case of me just not being familiar with the relevant literature – and I can at least sketch out what I imagine the libertarian argument is – but I would think that this would be an area where … at least there was some internal debate among libertarians. Well, I guess there is to some extent if you include left libertarians.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to LarryM says:


          Well, some libertarians just see them as collectivist. Let’s exclude them and take a more serious look. If the workers ask to bargain collectively and the shop-owner agrees, I don’t think there’s a real libertarian argument against the union. But if the union is able to force the shop-owner to bargain collectively, whether by force of law or by shutting down the factory and not letting anyone else work there until the owner gives in, then coercion is involved, which makes it problematic for libertarians.Report

          • LarryM in reply to James Hanley says:

            Point taken. And it’s hard to divorce this from the status quo, where the government has been involved BOTH with intervening on behalf of unions – or more frequently on behalf of owners.

            But if we imagine a world where the government is neutral w/r/t unions, and where neither unions OR owners are permitted to use methods which would violate principles of “initiation of force.” (and in theory (and mostly in practice) they can’t in the contemporary United States). There is still a lot a union could do to legitimately … encourage … the shop owner to acquiesce to collective bargaining. Work stoppages combined with persuasive (as opposed to forceful) actions (peacefully discouraging strike breakers, boycotts) – well none of that violates libertarian principles.

            Now, all of this I suppose is pretty abstract – the real history of labor unions involves plenty of coercion on BOTH sides. I do find it a little curious .. and telling … that libertarian sympathy almost always is deployed on the owners behalf. (Well, let’s say more often than not, rather than almost always.) I mean the REALITY of employer tactics w/r/t unionization … isn’t pretty.

            It also occurs to me that, on a superficial level, this may seen a contradictory to what I’m written on third world sweat shops, but I think not – I think what I’m calling for is a consistent application of principles of non–coercion.Report

            • Will H. in reply to LarryM says:

              Organizing is a different animal.
              In actual practice (among trade unions), the signatory contractors become eligible for union pension benefits (and health & welfare benefits), and they forfeit them should they refuse the next contract.
              That next contract is really a matter of negotiation. Contractors talk amongst themselves, and they usually do so before speaking with any union rep.Report

          • BSK in reply to James Hanley says:


            Pardon my ignorance, but this is also something I’ve wondered about and I’m curious to probe you more deeply on this.

            Is it your argument that a union is legitimate presuming they don’t act within a coercive manner?

            For instance, the following actions would be acceptable:
            – negotiating collectively
            – striking

            While the following actions would not be:
            – a picket line that prevented the company from hiring non-union workers
            – lock-ins, sit-downs, chaining to equipment, etc.

            Do I have that right?

            Lastly, what if the company willingly agreed to hire exclusively from the union? Perhaps this could only be arrived at coercively, but imagine a scenario where, at some point, it was conducive for both sides to have this arrangement.


            • James Hanley in reply to BSK says:


              That’s pretty much the argument I’d make. There are a variety of actions unions could take that wouldn’t be coercive, such as lobbying for safer working conditions, advocating for employees against abusive managers, helping out employees injured on the job, etc.

              As to your last point, I half-remember reading an economics article that looked at the issue of unions and productivity. Just having a union was not correlated with increased productivity, but having some kind of joint employee-manager co-governance (my terminology, not the authors’) was associated with an increase in productivity.Report

              • BSK in reply to James Hanley says:

                Interesting. Thanks for clarifying. It always bothered me when supposed free market advocates were opposed to unions. Obviously, there are many tactics that unions employ that ought to be opposed, but their mere existence (or the possibility of their existence) is necessary to truly consider a market free, as far as I’m concerned. This is complicated by the ways in which unions have functioned, violating legal or moral guidelines, often with the complicity of the government. But the very idea of unions is certainly not antithetical to a free market.

                Interesting argument there at the end. Can you point towards that article?

                I always think of the sports leagues and how players are often hamstrung by the existence of a union. I don’t know the specifics, but I assume that the teams are prevented from employing players who are not a part of the union. I don’t know the in’s and out’s of collective bargaining, but I always wonder why someone like Kobe Bryant doesn’t say, “F the NBAPA (which agreed to individual player salary caps)… I’m getting out and getting as much as I can get.” I have to assume they have some sort of exclusive arrangement with the NBAPA.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to BSK says:


                I haven’t seen the article in a long time. I’ll have to do some digging.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to BSK says:

                The NBA salary cap is an agreement that the teams have with the league. The cap would still apply to a player who did not belong to the union.Report

              • BSK in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I know the team cap works that way, but they also have “Maximum Contracts” which limits how much a team can play an individual player.  There are also rules that allow teams to pay their own players more than another team can pay them.  So if Kobe Bryant wants to leave the Lakers, he is almost guaranteed a pay cut.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to BSK says:

                Again, I think those are rules that constrain what teams can pay, not rules that constrain what union members can earn.  But ICBW.Report

              • BSK in reply to BSK says:

                The NBA is fairly unique in their “Max Contracts”.  Here is a bit more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBA_salary_cap#Maximum_Individual_Contracts_under_the_CBA
                Now, obviously, if a team or league decide of their own accord that they are not going to pay above a certain threshold, so be it.  But it seems strange that the players would be bound by this.
                Sports unions are a bit of a different animal, because the leagues enjoy government protected monopolies, which severely limits the power of the unions and the players.  If you aren’t happy with working conditions at Microsoft, you can go to Apple.  If you aren’t happy with the NBA, you really don’t have another option.  And you’re barred from starting your own team.Report

        • Gorgias in reply to LarryM says:

          Monopolies are detrimental to the working of a good free market.  Unions gain their bargaining power by holding monopolistic or nearly monopolistic control of a given resource, that of a company’s labor supply.
          Then again, I’m a libertarian who likes antitrust law, and I suspect the argument will look different for someone opposed to that.  I believe that any type of collusion and price fixing, be it by capital or labor, is detrimental to the working of a free market.
          Unions are much more defensible than collusion in capital, however, inasmuch as the market inefficiencies are at least partially offset by a more even distribution of wealth.  Money has diminishing marginal returns, and the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor inches human happiness forward.  Or to put it more bluntly, a family affording health care is more important than a billionaire affording a yacht.Report

  3. Will H. says:

    Ok, some particulars here.
    Let’s say that Mr K is a farmer. Flemish. Family’s been there for years.
    Under Belgian law, K is required to provide his farm hands with 95 pints of beer per harvest season. (this is the origin of the saison style, btw)
    K is ok with that. He even brews pretty good beer.
    Poor old Hanley is teaching somewhere in Michigan. He really needs a beer at the end of the day, but the bastards won’t even give him one single pint!
    Is Hanley oppressed, or is it the migrant Poles coming through that are used to much better beer?Report

  4. Hyena says:

    You have to be careful.

    To start, you need to address “headline” job description v. actual conditions. If they came to work at the factory thinking it was better when it’s not, then you have a problem.

    Second, you need to look at exit. If someone starts working at a factory and then does not quit, that doesn’t mean they’re tacitly accepting the conditions. It could mean they lack the ability to give up the factory job at all.

    Rape is rape regardless of whether the victim struggles or even if they said “yes” initially. Exploitation could occur further down the chain or on the periphery of the initial choices.

    Last, if any of the conditions are inhuman in a genuinely vindictive or unexpected way, there’s a solid case for exploitation. People are unlikely to sign on for daily beatings, inability to attend a funeral, being charged to clean their severed hand from a machine or a host of other weird demands. Even if you tell them up front, they’d probably not take you seriously. Few people expect to meet the devil incarnate.Report

    • Hyena in reply to Hyena says:

      To clarify exit: this problem can crop up in poor societies. A Chinese migrant who uses his savings to move to Shenzhen only to find that he has been sold a pack of lies by a smooth talking head hunter will lack the material resources to return to his village. He is not simply preferring his job, he lacks any clear exit from it. At that point, he’s basically a slave, even if you pay him, until he’s got enough capital to escape.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Hyena says:


      As a point of clarification, I repeatedly emphasized the issue of exit. To my colleague, the issue of exit was irrelevant because, he said, they had nothing better to exit to.Report

      • Hyena in reply to James Hanley says:

        Then I’m profoundly confused as to your interlocutor’s argument.

        I suppose he’s arguing from the hidden premise that people have real moral duties to others which they are bound to fulfill. That’s perfectly legitimate, completely unassailable and pretty boring.Report

  5. RTod says:

    Also, before there are a gazillion posts on this topic, it deserves to be noted that this might be the only blog post title ever named after a BJ Thomas song. And probably the only one ever.

    Well played.Report

  6. LarryM says:

    Well .. stated in the terms you state it, no it can’t be resolved in the sense you mean. And, limited purely to the terms stated, I take the libertarian position. And I take it BOTH the legal and ethical sense – although the ethical question is tougher. I would say he doesn’t OWE anything more to his workers (assuming true lack of coercion – see below). But are ethical questions PURELY a question of duty? Under some ethical systems, yes. Under others, no. A Christian – I’m not one – might well suggest that the hypothetical owner SHOULD treat the workers better than he is legally obligated to, without necessarily saying he has a DUTY to do so.

