Featured Philosop-her: Japa Pallikkathayil

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.

–MK

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.

15 responses

  1. MK: The following comment is from Enzo Rossi (who was unable to post this himself)

    I’m sympathetic to the position sketched in this post, but may I play devil’s advocate? There’s a growing realist movement in political theory that wishes to separate matters of politics from matters of morality. The rough idea is that politics has its own sources of normativity, and so political philosophy shouldn’t be seen as a branch of applied ethics. To put it in a slightly different way, ethics is about personal relations or relations that are somehow isolated from the wider structural issues of society, whereas politics is about how to shape social structures in order to enable relations between strangers or even enemies. Now, where do markets and other economic institutions sit in all this? I don’t have a well-formed answer, I’m afraid. But it seems to me that markets are more on the political/structural side — in fact we rightly shun market transactions with our nearest and dearest, or indeed with anyone we haven’t contacted for the explicit purpose of conducting a market transaction. And, ceteris paribus, some degree of blindness to the ends of others is a desirable feature of a political structure (as opposed to a set of personal relations), otherwise we would lose an important distinction between different spheres of action (the personal and the political). I’m not suggesting that this makes any market transaction OK, but simply that I’m sceptical of extending reasoning about personal morality to structural/political issues.

    • I do think it is important to separate questions about what is legally permissible and what is morally permissible, with the former likely being a much broader category than the latter. It might, for example, be important that freedom of speech be legally protected and yet immoral to say insulting things to someone. In the post I did not mean to be making any claims about what kinds of market transactions should be legally permissible and protected. And that’s the level at which I think it makes sense to think of the market as part of the political/structural side. So, in the post, I am just assuming that the transactions are legally permissible and asking whether, even so, they might be morally impermissible. Now, whether the immorality of the transactions puts any pressure on whether they should, after all, be legally prohibited is an interesting further question. But answering that requires a view on the nature and purpose of the law, and I’m not intending to rely on any particular view of that issue here.

      • Thanks for the reply. Like most people, I agree that we should distinguish between moral and legal permissibility. I suppose what I was getting at is that it seems appealingly liberating to have spheres of action (such as market transactions with strangers) in which we don’t need to think about morality. If morality is an issue in market transactions with strangers then something went wrong at the structural/political level. Refraining from a legally permissible but morally impermissible market transaction seems tantamount to charity. While charity may be commendable in particular instances, theorising about when charity is required doesn’t strike me as the most pressing issue with regard to the general problem of an unjust market system. So I’m making three points here: (i) a tactical one, about the dangers of focusing on charity over structural injustice, (ii) a philosophical one, about the desirability of morality-free spheres of action, and (iii) a methodological-philosophical one, about whether a stricter division of labour between moral and political philosophy wouldn’t help with (i) and (ii).

      • Ah, I see, I misunderstood the first comment. I agree that in these cases something has likely gone wrong at the structural level (straightforwardly for injustice, less obviously but probably still for survival). But I think seeing the way in which a structural wrong infects personal interactions can put added moral pressure on us to address the structural wrongs. I should have said more about that. Whether it the problem with obeying market norms in these contexts requires a change in the terms of our interaction or to directly address the source of the problem will depend, I think, largely on the details of the case and what one’s abilities and resources are. But I don’t think I want to go as far as you in describing the market as ideally a ‘morality-free zone’. It may be that ideally the two problems I identified wouldn’t arise, but I think others still would. The kinds of worries about commodification Anderson raises come to mind, but I suspect other issues are likely to remain as well.

      • I see. I don’t think we’re poles apart. I think that it will be very hard if not impossible for us to fix the structural issues to a level where markets can be morality-free and our conscience clean. I just think that it would be desirable to achieve such a situation (commodification wouldn’t be a problem at that point, as things that shouldn’t be for sale for moral reasons wouldn’t be available on the market). But maybe Marx was right: capitalist markets by their very nature tend to overcome traditional moral barriers through commodification (“everything that is solid melts into the air…”), in which case the structure is unfixable and my desirable scenario is a pipe dream so long as we live under capitalism. I suppose my ideal would be to have (some) markets but not a capitalist social system (e.g. Chartier & Johnson, eds, Markets Not Capitalism, 2011 — unfortunately there isn’t much rigorous philosophical literature on this, and I’m certainly not an anarchist like most contributors to that volume). That’s where I’m coming from, anyway.

