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What Money Can’T Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets


GeorgeW
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I am in the middle of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel (a political philosopher at Harvard). He addresses an issue that has bothered me for the last couple of decades: ‘market triumphalism.’ This is a growing (prevailing?) view in the U.S. and is evidenced in the privatization movement in government, ever increasing commercialization of everything – naming public facilities like stadiums, etc., etc., etc. Recently, Mitt Romney said he would like a constitutional amendment requiring presidential candidates to have business experience!

 

The underlying argument is that markets are best at regulating human activity. In recent years, this has been extended from purely economic transactions to many other areas of human interaction.

 

Sandel challenges this notion with a structured argument. Basically, he argues that there are non-market norms that can be “crowded out,” by this mentality. He uses two basic arguments that should be applied to the issue: fairness and corruption.

 

He gives a number of real-life examples, but one that might illustrate both non-economic norms is prostitution. Why should we object to someone making a living selling their body? The willing seller benefits and the buyer gets the service he wants - everyone is better off, right? However, Sandel raises the question of fairness: Do women willingly do this or are they coerced by financial necessities? Is this fair? Further, this corrupts the dignity we should give to a person and degrades women generally. So, it can be opposed on two different moral grounds (without, BTW, invoking religion).

 

There are a number of examples in his book from the rather trivial (to illustrate a point) to more important questions of civic duty. He discusses poor people being paid to stand in lines for congressional hearsing by wealthy lobbyists. This both demeans democracy and makes it more difficult for ordinary citizens to participate in government policy making.

 

What, I think, bothers me the most is I would have thought the massive failure of markets in 2008 would have caused people to reconsider the markets as the most effective and efficient means of regulating behavior. But, it hasn't. If this event didn't alter the paradigm, what will?

 

George

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Personally, I see nothing wrong with someone selling their body if they want to. Force is not right, but if someone (male or female, doesn't matter) enters into a business arrangement of their own free will, then what does it matter?

 

Either your body belongs to you, or it doesn't. If it does, then it's yours to sell if you want. If it doesn't, then you can't really "consent" to anything, including getting piercings/tattoos, having sex, or even being examined by a doctor.

 

Does prostitution degrade women? Some prostitution does, probably, but I wouldn't say all. There are some savvy business women out there who are working for themselves (no pimps/madams), safely, and raking it in. Isn't that their choice? And yes, there are also women who are simply not in a position to find other types of work - women have worked the streets to feed their kids and put a roof over their family's head since the beginning of time. It's unfortunate, but in a society that still often treats women like second-class citizens, it isn't surprising and again, I don't see how we can fault the women here. I suppose it's rather complicated.

 

As for people's love (and trust?) of markets - as long as there are greedy people, the markets will come first. The desire to make money, even on a long-shot, even after the bank crisis, will still have control over many people. It's sad, but it's the way it is. Many people are suffering world over because of the unbridled greediness of a few.

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As for people's love (and trust?) of markets - as long as there are greedy people, the markets will come first. The desire to make money, even on a long-shot, even after the bank crisis, will still have control over many people. It's sad, but it's the way it is. Many people are suffering world over because of the unbridled greediness of a few.

 

Raven,

 

I would not categorically rule out greed, but I think it is more nuanced than that. I think there is a worldview that free markets are inherently more effective than government and non-profits. As a result, market mechanisms should be applied where ever possible. I think this is the thesis of the book What's the Matter with Kansas (which I haven't read). The author, as I understand it, tries to understand why people vote against their economic interests.

 

George

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In Nevada prostitution is legal. The brothels are run very strict compared to what happens on the street. They are run like a business with safe guards for health and safty. I don't know about the physchology of the matter.

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In Nevada prostitution is legal. The brothels are run very strict compared to what happens on the street. They are run like a business with safe guards for health and safty. I don't know about the physchology of the matter.

 

Soma, I think we could say at a minimum that it is morally problematic. It is not the same as cutting hair, doing nails, cooking burgers or whatever.

 

George

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Soma, I think we could say at a minimum that it is morally problematic. It is not the same as cutting hair, doing nails, cooking burgers or whatever.

George

 

Why does morality keep shifting? Why even look at it through the eyes of morality? For some eating burgers is morally reprehensible, ergo cooking them has to be up there aswell at least for those that think eating meat is immoral.

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Why does morality keep shifting? Why even look at it through the eyes of morality? For some eating burgers is morally reprehensible, ergo cooking them has to be up there aswell at least for those that think eating meat is immoral.

