Consent and the Substance of Contracts

In the past few weeks, I have come to the realization that the course I taught last semester unintentionally touched upon the topic that can be labeled as the insufficiency of consent. Since I now find this subject to be interesting and since it is an apt occasion to reflect on the past year, I want to discuss my thoughts on the matter.

To clarify, what I mean by the insufficiency of consent refers to the fact that consent is not the only factor that is considered when we make value judgments regarding contracts. There are numerous examples of this, but let us focus on one—sweatshop labor. Now even if we assume that sweatshop workers consent to work in poor conditions with little pay, and even if we assume that working in a sweatshop provides the workers with the least bad option they have, many would claim that the agreement is still morally condemnable because of what those workers are asked to do. In other words, many people criticize sweatshops because they think they are exploitative and that what makes them exploitative is the substance of the work contract.

Unfortunately, I cannot define exploitation, but I suspect that it is intrinsically linked with the violation of human dignity, which, in turn, is intrinsically related to the disrespect of persons, neither of which are easy to define. That said, exploitation does exist and a perfect example of it is portrayed in the movie Bumfights in which homeless people are asked to do a number of degrading and violent acts in exchange for money or some other incentive. To be clear, I do not claim that sweatshops are as morally condemnable as Bumfights, but the latter does show us that consent is not the only factor that matters. There are certain acts that are simply demeaning and dehumanizing, and any contract that asks people to do them is appalling. Consequently, consent is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a non-morally condemnable contract.

But what counts as exploitation? How do we know when human dignity is being violated and when persons are being disrespected? Unfortunately, I do not think there are any easy answers to these questions due to the fact that “dignity” and “respect” are such abstract concepts. In the end, we might simply have to use our judgment, and therefore, there may not be any way to convince a person holding an opposing viewpoint.

Putting sweatshop labor aside, I believe there is an even less obvious case of a morally condemnable work contract, and that is sign spinning. Sign spinners are people who are hired to hold and spin an advertisement while dancing and (commonly) wearing a costume. I encounter a number of sign spinners as I drive around the city and I have always been bothered by what they are asked to do. Again, because of the difficulty in defining human dignity and respect, I have trouble explaining to others why I find sign spinning to be condemnable (not as condemnable as sweatshops, of course), but I suspect it is because I find it to be humiliating and similar to the acts that are asked of people who are being hazed.

To be clear, the fact that I find it difficult to explain why I find certain work contracts to be morally condemnable should not be taken as evidence that I am wrong. I think the nature of the terms that we are using are intrinsically difficult to grasp; therefore, any difficulty that we may have explaining what a word means, in this context, is simply to be expected.