    But what complicates it is that the types of coercion involved aren’t limited to “not having better opportunities” (which I agree is not coercion in any meaningful sense). Child labor, for example, present real issues without easy answers.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to LarryM says:


      Two points for clarification: First, I conceded him the child labor issue–that’s not a hill I’m going to die on for the libertarian cause. Second, he claims to be a libertarian also, and says his is a libertarian position, too. (On second thought, perhaps that doesn’t actually clarify, but it’s true nonetheless.)Report

  7. Thurman Hart says:

    There is insufficient data to draw a conclusion.

    Mr. K owes them as much as any employer – a safe workplace, the honest ability to benefit from one’s labor, etc. If he isn’t going to do that; then he at least owes them full disclosure that he doesn’t give two whits about their health and safety. They are owed full disclosure of the terms so they can give informed consent.

    Does he owe them the going rate of European workers? No.

    So I’d say that both are potentially right.Report

  8. James Hanley says:

    Before this goes further, please see my addendum to my original post.Report

    • James K in reply to James Hanley says:

      I see you and I hit the same point. I’m always suspicious of a premise that requires a discontinuity of that magnitude. How can helping someone a little be worse than not helping them?Report

      • BSK in reply to James K says:

        Must it not be demonstrated that the worker is being helped? Perhaps he has no better employment opportunities in terms of wage, but working in Mr. K’s factory leads to developing cancer. Has he really been helped? I suppose that that decision is best left to the worker himself, as he may choose the increased risk of cancer for the increased wages. But suppose he didn’t know about the risk and Mr. K did?

        FWIW, this is something I’ve struggled with myself. I am of liberal leanings and initially rallied against anything that could be called exploitation. But I soon realized I was applying too narrow a perspective and just because a worker in China is paid 1/10th of a what a worker in America is paid, that doesn’t mean he’s being exploited… especially if all his other options involve being paid 1/12th.

        There is also the trickle down effect. It’s likely (though far from guaranteed) that the reduced cost of labor lowers the cost of goods, potentially making them more affordable to the worker and others in a similar economic position. In this way, he benefits on multiple levels (potentially).Report

        • Heidegger in reply to BSK says:

          May I wish you a very Happy New Year, BSK, and a very big, sincere, apology for my my completely inappropriate outburst of a few days ago. It was way, way, over the top, and entirely unnecessary. I was taking your words to mean something much different than what you were trying to express, and just got completely unhinged. Very sorry about the whole incident. Best regards, and all the best for 2011. H.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to BSK says:


          Of course it’s hard to defend a situation where a person’s only choices are starvation or working in a place that will cause them to die of cancer. So let me preface by saying that of course any decent person would wish that processes would be improved enough, quickly enough, to minimize that problem.

          On the other hand…you and I likely both have ancestors who experienced exactly that kind of situation in the industrial revolution, and their sacrifices helped create the better world and the better options that you and I face today. I think–and I’m sure this position is debatable–that it’s important to take an intergenerational perspective. Parents sacrifice for their children to give them better prospects in life. It sucks when the sacrifices have to be that big, but in fact the parent can see it as worthwhile, if the alternative is to leave their child with no better choices. I think there’s an understandable desire to turn the third world into the first world overnight, but since that’s not going to happen, what’s the next best?

          When I asked my colleague to choose between the factories being there under their current sub-first-world standards or not being there at all, he objected that I’d given him a false dichotomy. My response was that I had not, because his third alternative, better working conditions and pay, was at the discretion of the factory owner, so if he said no, that option was off the table (i.e., if the state, as my colleague wanted, implemented stricter workplace safety and higher minimum wages, the factory owner might simply move to another country), and the only remaining options are the two less desirable ones. So the crucial question is, which of those two less desirable options is more desirable than the other.Report

    • LarryM in reply to James Hanley says:

      In some ways I think the addendum is more interesting than the original question. I can appreciate the POV that in some sense that the “save you for sexual favors” is worse than just refusing to help at all – perverse as it is in a consequentialist sense.

      But I’m having a hard time seeing how this tracks onto the third world “sweat shop” hypo. I don’t know, here I am the not-willing- to identify-as libertarian-former-liberal out-libertarianing some of the libertarians, but I fail to see providing a decent (by local standards) job as being equivalent to demanding sexual favors.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to LarryM says:


        My colleague would deny that a decent job is being provided. I emphasized the local standards angle, but he emphasized the inhumanity of the conditions. So for the sake of argument, accept his description of people going to work in factories surrounded by barbed wire, with armed men patrolling, no bathroom breaks, etc. Then how does it track for you?Report

        • LarryM in reply to James Hanley says:

          Eh … I’m not sure we’re any longer in the realm of a real hypothetical. I find it somewhat difficult to reconcile “armed guards and barbed wire” with non-coercive. A true non-coercive contractual relationship shouldn’t require armed guards and barbed wire.

          So I guess I’m punting to some extent. As with a post earlier today, the empirics matter a lot.

          But I will say this – and here I side with the libertarians rather than the “liberals.” Definitions of “decent jobs” vary very much depending upon context. I’m sure a person living in extreme poverty without a safety net (I would say there should be a safety net, but we’re assuming lack thereof I think), who maybe even has a family to support, would think that a job that pays a living wage (again, in the context of his society) would be “decent” despite long hours and bad working conditions.Report

          • Will H. in reply to LarryM says:

            What about if they were parolees that were required to maintain employment upon pain of revocation of parole?
            We can do away with the barbed wire and armed guards.
            They’re just props anyway.Report

            • LarryM in reply to Will H. says:

              Ah, well, then you’re dealing with real “coercion.” I think parole (and the threat of revocation) pretty clearly violates self ownership and restrictions on the initiation of force. Now, I know minarchists will construct rationalizations as to why that’s necessary – and I’d even agree with them! But it’s still coercion, even if “justified” coercion in some sense. And that will change the dynamics of obligation.

              But we are getting a bit far afield, aren’t we?Report

  9. Mike Schilling says:

    let’s call him Phil K.

    Because he’s a dick?Report

  10. Robert Neville says:

    The conundrum cannot be resolved without accepting the existence of a universal moral code. All other paths lead to a relative understanding of benefits vs costs based on the experiences of those involved.
    Let’s say there is a minimum acceptable level of treatment that would be considered “moral” and that it might be more or less than that accepted in the host country as well as in the home country. Who defines that level? If you accept a universal (transcendent) moral code then I would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” is the definition of an acceptable level, regardless of where the factory is located.Report

    • Roger in reply to Robert Neville says:


      I would reword your first sentence to “the conundrum is being caused by someone (James’ friend) trying to apply a universal moral code” where such a thing does not exist. The point is that this is a voluntary exchange or interaction that benefits both parties by definition. It is a win/win. That is why they both do it.

      There are no universal moral codes. But that is OK. This is a voluntary, non-coercive interaction between two individuals who can express THEIR values and their codes by accepting or rejecting the relationship. Voluntary interactions of this type are the solution to your conundrum.

      Of course, James’ friend can still be bothered by the choices others make. I may be appalled at the friend’s choices too (I am certainly offended by his logic). The problem comes about when those bothered start to coercively force their values as an absolute standard on the rest of us.

      See also my comments below on the role of alternatives increasing fairness. By offering a job, the employer is adding value to those in the 3rd world. Indeed, he is making their world a little bit fairer. This increases the alternatives for the prospective employees. As more employers enter and more options accumulate, the situation becomes better and fairer.Report

      • greginak in reply to Roger says:


        This is fine and good, i don’t particularly disagree however what you haven’t mentioned is the effects of the huge power differentials. A factory opening up in a third world country is a good thing, but part of the deal may be something like: we open a factory but we don’t want any guff about pollution or worker safety or we are using all your natural resources and we get most of the profit or treating workers well. The poor country has limited choice: poverty or take the deal they are given. One player has almost all the power so that limits the fairness of the contract. The same situation applies in the case of the individual worker. If their choice is poverty or unsafe working conditions how fair is the contract.

        Especially in the area of the use of natural resources and pollution third world countries may be selling their future for a decent now. You may say that is their choice but what are their options.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to greginak says:

          It’s BS to say the companies have greater power than the countries. States are still more powerful than firms, hands down. The fact that the country can simply say no does give them power–they have the power to simply ban a company from coming in, or to require it to obey certain rules as a condition of coming in. All the firm has is the ability to exit, which is indeed a certain type of power (a crucial power for consumers in the market), but it’s not actually a power that can compel, only a power that can sometimes persuade. And don’t forget that, as we’ve seen recently in Peru, that the state still has the power to take the firm’s property. So this popular liberal claim that third-world countries are at the mercy of powerful first-world firms is a badly misleading myth.Report

          • greginak in reply to James Hanley says:

            Which of course explains why working conditions for American firms just over the the border in Mexico are just as good as in America. It also clearly explains why toxic waste disposal is exactly the same in those firms in Mexico as when the factories were in the US. You want to say this is a liberal myth then you have to offer a lot more examples then just Peru.

            Poor countries , because they are, you know, poor, are more desperate. Why exactly, other then bribery which is a big reason, do so many poor countries allow all their natural resources to be used by foreign countries without concomitant development of their countries. Do you really think people in third world countries just don’t care about their environment? Of course they care about it, but eating comes first.

