Freedom, Autonomy, and Harm in Global Supply Chains


Responding to criticism by Gordon Sollars and Frank Englander, this paper highlights a significant tension in recent debates over the ethics of global supply chains. This tension concerns the appropriate focus and normative frame(s) for these debates. My first goal is to make sense of what at first reading seems to be a very odd set of claims: that valuing free, autonomous, and respectful markets entails a “fetish for philosophical purity” that is inconsistent with a moral theory that finds no wrong in harming workers, including the least advantaged among them. Sollars and Englander reach these conclusions, I believe, because their criticism assumes and relies upon the presumption of a global prioritarian frame, one which focuses individual welfare, and which they then apply at the level of individual political and economic actors. Much of Benjamin Powell and Matt Zwolinski’s work, I continue, including their criticism of political and economic activism and Powell’s indictment of organized labor, relies on a similar frame—while expanding the harms to include the freedom and autonomy of would-be sweatshop workers. This prioritarian frame, I argue, is particularly poorly suited to discussion of the ethical responsibilities of individual economic and political actors. We ought to reject it. To make progress on debates over global sweatshops, and the ethics of global supply chains in general, we need a better frame, and better standards of freedom and autonomy, than those invoked by many prominent defenders of sweatshops.

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  1. 1.

    I have since come to see this phrase as redundant. For more on Kant’s republicanism see Bohman (2013), Dann (2009).

  2. 2.

    Powell uses the same formulation in a recent interview. Accessed on May 17, 2017.

  3. 3.

    More below.

  4. 4.

    Similarly, imagine two different groups of agents who advertise the message that veal consumption is immoral, in an attempt to discourage sales in veal. The first does so out of a deep concern for what they believe is the inhumane treatment of animals. The second does so because they own a large stake in the chicken industry, and want to reduce competition from a substitutable good (or because they themselves enjoy veal and want to drive down the cost by reducing demand). Does it make any sense to conclude the former “artificial, moral” reasons are somehow less consistent with freedom or autonomy than the latter, even if they both result in unemployed veal ranchers?

  5. 5.

    Which is why they frequently refer to the “least advantaged” among workers or would-be workers.

  6. 6.

    Which, to reiterate, treats market choices that lower demand for a particular worker, relative to alternative actions where that worker was in greater demand, as a violation of such a moral theory. If we treat actions that lower demand for a given good or service, and thereby demand for workers who provide that good or service, as a kind of harm, then the choices of political and consumer activists indeed harm individual workers any time they impact demand for a given good or service. If in combination with this view, we take “do no harm” as a deontic side-constraint on consumer decisions (including the decision to boycott a given firm’s products), then anti-sweatshop activists are in many cases acting immorally. On these understandings, however, all of us are acting immorally (virtually) any time we make a choice in the marketplace.

  7. 7.

    A campaign which, if successful, will harm even poorer would-be sweatshop workers, by Powell et al.’s reasoning.

  8. 8.

    It may even be worse, since selecting fair-trade good at least puts resources in someone else’s hands, someone who may in turn purchase sweatshop goods.

  9. 9. Accessed on May 17, 2017.

  10. 10. Accessed on May 17, 2017.

  11. 11. Accessed on May 17, 2017.

  12. 12.

    In the case of “sea slaves,” many migrant workers on fishing boats lack even the ability to swim. Accessed on May 17, 2017.

  13. 13.

    In some particularly tragic cases becoming the prototypical version of republican unfreedom: a slave. Accessed on November 20, 2017.

  14. 14.

    Historically, labor unions played a crucial role in changing laws to protect workers from such forced labor. In industrial Britain, to give one of many possible examples, labor unions fought to repeal Master and Servant Laws that subjected workers to criminal sanction for failure to repay the advances of their employers (Naidu and Yuchtman 2013).

  15. 15.

    Crucial to this effort historically is the role of unions play in transmitting information to member households about the potential impacts of the (often dense, complicated, and poorly publicized) laws and institutions that structure the contracts of unionized and non-unionized workers alike. As such, they help to mitigate political domination. This engagement and organization played a vital role in securing widespread support for policies that transformed American political economy, such as a 40-h work week, federally mandated safety regulations, social security, and countless other policies (Hacker and Pierson 2010; Rosenfeld 2014; Cobble 2004; Lichtenstein 2003).

