Essay:Epistemological and demarcation problems involving consent, exploitation and power imbalances

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"Exploitative" relationships exist when a power imbalance is used to coerce a person into doing something that is detrimental to him. People have cited as examples of such exploitation a dictator compelling his subjects to work on a collective farm under penalty of being sent to the gulag; a boss compelling his employee to have sex under penalty of termination; etc. Some would argue that cooperation and transactions between people with differing levels of power are non-consensual and should be banned. Here are some thoughts, questions, and thought experiments on that subject.

Free markets as a check on power imbalances; workplace sexual harassment

An important demarcation problem is the question, What exactly is a power imbalance that could give rise to exploitation? Under any system, capitalistic or socialistic, there are people with greater control than other people over economic resources such as land and capital due to their owning those resources or holding a government position vesting them with authority over those resources. In that sense, there is a power imbalance with respect to who has the ability to use those resources as he pleases and to restrict or allow others' use of them.

Libertarians argue: In the absence of a monopoly over a resource, competition tends to eliminate the power of any resource owner to dictate price; he can only influence the price by contributing, or not contributing, his own supply (i.e. his schedule of quantities he's willing to supply at various prices) to the aggregate supply which interacts with aggregate demand to produce the equilibrium price. To stay competitive, the supplier must match the quality and price of his competition; otherwise, he tends to go out of business, assuming demanders have good information. The suppliers may have trouble maintaining a cartel because there are incentives to defect. In a free market, even when monopolies for certain products exist, there tend to substitutes available, so the monopolist does not have a great deal of power to dictate what consumers buy and for how much.

Some people say that it is exploitative for a resource owner to, by taking advantage of a consumer's desire for a product, compel him to pay a high price. An example would be an employment relationship: the employee works at a company because he wants to earn money with which to buy products, and his boss demands that he provide sexual favors if he wants to keep his job. Walter Block argues out in his book The Case for Discrimination that there is no important distinction, as far as power imbalance is concerned, between sexual and non-sexual job duties; the stripper's whole job is to sexually titillate people and to tolerate ogling, sexual remarks, etc. while the bookkeeper's job is to record transactions and so on, but it is unclear why a hybrid job requiring both types of duties would be any worse than the stripper role that is accepted by many governments as a permissible profession. A person who doesn't like sexual harassment can work somewhere else, if substitute sources of employment are available.

How the distinction between needs and wants is used to determine what economic power is sufficient to constitute a power imbalance

Given that a person's power is often not absolute or all-encompassing, where do we draw the line and say that a situation is exploitative? Suppose that you are in no danger of starving anytime soon, but you have an immediate craving for doughnuts, and I am the only person in the vicinity with a box of doughnuts. Would it be exploitative for me to require a high price for those doughnuts?

Some people might say, exploitation involves taking advantage of one's power to decide whether a person's needs will be met; it is not enough to have power to decide whether his wants will be fulfilled. But the distinction between needs and wants is somewhat arbitrary.

If you so desire a doughnut that you have made it your life's goal to consume one with as little delay as possible, and nothing else matters to you, then that has come to be more important than any "needs" beyond those relevant to your quickly obtaining that doughnut. You would be willing to sell your clothing, shelter, and other means of maintaining life in the long-term in order to achieve your goal. Perhaps you would even commit suicide in despair if you were to fail at your goal. The fact that people have different goals in life, some of which may conflict with maximizing longevity, makes it hard to say that, as a rule applicable with reference to all consumers, control over certain resources gives a supplier the ability to exploit the consumer.

When a person happens to desire, of his own free will, to engage in behavior desired of him by the person who has power over him; epistemological problems in determining this

Suppose that on a slave plantation, the master is sexually attracted to his slave and his slave is sexually attracted to him. The master has the power to beat the slave and to deprive the slave of food and other necessities, if he so wishes. However, he does not need to do this or threaten to do it in order to get the slave to have sex with him, because the slave wishes to have sex for the enjoyment that would result from the act itself, rather than to escape punishment for not submitting.

Does this count as consensual sex? If not, why shouldn't it count? If it were possible for an outside observer to read the mind of the slave -- e.g. by hooking the slave up to a reliable lie detector and asking about the slave's motives for having sex with the master -- and find out that the slave wishes to have the sex for the sake of enjoyment, and would be willing to have the sex even if the master-slave relationship did not exist, would that be a good reason for the observer to view the sex as okay, and not a form of exploitation?

Suppose that a political group were to say, "Although we don't have the support needed to completely abolish slavery at this time, we do seek to ban sexual relationships between slaves and their masters, because these are some of the worst exploitative abuses." It seems to me that such a policy work work contrary to the satisfaction of those slaves who do wish to have sex with their masters. Is the slave's satisfaction the issue that is important here, or is there some other ethical issue to consider?

Suppose that, as in the real world, the hypothetical reliable lie detector mentioned above does not exist, and there is no way to tell what a particular slave's motive is for having sex with the master. (The slave might feel under coercion to say what the master wants him to say, viz. that the slave engages in the sex for enjoyment.) Should we then ban all sex between slaves and masters in order to protect those slaves who would otherwise submit to sex solely to escape punishment?

What if we have reason to believe, e.g. from the accounts of slaves who have since been emancipated, that the vast majority of the slaves who have those sexual relations do so for enjoyment, and there are very few who do so because of the threat of punishment? Should that affect our decision as to whether those relations should be outlawed? Or is it worth depriving the many of satisfaction for the sake of the benefit of the few, no matter how high the ratio of the former to the latter? This seems unreasonable, since one of the main arguments against exploitation is that it favors the privileged few at the expense of the many.

Situations involving revocable liberty

Suppose the master says, "I will let you choose whether to have sex with me or not; you will not be punished if you don't." Nonetheless, he retains the power to punish if he wishes. Is it still exploitative sex? In such circumstances, banning the sex would deprive that slave of some liberty (albeit liberty that is revocable at the master's discretion) that has been granted. I seems to me that, assuming that the slave is in a better position than outsiders to judge and decide what is in his own best interest, this deprivation of liberty would tend to work to the slave's detriment.

Incentives for master-slave relationships to exist in the first place

The banning of sex between master and slave could reduce some of the incentives for slavery. But if the goal is to get rid of slavery, then as soon as complete abolition is feasible, one would want to achieve that rather than partial measures. Regulations on the master-slave relationship could only be helpful as incremental measures toward achieving that ultimate goal, or as half-measures when abolition cannot be achieved. But are some half-measures useless or worse than useless?

Situations in which the master is required to satisfy the slave's needs, but is not required to satisfy the slave's wants

Going back to the question of needs and wants, how much power must the master have over the slave in order for the sex to count as exploitative? Suppose, in a departure from the scenario mentioned above, there are laws requiring that the master provide the slave a certain minimum standard of living and prohibiting corporal punishment of slaves. When the slave's basic "needs" are guaranteed to be met, and punishment can consist solely of depriving the slave of the fulfillment of certain "wants", can exploitation still exist?

Can there be some wants that are so trivial that the ability to deprive someone of their fulfillment cannot afford a basis for exploitation? Who decides what is trivial, and on what basis? This may seem to cover again what was asked above in the doughnut example, but I am putting the question in the context of slavery because some might view different principles to be applicable situations in the context of the free market.