Travelling North

Article – Markets and Morals

Markets and morals

In 1908, a young academic at the University of Cambridge published a short guide for the academic politician; a satire that – like most – contains more truth than it might appear (Francis Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica,Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes, 1905).  Francis Cornford had observed his learned colleagues at work, and noted that there were some key strategies they used, especially to stop any changes taking place. Two of his favourites were the Principle of the Wedge and the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent.   The Principle of the Wedge was that “you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act more justly in the future” – something to which no wise person would want to make a commitment!  Similarly, the Principle of Dangerous Precedent is that “you should not do now an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case” (both quotes from the facsimile edition, G Johnson, University Politics, Cambridge: University Press, 1994, page 105).  In other words, every thing you do that has not been done before is either wrong, or if it is right sets a dangerous precedent – so clearly it is better to do nothing for the first time!  What wonderful advice, to which we might add that both these principles are today summarised in terms of what is often called the Slippery Slope, which is that once you do something new, there is no way to stop that action leading to further actions, the process inevitably snowballing with consequences to horrible to consider!

The counter to wedges, dangerous precedents and slippery slopes is to establish some firm grounds on which actions can be clearly be called right or wrong.  If our concerns are with the creating a good society, such firm grounds might be found in a clear and accepted moral or ethical code.  However, the source of many of our troubles over how we should behave is to be found in these requirements for moral clarity and acceptance.  We debate what is the right thing to do, but find it hard to pin down why one particular action is acceptable, and another not.  A particularly revealing example of the challenges that emerge in seeking clarity over what to do comes from looking at the issues that arise when we take on the task of determining the limits to the operations of the free market.

There is a long history of critics pointing out that markets should have their limits, and that that there has to be a moral dimension to how we live.  In recent years, one of the most articulate is Michael Sandel, who observed that, “some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question—health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.” (What Isn’t for Sale, The Atlantic, April 20120.  Similarly, Jeffrey Sachs has argued recently that, “the market by itself is not equipped to achieve the triple bottom line of efficiency, fairness and sustainability” (The Price of Civilisation, New York: Random House, 2011, page 46)

Sandel has argued that there are two issues that determine our desire to keep things out of the market.  The first is coercion – that by putting some things into the market, we may be coercing people to participate.  Second, being in the market means that value is determined in only one way, in terms of economic value.  Since the market is an economic system, divorced from moral considerations, when we trade in the market the only denominator is price – there is no other.

When we enter the world of moral issues, then it is values that are at stake, and values are not, in themselves, objects with a price attached to them.  There is no price we can put on social well-being, aesthetic appreciation, or happiness.  Clearly, the logic runs, if everything is put into the market, then moral issues are completely ignored.  Since this seems self-evident, why then do so many people believe so fervently that the free market is the panacea for all our ills?  Well, perhaps not all our ills.  Even the most fervent advocates of the free market agree that there are some things that should be kept out of the market:  these range from government measures to ensure the market operates effectively, through to the defence of the nation, the right to vote and the education of the young.  Perhaps a better question to ask is, “how do we determine which are the ‘good’ things that should be kept out of the market?”  Sandel has argued that we need debate over these issues, rather than having that ‘slippery slope’ allow more and more to be placed and priced in the free market.

There is a second question here.  While the free market – ideally – ensures that economic transactions are made in the most efficient manner possible, we do accept some areas of inefficiency.  For example, the electoral process is costly and far from efficient, but the right to vote is too important to be thrown open to some kind of market mechanism.  Most people seem to agree that it is important to have some mechanisms to ensure that disadvantage is minimised, through government schemes based on income redistribution, welfare support and so on – even if we continue to debate the size and scope of such schemes.  Why then is it that case that many people who are at the lower end of the income scale, who often rely on government support schemes of one kind or another, still turn out in large numbers to support members of the Tea Party and other extreme advocates of ‘minimalist government’?

One way to explore these questions may be to consider a couple of specific examples – the first is about physical things (in this case body parts), and the other is about capabilities (in this case learning).  Both of these examples came up in a recent interview with Michael Sandel, (the Dian Rehm Show, NPR, 29 November 2012), and they provoked some interesting questions and comments.

The first example concerns kidney transplants.  In such operations, there are many charges and these include a fee to the doctor carrying out the transplant operation.  However, if a live person has agreed to provide a kidney for the operation, should they not also be paid?  As an advocate for limiting the scope of markets and the importance of moral considerations, his view was that we should be concerned about coercion and the erosion of values, the commoditisation of everything.

