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Marcus Arvan

Moti: Thanks for posting on this important issue. In brief, I agree *and* disagree. I think it is wrong to blame the victim -- and adjuncts are victims. That being said, I think we *should* encourage adjuncts to stand up for their interests -- and justice -- by encouraging them to collectivize. And one thing that may be in their interest as a collective to do is to *stop* agreeing to work under the terms that they have been accepting for so long.

And of course we should think about the role the rest of us play in enabling the system, as well. Thanks again for raising the issue. I hope it leads to a good (and much needed) discussion!


I wasn't a big fan of the article either, but a quick note in defense of the author's argument: isn't her point that people who get advanced degrees have the ability to find work outside of academia, where they are exploited less; whereas people who work in (e.g.) fast food typically do not have the option of finding work in another industry that results in being exploited less?

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

I agree with you that adjuncts and contingent faculty should organize. I also agree that it might be in their best interest to refuse to work under abusive conditions as a collective. I think you will agree with me, however, that leaving academia is NOT the only way to do this. Instead of leaving academia, as Segran recommends, adjuncts and contingent faculty can organize protests, strikes, walk-outs, etc., in order to put pressure on institutions of higher education to improve working conditions for adjuncts.


Darth Vader would say: “Responsibility issues strike back”. I add: they remain highly puzzling.

If I understand Segran’s point correctly, she does not endorse the “absolute liability” thesis usually (assumed to be) endorsed by conservatives (I borrow from Ripstein’s 1994 “Equality, Luck and Responsibility”). She does admit that what we have available to us is relevant for the assessment of our responsibility, and from this, I reconstruct (fairly I hope), she draws the thesis that if one chooses, all things considered, including knowledge of the job market as it is, to work as an adjunct, s/he should not complain.

This is prima facie plausible, yet I do not feel comfortable with this idea, even though it *is* arguable, as philgrad suggests, that we could choose otherwise. I’d suggest two responses to that: (1) this depends crucially on the context; (2) this is not a robust enough justification if we add considerations of background (in)justice.

As regards (1), suffice it to say that a PhD or equivalent is not equally appreciated all around the world. For the anecdote, I have heard of some people who even “erased” their PhD in their résumé, and more generally, in France, holding a PhD is not highly rewarded outside the academia (employers often prefer MAs or engineers). So Segran’s point is somewhat contingent. For holding a PhD does not guarantee a wider array of possible choices.

As regards (2), Segran remains silent, and so I do not want to assume that she holds any view. Now it seems that she could admit that it is a bad thing that there are so many adjuncts, but hey, there’s nothing we can do so deal with it. She might admit that this constitutes a background injustice, but one that we cannot address, and thus one with which we must cope in our career choices. We may nevertheless respond that, as soon as a background injustice exists (i.e. is identified against a relevant criterion of (in)justice), we have a strong reason to fight back rather than say “Okay let’s choose another career, since we are responsible for this choice”.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for your comment, Philgrad. I don't know how typical it is for PhDs to leave academia and find work in another industry where they are not exploited or for people without PhDs to find work in other industries where they still get exploited. If there is evidence one way or the other, however, I am open to being informed about this.

I think that being exploited or not has less to do with having/lacking advanced degrees and more to do with being a member of an organized labor force. When workers get to unionize, their working conditions tend to improve, whether those workers have advanced degrees or not.

And, even it it turns out that, as a matter of fact, being exploited is somehow linked to having/lacking advanced degrees, it *shouldn't* be so. People have basic rights, such as the right to just and favorable remuneration, whether they have PhDs or not.

Ben Bryan

I'd expand Philgrad's worry into something more forceful:

Most people who are adjuncting can do better if they quit adjuncting. These people aren't being exploited in the way that we typically identify when we're complaining about exploitation. The worry about exploitation, I take it, is that we are taking advantage of the fact that people have no better options. When people have better options and they choose the poorer options, they are responsible for that choice, not the rest of us. It makes no sense to attribute to such people a right to demand that we not do this to them; they can stop it on their own. Philgrad says that adjuncts typically have less exploitative options. We might put it more strongly: because people have options that are better for them, they are not being exploited at all.

Imagine a person who has really expensive tastes in food, such that he cannot eat as he wants and live an otherwise decent life. Suppose he must eat a large amount of caviar and drink insanely expensive wine every day to be as happy as he could be. Also suppose, though, that he could be reasonably happy, if a bit disappointed, if he ate more reasonably. It would be absurd to claim that he is being exploited by the prices of caviar and wine. We don't owe him a life of fancy tastes. Adjuncts who go on adjuncting knowing what they're getting into (this knowledge qualification is an important qualification; I'll grant that we owe it to people to be sure they know what they're getting into) simply have expensive tastes in jobs. Why think we owe it to them to indulge those tastes? It may be true that one cannot eat lots of incredibly expensive food all the time and live a decent life in other respects; this doesn't show that food prices are exploitative. It may be true that one cannot adjunct and live a decent live in other respects; this doesn't show that the price of being an adjunct is exploitative.

Now, none of this shows that we shouldn't change our practices in some way, or that those who choose to hire people for such little pay are nice people. Perhaps nice people would pay employees more than they have a right to demand. But that doesn't show that anyone is being exploited.


There's a lot of somewhat different issues coming up in the discussion now, but I just wanted to throw out a couple links that might be of interest, re: options outside of academia. This is maybe a topic for another thread, though!

First, the same author, Segran, also recently wrote this article about careers outside of academia:


It focuses on English and History, but I wish philosophy (and the APA) might start to have more serious discussions about non-academic careers.

Second, Zachary Ernst has a very provocative piece on philosophers leaving academia: http://zacharyernst.blogspot.com/2014/02/hope-for-academics-who-want-out.html


"because people have options that are better for them, they are not being exploited at all."

This depends on a weird notion of exploitation, it seems to me. But never mind the word "exploitation". I feel that I am being treated _very unjustly_ by the institution where I work because I am doing essentially the same work as tenured and tenure-track people in "my" department but getting no benefits, no job security and far less money. I teach, design courses, administer this and that, do research. (In fact I do way more research than some of those people. There are tenured people where I am who have _never published anything_. Maybe that's unusual, but it's not unheard of.) The one thing I don't do is committee work. That situation is deeply unjust because benefits and burdens should be distributed on the basis of desert. Either those people deserve way less or I deserve way more. (My considered opinion is that I deserve just a little more, and they deserve a lot less.)

