Markets and Morality
Ken, John and Elizabeth Anderson take on the topic of markets and morality. Does the free market provide incentives for behavior that is problematic from a moral perspective? Or does the free market punish morally problematic behavior? Is respecting the free market itself moral, insofar as respecting the free market is also respecting individual freedom of choice?
Should there be moral constraints on the market? As Ken points out, the market seems to be a positive force in society. The free market allows people to make products that they sell at a reasonable price and which you can buy if you have the money. This exchange is fair. It seems that restrictions to this kind of enterprise would be harmful despite the good intentions behind them. But as John is quick to reply, there are obvious counterexamples to this claim. Say that Ken is in need of a kidney and so is a man from General Motors. The man working at GM presumably makes more money than Ken. Say he can pay for his kidney donation while Ken cannot. On these grounds, he would get the kidney over Ken simply because it was sold at a price he could afford. Acquiescing somewhat, Ken agrees that it seems somewhat immoral for a decision such as who receives organ donations to be decided solely on the market. After all, we think the order of organ donations should be decided on some criterion such as degree of urgency or immediate need rather than solely on affordability. It seems then that organ sales would be unethical, but are there other exceptions?
Guest Elizabeth Anderson argues that greed is a useful motivation in markets, but only if it is harnessed effectively. Unlike the proponents of capitalism at the Ayn Rand Institute, Anderson believes that unbridled greed can cause much harm to people. She gives the example of labor laws. Instituting minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws ensures workers some protection of their autonomy and human dignity. So, regulating the greed of the market is a safeguard against exploitation. The thought is that such regulations are necessary, otherwise greed and adverse working conditions would spin out of control. Anderson also believes that there are certain things such as sexual favors and women's reproductive labor that shouldn't be sold on the market or made into commodities. Her arguments rest on issues of autonomy not so much with concern for the initial choice to make such a contract but with concern for the lack of freedom granted the person after or during the contract. For this reason, she is more opposed, say, to a market in reproductive labor—surrogate motherhood—than she is to the market in gametes. Donating an egg or sperm doesn't usually compromise a person's ability to make free choices. Anderson's opposition to egg and sperm donations comes more from a moral concern that many donors tend to be unconcerned with the welfare of the children their sperm or eggs help bring into the world. Surrogate motherhood, on the other hand, poses more threats to autonomy.
- Amy Standen the Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek To 00:04:14): Why are there so many poor Americans? According to the U.S. 2000 census, twelve percent of all Americans live in poverty. Within this percentile, a family of four lives off a total income of $19000 dollars. Is this the best we can expect from an economic system? It seems that capitalism and the free market have triumphed over other economic systems. Still, how can capitalism be the best system if we acknowledge the reality of so many impoverished people? To find one answer to this question, Amy interviews Harry Binswanger, a scholar of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy, and employee at the Ayn Rand Defense of Capitalism Project.
- Ian Shoales the Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek To 00:37:45): Shoales' piece is focused on the founder of historical materialism and communist political thought, Karl Marx.
- Conundrum (Seek To 00:48:14): This week's conundrum comes from Chris in Portland Oregon who does research at a medical school. She asks: how do our political leaders live with the level of hypocrisy they demonstrate every day? What kind of compensation do they make in their own minds?
Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies, University of Michigan
- This article argues that wealth and economic prosperity occurs because of the free market.
- Information about a book entitled Capitalism, Morality and Markets by Brian Griffiths, Robert A. Sirico, and Norman Barry & Frank Field.
- An article addressing the role of consumers and producers in the market, and the moral status of businesses and entrepreneurships within consumer-producer frameworks.
- Other articles and texts:
- Michele M. Moody-Adams. "On Surrogacy: Morality, Markets, and Motherhood." Public Affairs Quarterly. (April 1991) pp. 175-190.
- Brian Harvey, et al. Market Morality and Company Size. (Kluwer 1991).
- N. Craig Smith. Morality and the Market: Consumer pressure for corporate accountability. (Routledge 1990).
Get Philosophy Talk
Broadcast live on your iPhone or Android using the Public Radio Player