This post focuses on a particular argument about the ethics of body-based trades, in particular surrogacy and reproductive labour. The argument comes from Anne Phillips and is presented in her book Our Bodies, Whose Property?
To understand the argument, we’ll need a bit of context. Traditionally, people have been very opposed to the commodification of certain forms of body-based labour. Classic examples include the sale of bodily organs, sex work and reproductive labour. Although the objections to these forms of labour are multifarious, they often boil down to a general unease about commodifying the body. There is a feeling out there that there is something not quite right about buying and selling services that rely directly bodily processes.
There is a fairly standard liberal response to these traditional objections. It is to point out that all labour is body-based and then highlight the inconsistency in being opposed to some forms and not others. The liberal will pose the question: Why should the athlete be allowed to sell his/her body but the sex worker should not? Why should the bouncer at the nightclub be able to commodify his/her physical prowess, but the surrogate mother not be allowed to commodify her reproductive capacity?
Phillips’s argument is a partial reply to the liberal point of view. She argues that there may be something objectionable about those trades when it comes to the distribution of work-related skills and preferences across society. I want to unpack this argument here.
The argument starts with a simple factual observation:
Specialisation/Division of Labour: There is some division and specialisation of labour in society. Not everybody does the same thing.
This is a banal observation. The specialisation of labour is one of the hallmarks of contemporary capitalism. And the specialisation clearly applies to certain body-based trades. There are far more women than men in the sex trade; and the surrogacy trade is essentially exclusively biologically female (note: transgender men could be surrogates). The critical question is why does the specialisation arise. There are basically two major categories of explanation:
Personal skills and preferences: Some people choose particular trades and professions because of their innate or cultivated skills and preferences.
Structural inequality: Some people are channeled into particular trades and professions because of their social background, ethnicity, gender etc. The channeling can be achieved through deliberate exclusion, implicit bias, legal force, economic desperation and so on.
In an ideal world, Phillips argues, the specialisation of labour would be accounted for entirely in terms of personal skills and preferences. In other words, in a world free from objectionable forms of inequality, the only division of labour we would have would be one that can be explained entirely by what the workers want to do and feel they are good at. (Note: I’m not sure that such a world is physically possible. It would require some careful conceptualising of the self and the preferences and skills that belong to the self to make sense of it. Now is not the time to pursue that conceptualising so I’ll set this concern to the side for now).
We clearly do not live in the ideal world. The division and specialisation of labour that we see is probably partly attributable to structural inequality and partly to personal skills and preferences, with many individual cases involving elements of both. This places us in a difficult epistemic position. We should perhaps be wary about objecting to all forms of divided labour, given that some of it may result from personal skills and preferences. But we should also be awake to the probability that a lot it results from structural inequality. How do we know which is which? How decide when to intervene in a particular form of work?
Phillips tries to answer this question with a kind of heuristic test and principle. She maintains that if a particular example of divided labour cannot be reasonably accounted for in terms of a difference of skills and preferences, then it is especially objectionable (note: the following is my reconstruction of her position).
Phillips’s Heuristic Principle: If a particular instance of the division of labour cannot be plausibly accounted for in terms of personal skills and preferences, then it is particularly objectionable.
Her suggestion then is that certain body-based trades may fall foul of this heuristic test. For instance, this is something that people often say about sex work. They say that the explanation for why certain people enter the trade is structural inequality (gender, poverty and desperation etc.). If they were not suffering from those structural vulnerabilities they would not choose to be sex workers. Something similar may be true for surrogacy. The only plausible explanation for why certain women choose the work is social inequality.
I find this to be an interesting and subtle style of argument. The heuristic test is not an absolute objection to certain forms of work. It is simply a rule of thumb for figuring out if a particular form is socially problematic. That said, it would be remiss of me not to point out the problems with its application. Phillips admits in her own work that her claims about surrogacy could be overstated. It is not implausible to suppose that some women have a preference (and skill) for being pregnant and would choose being pregnant over other forms of work. And I suspect something similar could be true for at least some sex workers. There are certainly interviews with some sex workers suggesting that they take pride in the skills associated with their work and enjoy the relative autonomy it entails.
The question is whether it not being true for particular individuals affects the general point. Are there certain forms of work about which we should be more suspicious given that they are less likely to be explained in terms of skills and preferences? I suspect the danger here is that if we apply this test across the board — and if we don’t insist on absolutely everyone within a particular trade falling foul of it — we will find many objectionable forms of labour. Whether that is problem depends on our more general attitudes toward work. Fortunately this is something I have discussed on many previous occasions.