Neurotypicals really make me laugh sometimes. They react with horror in a lot of cases over the sale of a kidney, especially if it is a lower priced one from a 3rd world country, but they think nothing of people’s jobs that contain the probabilistic sale of the LIFE of the worker (e.g., contractors working in dangerous areas like offshore oil drilling, Afghanistan, etc).
Once again we can fall back on Robin Hanson to (begin to) explain this: selling one’s kidney is a low-status act, but many dangerous jobs are relatively high-status. Trying to climb out of poverty by selling a kidney and starting a business is a low-status option and therefore “exploitative”, but trying to climb out of poverty by taking a seasonal job as an oil-rig worker is high-status relative to organ-selling (at least in Alberta), and therefore a commendable exercise of personal initiative. In this framework, bioethicists who object to organ markets, or progressives who object to sweatshops, or activists who object to payday lending are expressing disapproval for low-status options. This affirms their support for higher-status options, like military service or Bachelor’s degrees, and reinforces their own status.
But this is a farcical argument. When abstracted, it turns into “Desperate people with few options should be forbidden from taking low-status options, because we’d rather they take high-status options.” It’s hard to imagine that many people considering selling a kidney or taking an extremely high-interest loan have a wealth of high-status options available to them. “Cash in some stock options? No thanks, I think I’d rather pay astronomically high interest and lose face with most of my family.” The low-status options so despised by Caring People are usually the least bad options available. Sweatshop workers aren’t choosing between fourteen hours a day of sewing Nike shoes for a pittance and shuffling paperwork in an air-conditioned office for a generous salary: they’re choosing between that shoe factory and subsistence farming — or unemployment and starvation. (Eric Crampton argues the sweatshop point rather persuasively on his own blog.) Do the bioethicists and activists and other Caring People consider the tradeoff actually faced by the people they purport to defend? No: they consider the tradeoff between the choice they don’t like (sweatshop labour, organ markets, payday loans, &c.) and the vague and hypothetical high-status options they wish existed.
When presented with this argument, Caring People will tell you that “we” should spend our efforts creating — somehow — these high-status alternatives that don’t yet exist. (Some of us call that process “capitalism”, but those of us who do aren’t usually Caring People.) That sounds great, but it’s a non sequitur. It fails to justify denying a least-bad option to people who almost by definition have very few options available to them.
Perhaps the problem is that very few Caring People know calculus. They see utility maxima (“One day in the Glorious Future, even the abysmally poor will be able to get Master’s degrees in Underwater Basket Weaving!”) while the rest of us see utility derivatives (“Nike’s new sweatshop in Dirtpoorvania provides its workers with jobs that suck less than what they have now!”) and integrals of utility with respect to time (“Twenty years of sweatshop jobs in Dirtpoorvania have enabled the growth of its middle class, and now enough people have computing science degrees that Google’s opened a development campus in the capital!”).
* In other news, I learned a new word today!