The comparison with the guy who likes caviar isn't appropriate here. I don't have a taste for "caviar" -- sabbaticals or tenure or any of the other really nice luxury items that others have. I'd be very happy to have the same kind of benefits and job security that janitors have at the school where I work. Not to have to apply for work every single term. Not having my continued employment be dependent on the inscrutable whims of people higher up the totem pole.

It's interesting to see how the same people who tend as a class to be so concerned with "equality" and "social justice" and the like turn into Charles Murray or Milton Friedman as soon as they are asked to actually _do_ something about it, however modest, in their own little fiefdoms. (That's not a swipe at Ben personally, of course, just a general gripe.)

Marcus Arvan

What Ambrose said. The problem here is *not* one of expensive tastes. The problem here -- the exploitation -- is one of vastly *unequal* pay (and benefits) for equal (or even far more) work.

Some adjuncts teach 5 classes a semester or more at multiple institutions AND publish like crazy (and, due to the vicissitudes of the job market, can't get a full-time academic job despite excelling at what they do). Some full-time professors teach 2 classes a term and *don't* publish. The former get paid $3000-4000 a class and the latter $15,000 a class.

The adjunct, in many cases, is bringing far more value to the institution than the full-timer, but getting paid a pittance...with no benefits. If that's not exploitation -- in some real sense of the word -- I guess I don't know what is. I don't know of any other field where two people doing substantially the same work are compensated in such horrifically different ways.


Injustice can come in a matter of degree. The adjunct system is unjust because PhDs are being exploited, but not in the same way that fast food workers are. It seems there are multiple ways of responding, which are compatible with one another. Yes, organizing would be good. At York University, our adjuncts are unionized and make a 'descent' wage per course (but still have NO job security!). Maybe this is the only option open to someone who has been adjuncting for 20 years.

However, most of us here are not in that boat. We could choose not to help perpetuate the system by leaving academia. Humanities PhDs have a reputation for being worthless outside academia (when I started grad school my brother bought me a Tshirt which said 'Major in philosophy: it is by far the most interesting path to poverty'). However, I think this is a myth. A PhD in a humanity (and philosophy in particular) does not prepare you for any job outside academia in particular, but the ability to analyze material and critically think through a problem is beneficially in non-academic jobs too. We just need to market ourselves for those jobs. All of my colleague at York who decided not to continue in academia were very successful in finding work, but they had to research jobs, network a bit, and alter their CV into a resume.


I'd also note that the argument we're talking about seems to be just flatly invalid. I think it goes roughly like this:

Premise: P's working conditions in job J suck.
Premise: It is possible (in some sense) for P to do something "better" (in some sense) than J.
Conclusion: P working at J is not a case of exploitation.

Is that the idea? If so it's silly. After all, even slaves have "options". You can always try to escape, or kill yourself if all else fails. People working in the world's worst sweat-shop might well have the "option" of quitting and trying to find a job in a sweat-shop that is not the very worst in the world. An indentured servant might have the option to work for a different master. Etc. Why on earth would the fact that I have some such "option" to do something "better" -- that it is somehow possible -- imply that I'm not being exploited? (Obviously, I am not suggesting that I am exploited to the same degree as a sweat-shop worker or in ways that are comparably unjust. But still.)

Finally, the argument has a premise that is at best _highly_ questionable. Maybe some people who are adjuncting "can do better" in some other field. The idea that all or most can strikes me as preposterous. We are in a recession. PhDs in humanities are often not valued outside academia. The "skills" we are supposed to market are ones that others have, or think they have -- and if we have special skills that others lack, we're often the only ones who can tell. I know lots of people who have tried to get non-academic jobs that are _as good_ as adjuncting and failed. So the argument is frankly terrible. Much like other arguments routinely put forward in favour of the current system -- e.g., "It's only fair adjuncts are paid so little, given that they don't do research" (even though many do and many tenured people don't) or "the best teachers are also researchers so naturally those who don't do research are paid less for their teaching" (even though the students are charged the same fees regardless of whether the person teaching the course is an adjunct).


It''s particularly sad to see this exploitation taking place in Philosophy Departments, where the Chair hiring Adjuncts works, say, on Ethics and Equality, half the faculty sign petitions supporting labor unions, and everyone purports to be progressive. When their own self interest is at stake, though, they morph into the Koch Brothers (without the money). How many of the liberal faculty would take a 5% pay cut so Adjuncts could get more?


Who is Elizabeth Segran and why is she shilling for the Corporate University?


Unionizing and organizing are possibilities, but in many places it is very difficult. In addition to the usual problems of collective action (free riding, etc.), many states are getting more conservative and anti-union. It is one thing to organize at Yale or NYU. It will be a very different organizing at Mississippi State, Oklahoma, or Kansas.

Ben Bryan

A few thoughts:

The issue of equality strikes me as distinct. Exploitation, whatever it amounts to, is something you can do to an individual, even if no one else is around. So if your moral concern is with inequality among different groups of people, that's a good sign you aren't worried about exploitation. (I mean, I suppose we could assign the term "exploitation" to different things, so maybe this is just agreement that we're operating with a different notion of exploitation).

Let me try to rephrase my concerns as a question, rather than a challenge, because I have a difficult time understanding what y'all think the moral problem is. Consider another case: because I grew up and attended college in Nashville, I have a lot of friends who are musicians. They don't get paid as much as Nickelback. Most of them are way more talented than Nickelback. But they cannot make a decent living playing music. Many of them are barely getting by playing poor-paying gigs and working at Starbucks on the side. It seems like if y'all are correct, they should be claiming that the music industry is treating them unjustly in some way. That seems crazy to me. I don't see how there's any exploitation, or why the inequality should worry us.I don't see why we should think of philosophy differently. So two questions:

1-Am I wrong to take the attitude toward the music case that I take?
2- If not, what's different about the philosophy case? What makes the philosophy job market different from the musician job market?

