Two Arguments in Defense of Unpaid Internships

I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how unpaid internships are evil or a form of exploitation. Recently I heard some of those arguments brought up again, and I decided it was time to stand up for this much maligned position.

An Argument from Principles

Let me lay out a few scenarios for you:

  1. Five people start their own individual blogs, writing several posts a day and making them freely available online.
  2. Those five people decide they want to ditch their individual blogs and all blog together in a group blog.
  3. A small paper offers to have the five of them blog under their banner, but does not pay them to do it.
  4. Instead of 3, the five people ditch their blog and get unpaid internships at the small paper.

I would venture that most people who think there is something wrong with unpaid internships don’t think that there’s anything wrong with 1-3 above. What I would like is for those who believe there is something wrong with number 4 to explain to me what distinguishes it, morally, from 1-3. Because I can’t see it.

I suppose they could argue that there is some distinction between number 4 and the unpaid internships they don’t like. I welcome people to explain to me if that is the case.

So my first argument is simple: if there’s nothing wrong with 1-3, and there’s no moral difference between them and 4, then, in principle, there is nothing wrong with unpaid internships.

An Argument from Consequences

You can’t really talk about consequences without making a bunch of assumptions about what good consequences are. So I’m going to tread carefully here, but I think the assumptions I’m going to make are pretty reasonable and widely shared.

Of course you can’t even talk about consequences without some idea of how the world works. Rather than pretending to know more than I do, let me lay out a few more possible scenarios for you:

  1. If the small paper is forced by law to pay their interns, it won’t keep any of them; our five individuals will not be associated with the paper at all.
  2. If the small paper is forced by law to pay their interns, it will pay one of them a paltry amount and get rid of the other four.
  3. If the small paper is forced by law to pay their interns, it will pay three of them a paltry amount and not the other two.
  4. If the small paper is forced by law to pay their interns, it will pay all of them.

I think some of the people who are against unpaid internships think that the world works in such a way to make number 4 possible. I, on the other hand, tend to believe that the world looks more like 1 or 2 than 4.

This belief of mine is subject to debate, of course. For now, all I’ll say is that in the news business in particular, margins are so low that I have to think we’re much closer to 1 than we are to 2, for that particular industry at the very least.

People take unpaid internships because they gain something from them; whether it’s experience, exposure, or the fact that it’s more prestigious to have a professional publication on your resume than a personal blog. Taking the unpaid internship makes them better off, at least in the long run. Taking a paid internship obviously makes them even better off, but they won’t always have the luxury of that choice.

Readers are also better off when they have more pieces to read that they enjoy. If fewer unpaid interns at the paper means fewer enjoyable pieces for the readers, then getting rid of unpaid interns makes them worse off.

So my second argument, while slightly longer in buildup than the first, is still quite simple: if we live in a world that looks like number 1 or 2 above, and arguably even 3, then getting rid of unpaid internships makes the potential interns as well as potential beneficiaries (in this scenario, readers) worse off.

EDIT: Patrick Delaney came back with a scenario that definitely merits discussion:

https://twitter.com/pxdelaney/status/218856415765344256

And discuss it we did–you can see the whole conversation here.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.