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The term exploitation may carry two distinct meanings:

  • The act of using something for any purpose. In this case, exploit is a synonym for use.
  • The act of using something in an unjust or cruel manner. It is this meaning of exploitation which is discussed below.


As unjust benefit

In political economy, economics, and sociology, exploitation involves a persistent social relationship in which certain persons are being mistreated or unfairly used for the benefit of others. This corresponds to one ethical conception of exploitation, that is, the treatment of human beings as mere means to an end—or as mere "objects". In different terms, "exploitation" refers to the use of people as a resource, with little or no consideration of their well-being. Exploitation can also be seen in social relationships where one person is "using" the other for his own personal benefit. An example of this is if two friends go out for lunch, but one friend always buys and the other never ever digs out his wallet to buy. Another example is person A offering another person B a place to stay for awhile because person B(hypothetically speaking) has financial problems. Person B moves in with person A and time goes by. Pretty soon person B has been staying with person A for three months but never offers to help person A with the rent, the grocery bills, the heat, or only helps very very sparingly. When someone is taking advantage of a person in any way this is exploitation. This can take the following basic forms:

  • Taking something off a person or a group that rightfully belongs to them
  • Short-changing people in trade
  • Directly or indirectly forcing somebody to work
  • Using somebody against his will, or without his consent or knowledge
  • Imposing an arbitrary differential treatment of people to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others (as in ascriptive discrimination)
  • Using somebody to buy/provide things for you and never paying them back.


Most often, the word exploitation is used to refer to economic exploitation; that is, the act of using another person's labor without offering them an adequate compensation. There are two major perspectives on economic exploitation:

  • Organizational or "micro-level" exploitation: in the broad tradition of liberal economic thinking, most theories of exploitation center on the market power of economic organizations within a market setting. Some neoclassical theory points to exploitation not based on market power.
  • Structural or "macro-level" exploitation: "new liberal" theories focus on exploitation by large sections of society even (or especially) in the context of free markets. Marxist theory points to the entire capitalist class as an exploitative entity, and to capitalism as a system based on exploitation.

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