September 2009


The debate over sweatshops in developing countries conjures images of young children working in dangerous factories for pennies a day and large rooms packed with women sewing clothes until their fingers are raw. As many people argue, it is immoral for large corporations to have their products produced by these sweatshops because it makes a profit by means of near-slavery. Employees are often paid very low wages. For example, Nike came under criticism in 1992 for purchasing from an Indonesian supplier that paid its employees $1.03 a day. Sweatshop employees also often work in conditions with virtually no safety standards, and in many cases are children. What is more, they often have unreasonable demands placed upon them and, if they want to keep the only job they can find, must work unreasonable hours to meet those demands. For these reasons, many argue that it is immoral for a company to make use of sweatshops and perhaps for consumers to buy products from the companies that do.

On the other hand, many argue that “sweatshops” are actually good for the employees that work at them, the companies that support them, and the consumers who can buy cheaper products because of them. Supporters point to the dire conditions many are living in, particularly in the developing countries where sweatshops are likely to be created. In these communities, sweatshops are warmly welcomed as a path out of extreme poverty. If this choice is between scavenging for food in garbage dumps and working for very low wages, the choice is obvious. What is more, if employees were paid more, sweatshops could not employee as many people. Thus, sweatshops are able to benefit more people than the alternative.

Of course, just because those in poverty would choose to work in sweatshops does not mean that it is morally permissible to make use of them. As an analogy, suppose that you are kidnapped by someone who wants to kill you. I am an opportunistic capitalist and see that it would be quite profitable for me to cut a deal with your captor to buy you and make you my slave. Given the choice, you may prefer slavery to death. Nonetheless, slavery is immoral. In making you my slave, I am using you as a mere means to achieve my own ends. Your desperate situation makes purchasing you possible and I am more than happy to take advantage of it.

It seems that Kant’s distinction between using a person as a mere means (e.g. as a slave) and simultaneously using someone as a means and respecting that person as an end (e.g. asking a friend for a favor) would be helpful in the case of sweatshops. The typical employment situation is an example of using a person as a means and an end because the employee makes a free agreement to exchange labor for pay. Thus, the free choice of the employee is respected; he or she is treated as another rational human being capable of make choices. The case of slavery is clearly the opposite. Even when the slave might choose slavery over an even worse alternative, the behavior still involves using the slave as a mere means because he or she is not treated as a person capable of making free choices. In the example above, your freedom is compromised because you quite literally “have a gun to your head.”

Sweatshops fall somewhere in between the typical employment situation and slavery. Although sweatshops vary quite dramatically from one another, opponents typically point out a number of principles that every employer should uphold: (a) a “living wage,” (b) bans on child labor, (c) international safety and health standards, etc. I argue, however, that employers can treat their employees as rational human beings with free choice without necessarily meeting these standards.

Must an employer pay each employee a “living wage” in order to treat them as ends? One way of defining “living wage” is to calculate the cost of one’s basic needs, including the minimum dietary requirement of calories, in the local economy. A living wage is one that allows the employee to pay for these basic needs. Although paying employees a living wage would be one way of treating others as ends in themselves, it is not the only way. It is not necessarily the responsibility of corporations to provide all employees with their basic needs. Other entities such as the local government or international organizations are also responsible for meeting those needs. If I hire a teenager to rake my lawn, I should not have to consider if my payment to him is enough to meet his basic needs. What should concern me is whether I am treating the teenager as a rational human being whose free choice is respected. In the same way, companies should ask whether or not the employees are less than free when they choose to work for a certain wage. Certainly, there is a point where a wage is so low it could only have been agreed upon by a less-than-free employee. There is not much difference, for example, between a slave and someone who works for $0.01 a day. Nonetheless, it is not clear that a living wage is the relevant point. Unfortunately, the distinction between treating someone as a mere means and treating someone as a means and an end is not as precise as we would like it to be. Still, it is possible for an individual to freely choose to work for less than a living wage because it is a good opportunity to improve his or her situation, although it may involve working at some odd jobs to make ends meet. Thus, in some circumstances, it may be morally permissible for a company to pay less than a living wage, but it is not necessarily morally permissible to pay an employee any amount to which the employee agrees.

Similar criteria can be applied to other concerns of sweatshops such as child labor and safety regulations. Although there is a point where employing a child is immoral (e.g. hiring 7-year olds to work in dangerous factories), that point should not arbitrarily be drawn at 15 or 16 as it is in the United States. If a child of 13 or 14 can freely choose to work to help his or her family and that child is not otherwise taken advantage of by being paid drastically low wages or by being coerced into performing unsafe tasks, it should be permitted. In the case of safety standards, it certainly is unjust to take advantage of the desperate circumstances of one’s employees by cutting out as many safety precautions as possible. In these cases, employees often do not have the option to quit and find another job so they are forced to put up with tremendous health risks. This is not to say that the same safety standards in use in the United States should apply to everyone. Although there are some standards by which “sweatshops” should be measured, those standards are often difficult to quantify and do not always match our own customary standards.

