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Exploring Exploitation in Capitalism

What is exploitation? Do capitalists—the owners of the means of production—exploit their workers? In his paper “Exploitation: A primer,” Nicholas Vrousalis provides an overview of the four main theories for defining exploitation and coercion. Here’s a breakdown:

1. Failure of reciprocity

Some see exploitation as “failure of reciprocity” (Vrousalis). Person A exploits Person B when A receives something from B without giving something equivalent in return. For example, if I buy my friend lunch but my friend never buys me anything back, then my friend would be considered as exploiting me.

Under Marxism, capitalists exploit workers when they take profit that is derived from the workers’ labor. To Karl Marx, capitalists only deserve a share of the earnings equivalent to the value of their capital, whereas workers deserve the rest since it comes from their labor (Vrousalis). When capitalists make more than the value of their capital, they are essentially extracting labor from their workers, i.e. stealing their income without reciprocation. Thus, these capitalists exploit the workers.

However, this definition of exploitation is insufficient, since there are exchanges absent of reciprocity that are not considered exploitative, such as gift-giving. For example, if I treat my friend out to lunch as a gift and don’t want them to pay me back, most people would not call this exploitation.

2. Taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability

Alternatively, exploitation can be thought of as taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability. Now, capitalists can be considered exploitative when they make a profit by taking advantage of workers’ primary vulnerability: their lack of access to the means of production. Additionally, workers often have other vulnerabilities (such as desperation for a job or poor understanding of the legal system and contracts) that are taken advantage of.

However, this definition is still semantically insufficient since it seems to imply, for example, that doctors exploit their clients by taking advantage of their clients’ poor health and providing a service.

3. Taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability in an unfair way

On the other hand, Wertheimer in 1996 responds by arguing that only unfair offers are exploitative. Consider the following thought experiment:

Person A is lost in the desert with no water.

Person B arrives and offers a bottle of water for $10,000.

Person A accepts the offer.

In this thought experiment, most people would agree that Person B is exploiting Person A’s vulnerability of being stranded and desperate for water. However, if Person B were to offer a bottle of water for $3, that would not be exploitative—the reason being that the first offer of $10,000 is far greater than the market price and thus unfair, whereas $3 would be closer to the market price and thus fair.

So, with regard to the earlier doctor example, doctors would only be exploiting the clients if they charge an unfair service fee. Moreover, looking at the worker/capitalist relationship, Marx would argue that capitalists exploit their workers by paying an unfair wage that doesn’t reflect the value of the workers’ labor and by taking advantage of their vulnerability of not having access to the means of production.

4. Domination of another person

Another definition of exploitation is the domination of another person. Domination is when one person uses their power to control another person to promote their own interests. For example, capitalists exploit their workers when they use their power (i.e. owning the means of production) to control their workers’ lives by controlling their wages. This is also why doctors do not necessarily exploit patients by providing a medical service. So long as doctors do not use their power over their patients to extract unfair payments, they avoid exploiting their patients. However, this definition also falls short in some situations. For example, workers gaining power by forming a union and then using that power to force the capitalist to raise their wages can also be seen as workers dominating the capitalist.

To conclude, the above theories can be synthesized into a single definition of exploitation between two people or parties: when one party has a vulnerability, the other party therefore has power over that person and can dominate that person; similarly, when one party has power over another party, this necessitates the vulnerability of the less powerful party.

Exploitation ONLY occurs when a party’s vulnerability is the result of desperation that stems from a fear of not having needs met—for example, food, love and belonging, and housing. For example, when the capitalist uses their power over the worker, they are exploiting the worker’s desperate economic situation, which comes from a fear of not having an income and thus not having the need for security met. However, when the workers unionize and exert their power over the capitalist, they are not exploiting the capitalist because the capitalist’s desperation does not come from a fear of not having needs met, but rather from a fear that they will simply lose profit.

But, what exactly are “needs”? Find out in the next article!


Works Cited

  1. Vrousalis, Nicholas. “Exploitation: A Primer.” Philosophy Compass, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018,

  2. Wertheimer, Alan. Exploitation. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Last Fact Checked on May 22nd, 2021.


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