            I’m not against companies building in third world countries, in fact i’m all for it. But i don’t see any reason to think the locals are always getting a good deal or that in a couple decades they won’t still be poor and have no trees or be missing an arm or have cancer from their job.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to greginak says:

              Well, greginak, if you’re going to imply some utopianism to my argument, then I’m just going to tell you go screw, in the kindliest possible way. That’s the type of dishonest response that I just get very sick of in the blogosphere. No real substantive response, just a “what about Mexico!?” (well, what about them–demonstrate that they’re actually coerced rather than making what they see as a choice with net benefits) and a “it ain’t all peaches and cream!” even though that’s nothing but a strawman. I’m not interested in playing games like that.Report

            • James K in reply to greginak says:

              Poor countries demand less environmental quality than rich ones. I don’t see why you think this is noteworthy, poor countries demand less of most things than rich countries.

              The point is that these countries have the option of trading x environmental quality for y economic opportunity. If they didn’t like the trade-off they could tell the foreign companies to pound sand and be no worse off than if the foreign companies never made the offer.

              Nothing is infinitely valuable, not even your own health. It’s terrible that people are force dot make this trade-off, but it’s not the fault of the foreign companies, and vilifying them is only likely to make them decide not to bother.Report

              • Heidegger in reply to James K says:

                A very Happy New Year to you, Mr. James K!

                I hope you don’t mind, but I consider you the, “money guy”, and today, out of curiosity, I’ve been checking out the Federal budgets going all the way back to 1792. Unbelievable! Scary. What, in the name of God, has happened to this country? It seems, since about the mid 60s, that we’ve literally gone off the financial cliff. Programs, programs, programs for every cause, entitlement, nannyistic concern under the sun. It really is complete lunacy. My question to you, sir, is how the hell do we sustain this madness? We’re not talking a little blip on the financial charts starting around 1964, it actually, much more, resembles a volcanic eruption. Why can’t we simply turn the clock back 200 years or so and literally spend the exact same amount of money we did then, to keep the ship afloat? We’re quickly heading toward Titanic waters. Thanks for any insight and wisdom you’d be willing to provide. Much obliged, sir.Report

              • James K in reply to Heidegger says:

                I don’t want to go into great depth since this is off topic, but 1964 sounds about right for The Great Society doesn’t it?  The thing about math is that it isn’t magic: ultimately, if you do more, you spend more.
                As to truing the clock back:  The logic I noted above holds in both direction: do less and you can spend less.  But I don’t think most Americans would be happy with an 1800s welfare state, or for that matter an 1800s military.
                Mind you, I don’t think you’d need to go that far, the key is stability as much as anything else; reform Social Security and Medicare, cut back in a few other places and you’ll be fine.  If not, then I expect things will start to get pretty interesting in 20-30 years.Report

              • greginak in reply to Heidegger says:

                Yeah there was nothing else in the mid to late 60’s that cost a lot of money.Report

              • James K in reply to greginak says:

                Well I can’t imagine Vietnam did your budget any good either.Report

        • Roger in reply to greginak says:

          That is why I referenced my comments below on the value of more choice. Granted with so many comments it is hard to find.
          To repeat it, I suggested that an additional choice makes it fairer, but fair is a continuum.  One multinational can offer a win/win arrangement where the corporation captures the vast majority of the benefits (though not all). As the number of competing corporations increases, the workers’ power and choices increase and thus the relationship becomes more fair.Report

  11. Herb says:

    “My rebuttal is that they are voluntarily working for him because he’s given them a better opportunity than anything else that’s available to them, so he doesn’t owe them anything more. ”

    Likewise, his employees don’t owe him anything more than what he’s paying them? If we’re good with that, I’m good with Mr. K.

    As to the blowjob example, this one seems clear cut. The sexual deviant seeking a blowjob from a dying man is more immoral than the selfish not-my-problem bystander. Period. We’re all familiar with that old saw: “Evil prevails when good men do nothing.” But I’m not sure we should replace it with “Evil prevails.”Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Herb says:

      this one seems clear cut. The sexual deviant seeking a blowjob from a dying man is more immoral than the selfish not-my-problem bystander.

      Doesn’t seem clear cut to me at all. The one person saves a life, the other person lets ’em die. How is the livesaver more immoral than the one who lets someone die?

      What if the dying person offers to suck cock in return for being saved, and the not-my-problem person says, “no, I’d rather let you die,” and the other person says, “sure, I’ll take that deal”? Is the person receiving the blow-job still more immoral?Report

      • Herb in reply to James Hanley says:

        “How is the livesaver more immoral than the one who lets someone die?”

        Well, there’s more to morality than saving lives.

        For another, we’re talking about actions versus inaction.
        To compare:

        Chester the Molester’s actions are a mixed bag: one’s moral (saving a life) and one’s immoral (sexual assault).*

        Sy the Bystander is not taking any action at all, one arguably immoral although probably more fairly called amoral (letting a man die) and one arguably moral if not neutral (NOT demanding sexual favors).

        Immoral actions are worse than amoral inaction. Right?

        * (I’m assuming, of course, the dying man wouldn’t exactly want to be molested in exchange for his life. You know, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees” and all that.)Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Herb says:

          I’m assuming, of course, the dying man wouldn’t exactly want to be molested in exchange for his life.

          Bad assumption. In that case he can say no and die. So the necessary assumption is that they dying man would agree to the deal. Without that, there’s nothing to talk about, because he dies no matter which of the other two persons is there. Work it again from that angle and get back to me. Sure there’s more to morality than saving a life, but you’re going to have to explain why saving a life while demanding something in exchange is worse than refusing to save a life when you could.

          Is demanding sex in exchange for saving the life fundamentally different than demanding any other fee? Cash, labor? I think you’re hung up on the grossness of sex, and not really analyzing it objectively.Report

          • Herb in reply to James Hanley says:

            “I think you’re hung up on the grossness of sex, and not really analyzing it objectively.”

            Yeah, maybe a little bit, although I’d quibble that I’m actually hung up on the grossness of sexual predation. Our horny savior would be considered a rapist in any other context. I mean, what is it this if not the ultimate “quid pro quo” scenario?

            Is it immoral to demand “something” in exchange for saving a life? No. Is it immoral to demand something one would normally refuse to give? Yes.

            (Although I disagree with your friend that it’s better the 3rd world have no factories at all. I think it’s great they make our products for us. )Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Herb says:

              Well, Herb, I’d normally refuse to give you my money, but you don’t seem to think it’s immoral to demand that I give you that in exchange for saving my life.

              And I guess your analysis would mean it’s morally acceptable to demand sex as payment for saving a prostitute’s life, but not the life of a nun. We’re getting into some pretty squishy moral judgments here–I honestly don’t know what to make of this particular consequence.Report

              • Herb in reply to James Hanley says:

                Hmm, I guess I just don’t see this particular example as being so morally complex. I don’t think it’s “morally acceptable” to demand sex as payment for saving <i>anyone</i>’s life.  Even in an “offer you can’t refuse” hypothetical.
                Money will do.  It is, after all, the most common method of exchange.Report

      • > How is the livesaver more immoral than the one who
        > lets someone die?

        It depends.

        Typically my limited reading of the philosophical giants leads me to believe that it is fairly common for the philosopher (regardless of school) to operate under either a tacit or explicit assumption of power balance being required to judge moral equivalency.

        That is to say, an equitable exchange is either one where two parties of equal power agree to a fair exchange, or two parties of imbalanced power agree to a fair exchange given that the power imbalance is regarded as part of the equation by the dude with the bigger stick, rhetorically speaking.

        So, if I would not normally agree to give you a blow job, and you know this, but you use my current temporal dire straits to highly leverage a power imbalance between the two of us to net you that blow job, you’re a profoundly bad person.

        Now, *inaction* doesn’t necessarily get you off the hook, either, of course. If you choose not to assist when you are demonstrably the only person capable of saving my injured ass, you’re still taking a power imbalance and abusing it; given the reversed circumstances, you very likely would not choose to have *me* leave *you* there to die.Report

  12. ppnl says:

    As usual in these types of discussions my problem is with the way words are used. None of us have any responsibility or obligation to any other person except in the legal sense. We may (and generally do.) accept responsibilities and obligations. We may even largely agree with each other on what responsibilities we ought to accept. That simply reflects the fact that we are genetically and culturally related.

    As for the question at hand my personal answer is that I would have to look at the larger effect on the society. Does my economic activity lead to economic growth that gives more and more people more and better choices? Or am I simply perpetuating the very conditions that cause the lack of choice? The answer to this is likely to be very complex and cannot be answered in the abstract.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to ppnl says:

      One of my arguments on this question relates to your question, which is that building these factories in these countries does aid their economic growth. Because the jobs pay more than other available economic opportunities (and I count begging and digging through trash dumps as economic opportunities), they raise people’s standards of living, increasing their demand for goods and services. If the growth continues, so they become wealthy enough, they will start making demands on the state that undermine the c0nditions that led to lack of choice–i.e., they will start demanding greater economic and social liberty.

      That assumes the private firm isn’t just working in cahoots with the state to effectively have slave labor. Some people seem to think that is what’s happening most of the time, but I don’t see any actual evidence for that.Report

      • ppnl in reply to James Hanley says:

        You should read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. He deals with some of the issues here. The removal of hardwood has caused ecological devastation in some places for example. In the short term it did create jobs for a few years but it’s long term effect was horrible. And often part of the problem is that the national government isn’t strong enough to prevent this from happening. A corporation just makes a deal with a local leader.

