Moral advice from the peanut gallery?

Hey everyone — I’d appreciate it if you read the discussion between Hux and I on the last post and chime in with any arguments you think are relevant — is it morally objectionable for me to use a personal assistant company that apparently contracts with labor in India? Apparently, the industry in general has above-average working conditions in Indian terms, but not great ones in U.S. terms. There are a bunch of difficult issues about the extent to which one can do any good for the workers, etc., etc. There seem to be practicable domestic alternatives.


10 Responses to “Moral advice from the peanut gallery?”

  1. Joe Says:

    I can’t believe there’s anything “immoral” about offering someone a job that they can take or leave. Maybe if you knew the contracting company was doing shady things like setting up a company store, but I’m hoping you don’t. (cf. the question of prostitution, where pimping is a well-known problem.)

    In regards to the argument, the exchange “P: I have no humanitarian obligation to not-X, perhaps I have an analogous humanitarian obligation to Y.” “H: You have failed to show how X is humanitarian” fails to make sense to me.

    I think making these questions about personal morality instead of political process is effectively an unspoken alliance between rich liberals and rich conservatives through which changes on social justice and the environment are obstructed. But that’s an argument for another day that I’m sure others have made for centuries, and better than I. :)

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Thanks Joe.

    There are definitely some circumstances where offering someone a job they can take or leave can be morally objectionable, such as if it disorts markets, leaving others in a worse position — if I run WalMart, for example, and I have enough market power singlehandedly cut the market salary in half for some job by only offering it at that wage, and I know that a bunch of people in that job will have to start putting their kids to work rather than in school…

    but I have trouble thinking of a case that doesn’t involve that kind of market power. Which is why I tend to agree with you.

  3. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    It’s an important issue, and actually comes up in my world on the question of what duties are owed to persons whose bodies are used for medical research in the developing world (which these days comprises the majority of all clinical trials, and an increasing majority, actually).

    Without offering a specific issue on your issue, I do tend to sympathize with Hux’s later point, that to see the ethics of the situation in terms of an individual transaction is short-sighted. We don’t transact in a vacuum, such that even if it is, by the standards of the moral agent you are considering, a perfectly reasonable exchange, that does not alter the requirement to assess the moral status of the social and economic structures in which that moral agent finds him or herself. As a public health ethicist, I strongly believe that it is these structures that demand moral priority, and that focusing merely on individual exchanges absent emphasis on those structures is ethically problematic (drawing from Cohen, Sen, O’Neill, among others here).

    Consider a related example: the well-known problem in which a short trial of ziduvidine in preventing maternal-to-fetal transmission of HIV was conducted in Uganda. This trial literally could not have been conducted in the developed world, b/c in the developed world the standard of care was a full-course ziduvidine (then prohibitively expensive), and therefore that a placebo trial would have been considered unethical (b/c you’re exposing persons to risk of HIV when a proven preventative exists).

    The argument that it was ethical echoed your claims here; they had no chance to get ziduvidine outside of the trial, so half the subjects would receive a potentially beneficial intervention (tho no one knew at the time, the short course turned out to be almost as effective as the long course, on the basis of which, the intervention was used to save, by most estimates, nearly 500,000 lives in Africa). Since health GDP in Uganda was about $10/yr at the time, its proponents argued there was nothing unethical about the trial.

    Detractors vigorously disagreed, but I and some others think the focus on the individual transactions miss the larger point: how is it ethically appropriate that Ugandans have essentially no access to public health or health care interventions? Isn’t this the larger ethical problem? (I say Yes).

    Paul Farmer wrote some impassioned and largely correct articles on this, and his work also supports Hux’s points that the global regime by which countries like Uganda have terrible pop health is not a “natural” phenomenon, but is one constructed and formed by the choices and histories political actors have made and shaped. Sen’s work also supports this, esp. Poverty and Famine. The primary causes of poor pop health are political and social determinants, including structures. Of course, even if this is correct, it is extremely difficult to figure out what to do about this, but perhaps Hux has a valid point in suggesting one do what one can to minimize supporting those larger social structures.

    All JMO.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Daniel, thanks for this. I guess my quibble is what it means to be “supporting” these structures. If my behavior makes no difference to whether these structures continue to exist or not, does declining to take advantage of them constitute meaningfully withdrawing support? (Is there, perhaps, an expressive obligation to do so, even though it won’t be consequential?)

    (I totally agree that the structures themselves are of serious moral concern, and I think that we all have obligations on the collective level to work to change them, i.e., with votes, donations to pressure groups, etc.)