What should matter is that people are not used as “tools” or near-slaves to achieve the goals of the corporations they work for. In the worst cases, employees are forced to sleep at work because they have to stay so late to complete their quotas that they have no time to go home or employees are not permitted to leave without being fired, even for serious medical reasons. In these cases, employees are clearly being used as a mere means and not provided with the respect that all of humanity deserves. In other cases, sweatshops meet some standard for treating people as rational and free (i.e. as ends in themselves), although they may not meet the same standards present in the United States. In these cases, “sweatshops” provide a great opportunity for their employees to choose a path out of poverty. These sweatshops are not really sweatshops at all.

And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment.  And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. —Mark 12:30-31

If a thing loves it is infinite.— William Blake

Love goes beyond all bounds. Two things loved with all one’s heart must be equal. If you love others exactly as yourself, there will be no way of choosing between them, or between them and you.

It is often thought that a teleological ethical system, one that derives its theory of moral actions from a theory of the good, cannot account for the intrinsic value and dignity of human life. Utilitarianism, for example, is often criticized because it seems to make the overall happiness of a group justify sacrificing the values of the individual. The needs of the many seem to outweigh the needs of the few. But this only applies if the goods being balanced are finite. No number of finite goods can balance an infinite good.

While we shouldn’t pretend that using mathematical language gives our ethical intuitions more precision and certainty than they have, I do believe that there is something to be learned from looking at the way in which mathematical concepts of infinity work. Just as it may seem strange that no collection of finite numbers will add up to an infinity, so it may seem strange that no number of grasshopper lives will add up to a human life. Infinite quantities also confound our intuitions when we add finite numbers to them (no matter how much you add to infinity, you still just have infinity) and when we consider adding infinity to infinity (no matter how many infinities you add to infinity, you still just have infinity).1 So it may seem strange that no matter how much finite value we add to a human life, it is still not worth more than another; or that no matter how many human lives we take together they still do not justify the willful destruction of one human life. Much of what is strange about the value of human life is part and parcel of the strangeness of infinity.

What makes the value of a human life infinite? This is a bit harder to say, and while here I am mainly interested in drawing out the consequences of this proposition rather than defending it,I do think that there are two useful things one can say: (1) A will that loves goes beyond all bounds. When you care about something, all other things being equal, you care about it always and everywhere. To feel joy is to desire to feel it always. To grieve at the loss of a child, is to grieve for all the lost children, wherever they may be. Though our will finds itself impotent to create the realities of the things it values, the reach of its commitments is not bounded by space or time. (2) The will can order its values into systems of commitments that transcend the individual values from which they arise, in fact, the will may be defined by such abilities. Our love for a person is more than just the sum of our enjoyments of the moments we’ve spent with them. Just as a melody is more than just the sum of its notes, the will synthesizes our values into new unities that transform the individual values as they come to exist within the new whole. One of the great discoveries of Gregor Cantor was that there are levels of infinity even greater than the infinity of the natural numbers. The number of real numbers on the number line (including both the rational and the irrational numbers) is a level of infinity (aleph one) that cannot be reached by adding any number of infinities. This new level of infinity arises from taking the power set, the set of all subsets, of the natural numbers. In an infinite world of values, the will has an unbounded ability to synthesize new values, integrating novel combinations of commitments in new ways. We can love things in more ways than there are things to love.

What would an ethics of infinite love look like? It will not generate a rational procedure to determine with certainty what you should do or to be sure that you have done what is required. There will be no unique way of balancing infinite values against each other, nor any way of satisfying the infinite demands of our values. It will not spare you the anguish of moral choice nor the urgings of conscience.

With no recipe for action, it will be the character of our love that will matter rather than the characteristics of our action. The two commandments quoted above are the best summary of such an ethics, and they might be summarized more succinctly as “Love the good without bounds” Or as C.S. Lewis puts it, “act in time, as beings destined for eternity.”2

An ethics of infinite love would also mean that we can never meet the infinite obligations that our love places on us. Once you start caring about the hunger of children, you will find that there are more of them than you can even think of, let alone feed. Once you allow yourself to feel the infinite value of each set of eyes that look at you, you will feel yourself to be, in Dostoevsky’s words “responsible to all, for all.”

This is not meant to be an invitation to despair; we were given wills that, while impotent in their power, were infinite in their reach. It is the depth of our care that leads to its infinity; we do not cease caring about things simply because we cannot achieve them: We feel our loves, for the things we care most deeply about, as a thirst for which there is no quenching3, from a cupful of goods that knows no bottom. The ethics of infinity reveals us to be creatures always in need of redemption, but also as beings capable of living in its hope, in the draft of a current that ends beyond the horizon.

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1This is more precisely stated by saying that all ordinal infinities (those arrived at by adding one more) all have the same cardinal number (aleph null); all are still equinumerous with the natural numbers or integers, or are still countable infinities.

2This is a paraphrase of The Screwtape Letters, number XV.

3This language is reminiscent of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 113.