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Paternalism, Sweatshops, and Their Moral Implications

Another one from school, let me know what you think :)


Paternalism is generally understood as the interference of a sovereign state or an individual with the choices and actions of another person against their will. This interference is defended by the thought that interfering with the person is actually making them better off. The idea here is that there are some things that a person may want or desire that are not actually good for their well-being. On a larger theoretical scale, arguments about paternalism and its effects raise questions surrounding rationality, preference satisfaction, and most importantly, how individuals should be treated when their decision-making is considered irrational.

Paternalists generally have two main concerns, an agent’s knowledge, and their autonomy. Is an agent knowledgeable enough to understand what is actually good for them? And should decisions made under conditions in which options have been limited count as fully rational. For the paternalist, the answer to both these questions is no. What then is the issue? Intuitively, I think most would agree that no one has perfect knowledge about what is good for them and that no one should be able to do whatever they want. By the same token, I think most would not consider coerced decisions, preferences, or actions legitimate reasons to impose, or not impose law. While perhaps a reasonable intuition, in certain situations, as I will soon argue, this intuition is incorrect.  

This paper seeks to give a concrete response to the paternalist’s concerns about the epistemic limits of an individual’s knowledge as well as concerns of autonomy and whether they justify the imposition of what the paternalist views as rational instead of what an agent may prefer. Specifically, I will argue that if paternalism is concerned with increasing well-being, then in situations where an agent’s choices have already been severely constrained, enacting paternalistic policies or laws is antithetical to the objective of increasing well-being. Further, I argue that for the outside observer, in situations of constrained choice, agent preference satisfaction is a better mechanism through which well-being can be realized.

In order to illustrate this, this paper will be split into three distinct but related sections. The first section will discuss the general logic of Pareto improvements, their implications, and how they should be understood in relation to preference satisfaction. The second section will discuss the logic of paternalism, its variations, and its moral implications and applications. Specifically, this will be framed through a discussion of paternalistic laws and moral concerns in regard to sweatshops. Lastly, I will consider criticisms of anti-paternalism as it relates to sweatshops but ultimately dismiss them.

On Pareto Improvements:

My argument is fairly simple, the imposition of paternalistic laws or policies that would further limit the choices of an agent in cases where that agent already has severely constrained or limited choices is morally wrong, and in situations of this type, an agent should not be prevented from doing what they believe will make them better off. The idea here is that in situations of severe choice constraint, it becomes very difficult to determine what decision is clearly more or less rational. Additionally, with such a limited choice set, it also becomes less likely that an agent will be incorrect about what their best option is. Put simply, in situations of severely constrained choice, Pareto improvements should not be limited or interfered with by the government or individuals.

A Pareto improvement is a condition or economic outcome in which the reallocation of resources makes one person better off, without making anyone else worse off.[1] An example of a Pareto improvement can be best summarized in the exchange of lunches between two students. Student A has a cheeseburger for lunch and student B has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Student A prefers the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while student B prefers the cheeseburger. In order to solve this incongruence in preferences, A and B decide to exchange their sandwiches, reallocating their resources and leaving them both better off. Pareto improvements not only undergird my argument but also necessarily include a preference satisfaction view of welfare. Meaning that welfare or what makes someone better off is based on the fulfillment of whatever preference a person has for one situation or thing versus another. Generally, I am not a proponent of a preference satisfaction theory of welfare, but in situations of severely constrained choice, I think agent preferences provide morally relevant prescriptive guidance for how unsavory phenomena should be considered and dealt with.


As stated in the introduction, paternalism is generally concerned with two issues. There is the epistemic issue, which involves questions about an agent’s knowledge. If someone believes that it is important to be spontaneous, for example, and as a result jumps out of a window on the fifth floor of a building, is it permissible to restrain this person? Is it permissible to override their preference for spontaneity and instead restrain them on the assumption that they have epistemically incorrect preferences? The second issue is the issue of autonomy. Is an agent living in poverty who decides to do something dangerous or harmful really acting autonomously, or has their decision-making been constrained by unfortunate circumstances, and thus their decision and preference for that decision should be considered coerced and not relevant? For the paternalist, the answer to both these questions is quite simple, but as I will argue, it often is not so clear.