First, there is the matter of coercion:  how can we be sure that the person selling an organ is not being forced into this action.  If organs have a price, then those who are poor, needing money, and with limited alternatives to increase their resources will feel compelled to enter the body parts market, even though they might prefer not to do so.  Surely we should expect people to donate a kidney, as this is a morally good action, not sell a kidney and thereby reducing our action to a commercial transaction?

Richard Titmuss explored this issue some forty years ago in looking at blood donation (The Gift Relationship, London: Allen and Unwin, 1971).  He compared blood donation in the UK and USA, where donation is free in the UK, whereas blood donors (blood sellers?) were paid in the USA. He argued that donating blood in the UK was a form of the ‘gift relationship’, where the act of giving established a bond of reciprocity between the donor and society.  Most of the time, when we give a gift to another person, there is an immediate sense of reciprocity established between you and the receiver, establishing a sense of obligation on the receiver’s part to return the gift in some way (this sense of reciprocity was explored in Marcel Mauss’ seminal work The Gift, London: Cohen and West, 1954).  However, to donate blood is an impersonal activity, possibly one undertaken out of a sense of social obligation.  To donate blood is not to seek something in return, other than a sense of giving back to the community, and perhaps helping to create an environment in which a donor can expect to receive donated blood should the need arise.  It is an altruistic act, but one that places the donor in a network of altruistic relationships.

Titmuss also argued that people would be more willing to donate blood than to sell it, that selling would act as a disincentive.   Indeed, suggested that not only less people would provide blood, if payment was involved, but also they would be more likely to lie about any illnesses they had experienced, illnesses that could have contaminated the blood they wished to sell.

Titmuss’s book started an extensive academic debate about the roles of altruism, the market, and reciprocity.  Critics made two key observations.  Among these, Kenneth Arrow pointed out there is no evidence that payment reduces the propensity to donate blood, and quite a lot of evidence to suggest it is a real incentive (Book review: Gifts and Exchanges, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972).  Secondly, there is evidence that paid blood donation tends to shift the groups from which donation is more likely – towards those who are poorer, and for whom the income is more important.  It is still not clear if they are any more likely to seek to mislead a blood bank about any risks their blood might carry – especially since we now have very sophisticated testing procedures.  Today, selling blood appears to be an acceptable activity.

Beyond the need for blood, compared to forty years ago there is now a considerably more complex market in human products:  a striking example can be found in relation to markets for human ova and sperm.  Both of these can be bought, and people shopping for either ova or sperm can stipulate requirements in terms of the donors’ physical attributes, intelligence, personality and so on.  The price that is paid is a function of these attributes, and in this increasingly sophisticated market many who sell are neither poor nor desperate.  It would be very hard to argue that many participants in this market are being coerced.

Indeed, in relation to our bodies, the issues about coercion prove to be very complex.  To take a different example, I need to have money to live in contemporary society.  As an able bodied person, I choose to sell my services to a company:  they buy my physical and mental capabilities, and determine what they will pay.  They require my performance over specified periods of time, and they even require that I remain on their premises during the period of my contract with them.  I am being assessed in economic terms, and, according to how well I perform I can keep my job, or even be paid more to do new tasks or undertake new responsibilities.  I accept that is the way the market works, and do not consider it immoral.  Unfair – well I probably believe I should be paid more, or given more privileges, or holidays – but not immoral.

I can sell my services, the use of my body, and some of my body parts (at least ova or sperm) and I accept that the market prices these according to the attributes that these might have).  So, why not a kidney?  When I think of what limits there might be on what I can do, I keep going back to the JS Mill’s statement that liberty means that, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (J S Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1, 1859, available through Project Gutenberg).  Am I being coerced to work?  Probably, as I might prefer to just laze around.  However, the issue here is not that I am being coerced by someone making me do something, so much as the fact that I live in a society where we need money to live, and in order to get money, legally, I will sell my labour, my ideas, and, yes, even parts of my body.  We are all coerced in that sense, and I have no idea why I should consider the coercion that I feel is any better or worse than that which another feels:  more to the point, I am unable to say that any particular level of coercion is unacceptable as compared to another.  Is there some point at which coercion is unacceptable, one that is a stopping point to prevent things going down that slippery slope?  Or have we already allowed a dangerous precedent, and now we are to stop things continuing?  If the latter, where was the point when the precedent was created.  When we allowed people to sell sperm?  Or blood?  Or labour?