You might answer 2 by pointing out that we give people expectations of a career before they start a PhD, and we can't don't deliver on that. That's right. When we do that, we do people wrong. But that's not the same as saying that there is something wrongful about the adjunct employment relationship.

Also, I want to add something that maybe you'll be more sympathetic to. As I've been thinking more about this (and thanks for posting about this; as much as we may disagree about what's wrong with the discipline, I agree that there are some things that are wrong, and it's been fruitful to think about what those are), it's occurred to me that there is another more subtle way the discipline does grad students wrong: it trains us to see life outside of academia as some kind of serious failure. I recently had a conversation in which a friend of mine was beginning to see this had happened to him. He is reaching the end of his PhD and is realizing that he may have to leave academia. It is natural to feel a bit of sadness that he's not achieved what he'd like to. But he also has other feelings, that go beyond this, feelings he isn't ok with: feelings that if he has to do something other than teach philosophy at a university he is some kind of failure. He doesn't affirm this. He can live just as rich and meaningful a life doing something else. But he has become so invested in the culture of academia that part of him feels like another life is second rate. I don't know what causes this, or how to address it. But it seems like a problem.


Question for people who have adjuncted: By the time you drive to where you teach (varies, depending on location), keep your car running, prepare classes, grade, see students, actually teach, and do whatever else the job requires, do you make more than minimum wage?


why should the adjuncts - who have devoted their lives to becoming scholars and teachers - have to leave academia instead of the administrators?

If teachers (incl. adjuncts) create the value (of a university), as Marcus points out, shouldn't they "own" what they do in such a way that they aren't pressured/forced to stop?

if not, and those who don't create – but instead own - that value are then able to exert power asymmetrically - to force teachers to do things that teachers can’t do back - all the while using the value created by those teachers to make even more profit in order to further cement their position as the ones who can exert power (without it being exerted back), THEN adjuncts are definitely being exploited.

And if that was too rambly:

using someone's passions against them- knowing that because they love teaching they’ll do it for so little money for years without quitting- in order to profit from their love and labor is indeed exploitation.


"if your moral concern is with inequality among different groups of people, that's a good sign you aren't worried about exploitation."

Ben, the original point about "equality" was a passing gesture in the direction of some familiar set of liberal-leftist ideas. I didn't say that I am concerned with "equality among groups" rather than, for example, the equal worth or dignity of individual people. Adjuncts, even.

That said, it seems obvious to me that a concern with equality between groups who are (a) doing essentially the same work but (b) receiving radically different compensation for that work can be very easily understood as a concern with exploitation -- in some familiar, traditional sense of the term. (Perhaps person A can exploit person B absent anyone else. That shows only that inequality between groups of people is not necessary for exploitation; it doesn't show that it's sufficient for non-exploitation.)

If you need an explanation, consider: if it is plausible to assume that one group is getting more or less what they deserve for the work that they do, while the other (doing the same work) is getting far, far, far less than that, it is a reasonable inference that the second group is being exploited. What do I mean by that? I mean that the compensation they receive is (probably) far less than what they really deserve. And other things too: that the rest of the system is profiting from their under-paid hard work; that others are enjoying privileges they have not earned because these people are being paid so much less than they deserve. Etc. Is this not the _kind_ of situation that we normally consider exploitative?

As for your music example, it is not analogous. Here's one that works better. Joe and Jim are equally talented and hard working drummers. But whenever Joe gets hired to do a six month tour with Dolly Parton he gets paid a million dollars, gets put up in nice hotels and flies first-class. Whereas when Jim does the same gig he gets minimum wage and sleeps on the floor of the venue. And so on. Are you going to say that _that_ is not an exploitative situation? Because _that_ is what it's like being an adjunct.


Jaded: I'm pretty sure I work for minimum wage or, in some cases, less than that. I think that's true for most of us except in cases where we've taught the course so many time that no prep is needed.


You can argue endlessly about the meaning of `exploitation' (though who but a philosopher, at at least an academic, would?) But when you are being paid less than minimum wage (as some adjuncts I've known were), there is something Morally Wrong going on. Academics are not "all in this together". You are adjuncting so that tenured professors can live well. Maybe some think that's ok, but that is at least how it is.

Ben Bryan

So is desert what's doing the work on your view? The idea that certain work deserves certain pay doesn't seem like a promising way to cash out exploitation. Suppose there is a bass player who is an unpaid volunteer, or a volunteer professor who doesn’t want or need pay. Is he being exploited? Surely not. But he's doing the same work, so shouldn't he deserve the same pay? (yes, this case is underdescribed; we could imagine the volunteer living in certain other conditions, and those might lead us to judge that he’s being exploited. But then desert alone does not explain the exploitation; it’s whatever those other conditions are; or perhaps the two together; but not desert alone.)

Something's got to be different about the volunteer, and figuring out what’s different about a volunteer might help us think about what’s worrisome about exploitation. I'm inclined to say the answer is that the volunteer is enough able to do other good things with himself that he isn't in any really meaningful way being controlled by the relationship. It is not enough, as you point out above, to simply have some other option that is a little bit better. But when the other options one has are decent and reasonably accessible, I take it there’s no ground for an exploitation complaint. (who fits that description, of course, is an open empirical question).

Something like this view makes sense to me. Sure, it would need working out (how accessible and how good must a persons options be?), but I see the pull of it. I’m not sure I endorse it, or what to think about exploitation; I haven’t spent nearly enough time thinking about such things. But I can see my way into that kind of view. Sure, the piece the post links to is not the best expression of a view of this kind. But surely it’s possible to imagine a view in that general vicinity that is reasonable enough to warrant engagement rather than outrage.

I should emphasize again: there might be reasons that it would be good to stop having low paying adjunct positions. I just don’t see what it has to do with exploitation. I get that adjuncting is bad for people and that departments could be culpable because of that. In this respect it’s a bit like selling junk food to unhealthy people.* This is bad for people and perhaps it might be something that some people should stop doing. But so long as the people we are selling to aren’t addicted, and don’t have their options constrained in some other important way, I don’t see what sense it makes to say we’re exploiting them (and I find it hard to see why they should have any sort of justice claim against sellers). Exploitation seems to imply a kind of controlling that just isn’t going on there.