  2. This creates an infinite number of new questions for each one posed. When I stop at the garage sale, do I have a duty to do a comprehensive comparison of my financial position with the sellers?
    What if they are not forthcoming? Am I required to make this analysis over their objection?
    What if I leave without buying anything? Am I then released from any moral duty?
    What if I’m just driving by? Am I morally required to stop to see if the seller’s financial need calls for me to make a donation?
    What if I decide to buy the vase at a higher price because the seller is about to be evicted from their home, but just as I reach into my wallet, I find out that their neighbor has a child desperate for cancer treatment? Do I retract my offer and give my money to the neighbor?
    What if I decide to pay $15 for the vase because they are about to be evicted, then I see that their neighbor has the same vase and has no moral need. Can I go next door and buy offer $10 for their vase with a clean conscience?
    There is a paradox here. There can certainly be a disparity of bargaining power, and that can seem unfair. But, why do we only apply the moral duty to someone engaged in a transaction? The price of the vase might change because of some level of injustice, but I think there must be something peculiar about making our moral duty dependent on the transaction itself. The paradoxes become so overwhelming so quickly, I can’t imagine any functional equilibrium that would require the buyer to consider anything beyond their own needs with regard to the transaction, leaving moral considerations separate from market considerations.

    • As I mention in the post, I do think this discussion bears an important relationship to our duties to aid. Market norms presuppose the permissibility of walking away from the transaction and it may not always be true that we are permitted to walk away. Duties to aid are notoriously difficult to sort out and I think many of the questions you raise bring that out. Some of the other questions you raise bring out the difficulties surrounding our knowledge of others’ situations – how much, if anything, do we need to do to learn about the situations of others? I think that is a really important question and I don’t have a general answer. But I still think it is worthwhile to consider the case in which the needs are apparent and no further work needs to be done to discover them. Thinking through that kind of case might eventually be able to help us sort out how to think about less transparent cases.

      • But then connecting the market transaction to these moral issues seems to me to be a non sequitur. If the family is having a garage sale because they are being evicted, then these moral issues are in play for anyone who might engage with them. If one buys the vase for $10, buys it for $15, or decides not to buy it at all, or if she is a neighbor stopping by to introduce myself, or a random passer-by stopping to ask for directions. When all of these people finish any of these interactions, the same moral dilemmas are in place. There is nothing special about the person who is buying the vase. So, all of these motives for interacting could have been targeted as a special moral case. Why is it only the market-based interactions that demand an explicit moral review? This is especially odd since, of all the non-sequiturs we could choose to carry the moral baggage of the story, the market transaction is the one interaction that leaves both parties better off. The family in need receives money in exchange for a vase they didn’t need and the buyer receives a vase in exchange for money they didn’t need.
        Do we really have a basis for attaching special moral duties to market interactions? Maybe the more fundamental question we should really ask is why we are compelled to morally constrain the random stranger who exchanges $10 for a vase when we don’t feel the same compulsion about all the other random strangers who didn’t partake in a $10 exchange. I’m not sure that the moral discomfort we feel about the disparity between the buyer and seller is as coherently defensible as we feel like it must be.

      • The reason why I am wondering about market interactions in particular is because the norms that are typically taken to apply to them seem so different from the norms that apply more generally. In general, we should take others ends into consideration when we act. So, if you learn your neighbor is struggling to pay for her child’s chemotherapy, that is an end you should consider in your deliberations about what to do (though it is a further question how exactly taking this end into account should affect your actions, and that is a question I leave open in the post, in part because as we introduce more people into the story, more ends will need to be considered). So, in a way, what I am asking is why should participating in a market transaction insulate one from the requirement of consideration that we otherwise have? And I am answering that in some cases efficiency is a good reason not to directly deliberate about others ends, but in other cases (injustice and survival) it is not appropriate to be blind to those ends in the way market norms suggest. So, what I am arguing is that at least in these cases we should reason about others ends directly, just like I take it we are ordinarily required to.

    • I see. I don’t think we’re poles apart. I think that it will be very hard if not impossible for us to fix the structural issues to a level where markets can be morality-free and our conscience clean. I just think that it would be desirable to achieve such a situation (commodification wouldn’t be a problem at that point, as things that shouldn’t be for sale for moral reasons wouldn’t be available on the market). But maybe Marx was right: capitalist markets by their very nature tend to overcome traditional moral barriers through commodification (“everything that is solid melts into the air…”), in which case the structure is unfixable and my desirable scenario is a pipe dream so long as we live under capitalism. I suppose my ideal would be to have (some) markets but not a capitalist social system (e.g. Chartier & Johnson, eds, Markets Not Capitalism, 2011 — unfortunately there isn’t much rigorous philosophical literature on this, and I’m certainly not an anarchist like most contributors to that volume). That’s where I’m coming from, anyway.

  3. Pingback: Defending the Morality of Markets | Bleeding Heart Libertarians

  4. Pingback: Defending the Morality of Markets | World Liberty News

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