Markets and Morals

June 27, 2012

While in the supermarket, watching my purchases slowly trundle down the conveyor belt to a bored-looking cashier, I happened to notice a young lady behind us in the queue wearing a black chador. This is not unusual; our part of North London is home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds; Turks, Persians, Albanians, Somalis and Poles, to provide a small selection. What could have been interpreted as unusual, certainly to those who believe that Islamic dress marks a woman as somehow ‘other’, was that she was leafing through a copy of Reveal. This is a magazine dedicated to the kind of mindless celebrity gossip typified by headlines like, “ADDICTED TO BAD BOYS!”, “HOW I LOST TWO STONE!” or, indeed, “SEX LIFE LOSING ITS SPARK!” There is a disjunction between the content of this magazine and the typical media portrayal of women from Islamic cultures as demure, subservient, and – in marked contrast to British women – uninterested in anything as tawdry as gossip.

I’ve recounted this incident because I want to discuss Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, which was released a few months ago but which has been brought to my attention by Professor Pigliucci’s review of it. Sandel proposes we consider which goods we want to have a market for, and which goods we value independently of any potential price tag. He undertakes this analysis by considering the purposiveness of goods; whether if allowing a good to be bought and sold in a market undermines the purpose or role we see it as having. A clear example is friendship; we could certainly pay people to act as though they were our friends, but doing so is intuitively repugnant: our notion of friendship is based upon bonds of trust and reciprocity, not something that can be easily commodified.

There is a clear step before we undertake Sandel’s analysis, and that is to consider how we attribute value in the first instance; how we establish purpose. This is where Sandel’s advocacy of virtue ethics comes in: we attribute purpose in line with those actions which will best help us cultivate the virtues we wish to cultivate; purpose is derived from our desired character. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a position I am rather fond of.

However, there is a step before this, and this is the meta-ethical question of how we identify the virtues we want to cultivate; how we determine the character we wish to possess. The reason for my recounting of the tiny tale of the Muslim and the Magazine is to capture the role that markets play in this process, and thus why our consideration of their ethical role must sit, at least initially, outwith the purposive framework Sandel advocates.

Markets require us to meet new people. We can try to shut ourselves off from modern society as much as we like, but eventually someone is going to notice that we have money we’re not spending, and try to contrive of a way of separating us from it. As part of this process, we will be exposed to the ideas, values and beliefs from out-groups, in much the same way as the lady in the supermarket was. This can take the form of an open debate with a contractor over hiring practices as some North London councils are doing with regard to the Living Wage, the potential realisation of a new want through exposure to its object, or the recasting of old ways of servicing values in the light of new information, as above.

This is important, because it stands in contrast to the kind of communitarism that Sandel advocates. Our values and beliefs are not wholly derived from our community or society, but from all the communities and societies with which we do business. In this context, markets provide a check upon our moral beliefs: do they stand up to scrutiny outwith the embedded norms of our community? For example, is discrimination against women a disadvantage when competing in the marketplace? (Answer: Yes.)

Debate within communities can provide a check, but given that your fellow community members will take positions derived from existing beliefs of that community it will necessarily be inadequate when compared to debate with an out-group. Trade and markets provide a way of facilitating that debate, a mechanism which has instrumental value in the context of the meta-ethical consideration of how we determine which virtues we want to develop.

Therefore, I propose the question that comes before Sandel’s consideration of the purpose of goods should be: which of our ethical claims can we be so confident of that we can risk excluding markets from them entirely? The answer to this, I suspect, will paint a very different picture to the one Sandel outlines.


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