posted on 26 Feb 2021

This post is part of a series on the ethics of buying services:

Paying for a Service

So act that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.[1]

– Immanuel Kant

In order to know what is meant by “treating humanity as an end”, we need only consider this argument, and see how humanity got to be an end in itself. What was in question was the source of the goodness of an end – the goodness say, of some ordinary object of inclination. This source was traced to the power of rationally choosing ends, exercised in this case on this end. So when Kant says rational nature or humanity is an end in itself, it is the power of rational choice that he is referring to, and in particular, the power to set an end (to make something an end by conferring the status of goodness on it) and pursue it by rational means.[2]

– Christine M. Korsgaard

Is it wrong to hire a housekeeper to clean your house? How about paying an Uber driver to get you home after a dinner? Or engaging a master chef to cook at your wedding? In other words, is it wrong to pay somebody to provide you a service? I think that, under certain conditions, it is wrong to do so. Specifically, I think it’s wrong when the person you are paying does not see any alternative way of subsisting.

Paraphrasing Kajsa Ekis Ekman, if a person wants to clean your house, they clean your house; the only reason for there to be money involved is that they don’t really want to do it. That’s true in a way but it’s too strict to keep as a moral rule. It implies that there can be no bargaining, that any exchange of money for goods or labour is coercion. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think a person can consent to such an exchange iff they see alternative ways of subsisting, such that they don’t feel forced to accept the kind of offer you are making. If they don’t see these alternative ways, they can’t turn down the offer without risking destitution. It is the payment that renders them unable to refuse it; if you had offered them the chance to clean your house without payment, they could very easily have refused.

By subsisting I mean having what people generally hold to be the necessities of life, of minimally supporting oneself. This of course varies from place to place & time to time.

I think there are a lot of people in this condition today. For example, a survey done by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights reports that migrants are often forced to work long hours with no or little pay, sometimes without access to bathrooms or running water, often living in fear of their employers or under threat of losing their wages or being reported to the authorities. In the U.K., 7.7% of adults report having slept in a homeless shelter or on the streets at least once in their lives; in Italy, 4%; in Germany, 2.4%.[3] These people don’t have much choice in how to support themselves, maybe none at all. Paying somebody in that position to do something for you seems to me to violate Kant’s Formula of Humanity: it involves forcing them to further your own end & at the same time preventing them from pursuing theirs: it means treating them as a mere means.

I’m talking about people’s subjective view of their situation. If one makes an offer to a person who deludedly thinks they have no choice but to accept even if objectively & materially they do have a choice, then one is coercing that person. If one makes an offer to someone who realistically has no other pathway to sustenance but believes that they do, then, assuming one has perfect knowledge, one is not coercing that person.

Of course we don’t have perfect knowledge as to whether the other person sees alternative ways of subsisting. So we have to make inferences. Some things that we can consider include how enjoyable the nature of the work is, how much it normally pays & how society looks upon it, in other words how desirable it is.[4]

One consequence of all this is that, the more one pays, the more coercive is the offer one makes; & likewise, the less the person one pays needs in order to subsist, the more coercive is the offer. That might seem counterintuitive. But on reflection it makes sense. Because it’s easy to turn down a miserly offer, but it’s much harder to turn down a generous offer.

So suppose one is thinking about paying a destitute person to clean one’s house. I’m saying that this act would be bad because one has a duty not to treat that person as a mere means. But I also think its badness (or goodness) depends on how bad (or good) being compelled to clean someone’s house is generally for a person who is compelled to do it. That’s because, when acting morally, one should act as if one is creating a universal maxim, the sort of maxim with which no reasonable person would disagree (because acts according to such a maxim will give no one a legitimate complaint against the one who acts). And the worse the thing you’re being compelled to do is for them, the more reasonable it is for them to disagree with a maxim that allows it.

There’s an important objection to the argument I’m making here. If it’s wrong to pay somebody to provide you a service, then acting according to this rule involves denying the seller some money that they probably desperately needed. How are all these destitute service workers going to survive the great moral awakening I advocate when no person will hire them anymore? If you are thinking something along these lines, you are thinking about consequences, but you are on to something very important.

Here’s what I have to say to that. I think that, in addition to the negative duty not to coerce somebody into pursuing our ends, we also have a positive duty to help them pursue their ends where possible. This means that if you are in a situation where you can pay a desperate person a sum of money to clean your house, you are probably also in a position to just donate that sum to them. This is the intuition behind many Effective Altruism initiatives, universal basic income proposals & the modern welfare system. These duties are not in conflict but, on the contrary, harmonise with one another. So the choice, as I see it, isn’t so much between paying somebody for a service or not doing it but between giving a person in need a sum of money conditionally or doing it unconditionally.

These is a famous blog post entitled The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics which describes a phenomenon in which people are accorded blame for having just observed or interacted with a problem, even if they didn’t make that problem worse. The post gives a number of real-life examples of this phenomenon. It then argues that this kind of blaming is irrational – that a person who observes & interacts with a problem should not be blamed for it but, on the contrary, if they make things even just the tiniest bit better by providing those who suffer from the problem with purely additional options, should be praised for it.

I don’t disagree with the general point made there, but I think the agents in a couple of the examples brought up are blameworthy. And I think that if I recount them here, you, wise reader, having read this far, will understand why I think so:

From a utilitarian perspective, it seems plausible that everyone in these situations were left better off. But intuitively, it looks like coercion or exploitation. I think the intuition has merit in these cases. The creative agency & PETA are clearly treating these people as mere means to further their own ends, & not as ends in themselves. They could (& should) have just donated the money unconditionally to the homeless people of Austin & to the poor families in Detroit.[5] But instead they took the opportunity of bending these people to their own will. That’s wrong.


  1. Kant, I., & Wood, A. W. (n.d.). Groundwork of The metaphysics of morals (1785). In M. J. Gregor (Ed.), Immanuel Kant: Practical philosophy (pp. 37–108). Cambridge University Press. ↩︎

  2. Korsgaard, C. (1996). Creating the kingdom of ends. Cambridge New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎

  3. Toro, P. A., Tompsett, C. J., Lombardo, S., Philippot, P., Nachtergael, H., Galand, B., Schlienz, N., Stammel, N., Yabar, Y., Blume, M., MacKay, L., & Harvey, K. (2007). Homelessness in Europe and the United States: A Comparison of Prevalence and Public Opinion. Journal of Social Issues, 63(3), 505–524. ↩︎

  4. We can also ask them, but I’m not sure we can always expect a truthful response. Because they will be incentivised to say whatever will make them more likely to get money, especially if they are destitute. And who can blame them! ↩︎

  5. There is a tangential issue here of whether the creative agency or PETA are more blameworthy than any person who could in theory make these donations. Usually we hold people responsible for their actions to the degree that they were able to act differently. That’s why we don’t blame lions for killing gazelles nor children for their failings & also why we treat mentally ill criminals differently from sane criminals. The fact that the creative agency & PETA did pay or offer to pay these people suggests that they were aware of them & their problems & could have donated this money to them. So that, I think, is some reason to blame them more than the median American, though it seems like a pretty weak reason. ↩︎