ELSIcon2022 • Paper • May 27, 2022
While the concern of “exploitation” features quite prominently in bioethics, such as in patient payment for participation in genetics research, particularly on marginalized populations, scholars use the term to mean a variety of different kinds of moral concerns. The standard conception then is that in an exploitative relationship, one party depends on the other’s knowledge, resources, influence, status, or skills for a needed benefit. As a result, they may be more inclined to engage in behavior they otherwise would not due to unfair coercion. The concept therefore collides with many others in bioethics, including justice/fairness, autonomy, and informed consent. Exploitation is also a surprisingly messy moral problem to fully grasp the wrongness of given that the exploited, by definition, derives a benefit that they (often) would not otherwise receive.
In this paper, I offer a more expansive understanding of exploitation as encompassing one or more of three moral problems. One exploits when one (a) takes advantage of a vulnerability for one's own benefit, (b) deprives others of a benefit they could have provided, and/or (c) use the exploited as a means to an end. Importantly, exploitation should be understood as a systemic problem: it is a definitional feature of any profit-based system. It should also be understood not just as a concept derived from analytic philosophy, but an experience that is testifiable. By understanding exploitation this way, we can deepen our understanding of what exploitation is, how wrong it is, and what is to be done about it.