In this paper I will argue that exploitation as described in Karl Marx’s Capital (1867) is always unjust, regardless of the limits set to the scope of the exploitation. To do so, I will first give an accurate description of the Labor Theory of Value, which can be seen as the foundation of Marx’s concept of exploitation. I will then argue that John Rawls’s principle of liberty (1971) could permit deriving income from ownership of workers’ labor, which can therefore be seen as an approval of exploitation. However, by using a specific example of exploitation, I will argue that exploitation can never be justified. Lastly, I will counterargue possible objections to my argument on the inevitable unjust aspect of exploitation.

Marx’s Labor Theory of Value and Rawls’s Principle of Liberty

The Labor Theory of Value describes the relation between commodities and labor, where Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) defines the term commodity as an external object that has two kinds of values. Firstly, the object has a use-value, consisting of the amount of satisfaction the object gives to an individual. Secondly, the object has an exchange value, meaning the relation of the object to other commodities. This exchange-value is measured in money. The shared aspect of commodities is that they are the result of labor, and the value of the commodity is therefore determined by the amount of labor put into the production of the commodity. According to Marx, the natural way of exchange is that a person sells his self-produced commodities, so that he can buy other commodities for the satisfaction of his own needs and wants. In a capitalist society however, the main goal of the capitalist is to extract the greatest amount of labor out of workers at the lowest costs to enjoy the highest profit. To do so, the capitalist will pay his workers only for their ‘necessary labor’ – the labor that is needed for the needs of a minimum level of livelihood, and not for the labor that it is in excess of this necessary labor. The latter is what Marx describes as surplus labor: all the labor the worker has not been paid for (Marx, 1906). Looking at this explanation, the extent of exploitation depends on the ratio of the necessary labor a worker already fulfills and the surplus labor a worker must deliver to the capitalist. The capitalist extracts this surplus value from the workers and therefore enjoys a profit (Prychitko, 2008).

This process of exploitation might seem unjust; however, by examining his principle of liberty, it can be presumed that highly esteemed political philosopher John Rawls (1921 – 2002) did not necessarily see exploitation as an unjust mechanism. The principle of liberty can be interpreted as a form of liberalism that protects and permits the right of holding property. If the freedom to own property can be extended to all potential property, it could include ownership of property in means of production. Therefore, it could be said that it is not inherently unjust to derive income from the ownership of workers’ labor, i.e. making one’s property productive, as anyone is free to own any kind of property. This could be seen as a (pre)condition for capitalism (Little, 2012). From this, we could assume that Rawls’s principle of liberty would allow exploitation. However, I will now argue that exploitation is inevitably unjust and should therefore never be accepted in any form.

Exploitation: unjust in its essence

The BMW factory

I will start my argument on the inevitable unjust aspect of exploitation by giving a simplified example of the process of exploitation. Imagine yourself working in a German factory that develops BMW’s. You are responsible for assembling the seats of the cars. The seats are 15% of the total worth of the car, and your work requires skilled handwork. You work 35 hours a week and make 1600 euros a month. You are part of a team of twenty members, and together in one month you build one car from scratch to the moment it ends up in the salesroom. The team in total earns 36,000 euros a month. However, the car is sold for 82,000 euros in salesrooms. If the marketing, research, resources and other costs for the car where 15,000 euro, the car will then generate a profit of 31,000 euros. As your work on the car created 15% of the car’s worth, you should be entitled to 15% of the profit, which is 4650 euros. However, your pay slip will only show 1600 euros, which is just 34% of the profit you should be entitled to, meaning that you have only been paid for 12 hours (34% of 35 hours) of your work (the necessary labor). The other 23 hours of your labor is surplus labor. Thus, there was no equal reciprocity for the work you have delivered. Wouldn’t you experience this as unjust?

Two premises, one principle

By using the situation outlined above, I want to argue that any form of exploitation can never be justified, including the way how Rawls’s first principle could be interpreted. I have therefore determined two premises.

The first premise (A) is that the taking of labor without equal reciprocity is theft and therefore unjust. To establish this premise, I will use John Locke’s perception of the right to property. Locke (1632-1704) stated that there is one kind of property that no other man could possibly lay claim to, which is the property each man has in his own person and his own body. The labor of his body and the work of his hands are therefore rightfully his, meaning that each person owns his own labor (Locke, 1690). This is why your labor on the car, which has contributed 15% to the car’s worth, should entitle you to 15% percent of the profit. Consequently, as you have full ownership over your labor, no other person is entitled to use this labor without equal reciprocity in the form of money or a pay-in-kind reward. The taking of labor is therefore only justified if someone gets rightfully paid for all the labor that the person has done. However, you only got paid for your necessary labor (12 hours, 1600 euros), which is just enough to sustain a minimum welfare level. The remaining amount of work you have provided (23 hours’ worth of 3050 euros) is not considered. Now the taking of your labor becomes a theft, as there is no equal reciprocity for the work you have delivered. This theft cannot be justified, making the taking of labor without equal reciprocity unjust. After all, you would never feel that justice has been done to you if you know you only got paid for 34% for the work you have delivered.

