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How Amazon is Like a Sweatshop (And What That Reveals About Flourishing and Justice)

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amazon-workersLiberal and conservative, right and left, red state and blue state—there are dozens, if not hundreds of ways to divide political and economic lines. But one of the most helpful ways of understanding such differences is recognizing the divide between advocates of proximate justice and absolute justice.

Several years ago Steven Garber wrote an essay in which he explained the concept of “proximate justice”:

Proximate justice realizes that something is better than nothing. It allows us to make peace with some justice, some mercy, all the while realizing that it will only be in the new heaven and new earth that we find all our longings finally fulfilled, that we will see all of God’s demands finally met. It is only then and there we will see all of the conditions for human flourishing finally in place, socially, economically, and politically.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from proximate justice is absolute justice, the idea that we should never settle for “some” justice but must always seek, as a matter of duty, the maximal amount of justice.

The primary appeal of absolute justice is its purity. Why align with compromisers and those who are satisfied with “good enough” when you can fight for full justice? Being satisfied with proximate justice sounds more like an excuse to do less rather than a principled position.

The primary appeal of proximate justice is its realism. Since absolute justice is not attainable this side of the new heaven and new earth, settling for less is the best we can ever expect. When absolute justice is our standard we can even end up allowing injustice to continue and flourish.

Those in the absolute justice camp accuse the other side of being cynical, insensitive, and willing to compromise with evil, while advocates of proximate justice claim their ideological rivals are utopian, self-centered, and likely to do as much harm as good.

A more thorough examination of each side will have to wait for another day and another article. (As you can probably tell, though, I’m firmly on the side of proximate justice.) I only mention the two views because I want to show how the idea of proximate and absolute justice relates to employment and can help us understand the recent kerfuffle over the working conditions at Amazon.

But first I want introduce one of the most paradigmatic, and controversial, of proximate justice positions: the defense of sweatshops.

A sweatshop is the pejorative term for a workplace that has working conditions those of us in the West deem socially unacceptable. Because of Western laws and norms, sweatshops are now found mostly in developing countries.

To understand the defense of sweatshops requires recognizing that it is not a defense of deplorable living or working conditions. In fact, a moral defense of sweatshops is based on limiting or ending deplorable living or working conditions. The disagreement centers around how we go about that task.

The absolute justice advocate would say that the working conditions in sweatshops are unacceptable—and the proximate justice advocate would agree. But the proximate justice advocate would ask, “What are the alternatives?” Invariably, the absolute justice advocate’s preference is either unworkable, unrealistic, or would lead to worse living conditions for the sweatshop worker.

Proximate justice requires that we don’t improve people’s lives or bring them justice by making their lives worse. As Benjamin Powell says, “Because sweatshops are better than the available alternatives, any reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers in sweatshops must not jeopardize the jobs that they already have.”

A more thorough general defense of sweatshops is needed, but again, that will have to wait for another day and another article. I mention it here merely to show how the general concept can help us better understand the working conditions of a company like Apple.

In a 2012 TED Talk on the alleged exploitation of Chinese factory workers, Leslie T. Chang said,

Certainly, the factory conditions are really tough, and it’s nothing you or I would want to do, but from their perspective, where they’re coming from is much worse, and where they’re going is hopefully much better, and I just wanted to give that context of what’s going on in their minds, not what necessarily is going on in yours.

What Chang is saying is that whether we understand or agree, the Chinese workers believe accepting their current working conditions is better for them than their realistic alternatives and that the work will help them to life a better life. Many of us intuitively understand this point because it has to with meeting material needs (e.g., without the factory job the workers might not be able to feed their families). What we have a harder time understanding is when people endure less-than-optimal working conditions for other needs, such as self-actualization. That is the case with Amazon.

From the perspective of the Chinese worker, a mid-level manager at Amazon has working conditions they could only dream about. But we don’t have to agree that the working conditions are acceptable to understand why some people might be willing to accept them.

In a rebuttal to the recent New York Times expose, Amazon executive Nick Ciubotariu said, “Most of us work here because we want to solve the world’s most challenging technology problems.” He adds,

Yes. Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon. This is why I’m here. . . . Our sheer size and complexity dwarfs everyone else, and not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge. But that doesn’t mean we’re Draconian or evil. Not everyone gets into Harvard, either, or graduates from there. Same principles apply.

Just as some workers in developing nations will accept sub-standard working conditions in order to meet their material needs, some workers in America will accept sub-optimal working conditions in order to meet their self-actualization needs. The more extreme advocates of absolute justice would say that the Amazonians shouldn’t have a choice: either the working conditions at Amazon should meet the ideal standard of justice or the company shouldn’t exist. Those of us who advocate for proximate justice, however, would say that even if the working conditions at Amazon aren’t ideal or what we would prefer people should still have the right to choose to accept those conditions if it improves their lives.

Even if the conditions are as harsh at claimed, working at Amazon is not immoral. Being an engineer working on Kindle is in no way similar to creating pornography or sarin gas. In fact, knowledge workers often accept harsh working conditions because they believe their work benefits society.

We live in a sinful world, and people don’t always know what is best for themselves. However, in many cases—such as employment—individuals do have relevant information about their situation and their preferences that the rest of us do not have. We should certainly do our part in advocating just working conditions for every worker, from the CEO’s assistant at Amazon to the floor sweeper in a Chinese factory. But let’s not let our noble attempts to do justice hinder workers from choosing goods that lead to their flourishing.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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