instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 13, 2004

Do the right thing

On the complex question of justice for workers -- in particular, of course, workers in the Third World, but all humans operate under the same justice -- let me ask, What is the end I should be working toward?

And I will answer, The good of the workers and the good of the owners.

The good of the workers is (roughly) a living wage, safe working conditions, relative job security, and generally being treated as a subject of work rather than an object.

The good of the owners is a just profit and treating the workers justly. (Although our fundamental option may not be for the owner, it's worth recognizing that a justly-operated business is good for the owner's soul.)

What can I do to effect these goods?

I think the first step has to be to make sure I am not culpably cooperating in injustice. (For my own soul's sake, as much as for helping others obtain goods my cooperation in injustice is preventing them from obtaining.)

So, having moved into a cave where I survive by eating of the blind fish who dwell in the icy black pools, what's next?

For the worker to have a just wage, he must have a wage. For the owner to make a just profit, he must make a profit. This suggests there must be an environment -- social, political, economic, legal -- in which a business can operate, and I would do well doing what I could to see that such an environment exists.

An environment in which a business can operate does not necessarily offer justice to workers (or to owners). One form of injustice could be called "systemic injustice" -- the injustice caused by the environment surrounding the business, the injustice workers would experience if St. Katharine Drexel herself were running things.

Another form of injustice we might call "discretionary injustice," or "owner-added injustice," caused by the owner's personal failures in justice.

I have a lightly-informed impression that a lot of the concern with worker exploitation is directed at this owner-added injustice. It is an injustice, by definition, so it should be resisted, but I wonder whether its importance as compared to systemic injustice is exaggerated due to its relative tractability. An owner who underpays his workers to pad his own profit -- that's a problem easy to understand, and the desired change is easy to state: get the owner to pay his workers what their work is worth while keeping no more profit than is just. (The fine details of means are left as an exercise for the reader.)

Should those concerned with worker exploitation focus more on systemic injustice? After all, there has to be a system before there can be a just system. Making a just system may reduce owner injustice, as well. A well-ordered economy in a country without much corruption is not an ideal environment for venal owners.

At the same time, I wonder whether the complexity of the problem makes some Christians too passive. Thomas Sowell claims the "underlying problem" of poverty among Third World workers is that "the people in such countries got a raw deal from fate, history, geography or culture." Well, what are you going to do about a raw deal? Wait for the next hand, seems to be the answer. (In his essay, at least, Sowell doesn't suggest doing anything, and might imply doing nothing.)