Rationally Speaking: Massimo Pigliucci's "Michael Sandel on Markets and Morals"

This article is a reaction to Michael Sandel's ideas on the moral limits of markets. What things do you think money should not buy? What principle should legislators use to write laws about these matters?

I 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 surprised to find 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 topdown expositions of moral philosophical principles, and begins to tackle issues relevant to everyday ethical problems directly, usually straight from news reports.

Sandel begins his analyses from a particular moral standpoint, a communitarian position inspired by virtue ethics, as opposed to, a utilitarian or deontological stance. This suits me well because I lean toward the same type of approach to ethical reasoning. However, this is not simply a matter of reading what you like. I do think virtue ethics is appropriate for analyzing contemporary moral dilemmas precisely because it is not constrained by a rigid single criterion, such as the principle of utility, or Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather, it helps illustrate our values and priorities, which Sandel then subjects to a type of reflective equilibrium analysis.

Sandel’s starting point in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets ought to be relatively uncontroversial (although more enthusiastic free-market supporters may disagree): on the one hand, there is no problem having markets for a lot of goods, because markets – under significantly more restrictive conditions than it is popular to acknowledge these days – efficiently price and distribute 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. For example, I want to buy a car; you have one to sell; if we agree on a price and no one cheats (you are not trying to sell me a lemon*), there are no ethical problems. The second category includes, for example, children, or voting rights. These are things we do not sell – even if a vigorous and profitable market for them is available – because ... well, why, exactly?

Sandel’s response is that sometimes (definitely not all, or even necessarily most of the times) markets tend to crowd out morals. In these cases we need to ask the (Aristotelian) question, what these things we are considering selling for? If our analysis leads us to conclude that putting a pricetag on these things undermines or corrupts their function in society, we discover we should exclude these things from the marketplace.

Sandel gets to the heart of the matter in chapter 3, “How Markets Crowd Out Morals.” His starting point includes 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 might be able to buy a Nobel medal on eBay. However, the person who bought these items would be self-delusional to say they have these friends or won the Nobel prize after their purchase. Again, why?

Because buying a friend or a Nobel medal irremediably corrupts (morally) the meaning of friendship and 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 purchased Nobel medal would not get you the recognition or respect of a real Nobel winner, but it would likely (hopefully) open you to scorn from 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 example, is it (ethically) acceptable to buy your place in a queue? The practice is increasingly common, and Sandel dissects two situations in particular. The first one concerns the habit of lobbyists of paying homeless people to stand in line to get a seat at a Congressional hearing.

It seems like a win-win situation from the point of view of a market-based logic: the lobbyist saves 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 unintended consequences, the other in terms of corruption of the activity itself. One of the consequences of paying for queue-standing is that groups that lack comparable funds (a nonprofit environmental organization that wishes to attend a Congressional hearing on water standards) is excluded from the democratic process of deliberation and feedback.

The economist may respond that the amount of money you pay measures how much you want something, and that markets simply – and neutrally – allocate resources accordingly. This is nonsense because it does not take into account the fact that economic resources are not distributed on a level field – 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 are 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 wants tickets to a rock concert will camp overnight in the cold 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 people who buy their place in the queue for the popular “Shakespeare in the Park” events in New York City. These are public events whose 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 waiting in line when they become available. But the event has become so popular that some wealthy people have begun paying others to stand in line on their behalf. The issues are the same as we see above: on the one hand a correlation no longer exists between how much people want to see the performance and who gets in (contra standard free market analysis), and a high-caliber art performance designed to serve a broad public audience is corrupted by the queue buying process.

Throughout his book Sandel applies the same type of exploratory ethical reasoning to a number of other things that should or should not be for sale. They include: paying women to be sterilized or stop taking drugs, bribing kids to read books and get good grades, giving money to people so they eat more healthy foods, paying your way to breaking 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 long, but most of these novel markets arose during the past few decades, beginning with the Reagan-Thatcher turn of the 1980s. It is an interesting and educational exercise to go through each example and see what you think of its moral implications: sometimes you may agree there is a problem, at other times not. The point is that each time you are forced to explain why there may or may not be a problem with a given market.

Sandel’s concluding remarks 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 regulations must be in place so I have legal recourse against your fraud, etc. Which means even that uncontroversial market is not completely “free.”

Last modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2019, 1:55 PM