        I think every libertarian should read this book. It is not anti libertarian. I don’t think it even mentions libertarianism. But it does deal with the issues important to libertarians.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to ppnl says:

          I don’t think hiring people to make shoes and t-shirts in a factory is the type of problem Diamond is concerned about. And, yes, I’ve read the book.Report

          • ppnl in reply to James Hanley says:

            Well it depends. What effect is the factory having on the local water supply? Are they creating algal blooms from phosphate runoff? Are the local fish being contaminated by mercury or other toxic chemicals? These are issues that every society must face and failure to face them can lead to collapse. If you participate in such a way that you make it more difficult for that society to face it’s problems then maybe you should think about that.

            As for me I try not to buy a drink for a drunk. I cannot take responsibility for other people. That is not good for either me or them. I can and sometimes will be careful how I empower them.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to ppnl says:


              Those are important issues, but the reality is that environmental protection is a luxury good. You generally can’t protect the environment by impoverishing the citizenry–if they don’t have factory jobs, they’ll just go off and chop down that hardwood forest for slash-and-burn agriculture.

              And if you could protect the environment by impoverishing the citizenry, would there be any real gains?

              The only real hope is that the places can develop rapidly enough that the citizens start demanding environmental protection.Report

              • ppnl in reply to James Hanley says:

                I would say that environmental protection is a long term investment. Its payoff may or may not be worth it but thats a calculation you need to make explicitly.

                All other things being equal rapid development is good. But are they? Again this is a calculation that needs to be done explicitly. For a shoe and shirt factory maybe so. For hardwood harvesting it probably would have made more sense to harvest it slowly while building the industry locally to use it. What they did was clear cut it quickly and export it to factories elsewhere. But economic growth was rapid for a few years.

                The question in the blog post cannot be answered in the abstract. Give me a real factory and real social, environmental and political conditions and I can try to pass judgment. There is no magic formula that dictates the moral answer. You try to predict the consequences and decide if you will accept those consequences. Others are free to pass judgment on your decision.Report

        • Will H. in reply to ppnl says:

          I’m not familiar with the book, but I am familiar with the phenomenon. This was the case for ebony and mahogany hardwoods around the late 70’s – early 80’s.
          These woods are used quite a bit in instrument manufacture. Ebony is a very dense wood, uniform of color, and the A+ wood for fretboards. Comes from Africa though, which was experiencing a bit of political instability. Prices skyrocketed.
          The same was true of mahogany, though to a lesser extent. That one was more of an Asian wood.
          At any rate, there were several manufacturers that experimented with various other materials, to varying degrees of success. By which I mean everything from the Ovation roundbacks, which were phenomenally successful, to the Gibson Sonex, which was a total piece of crap which was discontinued within a few years.
          In the meantime, some custom manufacturers and boutique manufacturers began using other woods; Carvin, Schecter, Dean, Hamer, and Ibanez using koa, and other Pacific hardwoods.
          And also, birch and spruce were out as tops for the acoustics, except on the most premier of models. Again, part of that was natural scarcity, and a lot of it was political embroilments.
          At any rate, by then, the P-90 was no longer being made, active electronics became more common, and the Rickenbacker 2001 was discontinued, so who really gives a crap anyway.Report

  13. steve says:

    I think the question you need to answer here is how you want to value labor. Should it be determined solely by market forces, or should it be linked in some fashion to the value produced by that labor? You are favoring markets. What are the long term consequences of not having labor valued closer to the value it adds to production? What happens when you cannot keep moving your factory?


    • James Hanley in reply to steve says:

      When the factory can’t be moved, the market value of the labor goes up. I am pretty much an absolutist on market valuations, so I won’t budge on that. However it’s also true that market valuations are linked to the value produced by the labor–those who produce more value normally (not inevitably, but normally) get paid more. That’s why production so often is not moved abroad, because even though you could pay the workers much less, they would sometimes produce so little value that it wouldn’t be worth it.Report

      • steve in reply to James Hanley says:

        “I am pretty much an absolutist on market valuations, so I won’t budge on that. However it’s also true that market valuations are linked to the value produced by the labor–those who produce more value normally (not inevitably, but normally) get paid more.”

        When it does not, you get unions and revolutions. From the political POV, if you do not allow some way for the worker to benefit in line with the value of their labor, the system becomes unstable.

        BTW, Maxine Udall writes on this kind of stuff frequently. The 19th century owners of coal mines used some of the same arguments above to justify child labor and 16 hour work days. Since it was easier to get mules than workers, they often treated the animals better.


        • James Hanley in reply to steve says:

          That’s actually quite ironic, since a primary purpose and effect of unions is to ensure people don’t get paid at their market value, but well above it.

          By the way, I think you mis-wrote your last line, since it’s self-contradictory as written. I think I know what you meant to say, though.Report

          • Alan Scott in reply to James Hanley says:

            That’s an odd assertion. Both the union and the non-union wages, in most cases, are a product of market forces. Why is it that only the non-union wages are considered fair market value?Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Alan Scott says:

              Union wages are most certainly not a product of market forces–they’re a product of coercive forces backed by the power of the government. If union wages were just as much a product of market forces as non-union wages, how can you explain the union wage premium? Union workers are not that much more productive. See here, for example.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                If union wages were just as much a product of market forces as non-union wages, how can you explain the union wage premium?

                Exactly the same way I explain that I get a better deal on health insurance through my employer than I would on the individual market (and yes, that’s counting both my contribution and theirs): increased bargaining power.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                That increased bargaining power comes from being backed by force of law. That’s not a market situation.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

                It also comes from the employer having to bargain with the union rather than with individuals, who have less power and in general a lower level of negotiating skills. That’s exactly a market situation. Producer surplus and consumer surplus apply to all markets, including labor markets.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The business is required to bargain with the union–that’s not a market outcome, it’s an outcome of government regulation. I don’t see how that’s so hard to distinguish.

                As to some people having poorer bargaining skills, that happens in all negotiations, so it is in fact a market outcome.

                As to the employee having less power, the employee has the right to walk away from the employer, taking his labor away with him. If that’s not sufficient power, then you’re basically admitting the worker has little market value.

                You’re missing lots of fine distinctions here and engaging in a gross lumping together of things that are not in fact identical on the crucial factors.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                The business is required to bargain with the union–that’s not a market outcome, it’s an outcome of government regulation. I don’t see how that’s so hard to distinguish.

                If the union represents a significant portion of the workers with the desired skills, that’s a practical requirement, not am government-imposed one.

                As to some people having poorer bargaining skills, that happens in all negotiations, so it is in fact a market outcome.

                Of course it is, bit it’s a worse outcome for the individual worker. You’re not under the impression that there’s exactly one possible “market outcome”, are you?

                As to the employee having less power, the employee has the right to walk away from the employer, taking his labor away with him. If that’s not sufficient power, then you’re basically admitting the worker has little market value.

                Right. The situation is perfectly symmetrical. It’s not as if the consequences of being unemployed were more serious than the consequences of being one employee short.Report

              • Will H. in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                There’s a general perception that all unions are the same, and they can be very different.
                Unions that require membership, yet have little bargaining power (such as public employees, teachers, postal workers), I consider to be UINOs. More often than not, their wages are set by statute, and their stewards tend to be very weak.
                A shop union that organizes one shop is something different. You know what happens when an auto plant closes? That local of the UAW closes right behind it.
                My union is a trade union. When contract negotiations take place (every three years), the union reps meet with reps from the contractor’s association. The companies have a trade group that they use for such things. In one jurisdiction, 5¢ of my benefit package (for every hour worked) went to the advertising campaign of this trade group.
                I know that they receive short-term loans under market rates directed through the union. They have the union pension and health & welfare benefits. There are certainly other ways that the union returns value to company, and they are quite aware that they are offsetting the cost of premium wages.
                No one buys Nike or Carhartt because those are the cheapest brands. Those union contractors really aren’t looking for the cheapest possible way of doing things.
                But it goes back to the idea, elsewhere in the thread, that compensation doesn’t always take the form of wages. Applied in this instance, looking at the wage & benefit package gives a skewed view of the cost to the employer for union labor.
                It makes a big difference when the contractors are able to come together collectively as well.Report

              • steve in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I have been through this at my own site. Management can bring in outside workers if they wish. They dont really have to negotiate at all. It is just difficult to replace a lot of workers at once. Do you interpret the law differently?
                How does an individual worker negotiate?

              • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                U.S. labor law plays a big role in this.  Companies must bargain in good faith.  I was on a negotiating team, and much of our time was spent drawing up UPL (unfair labor practice) complaints relating to the bargaining process.
                As to how does an individual negotiate, it happens all the time.  I’ve done it, I have friends who’ve done it.  But if you don’t have some value to offer the company that’s not easily replicated by someone else, you’re not going to have much bargaining power.  Again, the real issue here is that for some people their market value actually is very low, and what you’re really asking for is a regulatory system that “corrects” for that–i.e., government regulation that coerces a firm into paying above what the person’s real market value wage would be.,Report

            • Gorgias in reply to Alan Scott says:

              Union wages are as much a product of market forces as Shell, BP, and all the other oil producers getting together and deciding not to sell any gasoline for prices below 10 dollars a gallon.  Collusion wrecks market principles.Report

  14. Roger says:


    I too have been reflecting on this topic lately. Voluntary, non coercive interaction such as offering and accepting a job is by definition win/win or otherwise neither party would accept it. The world becomes better for both parties.

