Julian Baggini: Out of sight, out of mind

We know slavery was an abhorrence, and that sexism and racism are wrong. Does that make our society more ethical? Not at all, argues Julian Baggini – like generations before us, we make excuses for the clear injustices of our age

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Saturday was International Labour Day, though you'd hardly know it. For all but some trade unions and fringe socialist groups, it's just the dimly remembered rationale for the early May Bank Holiday.

Few even know that 1 May 1886 was the date declared by the American Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions for the start of the eight-hour working day. It took violently resisted strikes and years of campaigning to achieve their goal, the fruits of which we now take for granted.

The struggles of the early labour movement feel very remote today. The same goes for other great social movements of the not-so-distant past: slavery was only finally abolished in Britain in 1833; women only received the same voting rights as men in Britain in 1928; and racism only started to become widely unacceptable in Britain in the late Sixties.

Today, no issue has a comparable moral urgency for so many. But we should not assume that all the great battles have been won, and that all we have left to do is dot the ethical I's and cross the moral T's.

While the sins of our forebears are all too evident, the wickedness of our own age is much harder to discern. It would take a great deal of moral certitude, a kind of ethical hubris, to suppose that we are the first generation in human history not to be blind to some kind of systemic wrongdoing. There are two obvious candidates for unacknowledged moral outrages of our time. This first is the way we treat animals. Marjorie Spiegel wrote a book called The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. Jonathan Balcombe, author of the recent Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, dares to make that comparison: "Future generations will look back on the present and shake its collective head that we should have treated other sentient creatures as if they were so many blocks of wood."

But while I think we will come to see many of our current attitudes to animals, particularly factory-farming practices, as morally wrong, history should not judge today's farmers as we judge slave owners. Non-human animals differ from each other and us in morally significant ways. "Races" of humans or men and women, on the other hand, do not.

A second, more fashionable, candidate for our own unjustified moral outrage is the way in which we are contributing to climate change. We may indeed be judged harshly by history, but we do not deserve the kind of moral condemnation we pass on slavery, primarily because there is nothing inherently immoral about burning fossil fuels. Indeed, if the world were catastrophically cooling, it might be our moral duty to release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as possible.

We need to look elsewhere for our current moral blind spots. To do so, it might help to ask what the great moral blind spots of the past had in common. The key factor was that they all involved a demonstrable failure to treat like as like. Slavery, racism and the subjugation of women all came to be seen as wrong because there was simply no justification for treating these oppressed groups differently to the rest of humanity. So what stopped people realising their errors for so long? An unholy trinity of innumerable self-serving, "common-sense" justifications, bolstered by widespread false assumptions, in the absence of a strong enough motivation to challenge them.

There is a contemporary injustice that fits this pattern, and May Day is the perfect time to bring it to the fore. We are all implicated in it, it is an evident moral wrong, and it has numerous common-sense and even expert justifications which crumble on examination. But because so few people are up close to the reality of the injustice, and because it would be so inconvenient to confront it, we complacently go along with the status quo. That moral blind spot is the way in which we treat labour, usually in the developing world, at the end of our global supply chains.

The fact that this is a gross, manifest wrong can be made clear by a general principle, which all but the most rabid of free-marketeers must surely accept: it is morally wrong to exploit a fellow human being by using their need as leverage to make them work for as little as you can possibly pay them.

Consider this example. A vulnerable person you know knocks on your door and says that unless they get £10 to repay a loan shark within 24 hours, they will be severely beaten. It just so happens that you are an MP and so need to dig a large moat around your house. Would it be morally acceptable to say, "I'll give you the money, just as long as you spend the next 24 hours digging"? The very suggestion is obscene.

The example is extreme, and some provisos need to be added to make the principle robust: for example, it assumes that you are able to pay them more, or demand less from them, without any significant self-sacrifice; and that no other bad consequences follow from paying more than the minimum. But these caveats aside, should someone seek to disagree with this principle, I fear they are beyond moral persuasion.