In my estimation, there a no a priori justifications for paternalism. Assuming this is true, then, any paternalistic law or policy must be argued for and justified a posteriori on a case-by-case basis. What considerations, if any, allow for the implementation of laws or policies that enforce what is good for someone onto them against their will? A paternalist may argue that there are objective metrics and considerations that can be used to determine if an action is good or bad for someone. For example, it is objectively true that the likelihood of surviving a car crash is much higher if a seatbelt is worn, thus, even if someone has a strong dislike for a piece of leather being wrapped around their chest, wearing a seatbelt is objectively good for them and should therefore be enforced on them regardless of their preference.

Another argument might be that laws or policies that function in concert with moral ideals of fairness and justice should be upheld regardless of people’s preferences against them. The idea being that laws of this type make one a moral person and this increase in morality, or a more tolerant worldview actually makes them better off. Laws of this type might include anti-segregation and anti-discrimination laws more broadly. From these examples, it should be clear that paternalism is not wrong in every instance, but while paternalism may be able to provide insights in certain situations, paternalism actually produces detrimental outcomes for people in the very situations it hopes to provide instruction. That is, situations where an agent’s choices are already severely constrained. In these situations, I argue, preference satisfaction is a better guide for what should be done or allowed for on behalf of the agent. To be clear, I am not arguing for a preference satisfaction view of welfare, rather I am arguing that an agent’s preferences should be the instructive guide for what attitudes we should hold towards a particular choice in a set of undesirable choices.

Paternalism, Sweatshops, and Their Moral Implications:

One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in the case of sweatshops. I have chosen this example because similar to kidney sales, it is a situation in which many paternalist intuitions and concerns often come up as justifications for the outlawing of the practice. There are concerns of epistemic limitations for the people who engage in sweatshop labor, namely poor individuals. Many of the people who decide to work in them are not fully aware of the conditions of their work environment or the expectations of their employment before they start. Lastly, because the poor people making decisions to sell their labor are in such poor situations to begin with, they do not have the proper level of autonomy to make decisions as they have been, in a sense, coerced by poverty. Meaning, had these individuals not been experiencing financial struggles, they would not have made the same decision in regard to the selling of their labor. While these concerns are reasonable, in reality, the paternalist conclusion of outlawing these practices is in fact less beneficial for the poor people who tend to involve themselves in them than allowing for them.

A paternalist may argue that similar to the person who does not like driving with their seatbelt on, both of these practices actually make the people who participate in them worse off. In other words, their preferences are simply wrong, and regulating sweatshops is the clearly rational thing to do. Perhaps in instances where agents’ choices are not already constrained this argument would make sense. In situations of unconstrained or minimally constrained choice, so many incorrect choices exist that it may make sense to limit the access an agent has to some of those choices. But given that poor people’s choices have already been limited, the likelihood that an agent will be incorrect about what their best option is severely decreases. Additionally, some situations of constrained choice are so dire that I am not sure how any outside observer can come to a clear conclusion about what is more rational.

To make this more clear, consider the following scenario. Suppose there is a poor person, A who has been offered a job in a sweatshop. A has been struggling to make ends meet, begging on the streets and failing to secure a job elsewhere. Furthermore, A has enormous amounts of debt to pay off and a family to provide for. When offered the chance to consistently provide for his family and slowly pay off his debt, albeit in very poor working conditions, A jumps at the chance. My question for the paternalist is how exactly is rationality being determined in a situation such as this? It seems that there are two possible worlds that exist. One world where a poor person is living in poverty and harsh living conditions, unsuccessfully providing for themselves or their family, and another world where a poor person is working in harsh conditions but is able to better provide for themselves and their family and slowly pay off their debt. It does not seem obviously clear to me that there exists a clearly more rational decision. Given this lack of clarity in regard to the rational decision, it would seem that agent preference would be the best indicator of what attitude should be taken towards sweatshops.

All of this is not to say that the paternalist is completely wrong about their concerns. It is true that a poor person who decides to sell their labor has been coerced by the circumstances that they live in, namely poverty. It is also true that often the people who seek out these individuals are exploiting and usually harming them for their services. Finally, it is also true that there is often an information gap between employers and potential employees. My argument is that while all these things are true, it does not logically follow that sweatshops or any unsavory choice out of a set of unsavory choices should be outlawed or even heavily regulated.