  16. 16.

    Or what Mill calls “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (Mill 1998, p. 15). Laws governing property and exchange (including the aforementioned labor laws) are not paternalist, but instead concern the interests of other people.

  17. 17.

    My arguments here need not imply that worker voice through organized labor and legal and industry standards are the ideal, first best way to secure individual freedom from domination. Robert Taylor argues, for example, that the best way to secure worker freedom is by encouraging free market competition, the rule of law, as well as publically resourced exit options like an unconditional basic income (or capitalist demogrants), relocation vouchers, funding to bridge the “digital divide”, and rent-subsidies so that poorer workers can afford housing in innovation hubs. In the global context, open borders are essential. Taylor spends little time addressing the political sources of these policies, and whether collective organizing might be necessary to achieve them. He does warn that “we should be aware that these policies are not al a carte: they must be implemented in tandem, because merely pursuing a subset of them may increase rather than decrease domination’ (Taylor 2017, p. 63). “Unionization”, he continues, “can be justified under certain circumstances as a second-best response… to a lack of legal agency among employees. Enhancing competition in and resourcing exit from such labor markets would be better, but these policies may be politically infeasible, in which case the sort of rigid opposition to union privilege offered by Hayek would make the best the enemy of the good” (Taylor 2017, p. 106).

  18. 18.

    See (Tully 1980) for the ways in which Locke would not support employment relations of domination.

  19. 19.

    Here it should be noted that Powell and Zwolinski briefly highlight that the laws that MNCs should break are often not the product of “well-functioning democratic systems” (Powell and Zwolinski 2012, p. 462). Their point, however, is not the ways in which democratic accountability helps to protect individual freedom (a central republican insight) but instead to amplify their claim, which applies to democratically legitimate laws as well, that individual firms do not possess an obligation to obey laws that undermine the welfare of would-be sweatshop workers. For more on the link between democratic accountability and freedom as non-domination, see Lovett (2010), Pettit (2012, 2014), Niederberger (2013). See also Shapiro (2016).

  20. 20.

    In the words of one worker, who made handbags on sale at WalMart, the product of such powerlessness is that “workers [here] face a life of fines and beatings.” Another worker, in this case from Haiti, states, “In the factories, there’s a system that we call ‘give it to me and Ill give to you.’ It means that you have to agree to have sex with supervisor or that person will blacklist you or get you fired.” The literature on sweatshops is filled with such examples, where workers bemoan the domination of their employers. See and Both accessed on May 17, 2017.

  21. 21.

    Indeed, the past 200 years of productive and labor history is filled with just such activism, where workers themselves join other political and economic actors to collectively organize to change the structure in which individual workers bargain for wages and working conditions, including legal mandates for wages, hours, and working conditions, and other limitations on managerial caprice. In short, where they campaign for policies that further their freedom and welfare by removing their preferred option in the status quo. Such history, of course, also contains frequent charges of paternalism, connecting contemporary authors with a long tradition of opposition to political and economic activism. See also Gourevitch (2015).

  22. 22.

    This basic republican point served as the central philosophical framework for challenging monarchical rule in England, the United States, France, and elsewhere (Houston 1991; Skinner 1998; Sidney 1687; Rahe 1992; Sellers 1994). Republicans posited an alternative to dominant political and economic institutions, a society of citizens free from arbitrary control and domination.

  23. 23.

    Bentham soon demanded credit for the: “discovery I have made,” which he clearly understood to be quite different from existing understandings of freedom (Long 1977, p. 54).

  24. 24.

    See also Pettit (2012, 2014), Niederberger (2013), Shapiro (2016).

  25. 25.

    See also Freeland (2012), Rothkopf (2009).

  26. 26.

    After all, the wealthiest of the world’s population has experienced gains that parallel, as a percentage, those of poorer workers who most benefit from globally integrated markets. In absolute terms, of course, such gains dwarf the rest of the world population on a per capita basis, as they largely go to individuals who were already among the wealthiest people in the world (Milanovic 2016).


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Correspondence to Joshua Preiss.

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Preiss, J. Freedom, Autonomy, and Harm in Global Supply Chains. J Bus Ethics 160, 881–891 (2019).

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  • Supply chain ethics
  • Freedom and markets
  • Sweatshops