Price, Value, Morals, and Soul

Political philosopher MIchael Sandel has an important essay, "What Isn't For Sale?", in the new Atlantic Monthly. I urge you to read it, perhaps even contribute to the growing comments string, and, by extension, let it help inform your choices this November.

The essay is taken from his book, “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets,” and meditates on how the almost-religious reverence (which includes a health dose of religious intolerance) for commerce and a market-driven society has turned our political and social environment toxic.

The crux of the matter is thus:

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

It occurs to me there’s a follow-up essay to be done on the hypocrisy of those on the Right who constantly vent about the “moral relativism” of those of us who are progressives, yet they will tolerate relativism in the name of business, accepting human suffering, environmental exploitation, and all manner of corruption as long as there’s profit to be had. But that’s for later.

I’ve written before about why we have this weird attitude towards business people and why so many of us think the way business runs should be the standard by which all human activity should be judged.

When you reduce all human life to commerce, you cheapen that life. When nothing matters but the bottom line, society becomes narrow, callous, soulless.

As noted in 1 John 3:17 – But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

Your typical business sort would snort and say one of two things, either, “What? You want us all to go back to eating nuts and berries and living in mud huts?” (environmentalists hear that a lot), or “Well, you own a car, don’t you? You work at a job? You have savings, you buy things?”

The first is flat bullshit, of course. There’s a necessary place for commercial activity in the world, but it should not elbow everything else aside. Objecting to having everything in life reduced to commercial exchange does not mean I need to go without electricity, indoor plumbing, penicillin, or paved roads. As for second, participating in an economy does not mean I must agree to its most extreme version. Order, efficiency, and profit, while desirable in certain areas and in certain measure, aren’t the only things that matter.

Eventually, a commerce-dominated world becomes one defined wholly by contrivance, where reality is an artificial construct and we lose all other values. Fifty years ago, Daniel Boorstin laid all this out for us in his seminal book, "The Image." Boorstin focused on how mass communication threatened to turn life into a series of psuedo-events, but his theme has much broader implications. When we settle for — or surrender to — an artificial life, when our freedom to make choices is reduced to which of several similar, competing products to buy, we become little more than drones.



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