Over Rosh Hashana, I read, in addition to other things, the book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. Aside from being amused by how much of the book reads like a religious Jew's argument against encroaching consumerism as a lifestyle and value system, I found it to be eminently readable and I liked the interesting points it raised. The main cons were that he didn't define what he meant by 'moral' or what philosophical or religious system he was using when he talked about actions being 'moral' or not, and also that he was extremely redundant. Some pros were that his examples were diverse and very interesting- ranging from nuclear reactors to prisons to baseball teams to educational institutions to viaticals (which I had never heard of before, and found fascinating).
An excerpt follows below:
Two Objections to Markets
These two kinds of arguments reverberate through debates about what money should and should not buy. The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve.
Consider kidneys. It's true that money can buy one without ruining its value. But should kidneys be bought and sold? Those who say no typically object on one of two grounds: They argue that such markets prey upon the poor, whose choice to sell their kidneys may not be truly voluntary (the fairness argument). Or they argue that such markets promote a degrading, objectifying view of the human person, as a collection of spare parts (the corruption argument).
Or consider children. It would be possible to create a market in babies up for adoption. But should we? Those who object offer two reasons: One is that putting children up for sale would price less affluent parents out of the market, or leave them with the cheapest, least desirable children (the fairness argument). The other is that putting a price tag on children would corrupt the norm of unconditional parental love; the inevitable price differences would reinforce the notion that the value of a child depends on his or her race, sex, intellectual promise, physical abilities or disabilities, and other traits (the corruption argument).
It's worth taking a moment to clarify these two arguments for the moral limits of markets. The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not really be voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.
The corruption objection is different. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. The argument from corruption cannot be met by establishing fair bargaining conditions. It applies under conditions of equality and inequality alike.
The long-standing debate about prostitution illustrates the difference. Some people oppose prostitution on the grounds that it is rarely, if ever, truly voluntary. They argue that those who sell their bodies for sex are typically coerced, whether by poverty, drug addiction, or the threat of violence. This is a version of the fairness objection. But others object to prostitution on the grounds that it is degrading to women, whether or not they are forced into it. According to this argument, prostitution is a form of corruption that demeans women and promotes bad attitudes towards sex. The degradation objection doesn't depend on tainted consent; it would condemn prostitution even in a society without poverty, even in cases of upscale prostitutes who liked the work and freely chose it.
Each objection draws on a different moral ideal. The fairness argument draws on the ideal of consent, or, more precisely, the ideal of consent carried out under fair background conditions. One of the main arguments for using markets to allocate goods is that markets respect freedom of choice. They allow people eto choose for themselves whether to sell this or that good at a given price.
But the fairness objection points out that some such choices are not truly voluntary. Market choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to bargain on fair terms. So in order to know whether a market choice is a free choice, we have to ask what inequalities in the background conditions of society undermine meaningful consent. At what point do inequalities of bargaining power coerce the disadvantaged and undermine the fairness of the deals they make?
The corruption argument points to a different set of moral ideals. It appeals not to consent but to the moral importance of the goods at stake, the ones said to be degraded by market valuation and exchange. So to decide whether college admission should be bought and sold, we have to debate the moral and civic goods that colleges should pursue, and ask whether selling admission would damage those goods. To decide whether to establish a market in babies up for adoption, we need to ask what norms should govern the parent-child relationship, and ask whether buying and selling children would undermine those norms.
The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair bargaining conditions. It offers no basis for objecting to the commodification of goods (whether sex or kidneys or college admission) in a society whose background conditions are fair.
The corruption argument, by contrast, focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. Even in a society without unjust differences of power and wealth, there would still be things that money should not buy. This is because markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.