Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Matt Zwolinskia1

a1 Philosophy, University of San Diego


It is commonly claimed that workers in sweatshops are wrongfully exploited by their employers. The economist's standard response to this claim is to point out that sweatshops provide their workers with tremendous benefits, more than most workers elsewhere in the economy receive and more than most of those who complain about sweatshop exploitation provide. Perhaps, though, the wrongfulness of sweatshop exploitation is to be found not in the discrete interaction between a sweatshop and its employees, but in the unjust political and economic institutions against which that interaction takes place. This paper tries to assess what role, if any, consideration of background injustice should play in the correct understanding of exploitation. Its answer, in brief, is that it should play fairly little. Structural injustice matters, of course, but it does not typically matter for determining whether a sweatshop is acting exploitatively, and it does not typically matter in a way that grounds any kind of special moral responsibility or fault on the part of sweatshops or the Multinational Enterprises with which they contract.

Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and Co-Director of the University's Institute for Law and Philosophy. His current research interests are in the intersection of ethics, law, and economics, with two specific areas of focus. The first involves the proper understanding and normative status of liberty and political libertarianism. The second concerns the nature of exploitation and its moral significance for individual ethics and political institutions. He has recently published articles dealing with the ethics of sweatshop labor, the significance of the separateness of persons for liberal political theory, the morality of price gouging, and the relationship between classical liberal thought and the universal basic income. He is currently completing work on a book entitled Exploitation, Capitalism, and the State.


* Thanks to Ellen Paul for her generous editorial suggestions, Anne Slagill for her research assistance in the preparation of this paper, and Kevin Carson, Robert MacDougall, Lori Watson, and Alan Wertheimer for helpful comments on earlier drafts.