How Markets Crowd Out Morals

Ndf_37.3_quarterA Boston Review forum on the arguments made by Michael Sandel in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, with responses from Richard Sennett; Matt Welch; Anita L. Allen; Debra Satz; Herbert Gintis; Lew Daly; Samuel Bowles; Elizabeth Anderson; and John Tomasi. From Michael Sandel's lead piece:

We live in a time when almost anything can be bought and sold. Markets have come to govern our lives as never before. But are there some things that money should not be able to buy? Most people would say yes.

Consider friendship. Suppose you want more friends than you have. Would you try to buy some? Not likely. A moment’s reflection would lead you to realize that it wouldn’t work. A hired friend is not the same as a real one. You could hire people to do some of the things that friends typically do—picking up your mail when you’re out of town, looking after your children in a pinch, or, in the case of a therapist, listening to your woes and offering sympathetic advice. Until recently, you could even bolster your online popularity by hiring some good-looking “friends” for your Facebook page—for $0.99 per friend per month. (The phony-friend Web site was shut down after it emerged that the photos being used, mostly of models, were unauthorized.) Although all of these services can be bought, you can’t actually buy a friend. Somehow, the money that buys the friendship dissolves it, or turns it into something else.

This fairly obvious example offers a clue to the more challenging question that concerns us: Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t? Consider a good that can be bought but whose buying and selling is morally controversial—a human kidney, for example. Some people defend markets in organs for transplantation; others find such markets morally objectionable. If it’s wrong to buy a kidney, the problem is not that the money dissolves the good. The kidney will work (assuming a good match) regardless of the monetary payment. So to determine whether kidneys should or shouldn’t be up for sale, we have to engage in a moral inquiry. We have to examine the arguments for and against organ sales and determine which are more persuasive.

So it seems, at first glance, that there is a sharp distinction between two kinds of goods: the things (like friends) that money can’t buy, and the things (like kidneys) that money can buy but arguably shouldn’t. But this distinction is less clear than it first appears.