    However, it is minimally win/win because something is missing — competing alternatives. The dominant party can squeeze the subordinate party to the very fringe of positive value. Thus I deem it FAIR, but minimally fair.

    To make it optimally fair, I suggest you need voluntary choice (non-coercion) AND competing, alternative choices. Thus to make the job more fair the potential worker needs competing employment opportunities — the more the better within reason. The dying person also benefits from alternatives — who will save my life without requiring that which I find repulsive?

    In other words, I believe you and your colleague are arguing over whether it is minimally fair or optimally fair.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

      Roger, I like your formulation, and was actually poking around a similar formulation without coming up with such a clear phrasing. My colleague, however, was deeming it strictly unfair rather than minimally fair. And I guess that’s what really bothers me, because I just can’t parse the logic of it.Report

      • BSK in reply to James Hanley says:

        This is an really interesting perspective. And while I realize the conversation was focused on the two parties, I think context is important. It’s easy to look at an employer paying low wages to a destitute worker and thinking, “JERK!” But we must examine why that worker is destitute. Is it a situation of his own making? Or are there outside factors that have forced him into destitution. Primarily, I’m thinking on the state. In many ways, the company may be a savior to this man, if an imperfect savior.Report

        • BSK in reply to BSK says:

          Of course, there is the possibility that the employer was the cause of or complicit in the destitution or otherwise non-competitive nature of the marketReport

          • James Hanley in reply to BSK says:

            Yes, there is that possibility. But I don’t think there’s much evidence for it as a major cause of impoverishment in the contemporary world. It’s mostly about corrupt states. And while there are certainly a few corporations that take advantage of that situation, a) they’re just using it to their benefit rather than having created it, and b) if you talk to businessmen, you’ll find most prefer to work in non-corrupt countries. The great capital flight from Russia in the ’90s, for example, happened because the government started taking over industries, and all the westerners got scared of making big investments then having it stolen from them, so they got out while the getting was good. I have a friend who was one of the first western businessmen to go into Siberia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and while he loved Russia, and while his story of going in with handfuls of cash to grease palms (“don’t bother expensing it,” his boss told him) is amusing, he’s very blunt about hating to work with corrupt officials.Report

      • Will H. in reply to James Hanley says:

        You know, James, when I see it like this, the error becomes apparent. It was something that I had touched on earlier, but I didn’t give it in the proper terms.
        And I realize that not so long ago, you were trying to tell me that the whole world is made of politics. And I gave you a lot of grief over that one. But then someone mentioned something about economists seeing the whole world as a market transaction, and I realized that’s where I’m at with it. Really, I can’t see the politics of it because I keep seeing a market transaction. And I’m not even an economist.
        So, from that view, what is missing here is a proper accounting of opportunity costs. So far, the one thing that we can accept that gives the lives of these peons their purpose and meaning is to be employed at some factory. But there are likely to be a great number within their community who are not employed by the same factory that nevertheless have found some manner of meaning and purpose in their lives.
        Opportunity cost. It’s about having the opportunity to do something differently, and not necessarily the opportunity to do the same thing in a different place.
        And so, any other opportunities for employment outside of the factory are simply a direct substitution, but still do not take into account the opportunity cost.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

          I’m not sure I entirely follow you, but I think we’re generally in agreement here. At least I usually am in agreement when someone mentions opportunity costs.

          I think part of my colleague’s “problem” is that he studied philosophy in place of, instead of in addition to, economics. To him, the fact that these poor people’s opportunity cost was so pathetic meant that offering them a better one was a form of coercion–they didn’t really have a choice. But to an economist, the logical extension of that is that we’d have to perversely conclude that any offering of a better opportunity is coercive–if the University of Michigan suddenly offered me a job at twice my salary with half the teaching load, and my only research requirement was to blog regularly, that’d be such a better opportunity that I couldn’t rationally turn it down, so by my colleague’s logic it would be coercive. No doubt he’d sense the craziness of that and object, but I can’t think of what coherent and generally applicable objection he could come up with that wouldn’t undermine his original argument.Report

          • Will H. in reply to James Hanley says:

            Even if the factory is the only employer in town, some people will still prefer to go fishing.

            (My main issue with economics is that it starts with the assumption that human beings are rational, while I have yet to see a rational market. It’s all about fear and expectation.)Report

            • James K in reply to Will H. says:

              The thing about economics is that is progresses by starting with unrealistic, but analytically useful, assumptions and then relaxing them once the idea conditions have been figured out.

              The profession has been relaxing that rationality assumption for awhile now. Are you familiar with behavioural economics?Report

              • Will H. in reply to James K says:

                Familiar with behavioral psychology, but not economics.
                Somehow, I find the idea that there are people better informed than myself that can agree with me on the basis of the general irrationality of human beings to be a bit unsettling.Report

      • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

        I don’t get his logic either. I would add that if we think fair is black or white we end up in a trap. It is better to think of it as a continuum and argue where we can draw the line. I would (as the businessman) offer a job at the going rate based on supply and demand. Paying above market rates will of course lead to turning down more applicants who would otherwise accept the job and lower what could be profitably produced and thus sold (thus further suppressing employment opportunities) . It would also lower the incentives for competing businesses to enter the market.

        In the end, all things considered, any other decision will probably make the world worse off when the full dynamic of the market is considered. If wages are not “optimally fair” via my definition, more firms will be enticed into the market. It will become fairer over time. If your friend is not familiar with economics he will not see this though.

        If the market definition of fair and his definition are still at odds (and they certainly could be), I suggest he step in and do something about it using non-market mechanisms. Personal charity perhaps. What he should not do is interfere with the business that is adding value to the 3rd world workers. Doing harm to others due to ignorance– even if well intended — is still bad.

        To summarize. Your friend is operating with an oversimplified model of reality that leads him to make bad decisions that reward his consciousness at the expense of other human’s lives. There are real costs to ignorance.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

      So the problem is not that Corporation X went there, the problem is that Corporation X went there without Corporations Y and Zed also going there?Report

      • Roger in reply to Jaybird says:


        It is a dynamic process. The first company offers a new alternative, over time others can add to the options. As the number of volitional options increases, the system creates more value and also becomes more fair. Free enterprise is a positive sum process.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

          The way I was reading what you said was that it wasn’t moral to be the first company to get there but it might be moral to be the third or fourth.

          Which would be a really odd position.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:


            That’s a really interesting point that I hadn’t thought of. And I think my colleague inadvertently put himself into a position where he would have to accept that formulation if he stuck to his guns. A really odd position indeed.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

              Well, it turns “if everybody else jumped off of a bridge, would you do it too?” on its head.

              It’s “Oh, everybody else jumped off a bridge? I guess I can’t complain if you do.”Report

  15. Mr. Hanley,

    One unstated assumption in your hypothetical seems to be that Phil K.’s corporation does not decrease local opportunities, such as through driving local industries, such as they exist, out of business. In other words, Phil K.’s corporation might, under certain assumptions, close off opportunities.

    He says Mr. K is exploiting them–I say Mr. K is exchanging value for value.

    “Exploit” can be a tricky and frustrating word. I’ve known marxists who use rhetorical salience of the word “exploit” when decrying the evil capitalists and, when I cite cases where workers appear to be benefiting from their jobs, these same marxists say “well, when I say ‘exploit,’ I only mean ‘expropriating the surplus value created by labor.'”Report

  16. Er, so, if it’s wrong to make somebody suck your cock in return for saving their life, I guess it would be even more wrong to make them suck your cock in return for-well, for taking them home, right? Damn!Report

  17. Mike Schilling says:

    Build a naval base in a third-world country (say, one named after a king of Spain), and you provide many new opportunistic. In particular, young ladies will have the chance to earn money as prostitutes. By the logic used in economics, this is purely a positive thing, since those who do not wish to prostitute themselves remain able not to, while those that do now have the opportunity; this is a special case of the maxim that additional choices are always a net gain.Report

    • James K in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Yes Mike, if those women had better alternatives available to them, they wouldn’t become prostitutes.  And it’s not a purely positive thing, there are very few purely positive things, it’s just positive on net for the women.Report

  18. There is always a case to be made for exploitation, and there is always somebody willing to make it. The best thing Phil K. can do for his employees is to provide them with clean and safe working conditions, in addition to potential for further training and advancement. It’s not all about wages. To pay them an extravagantly high wage (for them) might not be a good thing. In a typically impoverished country, it could even get them killed by someone else who might like to take their place. To say nothing of the fact that if you have to close up shop after five or six years you’ve really screwed the pooch. He’ll never find another job making that kind of money. A good rule of thumb might be, pay them twice the going rate, any more than that you’re asking for the law of unintended consequences somewhere down the line.Report

  19. Jaybird says:

    Here is my exploitative outsourcing story.

    About fivish, sixish years ago I worked for a major multinational company and this was right in the middle of the outsourcing bubble. There was about a year where outsourcing was a “megatrend” and corporations were asked why they weren’t doing it when everybody else was doing it… and not outsourcing was seen as a sign that your company was insufficiently serious about being “global” or some dumb shit like that.

    Anyway, we were outsourcing to Singapore. At first, it was just the 2nd level support. You know, stuff like disk space, scheduling routine maintenance downtimes, that sort of thing. Stuff that a, and understand that I’m quoting management here, “monkey in a spacesuit” could do. At this point, the dollar was still fairly strong (though not as strong as it had been) and most of our work was with Singaporeans. One year turned into another and the time came to outsource Core Support… but the dollar was much weaker.

