The Ethics of Human Rights (8): Mutually Advantageous Exploitation

exploitation: utilization of another person or group for selfish purposes. American Heritage Dictionary

To exploit someone means to take unfair advantage of that person. Usually, we define “unfair advantage” as somehow resulting in harm or coercion for the person who is taken advantage of. If A takes unfair advantage of B, we assume that B is harmed in some way, is forced to deliver the advantage, or is otherwise involuntary involved.

For example: A rapes B. The advantage gained by A is sex. This advantage is gained unfairly by A because the rape harms and coerces B. Otherwise it would not be rape. Rape is therefore charaterized as sexual exploitation.

However, it is possible to speak about exploitation and the taking of unfair advantage by A if A takes an action that benefits B. We can call this mutually advantageous exploitation, or mutually beneficial exploitation. A benefits, obviously, but B as well. B gains an advantage and is better off had the action not taken place, yet still is exploited.

Here’s an example to make this counter-intuitive statement more acceptable. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B and friends don’t have the strength to find another seller or to wait. The sale of bread makes B etc. better off, because without bread they would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyers’ condition. A exploits but doesn’t cause harm. However, A does coerce B. The transaction isn’t completely voluntary. B doesn’t have a choice.

It seems that the old maxim, volenti non fit iniuria – no injustice can be done to the willing – is still valid. Injustice implies coercion. But the other maxim, that injustice implies harm, can sometimes be wrong, unless the simple act of coercion by itself means harm.

A similar and politically more salient example would be if A were a transnational company offering to buy cacao from local cacao producers (B).


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