If the wrongdoing is so evident, then why is it that we don't change our behaviour accordingly? As with slavery, the answer is that there are numerous common-sense but feeble justifications, maintained by self-interest and false assumptions. These are the equivalents of the Bible verses once quoted by "good Christian" apologists for slavery, such as, "You may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you." (Leviticus 25:44)

For instance, the fact that the people we exploit are not poor relative to those they live with is a red herring. The same kind of reasoning would lead us to say that slavery is acceptable because slaves are no less free than their fellow slaves, or that we should not worry about inner-city deprivation because that is normal for inner cities.

One obvious difference between the moat digger and workers at the end of global supply chains is that we do not pay them directly, and they live thousands of miles away. Both of these differences are psychologically powerful but morally irrelevant. If I kill a man 10,000 miles away with a remotely guided missile, I am no less culpable than if I had shot him in the chest from 3 feet. The geographical distance is irrelevant.

The same is true of indirectness. If I contract a builder who uses slaves, I am just as wrong as if I own the slaves myself; just as I am equally guilty of murder if I take out a contract on someone as if I kill them personally.

Consider now, not murder or 24-hour moat digging, but coffee growing. Over recent decades, the market price for coffee beans has often fallen below the costs of production, meaning that farmers actually worked at a loss to satisfy the caffeine cravings of Western consumers.

But because the vast bulk of coffee is traded on open markets, manufacturers paid only the market price, irrespective of what that meant for growers. As a result, they – and through them the consumers – used growers' desperate need to at least get some return on their crop as leverage to make them accept as little as we could possibly pay them.

Faced with this manifest injustice, we are apt to react as the slave owners did. Because the victims are far away and harmed only indirectly by our indifference, it just seems incredible to think we're implicated in a massive injustice. Because the status quo seems so natural and nothing feels wrong about drinking coffee, we convince ourselves that arguments that say we are acting immorally must be flawed. It just can't be right that good, decent people such as ourselves are systematically behaving so badly. But slave owners were not moral monsters either. They were people considered, by themselves and others, to be decent, virtuous people, like George Washington, the first President of the United States.

Other spurious defences are a little more sophisticated. Johan Norberg, author of In Defence of Global Capitalism, argues that "in a typical developing nation, if you're able to work for an American multinational you make eight times the average wage. That's why people are lining up to get these jobs."

There are actually two arguments here that often get confused. One is that people freely choose to take the jobs they do, so that makes it all right. The second is, "A lousy job is better than none at all," as the Dallas-based, free-market National Centre for Policy Analysis puts it.

Take the free-choice defence first. It would be comforting to believe that since people choose to work for peanuts, that makes everything alright. When it comes to the likes of sex workers, people who work in sweatshops, soldiers who get shot, the people who have to clean the toilets you use, you can always tell yourself: they didn't have to do it – it was their choice.

But the idea that there is no problem as long as there is consent is flawed for several reasons. First, people sometimes have to choose terrible things because in practical terms they have no choice. Prostitution is a good example. There are some, maybe many, Belle de Jours for whom sex work is not a last resort but a deliberate career move, but in many cases women are driven to prostitution out of desperation. Any man who thinks prostitution is never exploitative just as long as the woman isn't being physically forced into the job is surely deluded.

Second, the fact that something unpleasant is the best choice available to someone doesn't make it ok, if we could be offering them a better one at little or no cost. It is not uncommon for managers in factories in the developing world that supply the West to refuse their workers sufficient toilet breaks, deny them drinking water, fail to follow local laws or health and safety procedures – the list could go on. So what if working in one of these places is still the best option locally? If paying a little bit more could remove all these hardships, why not do it?

There are always more options than the free-market apologists set out. For instance, the Guatemalan economist Lucy Martinez-Mont wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "banning imports of child-made goods would eliminate jobs, hike labour costs, drive plants from poor countries and increase debt. Rich countries would sabotage Third World countries and deny poor children any hope of a better future."

True, but the choice is not between the status quo and banning such imports, nor is it between sweatshops or Western pay and conditions. It's between the opportunity to earn a decent living in a decent job, and working long hours in poor conditions for barely enough to live on.

Most "fair trade" campaigners are sensitive to this. For example, the Maquila Solidarity Network advises, "Don't promote a blanket boycott of all goods produced by child labour," precisely on the grounds that simply withdrawing custom and leaving nothing in its place is harmful to those they want to help. The Ethical Trade Initiative base code prohibits "new recruitment of child labour" and insists that member companies "shall develop or participate in, and contribute to, policies and programmes which provide for the transition of any child found to be performing child labour to enable her or him to attend and remain in quality education until no longer a child."