    In talking to the folks we were training to take our jobs, we found out that they were not from Singapore (that would explain the rapid turnover, I reckon) but they were being bussed in from Malaysia (indeed, they told us some interesting stories about the various racist things that folks in Singapore said about the Malaysians… stuff that included “those cheap workers are stealing our jobs!”). It turned out that no one in Singapore was willing to work for the wages we were offering and so we had to bus workers in from Malaysia just to man the computers. (Also, another thing we found out, one of the reasons we had so much turnover in previous years is that we had to deal with issues like someone working for a year, building up a fairly decent nest egg in that time, then going to live like a king in the sticks.) The folks from Singapore that we were talking to in their last days were complaining about how, sure, the folks from Malaysia were cheap… but they had quality issues.

    Anyway, the first company to outsource made billions. They were able to offer, for them, cheap wages and the cream of the country could not believe how much money was being offered.

    The second company came in and did similar and, hey, if they had to offer just a little big more than pennies on the dollar for wages… who cares? A couple more pennies on the dollar is still pennies on the dollar!

    And then the third, and then the fourth, and then the fifth company show up and pennies on the dollar become nickles become dimes become quarters. And, eventually, you’re bussing people in from neighboring countries because no one in the original country is willing to work for your quarters on the dollar.

    That’s something that I saw happen in real time just a few years ago.

    (And, for the record, a downtime that would have been twenty minutes back when I was on the team is now a downtime that lasts a couple of days and god help you if it goes down on a Friday night.)Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      My experience with this is similar but different.  About ten years ago, the small software company I worked for was acquired by a very large one, who at the same time acquired a company in Prague whose product was vaguely similar, and directed the two groups to combine them.  (Yes, it was exactly as successful as you’d expect, but that’s not the point of this particular story.)   It was a great time to be a Czech programmer — the University of Prague was producing a lot of qualified graduates, and every one of them could find a good job being outsourced to, since wages there were so much lower than the equivalent in the US or Western Europe.  This boom laster about three years, until it became known that even cheaper talent could be found in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union (Goodbye Prague, hello Novosibirsk!), at which point Czechs found themselves to have become uncomfortably high-priced without ever getting much in the way of raises.Report

  20. E.C. Gach says:

    I am an invading army.  I could make you a slave or kill you.  If we both agree killing you is worse, does that necessarily mean that I am doing you a good turn by making you a slave?
    I think the problem is viewing the exchange as a single entity.  Rather, if it’s viewed as two discrete acts, me saving your life (good), and me making you perform sexual favors in exchange (bad), it seems simpler to leave it me having done one bad thing and one good thing (and more good than the other was bad).
    And you said yourself, “The latter, while remote from anything I would consider admirable, seems to me less immoral…”
    The fact that it is less immoral, doesn’t make it a more moral action.  I think part of the problem is using a number line like scheme, with immoral on the negative number side, and moral on the positive side, and saying, well a less immoral (less negative) is greater than a more immoral (more negative), ergo less immoral is more positive, (more moral). And I think that’s where this scheme misleads us in our moral calculations.Report

    • RTod in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Ironically, EC, I think your post gets right to the heart of the matter about why folks disagree so much about this issue.
      When I read James’s post and commented initially, the conditions I was assuming folks were choosing to work in were on a completely different plane than sex slave.  I was assuming, like, getting paid similar crummy wages to other local employees as opposed to paying significantly more because you could and it was a morally good thing to do so.
      Perhaps the way we feel about globalization in general colors all of our jumping off point?Report

    • Heidegger in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      That’s very nice, EC.  Proper application of logic can be such an elegant thing–and you have done just that.   By the way, what happens to the citizenry when conquered?  Let’s say France, 1940.  Paris falls to the Germans in a little over two weeks.  Who controls the banking system, the manufacturing apparatus, civil control, media, control of the military?  For that matter, can the Germans just randomly go up and down streets and kick the lawful occupants out of their house?  Steal any possessions they want,  or like?  Ransack museums?  Commit rape, murder..with complete impunity?   Stupid questions, I know, but am just curious about how the conquering and conquered game ends up playing out.   For that matter, would the entire French Treasury be in the hands and control of the Germans?Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to Heidegger says:

        Might makes right, right?
        Though Jason Kuznicki’s post on property and the origins of ownership earlier this December might have something to say on the subject of property rights and invading armies.Report

        • Heidegger in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          I am utterly bewildered how you could you possibly interpret my comments to mean, “might makes right”.  I’m simply asking, from a historical perspective, what happens to property rights when a country has been conquered?  Do they have any, or are they completely at the mercy of the conquerors?  Do they even have the right to life?  To live?  To any property?  Can invaders murder with complete impunity?  These questions hardly condone such criminal acts by virtue that the invaders have control over the vanquished.   What actually happened to France and much of Europe after the Nazis took control of these countries?Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          Sorry H, I didn’t mean to make you think I was interpreting you as saying that, I was myself saying that.
          As far the idea of rights, it troubles me, because I want to be able to say, you can’t do x because x is wrong, and because it is wrong, person y has a right for x not to happen to them.  Where do I turn, and to what may I appeal?
          What argument will stop them in their tracks when they come to take me away?
          So while I might say I think they have a right to life, to non-invasion, etc. I say that knowing that the efficacy of such claims is completely dependent on the ability of myself and others who agree to stand against these forms of oppression to convince others to do so as well.Report

          • Heidegger in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            Thanks so much, EC, for the reply.   I had a feeling there was some misunderstanding along the way–(in this case, it was on my part.)  Regarding the property rights of the conquered, the only conclusion one can realistically come to is:  you’re screwed.   Especially, if the Nazis are your new landlords.  It seems they pretty much plundered just about everything they could possibly carry out of the countries took over.   What I find most remarkable is, how there could even be an appearance, false as it may be, of any kind of existing civil order with mass murder in the millions taking place within the borders of these countries.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Heidegger says:

        That’s why I support Genocide.
        Commit Genocide today! and free yourself from any future consequence to your actions!
        The good-ol’ win-win situation.Report

    • James K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      If you are an invading army then enslaving is less bad than killing, but invading is more bad than not invading.  When you add them together the badness of invading is bigger than the less-badness of not killing, especially since if you hadn’t invaded there would be neither killing nor enslaving.
      So, where’s the equivalent of invading in the Phil K hypothetical?  Where’s the big negative that offsets the net positives?Report

      • Heidegger in reply to James K says:

        James K–my questions have nothing to do with the Phil K  hypothetical.  I’m really just interested in what, if any, rights still exist for a country that has been conquered.  There are laws of war–are there any laws in which conquerors must abide by?Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to James K says:

        I think the main problem is where we put the zero point.  It’s especially tricky with libertarianism, because it doesn’t seem to have one.
        So while K paying them low wages might be immoral to me, you might say, compared to what imposed system?  Where as a progressive like myself might impose some ideal standard, like all humans require x for a base level existence, and use that as my benchmark, it seems like libertarians, and I apologize for any crude generalization, please do correct me, would instead point to a natural way of things and say no one owes anyone else anything (unless by mutual contract), and so if K did not open the factory, they would be worse off, because according to the natural way of things at time t before the factory is built, local people are x, where as after, they are x plus whatever the net effect of the factory is.  We would both agree that the net effect is positive, relative to their initial position, at time t before the factory.
        Where as I as the progressive would say, they may be better off than they were, but they still do not meet the “ideal” base established for human beings to flourish in a minimal sense, you as a libertarian might respond that I have no right to set such an arbitrary baseline for reasons a, b and c.
        So you would say pragmatically, that things have moved in a net positive direction given K’s actions, even while I decry the fact that they have not moved enough in the positive direction.  So while K might have moved the local people from -10 to -5, they are still not at the 0 mark I might idealistically impose.
        And this is an issue I find deeply problematic, extremely interesting, and very difficult to resolve.  Shall we evaluate the goodness/rightness/morality of a given set of actions against the benchmark of their having been done or not, or against all other possible sets of actions?  As in your hypothetical, shall we evaluate K’s creating the factory against not creating it? or against all other actions he is possible of, i.e. creating a factory with better pay, benefits, lines of credit to local households, whatever the case may be?
        You would examine the morality of his actions in a vacuum isolated to doing x or not doing x, where as I would examine it against x and all others.  I’m not sure which is right.
        But of course the same problem holds for the sex favor case.  I save you for the BJ.  Do we evaluate that against not saving you for a BJ, or against all other possible actions I might take in that given set of circumstances?Report

