On Hillel Steiner’s ‘A Liberal Theory of Exploitation'

Philosophical reflection on exploitation is generally guided by two ques-tions: what is exploitation? and, why is it morally problematic? In the course of developing original and attractive libertarian answers to these questions, Hillel Steiner's "A Liberal Theory of Exploitation" suggests a powerful framework for analyzing exploitation irrespective of the theory of justice one endorses. In this essay, I first highlight the importance of Steiner's libertarian account before discussing the general framework underlying it. The challenge facing libertarian accounts of exploitation can be motivated by Steiner's conclusion that exploitation is a form of voluntary, bilateral transfer (225-28). According to the standard view, exploitation involves taking unfair advantage of another. Yet, libertarians defend a "'historical entitlement theory' of just rights," according to which individuals are free to dispose as they wish of property titles created by exercises of valid rights (230-31). It is unclear how voluntary transfers can involve unfair advantage-taking given this theory of justice. So, it is not obvious that libertarians can offer a plausible account of exploitation. Steiner's key insight is that exploitation can result from rights vio-lations even if it does not directly involve them. His "trilateral" model understands exploitation in terms of violations of third parties' rights that lead the exploited party in an exchange to receive less than she would have received had the violations not occurred.

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Published in: Ethics
2015 125, no. 4 Pages 1157-1159

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