The point is simple. Poor working conditions may be better than nothing, but that does not justify us supporting poor working conditions. The alternative should not be nothing, but making things better. (Parents who feed their child junk food cannot say that they should not be criticised because junk food is better than no food, because there is the option of offering proper food.)

We all do indeed have many alternatives to buying products which rely on exploited labour. Fairtrade-certified teas and coffees, for example, are now widely available, while many companies outside such schemes nonetheless treat their suppliers well, such as the Caffè Nero chain and many small independent roasters. The moral case I am making does not entail any commitment to rabid anti-globalisation.

With clothing, it is more difficult. But we can nonetheless choose to buy our garments from companies with sound policies on sourcing, such as those signed up to the Ethical Trade Initiative's base code. These are not just hippy-dippy purveyors of hemp kaftans, but mainstream retailers like Next, Marks & Spencer and Mothercare. While it may seem a "bother" to find out which companies have decent policies, and annoying to boycott shops whose styles we like, these are hardly great sacrifices. It was no doubt once inconvenient not relying on slave labour.

Some see all this promotion of fair trade as a distraction. What the developing world needs most of all, they claim, is a genuinely free global market. Coffee farmers would have no trouble making a good living from their beans if advanced Western nations eliminated import tariffs, farm subsidies and other distortions to the market.

The problem with this argument is that the question facing us is not how we should behave if global trade were truly free, but how we should behave as things are now. The free marketeer, if genuinely concerned by morality, should both campaign for freer trade and, in the interim, avoid reinforcing the injustices of the current system.

It is somewhat baffling that so many criticisms of the fair-trade alternative to exploitation are rooted in free-market thinking. The Adam Smith Institute, for instance, insists fair trade means that "its favoured farmers do not have to respect market conditions which might tell others to cut back production in the event of a world surplus". The Economist claims that fair trade encourages overproduction by "propping up the price" of commodities.

The reality is that initiatives like the Fairtrade label are free-market mechanisms par excellence. Fair trade is not like government subsidy, which fixes prices of a whole nation's crops. It is a voluntary, consumer subsidy, no more contrary to free-market economics than the decision to volunteer an extra 25p to have a shot of syrup in your latte. The premium paid on fair-trade coffee is not a market-bucking one but a market-dependent one.

The price is higher solely because consumers want to pay the extra for the benefits they believe that produces. Others prefer to pay extra for a celebrity endorsed product, or one with a logo. Yet I do not hear economists protesting that the prices of Adidas T-shirts are kept "artificially high" by designer-labelling schemes.

The way we treat suppliers in the developing world is a moral disgrace, and none of the defences stand up to scrutiny. The optimal solution is up for debate, but the fundamental wrongness is not. The injustice persists because of psychological weakness, not moral rightness. And I don't claim to be immune from this. I argue this case passionately and adjust my behaviour to a certain extent, but I don't check the provenance of every item of clothing or foodstuff I buy. This weakness is natural – but that only explains, it doesn't excuse.

The plight of workers at the end of global supply chains means that Labour Day should have a new focus and new importance. It is no longer our rights that are most in need of defence, but those of people on whom much of our hard-won comfort depends.

There is no doubt that the conclusions of this argument are unsettling. But if future generations were to look back at our period in history and judge that we were grossly immoral, is there anything inaccurate in what they would say?

"At the start of the 21st century, Westerners enjoyed slightly cheaper goods only because they were indifferent to the welfare of those who produced them and supported a system which saw suppliers work for as little as they could get away with paying them. People pointed this out, and they could have eliminated the problem simply by paying just a little bit more for their basic goods – less per week than they spent on a couple of pints of beer on a Friday night.

"But they dismissed the critics as cranks and carried on as usual. They were convinced that, having abolished slavery and taken steps to eliminate racism and sexism, they had nothing else to feel guilty about. Their complacency is warning to us, and to all times, that humans are always blind to the gross injustices that form part of the fabric of their everyday lives."

Julian Baggini is author of 'Do They Think You're Stupid?: 100 Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Celebrities and Politicians' (Granta).

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