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Beyond Coercion: Moral Assessment in the Labour Market

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Some libertarians argue that informed consent alone makes transactions in the labour market morally justified. In contrast, some of their critics claim that such an act of consent is no guarantee against coercion. To know whether agreements are voluntary, we need to assess the quality of the offers or the prevailing background conditions. ISCT theorists argue that it is imperative to take social norms into account when evaluating the labour market. We present a novel framework for moral assessment in the labour market, which takes consent, background conditions and norms into account, but which mainly focuses on the offers and demands made. Consent renders a transaction legitimate in the same way we regard a fair election legitimate even if we object to its outcome. For offers to be substantially justified, exploitation must be avoided and offers must give expression to the value of community. Only then they are morally justified.

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  1. Olsaretti (1998) and Peter (2004) are two of the most recent critics, and they will represent this camp. Before them, Cohen (1985) and Zimmerman (1981) have argued that offers in the labour market are at risk of being coercive.

  2. Maitland (1997) and Friedman (1982) rely heavily on consequentialist reasons in their arguments, but their criteria for workplace fairness are not in themselves consequentialist.

  3. As Goodin (2006, p. 55) puts it: “Arguments between free-marketers and their opponents are typically over the extent to which those ideal conditions are met in the real world”.

  4. Note also that because Maitland (1997) focuses entirely on the choice of the worker, his criterion seems to justify working conditions that are far from classically liberal. For instance, a command economy where workers freely choose to work would be justified by this criterion.

  5. For support of the view that workers under such circumstances are disadvantaged, see MacPherson (1968) and Mayer (2007b).

  6. It is also easy to imagine cases in the flea market where the stakes are high and the agents lack a viable exit option. The purpose of this comparison is not to say something substantial regarding the flea market. This market instead plays the role of an intuition pump by depicting what the labour market typically is not and why we have good reason to continue to hold different values dear in these two contexts.

  7. Others have also acknowledged these kinds of differences. Mayer (2007b, p. 606) says that “If I exploit Blue’s carelessness in a game of chess and take her queen, I have gained at Blue’s expense but my gain is not unfair. I inflicted loss, but such inflictions are permitted by the rules of the game”. Furthermore, Shiffrin (2007, p. 743–744) differentiates between games, such as poker, and contracts that are of much greater importance to us: “Games like poker (…) are fairly rigidly defined and separated from the normal course of events in life and in relationships. (…) By contrast, contracts pervade our lives. We cannot easily opt out of them or treat them as merely an occasional leisure activity”.

  8. To exit from the labour market or remain unemployed does not constitute acceptable options in Olsaretti’s (1998) framework.

  9. For support of this view regarding choice architecture and the firm’s moral responsibilities, see Goodin (2006).

  10. For an overview of stakeholder theory, see Freeman (2001).

  11. For more on the issue of a principle of justice for the workplace, see Lindblom (2011).

  12. For an attempt to spell out a Rawlsian theory of workplace justice, see Lindblom (2011).

  13. When to blame a firm’s owners or management is a difficult question and depends on both empirical circumstances and which ethical position you prefer. This is why we sometimes use the less strong concept attracts blame, which is consistent with saying that an act is prima facie wrong and in danger of deserving blame. With regard to degrees of wrongdoing and whether ‘ought’ and ‘blame’ need a plausible ‘can’ cf. Stern (2004) and Calder (2005).

  14. Dahl (1989) supports the view that these kinds of democratic procedures and institutions generate a kind of procedural justice.

  15. O’Neill (1985, p. 160) argues that “Not being used may be enough for being treated as a person when our particular identity and specific character are irrelevant, for example in commercial or other transactions with anonymous members of the public”. Such a description seems to fit with our characterisation of the contract situation and the agreements in the flea market, but not as good with being employed in the firm, where being treated as a person demands more than not being used.

  16. For support of the view that such contracts should be honoured, see Gilbert (1993) and Hershowitz (2003).

  17. This category can also entail demands that are obviously reasonable if properly consented to. For example, we can imagine a train conductor on a long-distance train to be responsible both for checking and selling tickets, and for keeping the toilets clean. This additional work task might be obviously reasonable if properly consented to, but is not deducible from taking the job and must be regarded as a setback from the perspective of the employee. We are grateful to Adrien Barton for making this point.

  18. For philosophical discussions on employee rights, see Des Jardins and McCall (1985), and Rowan (2000). For a discussion on the importance of citizenship and rights in the context of the employment relationship, see Radin and Werhane (2003).

  19. For this line of reasoning, see also Sandel (1998).

  20. Some working conditions might be difficult to anticipate in the contract situation, and what might not be experienced as harmful at first can have this effect over time. Thus, instead of merely informing the job applicant of these kinds of demands, the employer should explain that some people (if this is the case) find these kinds of demands stressful after some time, even if they were not able to foresee this when taking on the job. In these cases, we have thereby raised the bar for what it takes for consent to be properly informed. We are grateful to Adrien Barton for making this point.

  21. However, what kind of moral responsibilities we should assign the firm depends on how much we agree with, for example, Mayer (2007b). He argues that because exploitation in the labour market is typically structural, the firm cannot really choose not to exploit the employees without risking bankruptcy. This circumstance makes it permissible to take unfair advantage of workers. If Mayer is right, it might be unreasonable to blame the firm for offering the employees unreasonable working conditions. One way to handle this might be to say that the firm should at least acknowledge the ethical cost of exploitation, and when such ethical costs cannot be avoided, the firm should still try to mitigate wrongdoing by compensating the workers in other, less expensive, ways.


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Correspondence to Dan Munter.



The four colours flag four distinct kinds of demands or working conditions, all of which are in need of their own ethical descriptions

  1. PJ: procedurally justified and therefore legitimate. SJ: substantially justified. MJ: morally justified. The dash sign should be read as ‘not’. (a)–(e) refer to the discussion on page 17

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Munter, D., Lindblom, L. Beyond Coercion: Moral Assessment in the Labour Market. J Bus Ethics 142, 59–70 (2017).

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