*the "in this respect" is important here. Obviously a life of poor paying adjunct work is usually significantly more harmful than junk food. My point here is not that the things seem to be objectionable in the same degree (they aren't), but in the same way (i.e. not because of exploitation).


You say desert is not a "promising basis" for an account of exploitation. To be frank I find this all quite pedantic. Sure, it might be that desert _alone_ is not always a full explanation of why some situation counts as exploitative. For example, in your story of the volunteer professor it might also be necessary for exploitation that the non-desert-based distribution of benefits and burdens is _important_ to the people worst off under those conditions. Does it really have to be pointed out that this is the case for virtually any adjunct you could find in this world of ours?

You say that exploitation is impossible when there are other options of some special kind -- not just any old "better" options, but ones that are "decent" and "reasonably accessible". Here you seem to be simply ignoring what I said earlier: there are no such options for me, or for lots of other adjuncts. But in any case I don't see why we should accept this claim of yours, let alone your later claim -- in parentheses! -- that you feel people like me have no claim of "justice" against our employers. As has already been pointed out a few times, most people feel that it _is_ unjust for one class of people to get undeserved luxuries and wealth and leisure time on the basis of the under-compensated work of some other class (for whom proper compensation would be enormously important, let us add). Most of us feel that this situation all by itself constitutes exploitation or at least some obvious form of injustice. You don't agree?

Moti Mizrahi


Perhaps you would rather look at the plight of adjuncts from a different perspective. If you agree that we should recognize the inherent dignity of all human beings, then you might also agree that respecting, promoting, and protecting certain human rights is the way to respect human dignity.

If so, then I think that Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does a pretty good job articulating the rights relevant to employment:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to *free choice of employment*, to _just and favourable conditions of work_ and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to _just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity_, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to _form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests_.

From this perspective, then, one could argue that adjuncts are robbed of their human dignity.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I'm entirely on your side on this issue morally. But I don't think it's good to invoke human rights. Human rights theory and practice are a big mess, with (for the most part) no clear distinction between bona fide *rights* and merely nice things. Also, the notion of human dignity is, what I would call -- and many people who work on human rights recognize this -- an "essentially contestable" concept (what one person considers consistent with human dignity another person might take to be a horrific assault on it).

I think it is important to clarify *what* is wrong with how adjuncts are treated (and it *is* wrong). For me, there is a LOT wrong with. Unequal pay for equal work. Taking advantage of someone's bad situation. And many other things to boot. But let's focus on these issues, rather than mixing in deeply contestable and (or so I've argued in my own work on human rights) bad philosophical ideas.

Marcus Arvan

The analogies people are drawing are poor. The professional musician and person in a local band are *not* doing equal work. One plays large arenas in front of 40,000 people, the other plays in small clubs to maybe 25-50 paying customers.

The relevant analogy is one band playing to 40,000 customers and making $1 million and another band playing to the same 40,000 customers and making $50.

This is the relevant analogy because adjuncts are teaching the *same* courses to the *same* students paying the *same* absurdly high tuition as full time faculty members...in return for PEANUTS.

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

I was trying to offer a different perspective on the issue, one that frames it in terms of dignity and rights rather than desert and exploitation. I am familiar with your work on human rights. But perhaps, as a contextualist, you would allow bracketing off philosophical worries about the concept for now. :) After all, the concepts of human and civil rights had played a crucial role in many labor struggles (e.g., http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Cesar_Chavez ).

P.S. I agree that the analogies are weak.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: I understand the aim, as well as how human rights language has helped social movements, but in cases like these I don't think it helps the cause. Here's why.

When you wrote your comment, I could almost sense where the next objection would come from (in line with the kinds of objections that have been raised in the thread thus far). Someone would almost certainly chime in and say something like, "Adjuncting is a violation of human *dignity*? Really? I understand civil rights violations are a violation of human dignity. I understand torture is a violation of human dignity. But adjuncts, as poorly treated as they are, still have the *choice* to work elsewhere."

I think the language of human rights and dignity only gives the other side more ammunition to say, "Come on - it's not a violation of human dignity!" And that, presumably, isn't what you want to do. Better to focus on the real issues, which are that adjuncts are paid a pittance (without benefits) for highly skilled labor after 8-10 years of living below the poverty line (in grad school) when others performing more or less the same work (sometimes not nearly as well) are compensated like crazy. I don't think we need to use the language of human dignity or human rights to make the case that this is wrong and unjust -- and indeed, I think that language only distracts from the central issues.

Anyway, that's where I was coming from. It wasn't merely an intellectual exercise of trying to bracket off something. My aim was to say, "I don't think this is the best philosophical, moral, or rhetorical device to make the point!"

Moti Mizrahi

Hi Marcus,

You write:

“Someone would almost certainly chime in and say something like, ‘Adjuncting is a violation of human *dignity*? Really? I understand civil rights violations are a violation of human dignity. I understand torture is a violation of human dignity. But adjuncts, as poorly treated as they are, still have the *choice* to work elsewhere.”

I think that here you are attributing to Segran an even sillier objection than the one I had attributed to her. I thought her objection is that adjuncts can *end* the abuse/exploitation/injustice simply by leaving academia and finding work elsewhere. As I understand your comment, you are attributing to her the objection that simply having the choice to leave academia *means* that adjuncts are not being abused/exploited/treated unjustly.

As already pointed out in comments above, the first objection is silly because adjuncts did not choose to be treated poorly and unjustly. They chose to be scholars and educators. Bearing that in mind, the proper response in the face of their poor and unjust treatment is not to walk away from it but to fight it.

The second objection is silly because having a choice (whatever that means) has nothing to do with whether one’s rights have been violated or not. If a POW is tortured, it matters not that s/he “chose” to be a soldier. Being subjected to torture is a violation of one’s rights as a human being, whether one “chose” to be a soldier or not. If a suspect is not read his/her Miranda rights, it matters not that s/he “chose” to be a criminal. Not being given the Miranda warning is a violation of one’s right to legal counsel, whether one “chose” to be a criminal or not.