The second premise (B), exploitation is theft of labor, has already been established in the introduction of this paper by using Marx’s reasoning. Extracting the greatest amount of labor from workers at the lowest costs will lead to not fully paying the worker for all the labor he has accomplished (Marx, 1906). Again, only the 12 hours of the work you have delivered are bought (the necessary labor), not the remaining labor you have put in (23 hours). Your employer has taken these 23 hours from you to make a profit out of the car you helped producing, which equals theft. This theft of labor is considered exploitation.

These two premises will now be used to establish my main argument:

  1. Taking labor without equal reciprocity is theft and is therefore unjust
  2. Exploitation is theft of labor


  1. Exploitation is inevitably unjust

 Accepting the premise that the taking of labor without equal reciprocity is theft and is therefore unjust, and accepting the premise that exploitation is theft of labor, it consequently leads to the principle that exploitation is unjust. Rawls’s right to property should therefore not be used to justify any form of exploitation.

Compensating exploitation with the Difference Principle

One could object that Rawls’s Difference Principle would compensate for the unjust aspect of exploitation. The main idea of the Difference Principle is that inequalities between people are only permissible if they benefit the worst-off people in a society (Rawls, 1971). Thus, according to Rawls, an unequal share of wealth can be justified if it benefits all members of society. This would consequently mean that benefiting from the surplus labor of a worker without providing equal reciprocity (exploitation) would not be considered a problem, as long as the worker still gains some wealth advantage from it. After all, even if you may not get the full payment for the work you have done, you still make 1600 euros. In other words, exploitation would be justified if the worker will somehow benefit from the exploitation.

I would argue that this objection fails for two reasons. Firstly, even though the Difference Principle gives the exploited person some kind of an advantage, the taking of the surplus labor will always deprive him of what is rightfully his. This theft is inevitably unjust, as there is no equal reciprocity (you will not receive the payment that is equal to the number of hours you have worked). Exploitation is therefore unjust in its essence. This means that no kind of social mechanism such as the Difference Principle is able to compensate the unfair aspect of exploitation. Exploitation should therefore always be unacceptable. Ask yourself: with the knowledge that is provided in the BWM factory example, wouldn’t you want to receive more payment for the work you have done?

Secondly, in Rawls’ Difference Principal being better-off is only perceived from an economic point of view, not from a psychologic perspective. However, research has shown that inequalities in income are commonly associated with lower happiness, lower social cohesion, weaker morality, and poorer health (Buttrick & Oishi, 2016). After all, if you know you only got paid for 12 hours of your work, while you see the managers of BMW, i.e. the capitalists, making millions of euros, wouldn’t this give you a feeling of disadvantage?

Thus, even if Rawls’s first principle somehow compensates the economical unjust aspect of inequality (and therefore exploitation), it is not capable of justifying the psychological consequences.


This paper has shown that exploitation is inevitably unjust. The taking of surplus labor cannot be justified due to the lack of equal reciprocity, as doing so is theft. This makes exploitation unjust in its essence. Rawls’s Difference Principle will not be sufficient to compensate any form of exploitation, if not for the unfair aspect of the exploitation, then for the negative psychological consequences. Exploitation should therefore be unacceptable under any circumstances, and capitalist ways of production should be taken into revision to prevent any taking of surplus labor. All people should be entitled to the fair share for the work they have provided.

I understand that this is quite ambitious for contemporary European capitalist societies. However, even though the BWM factory provides a clear example of the unjust aspect of exploitation, it is just the tip of the iceberg. This paper can help to magnify the issues that capitalism and exploitation have caused in third world countries, where exploitation in its worst form has long been found:

“After colonial rule, African economy became a European-dominated economy. Under post–Berlin Conference colonial rule, African political economies controlled by colonial powers – such as Great Britain, France, or Germany – were rapidly establishing Western-based capitalism that would inevitably reduce the power and economic opportunity of the African participants. While production remained largely in Africa’s hands, Europeans controlled colonial credit and trade tariffs. European economic and political hegemony depended on the development of the colonial system. African colonies supported many European industries that otherwise could not have been profitable” (Goucher, LeGuin, & Walton, 1998).

Even though we tend to compensate exploitation in third world countries with far-reaching financial aid, exploitation will remain a theft with unfair inequality as a result. This shows once more what this paper has revealed: exploitation will always be affiliated with injustice.



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Little, D. (2012, April 3). Rawls and exploitation. Retrieved from Understanding Society:

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