  5. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Mmm. Good question, but I wonder whether “meaningful withdrawal” is the relevant ethical criterion for declining to take advantage of inequitable social structures. Doesn’t the act of declining to do so have ethical content? I mean, we might assign independent ethical value to both (1) refusing, where one can, to take advantage of inequitable sociopolitical structures; and (2) taking action to meaningfully withdraw support for such structures (e.g., divesting resources, using microloans instead of donations to behemoth humanitarian organizations).

    Seems to me one could endorse a simple distinction between the negative duty to avoid taking conscious action that sustains inequity and the positive duty to ameliorate such inequity. No?

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    True, but we can express the issue in terms of the negative duty too. Claim: it’s morally wrong to support a market that injures workers. Question: does my buying service X constitute supporting the market for X when the probability that my choice to buy X will worsen the condition of any worker (i.e., by keeping a bad company in business) is so low that it’s practically indistinguishable from zero?

    The other important question is whether it’s obligatory to refuse to take advantage of inequitable social structures even when your action has no effect on them/does not constitute “support” of the industry in any consequential sense.

    It might be helpful to think about that second question in terms of a sharper hypothetical. Suppose someone wants to give me a gift of an article of clothing that was made by slave labor. My accepting the gift doesn’t direct any money to the slave industry, and we can make a bunch of stipulations to get rid of indirect effects (nobody sees the slave pants and is motivated to buy them by how fashionable they are, the person giving me the gift also got it for free, etc.). Do I still do something wrong by accepting the slave-labor gift?

    I’m really not sure what the answer to that question is. Part of me thinks that I have an affirmative obligation to fling the slave pants into the face of the giver and loudly condemn the industry/fight to end it. But another part of me says that the condemnation/fighting obligation exists whether or not I get a gift of the pants, so why not just take the pants AND condemn/fight?

  7. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    does my buying service X constitute supporting the market for X when the probability that my choice to buy X will worsen the condition of any worker (i.e., by keeping a bad company in business) is so low that it’s practically indistinguishable from zero?

    But of course this is a patently consequentialist formulation, whereas the sources I am channeling would most assuredly want to say that the wrong-making features of the proposed act do not depend on what consequences flow from it. The virtue ethicist in me agrees.

    The secondary question you ask is also framed according to a consequentialist framework, I think.

  8. Hux Says:

    I guess my quibble is what it means to be “supporting” these structures. If my behavior makes no difference to whether these structures continue to exist or not, does declining to take advantage of them constitute meaningfully withdrawing support?

    To paraphrase a Jonathan Glover thought experiment:

    There are 100 tribesmen and 100 peasants living in neighboring villages. Every so often, the tribesmen will go to the peasant village and each take a bowl of beans from a peasant. Each bowl has 100 beans in it.

    One day, a tribesman is bitten by conscience and proposes a moral solution: “instead of each taking a bowl, we should each take one bean from each of the 100 bowls. That way, we end up with the same amount of beans, but each of us as individuals would have made no significant different since any one individual’s absence still only leaves the peasant with one more bean – nothing like enough to make a meal.”

    Seems like a bad argument when put like this. (The “but I alone can make no difference” argument.)

  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    Daniel, even though I’m not a consequentialist, I tend to find it much easier to get practical advice from consequentialist ways of thinking. Can you say a little more about what a virtue person would think about this kind of problem? What would the phronimos do here/how do we know it?

  10. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    Well, of course, nothing about a preference for virtue or deontological conceptions necessitates that we ignore consequences in decision-making; Kant was quite specific on how silly practical reasoning would be in the absence of any concern for consequences. The argument, such as it is, simply notes that identifying the consequences of the act do not suffice to exhaust all of the wrong-making or right-making features.

    And come on, Paul — you know better than to ask a virtue ethicist for decision guidance. ;-)

    Without having deeply thought through the matter, I’d simply say that the kind of person I want to be is the kind of person who does not by conscious and overt decisions channel resources that sustain unjust (by hypothesis) sociopolitical structures. I suppose the consequentialist would want to retort that the amount of money involved, whether withheld or expended could not possibly constitute resistance or sustenance, but I suppose I am more interested, as a virtue guy, in the valence of the act, which certainly seems to come closer to sustenance than resistance. If the best one can do individually is the cultivation of a character which offers a token of resistance in place of a token of sustenance, perhaps there is a decision-guiding nugget there.

    (Sidebar: Apropos of this meta-discussion, there’s a fascinating thread going on at PEA Soup on virtue ethics, decision-making, and Hursthouse).

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