Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Market Values: Are We Today's Fausts?

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.

(Pages 110-113)


Simpleton said...

Disregarding my surprise at your choice of reading material on Rosh hashana I have a question.
Why should we view a poor man selling his kidney as immoral in any way? He needs to feed his family and he is saving a life in the process.
Although we might consider this as not completely voluntary and unfair would he be better off if his family starves? He is simply sacrificing for his family in an extreme way.
Sometimes life does seem unfair, but this may be the poor man's only solution under these terrible circumstances.
Perhaps he needs medicine for his children.
My concern is that he does not receive less than a fair sum, but other than that he basically making a choice between his kidney and the lives of his children.
But prostitution is immoral only since it's sinful.
Creating a market for babies is unfair to the babies.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I find Chana's choice of reading material quite appropriate to the day. If RH is fundamentally about recognizing where we have missed the mark and determining what to do about it, then reading about how the market can lead us astray is thematically appropriate.

If RH is primarily the day we recognize Hashem's kinship and marking the start of the period when Hashem judges us, then the connection is less clear.

Anonymous said...

chana-you might find this discussion of interest (from february audioroundup found here: http://torahmusings.com/2012/02/audio-roundup-23/ which includes the link)
joel rich

•Judaism and Justice – A Conversation Between Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Professor Michael Sandel

Thought provoking discussion between R’Sacks and Dr. Sandel (whose justice series at Harvard was reviewed here). R’Sacks is his engaging self but I didn’t think Dr. Sandel pushed him hard enough. In any event you (I) wonder how many Rabbis (subset by affiliation, e.g. roshei yeshiva) agree with R’JS philosophy.

*Jews shouldn’t have an isolationist narrative (i.e. we have no friends); it’s also self-fulfilling
*Holocaust focus hasn’t been effective for Jewish identity, we need to focus on how Jews live, not die
*Culture is of value, but it does not command and thus not continuous impact/guide.
*Faith is bigger than halacha – Faith teaches how to live with uncertainty, how to protest the world as it is and how to act (halacha) to get the world where it ought to be
*Public discourse should include religion and morality
*dignity of difference – universalism proceeds particularity, we all have something to contribute to the world
*Judaism defines monotheism as the God of Israel is the God of the universe; but the religion of Judaism is for Jews and others can have their own relationship (7 mitzvahs) (much like parent has different children).
Here Dr. Sandel asked the question I’ve asked here before – but if the God of Israel is the God of the Universe, why shouldn’t the religion of Israel be the religion of the universe? (my version – why wouldn’t we tell others it’s better to convert?) R’Sacks answer – God doesn’t seek to impose universality (not sure Dr. Sandel bought this).
*why is militant atheism on the rise? Religion has been showing its worst face as a religious/political entity.
*Will engagement lead to OTD? Hopefully, not if each of us is strong in our faith (me – have self- esteem) (but it is more important in our own internal disputes? But, of course, that raises the issue of how much of MO believes it is truly l’chatchila).

Anonymous said...


I've come across many answers to the question about not converting others (Heschel, Sacks, Soloveichik). I found some of them satisfactory, though I don't know that you or Sandel would.

In a yiddish shiur I listened to recently (I can link it if you want me to) the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik says that seeking to convert people would have forced us to water down our religion to accommodate others. So happened with Christianity who adopted pagan holidays to appease potential converts.


Anonymous said...

R' Heshy,
My question wasn't about "seeking" to convert people, but what we answer them when they ask us whether they should convert or not.
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

Right R' Joel, either implicit or explicit in the shiur (I don't remember) was the proposition that encouraging people to convert (presumably even only if they asked) would lead to actively seeking conversions. Which would lead us to water down our religion.

Incidentally, the Rav Soloveichik also said in the same shiur that Hashem deliberately made sure jesus came around at a time when the Romans would have otherwise become Jewish for the same reason (less is more).