Ben Bryan


Appeal to human rights makes sense to me here. I don't think the rights you're citing exist, but I understand how the normative logic of human rights is supposed to apply here (whereas I'm not so sure that exploitation talk applies here). If the post had been something along the lines of the following, I'd be fine with it (though I'd reject its claim about the existence of a human right of equal work for equal pay), "you're focusing on the wrong thing. It may be that having options can allow us to avoid exploitation. But being able to escape rights violations doesn't undermine the case for their being rights violations. Paying adjuncts poorly is a violation of the right to have equal pay for equal work."


I’m sorry if I sound pedantic. I don’t mean to be, I’m just trying to get clear about what we’re talking about when we accuse people of exploitation. I’m just rather unsettled by the fact that there is an awfully serious moral accusation being made over something whose wrongness (or at least, exploitativeness) I have a very hard time seeing.

I don’t entirely understand your new suggestion. I would have thought that the necessary condition to add would be that in order to be exploited, the person would be need to care about the distribution of desert-based benefits, not non desert-based benefits. Either way, this doesn’t change my worry about the volunteer. We can imagine a volunteer who cares about how benefits are distributed. It seems to me that if a volunteer has other decent options, he has no complaint against his current not-quite-employers, even he is disturbed by the way benefits are distributed. Perhaps we will just differ on this case. Perhaps my inability to feel the pull of the claim of a volunteer who is disturbed by his unequal pay may is explained by the fact that I am rather skeptical about the idea of comparing the deservingness of work. And that problem is not one we can work out here. (In any case, wouldn't it be easier to cash this out in terms of a right to have equal pay for equal work, as Moti is, rather than in terms of exploitation?)

As for your empirical claims, if that’s true, then there may be exploitation occurring, even by the standard I suggested. But that would mean that the appropriate response to the article criticized by the original post is quite a bit different than the original post. The original post suggests that the existence of other options is irrelevant. I’ve tried to argue that there is a reasonable view on which options of some other kind matter. Your response now is that adjuncts don’t have other options of the right kind. I’ll acknowledge that this may true in some cases (though I confess I’m skeptical about how many*), and you are certainly in a better position to determine this in your own case than I am. But now the appropriate response to the line of argument the original post criticizes is to claim that it rests on false empirical assumptions.

*or perhaps I just have a less demanding idea about what a “decent” option would be

Also, can I ask an honest question? I'm not going to give any response to it. I'm not trying to get an answer to make an argument from it, or criticize you, or imply anything by the question at all. I'm genuinely interested, because I want to know how bad you take your position to be. If you don't want to answer this question, just ignore it. But I'm genuinely interested to know: How bad is the best job you think you could get within a year if you had to quit academia today? What experiences of yours with trying to get a non-academic job lead you to this conclusion? Again, I'm not trying to bait you or use this as evidence one way or the other; I just honestly want to know. In the very small sample size of people I know who have left academia in the last year, I've not know anyone who didn't do ok for themselves. But the people I'm thinking of are people who left before finishing the PhD, and in part because those other jobs were available to them. So I would be genuinely interested to hear more from the point of view of someone whose experience has been much worse.


I agree that that analogy is better. In that case, though, I’m completely untroubled by inequality itself, and at least at first glance I’m untroubled by the whole situation (assuming that we live in a society in which those in the badly paid band have access to other ways of making a living). This is basically just a case where an opening act is hired for a major performer and paid almost nothing. I don’t find that disturbing (so long as the opening band lives in a society where they have other liveable options). In fact, some friends of mine once played a show a bit like this. They played an opening slot at a show for thousands of people, and had to win a contest to do so. In the meantime, John Mayer headlined the show for who knows how much money. Maybe you’ll find that unsettling. I don’t (nor would it change, to my mind, if they put on a better show than Mayer, put in more work, or even if they drew as many fans as he did). Perhaps I just don’t share the dominant intuition in this thread :)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Moti: I wasn't meaning to attribute anything to Segran. I just meant that I expected someone to question the human rights/dignity language in something like the way I mentioned, and thus, that I'm not sure that human rights/dignity are the most effective way to frame the relevant issues.

Ben: good point.


When I said that the non-desert-based system matters to people like me, I mean that it's a problem for us. (I could also have said that desert-based distribution matters in that it's the solution we have in mind.) Sure, I could have said that adjuncts have a right to "equal pay for work of equal value". That _is_ exactly what I did say. Or rather, I gave a reason for saying so: benefits and burdens should be distributed on the basis of desert (and people who work equally hard and do work of the same value are equally deserving in that respect).

Earlier you seemed to concede that adjuncts are not getting what they deserve; your claim was that nevertheless their situation is not unjust (or exploitative). But that seems incoherent. A person who is not given what she deserves is not treated justly. Isn't that an analytic truth? (Are you happy with sentences like "Jane did not get what she deserved in her divorce settlement and that is fair" or "John deserved a raise but it's not unjust that he didn't get one"?)

Perhaps there are some things that we deserve that don't benefit us in any way. Okay, fine, so my "new" proposal is that non-desert-based distributions are wrong when the benefits and burdens are a big deal. When they make people's lives significantly better or worse in ways that those people care deeply about. You disagree with this? I can't imagine what your conception of justice is. For the same reason, I don't know what I'm supposed to do with your volunteer story. If the volunteer's life is miserable _because_ she doesn't have what she _deserves_ to have then I'm happy to count that situation as unjust even if (a) she doesn't realize that she deserves better or (b) it's possible for her to do something else. About (a): surely people can be exploited without knowing it. About (b): the fact that she has some option to do as well somewhere else doesn't do anything to remedy the injustice of not getting what she deserves for the work she actually does. Maybe you can say more about why (a) and (b) have such force for you.

Now this is all on the assumption that you concede that adjuncts don't get what they deserve -- as you seemed to concede at first.

