13 votes

Exploitation and coercion

Those two words and their relationship with "consent" and "freedom" fascinate me. I've sort of ruminated about it in the back of my mind for a while, but haven't sorted a lot out.

It would be nice for two people to be able to make any agreement they like between each other without restrictions. "I'll do this for me and you give me that in return". If there aren't restrictions on what sort of agreement two private people make, in some sense, that can be maximum freedom.

But then exploitation and coercion come into the mix. "If you don't sign this contract, I will kill you" is a clear example of an agreement not being free. "If you don't sign this employment contract, you won't be able to afford to buy food" is still fairly clear, but a little further removed. "If you don't sign this employment contract, you'll be able to get food, but the food you can afford will be heavily processed and laden with oils and processed sugars, and you could suffer poor health in the future" is getting into a lot of grey area.

We talk a lot about minimum wage workers being exploited. It's true that most of them (almost all of them?) hate their jobs. It's also true that life necessarily requires sacrifices. I don't have a good framework for thinking about what point something becomes exploitative or unethical.

It comes up in personal relationships as well. "If you don't have sex with me, I will kill myself" is clearly abusive and manipulative. "If you don't have sex with me, I will break up with you" is slightly more removed. "If you don't quit using heroin, I will break up with you" is a little grey.

At what point is someone being coerced in a relationship vs two people acknowledging sacrifices they have to make to stay together? I don't have a good framework for thinking about this.

Further things to think about: at what point of mental illness can a person no longer ethically enter into an agreement? What about a normal person who suffers from the usual human psychological biases? At what point is it exploitative to use psychological biases when negotiating with someone? This can go all the way from the benign (ending a price in ".99") to the damaging (designing casino games with flashing lights and buzzers, etc.)

I don't expect someone to be able to give me a pat answer to this. If you think you can give me a 1-line "Exploitation is ...", I think you're probably missing something. But I am curious how other people think about these things, and what examples or what books you've found that have been helpful to you sorting things out.

1 comment

  1. nacho
    I think a lot of what you bring up has more to do with constrains and the societal framework within which we make decisions, than coercion. There are very few decisions we make that are entirely...

    I think a lot of what you bring up has more to do with constrains and the societal framework within which we make decisions, than coercion.

    There are very few decisions we make that are entirely free from constraints. There are few agreements without large trade-offs or where both parties are on an even footing.

    I'll use labor agreements as an example to illustrate some of the issues and societal balances we have, but more importantly the complexity surrounding every decision we make within a social and economic framework.

    Countries regulate a host of different settings where they say "that agreement is illegal because it is unfair even if both parties agree to it". That is society regulating where exploitation begins.

    Minimum wage is one such obvious societal regulation: paying less is slavery legally speaking, paying this little is okay, legally. Unions and businesses make agreements that go beyond the law in terms of work compensation. Collective agreements get at the imbalance of power of one person bargaining with a party with overwhelmingly larger resources. They ensure businesses can't have a race to the bottom putting employees up against each other in search of someone desperate enough to accept exploitatively low compensation.

    There is a clear, legally outlined framework available to everyone for bargaining work contracts to avoid coercion. In the west that framework relies on worker unions balancing out large employers.

    Low union membership across western society is a sign people are generally willing to put up with less than in generations past when unions were stronger. Collective bargaining only works if enough people are unionized that the threat of collective action can legitimately impact their place of work.

    Somewhat paradoxically then, society is built on personal responsibility and free agency in terms of contracts, but for employment contracts, which are some of the most important contracts in most people's lives, fair agreements hinge on everyone shouldering their part of a collective responsibility.

    It's obvious that the framework for making agreements gets very complicated very quickly. Things don't become easier when those at highest risk for agreeing to exploitative contracts are those most replaceable and least likely to unionize, where employers are also most aggressively trying to hinder people from unionizing. If you keep the percentage low enough, you can always play those who have the largest marginal benefit from a small pay check against others in the same position.

    That doesn't seem fair.

    The law is very clear, x is legal, y is not and is exploitative or coercive.

    But what is okay morally? That's a legislative question, but also a question we not only we as individuals but as groups have to consider every time we make agreements.

    We have moral responsibilities both personally and collectively. That also means we can't just think about ourselves when we make a deal; we have to consider whether what we're asking the other party to accept is fair too.

    4 votes