        • James K in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          I think the “zero point” question is a good one.  I’m using the zero point of Phil K taking no action.  I don’t have a thoroughly well-reasoned case for why this is a good point to use, but I tend to think that nothing is the most we owe most people so no action is a good point to start at.
          <blockquote>You would examine the morality of his actions in a vacuum isolated to doing x or not doing x, where as I would examine it against x and all others.  I’m not sure which is right.<blockquote>
          No, I would compare against all actions as well, but I’m smuggling in extra exceptions as to what I see happening downstream.
          If Phil K used the factory money to start a charity that would be morally superior to running a sweatshop but there’s only so much charity money in the world, and for-profit companies can raise a lot more capital because they can appeal to self-interest rather than altruism.  So the sweatshops can help more people in aggregate than charities can.  Furthermore, I suspect sweatshops are a necessary stepping stone on the transition from labour-intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive manufacturing.  They’re not fun, but I believe they’re necessary.
          There’s the intermediate case of course, which is to run a factory, but to offer better pay and conditions that the market will allow.  I really think this is just a mixture of the “Sweatshop” and “charity” options, as the owners of the factory would be taking lower returns for the benefit of the workers, just as if they were simply giving them money / life-improving amenities.  I would also expect that the presence of high-profit factories in 3rd world countries will attract more would be factory owners, and the more competition there is to attract works, the better the pay and conditions will get.
          I wouldn’t expect these second-order effects to be in play for the life saved for a BJ scenario.  Mind you, I still think someone who saves your life for a BJ is better than someone who refuses to save you outright, just not as good as someone who saves your life for lesser (or no) consideration.Report

        • Roger in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          Thanks for laying out the “Progressive” view so clearly. It is difficult to discuss something like this when it isn’t clear what the other side is concerned with.
          “So you would say pragmatically, that things have moved in a net positive direction given K’s actions, even while I decry the fact that they have not moved enough in the positive direction.  So while K might have moved the local people from -10 to -5, they are still not at the 0 mark I might idealistically impose.”
          The issue that I would add is that everybody has a different zero mark. If we want to enforce a uniform moral code, it implies that we “impose” one 0 mark on others. Libertarians would be concerned that this dramatically reduces the universe of potential win/win interactions. Suddenly some all powerful 3rd party is stepping in and prohibiting beneficial actions because someone from another culture finds it not beneficial enough for their tastes.
          I would suggest that if an action is voluntary and improves the situation for both parties and the only problem is that it doesn’t meet your standard that you allow the action and take personal responsibility to make up the difference. I do not understand the progressive view that it doesn’t meet your standard so you will impose your standard on the other parties.
          The progressive view leads to meddling, coercion and value constriction. It eliminates small steps forward (that are not big enough to meet the universal standard) and abdicates responsibility. In other words it makes the world worse so the affronted person can feel good about themselves. This is why Libertarian minded people don’t get what the Progressives are about. It seems ….wrong.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          E. C.,
          I don’t think most libertarians–certainly not I–would object to hoping we get to that ideal point.  The issue, for me, is whether Mr. K should be condemned for only moving people from -10 to -5 instead of to the ideal, or at least in the positive range.  Because it’s a net improvement, even if not an ideal one, I say he does not deserve criticism (whether he deserves actual praise, or just mild approval, who knows).  It’s important to remember that he could easily leave them at -10, and that’s where I found my colleague’s comments most shocking–he actually said that would be a better outcome.
          As an analogy,* if I see a homeless person on the street and drop a quarter in his cup, I may not have earned much praise, but is that actually worse than giving nothing?  (Or, if you don’t believe in giving homeless people money,  substitute the Salvation Army buckets at Christmas time, or the offering plate at your church.)
          But as for me, I’d take as the zero point whatever the current status quo is.  Because the relevant issue, I think, is whether an action makes one’s position better or worse compared to where you are at this point in time (of course I’m a rational choice guy, and that’s the essence of rational choice thinking).
          To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should praise Mr. K for making some people’s lives a little better.  After all, he’s not doing it out of the goodness of his heart.  As Adam Smith said, it’s not from the benevolence of the baker that we get our bread, and we’re not in the habit of praising the baker for giving us a loaf of bread after we’ve given him our money.  But would we condemn the baker then?   What if he’s the only baker in town, so that we have no other options?  He could then raise his prices, and we might grumble and, sure, we’d freely condemn him, but would we be better off if he left?  If so, then we can get the same effect by simply ending our purchases of bread.  In the same way, if third-world workers would actually be better off without the factory, then they can get the same effect by refusing to work there.
          (OK, that last paragraph does not work as a rebuttal to E.C., as he didn’t deny anything I said there, so to avoid confusion, let me emphasize that I’m just making a general statement in that particular paragraph.)
          *Having criticized others here for bad analogies on multiple occasions, I open myself up to attack by analogizing–feel free if you think it’s a bad one.Report

    • Will H. in reply to E.C. Gach says:

      Any collector already understands this about value of goods.  Whether you’re collecting stamps, coins, baseball cards, whatever.  Condition, and not mere presence, determines value.
      A bicentennial Eisenhower silver dollar minted in Denver is priced according to its condition.
      Same with everything else under the sun.Report

  21. Bram R says:

    I think one has a moral obligation to treat people well, end of line … whether they work for you or not.  So much gets confused and lost when one starts framing perfectly valid and ordinary moral questions with perfectly obvious answers in terms of, “Okay, you’re a corporation now…”  “Okay, this transaction between individuals is a ‘business’ transaction…”.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Bram R says:


      OK, let’s assume the moral obligation you claim. Let’s also assume that Mr. K doesn’t treat his employees in a way that we would consider to be “well.”

      Who has done more for these third-world workers, Mr. K or you?

      So much gets confused and lost when one starts framing perfectly valid and ordinary moral questions with perfectly obvious answers in terms of, … “Okay, this transaction between individuals is a ‘business’ transaction…

      In all honesty, I would reverse that formulation. “So much gets confused and lost when one starts framing perfectly valid and ordinary questions about business transactions between individuals in terms of moral questions. That’s not meant to be snarky, but serious. And a sincere question–sincere because it cuts to the fundamental disconnect in so many debates–can you and I conduct a truly meaningful conversation if we hold diametrically opposing formulations of that sentence? I’d like to think we could–and to suggest we can’t isn’t to imply that either of us is bad–but I wonder if it’s actually possible.Report

      • > Who has done more for these third-world workers, Mr. K or you?

        I suppose that the answer to this question largely depends on whether or not you believe the “myth of the noble savage”.

        Humor aside, given that this isn’t an individual-exchange but rather a social group exchange, measuring individual returns is probably a misleading metric of success, wouldn’t you say?

        I mean, if the 1000 people working at the factory all become the local equivalent of “rich as Croesus”, but a generation later the factory is gone and the children are all dealing with polluted groundwater and dying at 22 of cancer instead of 30 of cholera, I don’t know that we’d call that a success, although the 1000 guys who packed up their newfound wealth and retired to the sticks as local kingpins probably still do.

        I get your point, James, and I largely agree that when you’re talking about economic advancement third world countries have to start *somewhere* and go up; I think your colleague is missing the forest for the trees. However, you don’t want to miss the trees for gazing at the forest of theoretical long-term economic opportunity, either.

        There are after all examples of colonial societies that had advanced economic opportunities relative to their non-colonial neighbors that lost all those advancements, as well. Worked out great for us and most of the French-controlled territories (who joined us), but the Spanish territories have at best a mixed bag of success.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          Well, I’m a big fan of cetiris paribus analysis. We can always start multiplying complications, but the question is whether we end up actually saying more or less.Report

  22. Patriot Henry says:

    exploit: “to make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage”

    Someone who hires people at 16+ hours a day 6-7 days a week with a helluva workload and piss poor pay is exploiting them. Is it or should it be illegal? No. Is it moral? No.

    “He says Mr. K is exploiting them–I say Mr. K is exchanging value for value. ”

    Mr. K has the advantage. The workers are disadvantaged. The value received by Mr. K is greater than that he gives the workers, but since they are desperate, they agree to be exploited.

    How about Mr. A who trades a life saving vaccine, medicine, or vitamin costing half an American buck to Third Worlders for a lifetime of labor? That’s exploitation. Value for value, yes, but it’s not even remotely a fair trade. It’s wage slavery to the extreme. If the only two options were to make that trade or not make any trade, then you could argue that it is moral, as you could with Mr. K – but since this is the real world and our choices are not limited to false dichotomies then a better option that (especially in the long run) benefits both sides to a much greater degree should certainly be possible.

    “My rebuttal is that they are voluntarily working for him because he’s given them a better opportunity than anything else that’s available to them, so he doesn’t owe them anything more. ”

    Then they won’t owe him anything more than what they can get away with, so Mr. K can expect low quality, low yields, and a complete absence of improvements, ingenuity, and other cost cutting and profit increasing contributions that the employees would otherwise be induced to contribute. He can also expect theft, sabotage, slowdowns, etc. Screw your employees and they will screw you. Mr. K is an example of those who try to get “more for less” – which is essentially the same sin as trying to obtain something for nothing.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to Patriot Henry says:

      Just caught this. It’s all my thoughts, but much more eloquently and succinctly articulated.Report

    • Then they won’t owe him anything more than what they can get away with, so Mr. K can expect low quality, low yields, and a complete absence of improvements, ingenuity, and other cost cutting and profit increasing contributions that the employees would otherwise be induced to contribute.

      Well, of course. But that’s Mr. K’s business, not mine. Do you imagine I’d actually feel some kind of sympathy for Mr. K? My point all along has been that this exchange is fair, and that includes Mr. K getting no more than he pays for.

      I never understand why some people think this kind of argument will be the knock-down blow. It’s a pragmatic argument, appended onto the end of the moral argument, and is wholly irrelevant because we can assume Mr. K is capable of looking after his own interests satisfactorily. He hardly needs either you or me to tell him how to run his business–he’s got more money than the two of us put together will have in several lifetimes.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to Patriot Henry says:

      I think Henry’s point about false dichotomies is the important part.

