- · It is common to think in terms of “What do I want” – but this can cause harm when involving other people
- · Most harm is accidental and not deliberate. Preventing harm may require constant vigilance
- · As cultures progress, it becomes less socially acceptable and less prevalent to use this thinking
- · If we change the way we talk about things, we can mitigate this harmful way of thinking and make it less socially “normal”
The exploitation framework:
I wanted to write this to express and name a simplistic idea. It is incredibly prevalent and pervasive in our lives. It is a structure of thought. A habitually way of thinking. It causes tremendous amounts of harm and suffering. And it arises completely by accident. Perhaps to some people, the idea will seem extremely simple or unoriginal. But simple concepts need a name. And that’s why to people that know me, I refer to this way of thinking as “The Exploitation Framework”.
The exploitation framework is so commonly used, it is probably something that You, I, Vegans and Effective altruists do daily. Using the exploitation framework is partly why I wrote this piece, or why I took an extra shift at work today. I believe that mitigating it has been critical in the social progress western countries have experienced in recent decades. And it is extremely important that this trend continues.
So, what is it? In a few words it’s “What do I want?” or “What will I get out of this”. It is a completely adequate way of thinking when planting a seed, or perhaps buying a new phone. What colours do you want to see in your garden? How important is battery life for you? However, when this way of thinking involves someone else it can become completely perverted. When we think about what type of dog we want, or what gender child, serious harms are soon down the line. Let’s just take the example of the dog, it’s common to hear someone say they “want” a dog. Maybe they want a pug or a great Dane. Or if they already have a dog, they might “want their dog” to be neutered, or “want” their dog to be bred. If you ask further, why do you want a dog? Why do you want this particular breed? Why do you want the dog neutered? They will relate back to their own lives and lifestyles. Little connection is made with the dog’s happiness, who you would otherwise think should be the subject of the conversation.
Perhaps they can only see one perspective. Their own. At certain times this can be quite shocking. Someone may be talking about taking actions which clearly act upon another. But no reflection is made to the other being. The person can be otherwise intelligent, clever, funny and kind. But in that moment, they are like a child demanding a toy, with little reflection on what it might cost their parents. They are temporarily afflicted by extreme narcissism.
The problem is this. What the person wants, and what the dog wants, can sometimes be completely different things. If the person does indeed want a dog. The common-sense solution is to buy a puppy from a breeder. That way they have complete control over the sex and breed of the dog. They can also get the dog at an extremely young age. Which works out fantastic, because people love puppies! But it may be less fantastic for the dog. The dog, coming from the breeder, has suffered from the complete control exercised over them. They have been bred to be adorable and fashionable, with a snub snout and large eyes. By continually breeding dogs with smaller and smaller snouts, breathing problems arise. These problems are the result of the palette at the top of the mouth being compressed into a snout a fraction of the size. We see small puppies as extremely cute. The smaller they are when removed from the mother the happier the customer. So young, they are attached to their mother and require her emotional and physical support. The separation at such a young age causing so much distress to a puppy we would otherwise love.
In economics, this situation can be referred to as “Incentives being misaligned”. The dog has incentives, to live happy and breath comfortably. And the owner has incentives, to have a fashionable dog that friends and family will enjoy. In many ways these incentives will be aligned. The dog wants to have enough food. The owners want the dog to look healthy. That is alignment. But misalignment can be quickly found. And the trouble is, it only takes one rotten vegetable to ruin the entire soup. The pug may be well fed, often petted, and taken to the vet annually. But if it is not exercised enough, it may suffer with obesity, boredom and frustration.
It is bizarre we think so selfishly sometimes. Especially when considering an animal that we truly love. There’s no doubt in my mind that many pug owners truly love their dogs. And yet most pugs were probably bought as described above. From a breeder who profits of their suffering. And at an extremely young age. So how do these pug owners end up so reliant on exploitative thinking? I can’t explain why we think this way. But it can be seen across countries and across cultures. So what’s the solution?
Fortunately, I see a world where the exploitation framework becomes less prevalent in parallel to other social progress markers. Perhaps as our countries progress forward, we move through the myopic exploitative framework. This came to clarity for me after speaking to my elderly nan. At first, I was shocked to learn how poor we were 80 years ago. Drawn in, I began to appreciate that the regressive values towards children - like stopping education early to begin work, or physical punishment - were part of a bigger trend. A bigger trend in which people migrated away from seeing children as mini humans whose responsibility was to provide value to their parents. Towards a target of realising we have responsibility to provide value to them. Although much progress is still to be made, we have come a long way. I think this is a large part from a diminishing exploitation framework. Away from “ME” and onto “WE”. What do “we” need? What would “we” want? Would this be good for “us”?
So what are the key takeaways? One easy way to diminish the exploitation framework is to improve the power balance in a relationship. If their voice is as loud and well considered as your own, it’s much harder to exploit them. But this is not always possible. As in the example of a non-existing child or an animal which cannot voice it’s opinions. In that cause, I think first and foremost it’s important to reconsider any desires involving other beings in a “we” or value adding framework? Instead of asking, what pet do “I” want? Ask, what pet could I best provide a happy home for? Instead of asking, “should I have a child to keep my marriage together”? Ask “can we provide good parenting and a loving home”? Look preemptively for common cases where incentives become misaligned. Can we make lists of these for parents or pet owners? Employers and partners? (If you have any examples, let me know and I will make a collection). But most importantly, see harm as something than can be caused accidentally rather than deliberately. Harm is not caused by actions, but rather our inaction to mitigate our exploitative reflexes.