 

There is probably no human endeavor in which we cannot find someone who finds it morally objectionable. However, I think most people now, and historically, find prostitution to be morally problematic at a minimum. How many parents aspire for their daughter to grow up to be a successful hooker?

 

George

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There is probably no human endeavor in which we cannot find someone who finds it morally objectionable.

This is sort of my point - why through the lens of morality?

 

However, I think most people now, and historically, find prostitution to be morally problematic at a minimum. How many parents aspire for their daughter to grow up to be a successful hooker?

 

George

 

If I were to be in this line of thought, I would aspire my daughter to be a successful prostitute rather than an unsuccessful hooker.

 

That I would not aspire my child to be a garbage collector (dustman) is also neither here no there. We are conditioned from early childhood to what is proper and what is not.

Edited by romansh
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Are arguing that all morality, or just this issue, is relative?

George

No I'm not arguing that morality is relative. I'm suggesting there may be better tools for dealing with thorny issues than morality.

 

End of the day morality is just a gut feel to what is right and wrong. At least from my perspective.

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I think I used a bad example from Sandel's book. I have done him and the book a disservice. The issue of prostitution is a minor issue in the book.

 

The thesis of the book is the intrusion of market mentality into many human interactions which were not previously considered economic, many of which have moral implications or violations of social norms. This is illustrated with many, many examples like naming rights to public sports arenas, home runs in major league baseball, Walmart's 'janitor insurance,' the sale of 'viaticals' in which people can bet on the early death of seriously ill people like AIDS patients, the monetization of gift giving, the conversion of fines into fees, and many more.

 

It seems that almost everything in our life is now commercialized or monetized.

 

George

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End of the day morality is just a gut feel to what is right and wrong. At least from my perspective.

 

You should read Haidt. There are good reasons for the gut feelings and they are part of our evolutionary development as humans.

 

George

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Mary Magdelin was the first one to see Jesus after he had risen from the tomb. She had the ability to see Christ for who he really was. We do not know the truth of the legends, but Mary Magdalene wiped Jesus’ feet with her own hair and anointed his feet with costly perfume as an example of their love.

 

Morality is a decision made in the moment, a gut feeling that will change depending on the mind set and situation. It is exciting when one discerns and does not judge.

 

It is amazing how we can learn from everyone, low or high because when we are silent God speaks in meditation and conversation.

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Morality is a decision made in the moment, a gut feeling that will change depending on the mind set and situation. It is exciting when one discerns and does not judge.

 

Soma, with all due respect (and I mean it), I disagree. Morality isn't just a conscious decision. We born with moral instincts. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. I agree that we should be cautious about judging, but we could not exist as societies without rules of behavior and rules entail judging.

 

I think stealing is morally wrong. I think lying is morally wrong. I think harming another person for personal gain is wrong. This is judging.

 

Yes, there are gray areas. Yes, there are situations in which two moral values conflict and we have to choose between the lessor of the evil or the most appropriate. This requires judgement and judging.

 

George

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I think morality is more a conditioned response in most people. While it is indeed necessary in society for rules of behavior and enforcement of those rules of morality and the like, i think discernment as Soma has mentioned is superior to judging for the spiritual seeker. Discernment to me is more detached from rules and regulations. But of course i am here speaking of a spiritual matter rather than just from an intellectual viewpoint of society. In my view, there is a letter of a law and also a spirtual side. The one seems to me to be dominant and in my experience is not conducive to spiritual growth.

 

For the most part, it seems to me morality is taught and more follows the whims of society and those in power than anything concrete.

 

Joseph

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I think our first responsibility is our own behavior. But, as members of society, I think we have social responsibilities as well. We should not just refrain from hurtful behavior ourselves but should not tolerate this from other members of society. This, IMO, is independent of spirituality. I fail to see how condemning child abuse, as an example, impairs one's spirituality.

 

Joseph: There clearly is a cultural aspect of morality, but there is clearly a genetic component as well. But, even were morality, completely culturally relative, a society needs standards and norms in order to function.

 

George

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I'm not so certain that a genetic component to morality is so clear. We might think it is clear right now, but clearly 'our' morality is differrent to other cultures in the past. Some cultures thought nothing of human sacrifice, rape, child abuse, torture, etc. If it is genetic, why does their morality seem so different?

