Summary and Keywords
The concept of exploitation is often invoked in situations where relatively impoverished people are treated unfairly in economic and social contexts. While the claim that exploitation involves taking unfair advantage is broadly accepted, there is little consensus about what fairness requires and whether unfairness is seriously wrong in the context of exchanges. One family of accounts claims that exploitation involves the maldistribution of resources, either because exploitative transactions result in distributions that violate substantive norms of fairness, or because procedural flaws in the way exploitative transactions come about entail that their outcomes are unfair.
A second, domination-based approach to exploitation claims that the moral flaw embodied by exploitative relations is the exploiter’s disrespectful use of his power over the exploitee. While exploiters’ domination of others may lead to maldistributions, defenders of the domination-based approach argue that distributive unfairness is neither necessary nor sufficient for exploitative relations.
These approaches both face two kinds of challenges. The first concerns the scope. Neither appears to provide necessary and sufficient conditions that are adequate to capture all and only cases commonly described as exploitation. The second concerns the normative status. Exploitation is typically assumed to be morally impermissible, yet neither approach seems to satisfactorily explain how exploitations that nevertheless generate significant welfare gains for both parties can be wrong.
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