      Do you compare K’s actions against the negative of those actions (doing/not doing) or against other possible actions.

      The fact that you don’t feel he owes anyone anything except to not harm them (except in circumstances where is inaction would harm them, in which case you would still say that because he is not doing something he is fine, making a somewhat dubious between action/inaction as if they were both not courses of action), is a step most people would not make with you.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:


        I only compare Mr. K’s actions as to what he might or might not actually do. I don’t have a problem with anyone saying it would be “better” if he paid his workers more, or that they’d think more highly of him if he did. But in evaluating him, the real world choices he’s going to make are 1) pay them the minimum that will attract them to work for him, or 2) not employ them at all.

        And since they voluntarily take the jobs, the employees themselves are voting in favor of option 1. It’s only comparatively well-to-do westerners who object, and who would substitute their own judgment for the employees’ judgment and try to argue for option 2.

        Option 3, pay them more/give them better working conditions than they demand is basically moral posturing by people who mostly themselves haven’t done anything for those third-worlders. Wringing our hands doesn’t help them. Jobs that pay more than the prevailing average wage–which Mr. K’s jobs do, no matter how poor the pay looks to us–do help them.Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

        “But in evaluating him, the real world choices he’s going to make are 1) pay them the minimum that will attract them to work for him, or 2) not employ them at all.”

        Saying those are two of the things he’ll probably do says nothing as to what he ought to do. So saying that while he ought to do x, he’ll probably only do y or z, doesn’t get him off the hook for not doing x. While I woudn’t say he shouldn’t put the factory there (in your hypothetical) I would maintain that he is still wrong in doing so under his current conditions because he “should”/”ought” to do more.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          But I think you’re operating in a world of wishful thinking. Keep in mind that I don’t really care much about moral claims, especially ideal ones. I find that kind of thinking to be a lot of mental masturbation that doesn’t ever accomplish very much, if anything at all. People simply aren’t motivated by the moral claims of others.

          All I actually care about is whether Mr. K’s actions improve the material well-being of these people from the status quo, or whether his actions diminish their material well-being. If the starting point is Time 1 (T1) and the next stage is Time 2 (T2), is T2> T1 or not? Beyond that, all the morality talk sounds to me like talk about teacups on the far side of the moon.Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

          That’s perfectly fine, I don’t expect you or anyone else to be motivated by moral claims. But their motivating power says nothing as to their accuracy/legitimacy.

          You may chose to look at only two possible futures, one in which K does X1 and one in which he does not do X1, but you have no basis on which to limit possible futures like that. I understand that you prefer using that as your benchmark. But I’m not sure why anyone should be convinced that it works in governing moral action.

          And I’m comfortable with you saying, to hell with moral claims, not interested. That’s fine, as long as your position is understood to be amoral.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            But their motivating power says nothing as to their accuracy/legitimacy.

            Actually, there’s nothing really demonstrable that says anything as to their accuracy/legitimacy. That’s why I don’t find them particularly interesting. If you could find some way to demonstrate that your moral claims have some actuality vs. other countervailing moral claims, perhaps I’d find the moral approach worthwhile.

            But even to the extent we take your moral approach seriously, I think you’re phrasing it badly, painting it as a binary variable: he’s either being moral or not. Given that you insist on more than two possible alternatives, you either have to demonstrate that two of them are equally moral/not moral, or you have to look at it not as a binary variable but a continuous one. Even if we grant that employing them at higher wages is more moral than employing them at low wages, you need to answer the question, “is employing them at low wages more or less moral than not employing them at all”? You’re posing basically an all or nothing scenario, and I think there’s no way to logically justify that.

            you have no basis on which to limit possible futures like that

            Of course I do. If Mr. K is only going to do one of two things, I think it’s entirely legitimate to get people to focus on which of those two things is better, rather than for them to keep insisting, “but alternative 3 is better!” Perhaps it is, but it’s still ducking the question.

          • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

            “If Mr. K is only going to do one of two things”

            But only because he’s already decided to only do one of those two things. What if a murderer said, well hey, I’m a killer, I only killed two people, think of all the other people I could have killed, and give me a lighter sentence…

            What if K. said, hey, I could have paid them even less, so the fact that I could be even worse than I am shows that I’m actually much better than you think!

            I’m fine with saying that he is being less immoral than he could be. But not more than he should.

            Am I reading you right to call you a moral relativist?Report

            • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:


              The killer comparison is dreadful. That person has harmed people. Mr. K has not harmed anyone. The comparison between “could have done even more harm,” and “not going to do any more good” just doesn’t work.

              And, no, Mr. K can’t pay them less, or they won’t come to work.

              And then it’s the “should” part where we really part ways.

              I couldn’t say whether I’m a moral relativist or not. I’m pretty dubious about the whole moralist enterprise. It seems nothing more than a bunch of “this sounds good to me, so let me build a type of intellectual superstructure around it to make it sound like something more than just a gut feeling.”

              If you don’t harm people (and not doing harm includes abiding by whatever agreements or commitments you make to each other), what more could be required, and who would have standing to require more of others?

              We might admire Mr. K more if he did more, but that’s not at all the same as saying he “should” do more.

              If he “should” do more, then it sounds to me like somebody else has a claim on getting more from him, but how can anyone have such a claim on another person? How could you owe me anything more than I have agreed to receive from you, and how could I have any such claim against you?Report

            • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

              “If you don’t harm people (and not doing harm includes abiding by whatever agreements or commitments you make to each other), what more could be required, and who would have standing to require more of others?”

              Like I said earlier, I don’t know what basis you have for making a distinction between action and inaction. While you find my claims to morality dubious and baseless, you seem to sneak in the fact that we owe each other not-harm. On what do you base that? It sounds like a moral claim to me?

              So you think we do owe people something, namely, to not harm/interfere. Except in circumstances where someone would be harmed unless we act, in which case you would probably say that having to help them would be imposing a positive obligation rather than a negative one.

              At the end of the day, where do you draw your metaphysical distinction between acting different and continuing the same act?

              Would you agree that you are asserting that maintaining a current course of action is the steady state from which any divergence is “acting,” thus making someone who walks by someone who needs help, but not helping them, simply a continuance of their prior course of action and thus allowable since they owe other people nothing else?

              I’m not being very articulate, but you must acknowledge that your libertarian leanings are a morality all their own, in so much as you propose any scheme of what we do or do not owe other people.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:

                I don’t know what basis you have for making a distinction between action and inaction

                To begin with, it’s an old common-law distinction that carries over into our current U.S. law. Failing to save someone’s life is distinct from taking someone’s life. It’s the distinction between “pushing you in the water” and “not pulling you out of the water.” If you see no difference between the two, I’d ask you to explain why. So far you’re insisting that I justify the distinction, but you have not justified the lack of a distinction. (Of course we may neither of us be able to justify our positions to the other’s satisfaction.)

                We could also refer to a hierarchy of concepts, such as in Asimov’s “I, Robot,” where the dominant rule controlling robot behavior was to do no harm to humans. The principle of not allowing harm to come to humans was subsidiary to that first rule.

                I would also base it on the concept of causality. Whatever philosophers may think about the distinction, empiricists are rarely willing to attribute causality to a non-event rather than an event.

                Further, to say that I have an obligation to advance your welfare is to say you have a claim on me. To say that I cannot diminish your welfare is not to say that you have a claim on me, but it is to say that I have no claim on you.

                Yes, it very much depends on the action/non-action distinction. That’s an issue I have heard discussed in philosophy classes and blogs (the streetcar problem, etc.), but it has never made much sense to me other than as an intellectual exercise. It’s back to the pushing-in/not-pulling -out distinction. I’ve never been persuaded they’re the same thing.

                Would you agree that you are asserting that maintaining a current course of action is the steady state from which any divergence is “acting,” thus making someone who walks by someone who needs help, but not helping them, simply a continuance of their prior course of action and thus allowable since they owe other people nothing else?

                Perhaps. At first blush that sounds fair. But it’s a new phrasing to my ears, so I’d have to ponder it, and perhaps hear other people’s interpretations of it, before I could confidently agree. But as I said, it sounds fair.Report

              • E.C. Gach in reply to E.C. Gach says:

                “non-event rather than an event.”

                What are you referring to as “non-events?”

                And just to be clear, are you saying you prefer amorality? That is, that you don’t recognize the legitimacy of anything claimed according to a “moral” framework? Or that you recognize Libertarian’s brand of morality, limited obligation/limited liability, as superior?Report

              • James Hanley in reply to E.C. Gach says:

                E. C.,

                Sorry for the misfortunate change in phrasing. It doesn’t mean anything differently than action/non-action.

                As to your last question, it goes beyond my very limited philosophical capacities. I’m simply not sure. But I lean toward your latter interpretation. If those with better philosophical chops than me insist that it’s a moral position, I accept it as being so, and a superior one because it is one that makes no claims to benefit at the unwilling expense of others.

                And one thing I’ve learned from studying game theory and strategic behavior is that minimal rules often have far more power than people might expect (see, for example, Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, and the surprising power of the simple tit-for-tat rule in promoting mutual cooperation), and as a student of institutions it’s clear to me that unnecessary complexities often degrade the functioning of a system. I think engineers often find the same thing. I suspect lawyers and philosophers are less likely to agree.Report