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I'm not so certain that a genetic component to morality is so clear. We might think it is clear right now, but clearly 'our' morality is differrent to other cultures in the past. Some cultures thought nothing of human sacrifice, rape, child abuse, torture, etc. If it is genetic, why does their morality seem so different?

 

There is a huge genetic component I suspect, I can suggest Robert Wright's The Moral Animal (and The Evolution of God). Having said that there is societal aspect that can overwrite to some degree our primitive programming. This is why I don't think morality whether for fiscal, sexual, etc responsibility should be our touchstone for behaviour. At the end of the day, morality is both genetic (evolutionary) and societal imprinting. This is where our disgust etc comes from. So our intuitive morality has been a useful guide in the develoment of the human race, I would argue there are better tools today.

 

In the Bible there are numerous appeals to casting aside this emotive type of judgement. Admittedly this is difficult.

You should read Haidt. There are good reasons for the gut feelings and they are part of our evolutionary development as humans

 

I agree, but the pace of the evolution of human progress and society have far out paced the tools that billions of years of evolution have endowed us with.

Edited by romansh
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I'm not so certain that a genetic component to morality is so clear. We might think it is clear right now, but clearly 'our' morality is differrent to other cultures in the past.

 

Why would it be certain?

 

First, because certain human values are universal, the incest taboo as an example. No society considers the killing of other members of the group to be a morally neutral act. No society considers lying and deceit (with other members of the group) to be a morally neutral act, etc., etc.

 

Secondly, because some really smart people who research such thing think so and make a good case. Examples: Jonathon Haidt, E.O. Wilson, Marc Hauser, et al.

 

George

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"Morality isn't just a conscious decision. We born with moral instincts. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. I agree that we should be cautious about judging, but we could not exist as societies without rules of behavior and rules entail judging."

 

I feel following our moral instincts is discernment. Societies do have rules, but they are not always moral. I feel in the US we have leagalized corruption.

 

Prostitution is illegal. I could walk down the street and if I am hussled turn that Lady/Man in, but in another situation I could listen and respond in a loving way that might change the situation. Everyone will have a different response to the same situation because the intuitive sense is different. I feel we need to listen to that inner sense so the response is appropriate for the situation encountered in the present moment.

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rostitution is illegal. I could walk down the street and if I am hussled turn that Lady/Man in, but in another situation I could listen and respond in a loving way that might change the situation. Everyone will have a different response to the same situation because the intuitive sense is different. I feel we need to listen to that inner sense so the response is appropriate for the situation encountered in the present moment.

 

Sandel did not condemn or suggest condemnation of prostitutes or 'turning them in.' If anything, he is critical the economic conditions that coerce a person to engage in that activity.

 

George

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Joseph: There clearly is a cultural aspect of morality, but there is clearly a genetic component as well. But, even were morality, completely culturally relative, a society needs standards and norms in order to function.

 

George

 

Yes . In my view most definitely society has needs for standards and norms. Perhaps cultural and genetic are interelated?

 

I would only differ in that i see no need to personally condemn anything. By our own acts of such we condemn ourselves. Society follows through with enforcement of its laws and assigns a punishment and i am in agreement society should but i see no need to personally condemn anyone nor their acts. I just as well could have been them. I leave judgement to those who are assigned such roles. i am not here for such except to the extent i have been given any perceived power to do what has been placed in my hands as my part in this world experience.

 

Joseph

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I agree we have a sense of morality. And it is an interesting debate whether whether it is nature or nurture. For me it is clear it is both. Some of our more societally structured rights and wrongs might be considered as ethical. All this is quite interesting.

 

We have cited evolutionary evidence that we have sense of morality and clearly some of our shifting morality is based on societal values. For example wearing a bikini on the beach - in different times and cultures. Here is another example

- plainly a societal morality.

 

I would suggest a more of an amoral approach to dealing with these types of issues. Prostitution, bikini wearing, child molestation etc.

 

I would advocate a more pragmatic approach rather than emotional moral response. At end of the day, my sense of morality is purely intuitive. I would hate rely on societal or evolutionary imprinting for my decisions.

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I would advocate a more pragmatic approach rather than emotional moral response. At end of the day, my sense of morality is purely intuitive. I would hate rely on societal or evolutionary imprinting for my decisions.

 

You should volunteer for scientific testing. I am sure that scientists would love to discover someone with moral values not influenced by genetic wiring or social conditioning. :)

 

I really recommend that you read Haidt's The Righteous Mind.

 

George

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