This leads to the second issue I noted above, which was about values, and the risk of commoditisation:  things in the market are assessed only in monetary terms, and all other values are left out of the equation.  This, too, is a tricky area.  The usual objection made here is prostitution.  Unfortunately, discussions about selling your body for sex tend to conflate two quite different points.  In the situation where a prostitute is forced to sell his or her services because he or she is, in effect, a slave to another person (a pimp), we would agree that this is wrong:  it is morally wrong, and it is illegal.  However, to choose to sell your body for money as a matter of free choice is a different matter.  Once again, the market prices participation against criteria of attractiveness and risk (such issues as beauty, and the use of condoms).  As a free agent, you can choose to accept the price and conditions or not.  If I can sell my body and knowledge to a company, why not to an individual?  Just to add to the complications in this, there is a converse problem.  Many people do a great deal of work for which they are not paid, and, as a result, not given the recognition that they are due.  This is the argument to put housework into the marketplace, so that unpaid people working on home duties are rewarded as much as their partners whose jobs take them outside the home.  Is there a problem for charging when you use your body for work?

This is a good point at which to introduce the second example that came up in the radio program.  A listener asked why it is wrong to pay children to read?  After all, if this gets a child to start reading books, and if they find the experience enjoyable, they will continue to read books.  If they do not find reading intrinsically enjoyable but like the reward, they will continue to read – and, without necessarily recognising it, continue to learn.

There is the key word: ‘intrinsically’.  What does it mean to say that we should read because it is intrinsically a good thing?  Should we learn, develop our minds, because to do so is a good thing?  It certainly is not the way the system works.  Students study because they want rewards – rewards in the marketplace.  They want to get scholarships to reduce the burden of study.  They want to get a good job.  They may find the process of learning enjoyable in its own right, but the incentives are clearly important.  Just as Kenneth Arrow pointed out in critiquing Titmuss’s work, incentives do not lessen our propensity to do things, and they may well enhance them.

Fundamentally, the criticism of the market is that paying for something degrades it.  However, we constantly seek to be reassured of the value of what we are doing, and market value may be one-dimensional, but it is pervasive.  We may not like that everything has a price, but we lack any other all-embracing measure (or set of measures).

So now we return to the question as to what are the criteria that tell us those ‘good things’ that we should keep out of the market.  This is the critical point that might help us avoid those slippery slopes, wedges and dangerous precedents we fear.

One answer is that we should keep out of the market those things that are our fundamental rights as human being – the right to life, liberty, to vote, to be protected from coercion by others, to be defended against invasion.  These are the rights that sit inside the International Declaration of Human Rights, (although we might note, in passing, that many are now arguing that one of the criticisms of these rights is that they are not accompanied by an associated set of responsibilities).  Rights should not be traded, but at the same time that which sits inside the box of ‘human rights’ should be open to discussion and constantly be re-examined, for fear we allow something fundamental to slip into the market.

However, some would add that another thing that should be keep out of the market is our right to choose:  this actually touches on the second question, too, where I asked why people on welfare still want the smallest government role possible.  They seem to be saying one thing that is of great importance to them is being allowed to make their own choices about what they do – and that choices should not be made on their behalf by anyone else, especially not the government.  Is this a moral value?  Perhaps it is.  It is clearly a statement saying that what is good for me is something I should be allowed to determine.  It is a view that Mill supported, but he added the rider that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill, Ibid).

Like many people, I support Sandel’s concern that we need to limit the extent of markets, and that there are some things that should not be ‘for sale’.  Sandel suggests that we may also want to keep out of the market things that will lead to coercion, or things that should not be valued in economic terms.  The argument that this includes keeping our human rights out of the market seems accepted by even the most enthusiastic supporters of the free market.  However, are there more things than these?   Perhaps I am still left with a question – for things other than our human rights, what are the measures that we can use to determine what stays out and what goes in?    To say that we may value some things in other than monetary terms, to say that there is a moral dimension to our lives, these statements seem immediately acceptable.  To know how to decide when values and morality require they are exempted from the market processes cannot just be left to debate:  we need some criteria we can apply.

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