The reasoning is simple, taking away or heavily regulating sweatshops will limit autonomy and cause more harm to the poor people who are employed by them than simply allowing them to exist. If someone decides to sell their labor in a sweatshop, then clearly, they have determined that working in a sweatshop is a better option for them than continuing to live as they have been. Limiting their already limited options by outlawing these sweatshops not only harms the people who engage in them by removing a previously available option, but it also limits their autonomy, both of which seem counterproductive to increasing well-being. Similarly, if heavy regulation of sweatshops would cause them to leave the area, thus no longer employing people who would have taken a job there, this is also harmful and autonomy limiting. Put simply, paternalistic inclinations to outlaw the practices of sweatshops must respond to these two major objections.


Although not framed as such, in his paper, The Ethics of Sweatshops and the Limits of Choice, Michael Kates offers a different, equally paternalistic response to the objections to outlawing or heavily regulating sweatshop labor brought up by the harm and autonomy arguments. In regards to autonomy, Kates argues that the intuition that sweatshop regulation would necessarily infringe on the autonomy of sweatshop workers is not true. To demonstrate this, he sets up a thought experiment, similar in structure to the Prisoner’s Dilemma where he asks the reader to consider two states of the world: one where every sweatshop worker works nine hours a day maximum and another in which every worker works ten hours a day maximum. Assume further that workers in both states get paid the same rate irrespective of whether they work ten or nine hours per day.[2] Based on game theoretical outcomes similar to the Prisoners Dilemma, Kates concludes that it benefits all sweatshop workers to work ten hours per day even if many of them actually prefer to work nine hours.

In summary, given the possible outcomes, Kates argues that sweatshop workers face a collective action problem that cannot be overcome except through the coercive effects of the law. Here, Kates' argument is not advocating for the implementation of any one specific law or regulation, but rather his thought experiment establishes his claim that “there are conditions under which sweatshop regulation is required not to overrule the autonomous choices of sweatshop workers but rather to give effect to those choices themselves.”[3] In other words, his thought experiment proves what could be the outcome, not what will be the outcome of any given law or regulation.

The problem with this defense of sweatshop labor regulations is that it oddly states the obvious. The implementation of a regulation or law or specific set of regulations or laws that would successfully regulate sweatshop labor while simultaneously improving worker autonomy is ideal. The question this argument raises is how likely a regulation or set of regulations of this type to exist? Further, even if it does exist, how likely is it to be the first one out of thousands of detrimental regulations that get implemented? As far as the autonomy argument is concerned, practical considerations are of much more importance than theoretical ones. How often would the country that implemented regulations have to get it wrong before they got it right? How many sweatshop workers would have had their autonomy disrespected and trampled over in the meantime? Kates' argument seems to teeter on the edge of ideal theory, and an argument against sweatshop regulation can still be mounted based on arguments of practicality and feasibility.

In response to the harm argument, Kates argues that the fact that there will be harm to workers does not itself make regulating sweatshops impermissible. This is because, as Kates argues, every legal change has benefits as well as costs, the determining factor is whether the benefits outweigh the harms.[4] Additionally, Kates does not think many firms will leave a country because of a minimum wage regulation and that even if they do, they will go to other poor countries as opposed to rich ones. Lastly, even if capital flight is granted as a legitimate concern, this does not imply that it would be morally wrong to increase the minimum wage. In fact, this is simply an argument for countries to coordinate their regulations.[5]

As it is an empirical issue, we will put aside whether or not sweatshops will leave a country due to regulation. But if we grant, as Kates does, that capital flight is a real phenomenon, then again, Kates' conclusion seems to verge on ideal theory and strangely states the obvious. If every country synchronized and coordinated its regulation of sweatshops, then of course that specific regulation would no longer be an issue. It also would not be harmful to sweatshop workers which is what the harm argument is primarily concerned with. Further, as Kates himself admits, an anti-paternalist, harm-centered argument could still be mounted against his argument on grounds of feasibility.

While this paper is not specifically centered on the ethics of sweatshop labor, the logic applied to the phenomenon of sweatshops can also be extended to other scenarios. Individuals who seek out generally unsavory conditions, do so because to them it is their best option. Given that usually, in situations of this type, there are no decisions that are clearly more or less rational between the limited choices an agent has, their preferences should be the instructive guide for what attitudes we should hold towards a particular phenomenon. Thus, the imposition of paternalist policies or laws on people who already have limited choices is wrong and immoral.

[1] Hausman and McPherson, Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, pg. 65

[2] Kates, The Ethics of Sweatshops and the Limits of Choice, pg. 6

[3] Ibid, pg. 6

[4] Ibid, pg. 10

[5] Ibid, pg. 14


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