But in this latest post you seem not to concede that. This would be an entirely different kind of objection. You say you are "skeptical about comparing the deservingness of work". I'm not sure what is the object of skepticism here. I do the same work (and far more of that kind of work) as many tenured people who earn three or four times as much as I do. Explain to me what it is that is supposed to stand in the way of saying that I deserve at least whatever it is that they deserve. I can't see the problem in "comparing" when it's obvious that the job is the very same one in both cases.

Ben Bryan

You're right about the justice stuff. My parenthetical statement about justice claims in general was at least misleading and perhaps too strong. I didn't mean to say that I'd given an argument that shows that there are no justice claims of any kind. All I meant to express there is a general reservation about the application in this case of justice claims of other kinds. Given that I hadn't given any grounds for anyone else to have such reservations, I should have refrained from adding that remark.

As for desert, to be clearer, the problem I have is this: I understand how to compare two jobs non-normatively, but I'm not sure which non-normative features of jobs give rise to desert or why they would do so. How do we get from facts about what work involves to evaluations of what people deserve in light of the work? Obviously not all features matter to desert. But which features and why?

There are several kinds of features I can imagine focusing on, each of which has a distinct downside:

-other-focused features, like objective benefit to others. Basing desert on this seems to hold people objectionably hostage to results of their work that are sometimes out of their control. (worries about this are, I take it, why many people are worried by connecting teachers' pay to test scores. That seems to make their pay depend on things very much out of their control)

-Worker-focused features, like how difficult the work is, or how much skill it involves. I'm not sure that the former can be compared interpersonally in a meaningful way, and even if it could it seems irrelevant sometimes (when two people put forward equal effort, but one of them is terrible at what they do and of far inferior objective value to the employer) And I'm not sure the notion of skill can be cashed out in a way that 1) isn't a matter of mere complexity (why does that matter?) 2) doesn't depend on antecedent views about what is beneficial to others (which runs into the problems just mentioned) or 3) isn't just a matter of how impressed people are by it (why should this matter if this is groundless? Whose perceptions matter and why?).

-any subjective measure. Whose belief about the value of the work matters? For obvious reasons, it cannot be either the worker's beliefs or the employers. I suppose that we could take it that what matters is the value of some other party. But which other party and why?

I agree that there is no problem comparing two jobs non-normatively. And I can see why two jobs that have most of the same non-normative features would deserve similar pay, if there's such a thing as deserving pay. But I'm skeptical that there is such a thing as deserving pay at all, so I don't think we can compare the deservingness of different jobs. That's why I said this was not something we can likely work out here: it would take a ton of work to propose and evaluate possible views about what features of work matter for desert, and I suspect you and I both have many much more pressing things to do at the moment.

note: I've not given an argument here. I don't claim to have showed that deserving compensation for work is definitely a problematic notion. I've just tried to express why the notion seems worrisome to me on minimal reflection.


Hi Ben. I agree with you that if we consider the notion of desert from some very lofty philosophical perspective it may be "worrisome". But I find it quite unreasonable (though not irrational) to take that point of view in this kind of discussion. Consider some analogies. A doctor is trying to decide whether to prescribe anti-psychotics to someone who appears to be schizophrenic. Should he think that he _first_ needs to solve the problem of other minds before deciding how to treat his patient? Or suppose your department kicks you out with no degree even though you defended a dissertation that everyone agrees was a masterpiece. But the chair just doesn't like you. No doubt you might feel that you deserved to be treated differently. Would it be useful for someone to point out that, after all, desert claims don't as yet have an entirely adequate philosophical analysis -- and, therefore, it's quite unclear that Ben deserves anything at all?

Here we seem to be back to an earlier issue. You agreed that the mere fact that person P has some "option" better than P's current situation doesn't imply that P is not exploited. Even a slave has options, etc. But that depends on some ordinary intuitions about what's fair and right. If you're now saying that you have doubts about any attempt to gauge how work generates desert, you should probably retract that (sensible) claim. After all, who's to say that slaves aren't getting exactly what they deserve for their work -- even if, by some "non-normative" measure the work is the same as that performed by non-slaves who actually get paid and have basic freedoms, etc. (For that matter, what _exactly_ is it that's wrong with slavery? Not an easy question, philosophically, but I think we can be pretty certain that slavery is wrong without knowing the answer.)

Those on the other side make transparently bad and dishonest arguments for their shabby treatment of adjuncts. Those on my side are making arguments that an intelligent ten year old could recognize to have real moral force. Those on the other side make no serious effort to show that their policies are justifiable in relation to the standards of ordinary human moral thought. It isn't reasonable to expect that people like me must not only do that but must also provide a full philosophical justification for those ordinary moral concepts and standards. I could spend the rest of my life trying to do that (and failing, of course). Meanwhile, powerful cynical people who simply _don't care_ about philosophy or morality will be enjoying all kinds of undeserved wealth and privilege at my expense. At some point you have to decide: whose side are you on? You can't be neutral, and the decision can't be based on a fully adequate philosophical account of all the relevant matters. (In part because there is no such account of anything.)

Ben Bryan

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough; I'm not withholding judgment until the philosophical verdict on desert is out. It's not just that I'm unsure what the best way of cashing out desert is. Rather, I think it's pretty likely that the idea that certain work deserves certain compensation is just completely misguided, and that in fact work does not give rise to desert at all. This is why I said to Moti that I just don't think the sorts of human rights that he appealed to exist. My expressions of caution here have simply been to acknowledge that I'm quite open to being persuaded to think there is such a thing as desert for work if someone can give me an account of it. In the meantime, though, I remain reasonably confident that claims about desert are just confused. My attitude toward desert is sort of like that of an atheist who is pretty sure God doesn't exist, because he takes it that the balance of the evidence he has seen weighs heavily against theism, but he doesn't think he has decisive proof, and is open to arguments. I feel that way about desert for work: it probably doesn't exist, but I don't think I've got some kind of flawless argument that shows that it doesn't, and I don't think that people that think it does exist are stupid or vicious.

