Case 1: Sweatshops
An article at Inside Higher Ed describes the influence of the anti-sweatshop movement on campuses. We can all agree that forced labour, being a form of slavery -- and making people worse off than they otherwise would be -- is utterly unacceptable. We should certainly avoid supporting that in any way, no question. But here I'm interested in voluntary exploitation, i.e. those who prefer to work in a sweatshop, due to the lack of any better alternatives. On this point, I agree with Matthew Yglesias (HT: Joe Miller):
The problem... is that the people who don't have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatshop option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery, which doesn't sound very appealing.
Though, to be fair, the campus anti-sweatshop folks described in the IHE article sound like they're trying to bribe sweatshops into improving their working conditions, rather than shutting them down. So hopefully they really are doing more good than harm. If so, this model demonstrates that boycotting the needy isn't always as counterproductive as capitalist orthodoxy might suggest. The key is that whilst boycotting some, you invest more in others. That extra investment is a good thing, like any form of charity, but I don't see any reason to think that anyone is obliged to adopt this particular form of charity over any other. (That is, there's nothing here to suggest that buying cheap sweatshop products is strictly immoral.)
This raises an interesting question: is creating market demand for expensive but humane working conditions the best way to achieve this goal? Or would activists be better off buying cheaper goods and investing their savings in a charity aimed at relieving the underlying 'misery' that Yglesias points to? (Though even if the latter would be more economically efficient, the former approach might be more psychologically effective in eliciting charitable action.)
Case 2: Prostitution
Patrick Smith has a mostly good post in which he dissects Feministing's odd assumption that it's somehow intrinsically worse to commodify the genitals than the other parts of us that employers make use of. This is something I've discussed a bit before. So far, so good. But along the way, Pat suggests that it is 'very obviously condemnable' to engage in exploitative economic exchanges, e.g. employing a prostitute who was 'driven to it by economic hardship and a lack of opportunity.'
But this is not obvious to me at all. It's obviously bad that she has so few opportunities, of course. What I don't see is why we should insist on depriving her of yet another one. If a poor woman is so miserable that she'd prefer to sleep with you in order to make some money, and you like the sound of that too, then what harm is done by acceding to her wishes?
No doubt it would be even better to help her out without taking anything in exchange. Charity is good, for sure. But we're not obliged to donate to charity at every opportunity -- it wouldn't even be possible! It permissible to let some sad cases pass us by. But if it is permissible to do nothing, and employing the prostitute is better for her than doing nothing, then mustn't this also be permissible?
I have to admit that my emotional response gets left behind by this analysis. I'm pretty uncomfortable with the thought of personally engaging in such exploitative relations, even if it would benefit the other person.* But for someone of more liberal character, who could procure pleasure here without any accompanying discomfort, I'm not sure if there are any compelling grounds for criticizing them. What do you think? Perhaps virtue ethics (or character-based indirect utilitarianism) could ground such blame: is the liberal character likely to live a worse life overall, outweighing the local benefits his business provides to prostitutes? It's not obvious, at any rate, though the prerequisite lack of empathy might be cause for concern.
* = Here I'm tempted to ask, how could you enjoy sex in the knowledge that your partner was hating every second of it? Wouldn't that put a damper on things? But perhaps self-deception could come to the rescue, especially if the sex worker was a good actor. And it's not as if (even non-exploitative) prostitution was ever going to provide an emotionally satisfying connection. That's plainly not what their customers are after!
To reiterate, the moral problem is not with particular acts of consensual exploitation, but rather the underlying 'miserable conditions' that make it possible in the first place. We definitely should work to dispel desperation. But while we're in the unacceptable situation whereby some people are desperately needy, to the point where degrading work is a step up from their current position, and a step that they want to take, then I can't see what is gained by denying them this. However inadequate an improvement it may be, it is at least better than nothing at all. So it doesn't strike me as especially praiseworthy to boycott the most desperately needy if this is done simply to avoid "complicity" in mutually-beneficial "exploitation".
Of course, it's better to help the same people without exploiting their desperation at all. Charity is a very good thing. We're arguably obligated to engage in some or other form of charitable giving. But paying extra costs (or abstaining from proffered benefits) in order to locally counterbalance exploitative relations is but one form of charity among many. At least, that's the perspective I've explored here; it's probably this claim that critics will wish to dispute in comments. So, have at it...