I am very happy to welcome the next featured Political Philosop-her, Japa Pallikkathayil. She is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of Pittsburgh. She works on issues at the intersection of moral and political philosophy. She has recently focused on the topics of coercion, deception, and exploitation. Recent publications include, “Deriving Morality from Politics: Rethinking the Formula of Humanity”, Ethics Vol. 121, No. 1 (October 2010), pp. 116-147 and “The Possibility of Choice: Three Accounts of the Problem of Coercion”, Philosophers’ Imprint, Vol. 11, No. 16.
Her post follows.
Morality and the Market
I have been puzzlingly lately over the morality of market transactions. My puzzlement has been inspired by Elizabeth Anderson’s “The Ethical Limitations of the Market.” In that piece, Anderson argues that the norms of the marketplace are in tension with the norms of personal and civic relationships in various ways. She uses that tension to argue against the commodification of various goods and activities – some things ought not be available for purchase. I am interested in a somewhat different problem that her framework makes apparent – there are some contexts in which the use of the norms of marketplace is inappropriate because of the circumstances of the potential participants rather than the nature of the items up for exchange.
The central feature of market transactions that Anderson identifies is their impersonality: “The producers and consumers of economic goods are typically strangers. Each party to a market transaction views one’s relation to the other as merely a means to the satisfaction of ends defined independently of the relationship and of the other party’s ends” (Anderson, 182). For anyone with Kantian leanings, and maybe for anyone at all, this language is striking. How could it ever be appropriate for me to view you merely as a means to my ends?
Suppose you are having a garage sale. I come to consider your offerings and spot an attractive vase. You have listed the price as $15 but I judge the vase to be worth only $10 to me. I offer you $10 and you accept. I don’t consider what you would have done with the extra $5 and in that way I am blind to your ends. But I take you to have considered what you valued more – the $10 or the vase – and so I take it that the transaction furthers your ends in some way. And this way of mutually furthering each others’ ends is straightforwardly more efficient than deliberating together about our respective ends. So, I think it is important to distinguish between the blindness towards others ends involved in market transactions and indifference towards those ends. It may be that there are circumstances in which I best attend to your ends by, in a sense, ignoring them.
But there are at least two types of circumstances in which this way of respecting you and your ends is untenable. First, consider someone who has been subjected to injustice. Suppose, for example, I discover that you are having the garage sale because you are being unjustly evicted from your home (your landlord is violating the terms of your lease but you lack the resources to defend yourself.) There are two respects in which this situation should unsettle my use of market norms. First, you lack the control over your resources that you are entitled to have. In this way, your willingness to accept $10 for the vase becomes suspect – it may not reflect the discretion you are entitled to have over your ends. Second, I should worry about being the beneficiary of injustice. Although I am not the perpetrator of the injustice, using the injustice to further my ends taints them.
Before gesturing towards a strategy for dealing with this kind of situation, let me introduce the second type of circumstance in which abiding by the norms of the marketplace does not suffice to respect you and your ends. Suppose that I discover that you are having the garage sale to pay for your child’s chemotherapy. Here the direness of your circumstances should unsettle my use of market norms for two reasons. First, the use of market norms presupposes that I am entitled to discretion about whether to contribute to your ends or not. But I may not be permitted to simply walk away from your plight. Sorting out our duties to aid is, however, a difficult task. I won’t attempt to do that here and, in any case, the second reason market norms are inappropriate in this context does not rely on a view of duties to aid. This second reason focuses on the kinds of ends that are under consideration. There is something grotesque about treating your end of saving your child’s life and my end of decorating my home as equivalently important. But market norms suggest this very comparison – I help you save your child, but only to the extent that this helps me decorate my home, as if these ends were somehow on a par. In this way, using market norms in this context reflects a misunderstanding of the values in play.
If market norms are inappropriate in contexts involving injustice and survival, what norms should we abide by instead? Here I want to caution against thinking that the only alternative to market norms are the norms of charity. Kyla Ebels-Duggan has an illuminating discussion of the moral pitfalls of regarding oneself as another’s benefactor (see her “Against Beneficence: A Normative Account of Love”). She suggests that, rather than seeing others as the passive recipients of our good will, we should instead try to share their ends in a way that requires active engagement with them. In the cases above, what I need to do is not merely to attend to your ends in the ways I think are best but to work with you to consider how best to address our respective situations. Maybe I should pay full price for your vase. Maybe I should contribute to your ends without any exchange. Maybe I should do something entirely different. This is something for us to settle together.
Large portions of the world’s population are subjected to injustice or struggling to survive, or both. But many of these individuals contribute in substantial ways to the global marketplace. If what I have argued is correct, those of us who are not subjected to injustice or struggling to survive should be very troubled by most of our market transactions. These transactions involve us in a blindness to the ends of others that is not justifiable.