As for the practical question of what to do, I'm not sure that there are really two sides here. At any rate, I don't come down either side you seem to be thinking of. On one hand, I'm inclined to think there's something misguided about the idea that adjuncts are being exploited, that their rights are being violated, etc. So I am uncomfortable with rights- or justice- based *demands* for change. In that respect, I seem to be not on your side. On the other hand, I think having tons of adjuncts is bad for everyone (adjuncts, departments, and above all students), and we should try to avoid bad things even when no one has the moral standing to demand it as a matter of right. In that sense I'm on your side. So, sure, I think we should do things to reduce adjunct labor (and that this is an important aim to be given immediate and serious attention, not just a nice thing we should do when we get around to it). But I don't think that the way to do so is by demanding justice for adjuncts. So I guess I just don't buy the whole two sides way of viewing the problem.


I find the course of the discussion very confusing. In your first post, you argued by appeal to ordinary moral notions of desert. Adjuncts are like the guy with expensive tastes: "We don't owe him a life of fancy tastes". You argued from the claim that the work adjuncts do does not have features that "we typically identify when we're complaining about exploitation". Against my initial objections, you presented thought experiments again appealing to ordinary notions of desert: the volunteer does _deserve_ the same as other workers, but you think she is not being treated unjustly.

And yet you now say that you think the very idea of deserving compensation for work is (probably) confused. So were you earlier appealing to moral concepts that you yourself reject? But then how could those kinds of considerations make you skeptical of the claim that adjuncts are being exploited or treated unjustly? It seems your initial point should have been simply that, in your view, adjuncts are not being exploited because no one deserves anything for any work that they do.

Be that as it may, it does seem that your (new?) position comes down to rejecting deep moral intuitions and common sense simply because there are unsolved philosophical problems in the vicinity. You do seem to be saying that the notion of desert should be rejected simply because there's no clearly correct philosophical analysis of the desert-generating features. But in that case your position seems unreasonable to me. Surely you'd allow that there are similar puzzles about all interesting or useful concepts, including those (whatever they may be) that you rely on in claiming that "having tons of adjuncts" is in some sense "bad". (What is the analysis of "bad"? What are the bad-making features of situations?)

In passing, I'd also note that one of the possible theories of desert that you reject seems good enough to me. Suppose that what a person deserves for her work is determined by the objective benefits that the work produces for others. I see no problem with this. (Though maybe it would be hard to measure the benefits -- but that's not your worry, it seems.) I'd be quite happy with a situation where my compensation is tied to the value my work has for students, for the institution, for the tenured people, etc. Why is that not an adequate theory of desert, in your opinion?



Ben Bryan


Re: the dialectic
The reason I didn't talk about desert up front is because I don't think exploitation is connected to desert. Believing that people deserve certain compensation for work is, at least, not necessary to believe there is exploitation. One could think someone was being exploited even if one rejected the notion that people deserve certain compensation for their work. The kind of view about exploitation that I gestured at in an earlier comment seemed to me to be of this kind (i.e. one that is independent of desert).

re: desert intuitions
That said, I think people can deserve things--praise and blame for example. So I think we have some intuitive ideas of desert that aren't tied to the particular context of compensation for work. So I think we can use these intuitions to see whether it makes sense to apply the notion of desert to work.

For example, I take it that desert is tied to responsibility. Someone who deserves praise or blame, for example, must be responsible for her actions. One does not merit something one is not responsible for.* This is why I want to reject an account of work desert based on benefits: one is often not responsible for the benefits produced by one's actions. Suppose, for example, an employee does what would otherwise be excellent work, but it all comes to nothing because of the failures of her coworker. This work does not benefit anyone at all. It strikes me as odd to say that her work deserves something different from what the same work would have deserved if her coworker hadn't made an error. The difference between the two concerns something that she had no control over. We could also imagine cases where people produce wonderful results entirely accidentally. In these cases, it seems odd to say that these people merit something more simply by accident.

Notice that making this kind of argument doesn't appeal to intuitions about the deservingness of the work involved. In the first case, I need not appeal to the idea that the employee deserves things in virtue of her hard work. Rather, what I'm appealing to is the idea that desert is tied to responsibility and so differences for which one is not responsible for can't make a difference to desert.

I'm not sure that the position I've taken--that the notion of desert makes sense but shouldn't be applied to compensation for work--is really opposed to common sense. The intuitions I appeal to in order to argue for that position are about the broader, commonsense notion of desert. Since those intuitions are about a broader notion, and what we're trying to figure out is whether that notion can be applied to work, not whether that notion itself is coherent, I don't think there's anything problematic about appeal to those intuitions. In fact, it seems just where we should look.

*One can, of course, be owed something one does not deserve/merit, and thus what one is owed can be independent of one's responsibility. You can owe me something because you promise me something, regardless of what things I merit. This is my view on pay: people are owed what their contracts promise them. This isn't a matter of them deserving anything. They didn't do anything that merits it.


You say that "what we're trying to figure out" is whether some "broader notion" of desert "can be applied to work". I had no idea that was our topic. Well never mind. A few substantive comments:

1. You reject the idea that work-desert can be defined by benefits of the work because a person might not be responsible for the benefits of her work. I'm not sure that's a deep problem. For example, in one of your stories a person's otherwise excellent work comes to nothing because of someone else's incompetence; so there's no benefit, nothing that makes her work deserve compensation. But why not say that the "benefits" are to be individuated more broadly? If she's capable of doing good work, it's very likely that her work benefits her employers on the whole and over time, etc.

2. On your view, a person may be responsible for doing all kinds of stuff that provides enormous benefits to everyone and yet fail to deserve any compensation despite being responsible for that. Isn't this at least as odd as the odd result you claim to derive from a benefits-based theory of desert? You're willing to reject the theory because it eliminates work-desert in some cases where it seems there should be desert. But you embrace the idea that there's no work-desert ever?

3. You allow that people can deserve praise. Aren't there the same puzzles here? Sally is praiseworthy because she saved a drowing puppy. Susie jumped into the sea to save what appeared to be a puppy but turned out to be a stuffed animal. So she doesn't deserve praise (or the same kind or amount of praise). But it seems to be a matter of luck or chance.

4. You haven't yet said how you'd respond to your department refusing you a degree simply because the chair doesn't like you. Is that a situation where you feel that work -- completing program requirements, defending a thesis -- deserves some kind of compensation? I assume you'd agree there's something unethical or wrong in this story. How do you explain it without reference to work-desert? Or are you only skeptical of work-desert when the proposed compensation is monetary?

