About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, June 25, 2012
Michael Sandel on markets and morals
I have just finished the latest book by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Readers of this blog will not at all be surprised at finding out that I liked it, just as I enjoyed Sandel’s previous foray in ethics for the general public, Justice: What Is The Right Thing To Do? In both cases Sandel avoids top down expositions of moral philosophical principles, and instead begins by directly tackling issues relevant to everyday ethical problems, usually straight from news reports.
Of course Sandel does begin his analyses from a particular moral standpoint, a communitarian position inspired by virtue ethics — as opposed to, say, a utilitarian or deontological stance. Which of course suits me well because I lean towards the same type of approach to ethical reasoning. This, however, is not just a matter of reading what you like. I do think that virtue ethics is particularly appropriate to analyzing contemporary moral dilemmas precisely because it is not constrained by a rigid single criterion, like the principle of utility, or Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather, it helps to bring out in the open our values and priorities, which Sandel then ably subjects to a type of reflective equilibrium analysis.
Sandel’s starting point in What Money Can’t Buy ought to be relatively uncontroversial (though I’m sure some of my more enthusiastic free-market supporters will find a way to disagree): on the one hand, there is clearly no problem with having markets for a lot of goods, because markets — under significantly more restrictive conditions than it is popular to acknowledge these days — are indeed efficient at pricing things and at distributing goods. On the other hand, there are things we most definitely do not want to have a market for, because we value them independently of whatever price tag anyone could possibly put on them.
The first category is populated by all sorts of everyday objects subject to economic transactions. I want a car; you have one to sell; if we agree on the price, and there is no cheating (you ain’t trying to sell me a lemon*), there is no ethical problem at all. The second category comprises, for instance, children, or voting rights. These are things that we do not sell — even if there would arguably be a vigorous and profitable market for them — because... well, why, exactly?
Sandel’s answer is that some times (definitely not all, or even necessarily most of the times) markets tend to crowd out morals, and that in those cases we need to ask the (very Aristotelian) question of what those things which we are considering selling are for. If our analysis leads us to the conclusion that putting a price tag on said things undermines or corrupts their function in society, then we have found those things which should be excluded from markets.
Sandel gets to the heart of the matter in chapter 3 of the book, appropriately entitled “How markets crowd out morals.” His starting point is provided by examples where most people would immediately agree markets simply do not belong. We cannot buy, say, friends, or Nobel prizes. Or, rather, we can buy the appearance of friendship, and we could certainly buy a Nobel medal on eBay, if it were up for sale. But it would be ridiculous, or self-deluded, for someone to have paid for these items going around saying that he has friends or has won the Nobel. Again, why?
Because buying a friend or a Nobel medal irremediably corrupts (morally) the meaning of friendship or of the Nobel prize. Friends are supposed to be people who genuinely care about you, who appreciate you and support you for who you are. That sort of affection simply cannot be bought, and in fact to attempt to buy it is directly at odds with the whole idea of friendship. The same goes for the Nobel: its purpose is to recognize some of the highest accomplishments of human ingenuity and creativity, accomplishments that are the result of people’s intellectual efforts, not commensurable with one’s bank account. Displaying a bought Nobel medal not only wouldn’t get you the recognition and respect of a real Nobel winner, but would likely (hopefully) open you to scorn by anybody who actually saw it in your display case of (fake) trophies.
Of course, much of the reasonable debate here (i.e., excluding the opposite extremes of people who simply would want capitalism to be done with and those who think markets ought to apply everywhere) concerns items that fall somewhere between those for which there clearly is no problem in commercializing and those for which there clearly is a problem.
For instance, is it (ethically) acceptable to buy one’s place in a queue? The practice is becoming increasingly common these days, and Sandel dissects two situations in particular. The first one concerns the habit of lobbyists of paying homeless people to stand in line on their behalf to get a seat at a Congressional hearing. It seems like a win-win situation from the point of view of a strict market-based logic: the lobbyists save themselves precious (?) time, and the homeless get a few bucks in return. What could be wrong with this picture? Sandel points out that cases like these are open to two types of criticisms: one in terms of (presumably) unintended consequences, the other in terms of corruption of the activity itself. One of the consequences of paying for queue-standing is that often groups that do not have comparable funds (say, an environmental organization wishing to attend a Congressional hearing on water standards) are going to be excluded from the democratic process of deliberation and feedback. The economist might respond that the amount of money one pays is a measure of how much one wants something, and that markets simply — and neutrally — allocate resources accordingly. This is, of course, nonsense on stilts, because it does not take into account the obvious fact that economic resources are not distributed on a level field, so that a rich person may want something far less badly than a poor one, but the former can afford it and the latter can not. In terms of corruption of the activity itself, in this case standing in a queue, the idea is that queues have always been predicated on a simple criterion: you get there early, you get in early, regardless of any other consideration. So queues really do measure how much one wants something: the teenager who absolutely wants tickets to a rock concert will camp overnight in the cold in order to get them, while the Wall Streeter will stay at home and miss out. Unless, that is, the latter can simply buy his way into the concert by easily outbidding anyone else who really wants to be there.
The second example of queue jumping that Sandel considers is that of people buying their place in the queue for the very popular “Shakespeare in the Park” events in New York City. These are public events whose whole purpose is to allow people from all walks of life to enjoy high level theater performances in an open public space. There is no way to get tickets for these performances except by staying in line when they become available. But the event has become so popular that some people of wealth have begun paying others to stand in line on their behalf. The resulting issues are the same as we have seen above: on the one hand there is no longer any relation between how much people want to go see the performances and who actually gets in (contra standard free market analysis), and on the other hand the very idea of Shakespeare in the Park — a high caliber art performance aimed at a broad public — is corrupted by the queue buying process.
Throughout the book Sandel applies the same type of exploratory ethical reasoning to a number of other things that should or should not be for sale, including paying women to be sterilized or to stop taking drugs, bribing kids to read books and get good grades, giving money to people so that they eat more healthy foods, paying one’s way to breaking the speed limits on highways, allowing companies to buy polluting rights, offering big game hunters the ability to shoot endangered species for a price, buying pre-made apologies and wedding speeches, purchasing life insurance on strangers’ lives (and trading it on the securities market), and so on. The list is very long, though interestingly most of these novel markets arose in the past few decades, beginning with the Reagan-Thatcher turn of the 1980s or thereabout. It is a very interesting and educational exercise to go through each example and see what you think of its moral implications: sometimes you may agree that there is a problem, at other times not. The point is that each time you will be forced to make explicit to yourself why exactly there may or may not be a problem with a given market.
Sandel’s concluding remarks at the end of the book sum up the problem concisely: “And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy” You can guess what my answer is to that question.
* Of course, the possibility that you succeed in selling me a lemon means that there have to be regulations in place so that I can have legal recourse against your fraud, etc. Which means that even that uncontroversial market isn’t completely “free.”