Ben Bryan

1. We can just generate a case with the same structure. Imagine two people who work in different divisions in a company, one of whom has excellent coworkers, and the other of whom works with a terrible team. Both put in equal effort with equal skill, etc, but one's work produces great results because of the great team she works with, while the other's terrible team always turns out barely passable work. If desert applies to work, it seems wrong to me to say these two deserve extremely different compensation.

2. I think people are owed compensation in accordance with contracts. But if someone provides great benefits without obtaining others' agreement to compensate him, then I don't see what's so odd about thinking he doesn't deserve compensation. If I go outside on a nice spring day like today and play guitar on the quad, and do so masterfully, such that it improves the day of everyone who passes me, I don't see why I deserve pay in virtue of that. And I don't see why if the provision of benefits doesn't generate desert without a contract in place, it would generate desert with a contract in place.

3. I don't think that Sally and Susie merit anything different. How much praise we ought to *voice* is a separate question. We have more reason to voice praise for Sally than for Susie, even if their moral praiseworthiness is the same.

4. We don't really need desert to explain what's wrong in this case. There are other clear problems: deception, failures of integrity. Graduate programs claim to award degrees on the basic of some kind of competence. If they fail to do this, they fail to live up to the standards that they have communicated to their students and that they themselves endorse. There is, of course, a sense in which one may merit or fail to merit a degree. But this merit is relative to the standards embedded in a certain kind of practice. This is sort of like the desert that occurs within a game: if someone loses a game because of a rule violation, then he did not deserve the loss; if he wins legitimately, then he merits that win. But this is a desert whose ground is entirely conventional: people deserve these things because the rules say they do. I think the PhD case is similar. If we hand them out on the basis of personal preference, we fail to observe the rules of the game.

If your intuitions about the sensitivity of desert to luck are different than mine, there's not much we can do to resolve that here. In any case, we should probably draw this to a close. I doubt we're going to be able to resolve all the things at stake here without lots of substantial discussion, and I don't have the time and energy to spend on that right now. If you ever run into me at a conference or something, though, and happen to remember that I'm that crazy guy who thinks that work doesn't deserve compensation, bug me about it further. (Feel free to add any final thoughts you have here, though; I don't mean to grab the last word and run. But please don't ask me any further questions. I am totally akratic and I will answer them instead of grading papers or sleeping).


Hi Ben. There does seem to be a lot to argue about here, and I don't want to keep you from your grading; I'll leave out questions and limit myself to bald assertions :)

(i) I'm not sure that we have different intuitions about desert and luck. What I find hard to understand about your position is that you seem to _accept_ common intuitions in arguing against particular theories of work desert while holding a position that is more radically incompatible with those same intuitions than the theories you reject. For example, it may be (though I'm not convinced) that a benefit-based theory has the implication that sometimes people deserve different compensation even when it appears they deserve the same. If so, that's a reason to doubt such a theory. But your view is that no one ever deserves anything for the work they do. Why isn't that an even stronger reason to reject your theory? (It has all the counter-intuitive implications of the others, and further counter-intituitive implications to boot.)

(ii) You say that desert is tied to responsibility. But responsibility seems to be subject to luck. If Sally does a type of action A and ends up saving a puppy, she's responsible for saving a puppy. She deserves praise for doing that. So we'd normally say, anyway. If Susie As and ends up not saving a puppy, she's not responsible for saving a puppy and can't be praised for doing so. But the difference might be due entirely to luck, e.g., the mere fact that the thing bobbing in the waves turns out to be a stuffed animal in one case. Now you might say that each is responsible only for A-ing, and therefore Sally isn't responsible for saving a puppy (and deserves no praise for doing so). In that case, a person is responsible for some result of her actions only if the causal chain leading to that result contains no contingencies over which she has no power. Suppose Susie shoves Sally and Sally dies, but one reason why she died was that she fell on concrete rather than grass. (And suppose she fell just where she did in part because of a strong wind.) Then on this view Susie isn't responsible for the death, can't be blamed. Probably there's nothing interesting for which anyone can be praised or blamed. So it seems to me that either luck infects responsibility or, if it doesn't, there should be no praise or blame in the cases where you (and most of us too) take these to be warranted. So I don't really see that the situation here is different from the situation with work desert. There are puzzles, but that's no reason to reject the very idea.

(ii) I'd also question the idea that one can be owed something without deserving it. Your reason for saying this is that sometimes a person is owed something despite having _done_ nothing to deserve it. But there seem to be cases of desert that don't depend on the deserver doing anything. Persons deserve respect, for example, regardless of what they do. If you say that "being a person" is the relevant desert-generating action, then I'll say the same kind of thing in cases where P owes x to P* because P promised x to P*. (The relevant "action" = "being (or having been) someone to whom x was promised by P*", or something like that.)

(iv) People sometimes are owed compensation for work because of a contract. But I can't imagine why it's either necessary or sufficient for P to owe x to P* that P and P* have a contract to that effect. Surely when a contract really does specify what someone is owed for work, that's because the work really does merit the specified compensation. (Perhaps sometimes the reason is just that the compensation deserved = that which P and P* agree is deserved.) If one or both parties are irrational or ignorant or malevolent it could well be that what they agree to is not just. That's true for human agreements generally, and I can't see why contracts regarding work compensation would be different.

(v) Your example of the guitar player in the quad is of course very different from the adjunct's situation. I guess it provides a good counter-example to the silly theory that a person who does something that somehow benefits someone else thereby deserves compensation. However I don't think I was proposing that theory of work desert. I was thinking, of course, of situations where people are asked by an employer to do something -- e.g., teach -- in exchange for compensation. Since it's given that here, for whatever reason, some kind of compensation is _owed_ to the worker it seems natural to infer that it's owed because of the work. (Which is why the employer can justly refuse to pay up if despite having agree to the contract the worker does no work.) Even if I give you the word "desert" this is probably enough. Something is owed because of the work; but then it's possible that what is really owed is not what the contract specifies.

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