Some Thoughts on Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”

By Cansu Canca

Last Wednesday, I went to Michael Sandel’s lecture introducing his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. His talk focused on two main arguments: There should be certain norms that govern our relationship with certain goods; and markets corrupt these norms.

I think Sandel’s position fails in three respects:

  1. The book does not provide a theoretical basis for these norms. In other words, the book does not explain where these norms come from, which norms are suitable for which relationships, or how they are violated.
  2. Given the lack of theoretical basis, the book cannot identify a stopping point for its suggestion to preserve and cultivate virtues related to these norms. There would seem to be many more activities to which the book’s suggestions could be expanded, yet even Sandel does not seem willing to go there. To the extent one accepts it, Sandel’s argument thus proves too much.
  3. Instead of presenting a theoretical basis, the book proceeds by analogy. But the analogies seem unconvincing in that their source and target situations seem materially different.

Let me flesh out these points.

Lack of theoretical basis

Sandel claims that “goods” like human kidneys or babies should not be bought and sold. Instead, he argues, our attitude towards these goods should be governed by certain norms, which market relationship would corrupt. Sandel’s argument echoes Samuel Clarke’s idea of morally right action being the one that fits to the relationship between people or people and things. But unlike Clarke, Sandel does not spend any time on the moral theory and jumps to the application of it.

Sandel’s argument raises obvious questions: “What are these norms?” and, more to the point, “Where do they come from?” The book does not provide a clear answer for these questions. Sandel’s argument solely stands on intuitions and family resemblances among the examples he provides.

For example, according to Sandel, “[c]hildren are not properly regarded as consumer goods but as being worthy of love and care” (p. 10). What exactly is the norm here and what violates this norm? Sandel seems to think it self-evident that if something is worthy of love, then it should not be bought. By appealing to our intuitions about children being worthy of love and care, I think, he evades the key question: Why should they not be bought? In order to argue that children should not be bought, Sandel’s argument would require two further ingredients: (1) the means of acquiring an object affect our relationship with it (negatively, in this case), and (2) what means precisely have this effect and hence violate the norm. Is casual sex resulting in a pregnancy the “wrong” way to acquire something “worthy of love and care”? Does spending money on IVF while there are children up for adoption disregard the value of children?

Limits of cultivation of virtues

Sandel argues that virtues reflecting these norms should be cultivated. The underlying idea is that the more we act, say, altruistically, the more we’ll be inclined to do so. Sandel uses this argument against opening more markets, like a market for kidneys.

Why stop there? Why not outlaw some standard market relations to promote altruism? If prohibiting kidney sales and relying on donation would promote altruism, why would the same not be true for prohibiting markets for goods essential for survival like food and housing? On the other hand, if we are not willing to move on this direction, what is the basis for buying the argument against markets for kidneys?

Reason by analogy 

Sandel does not provide any theoretical basis but instead reviews a great variety and number of examples. However, it is hard to see how they make a case against markets for kidneys or babies, among other things. Take the example that Sandel used in his lecture: auctioning college admission. Sandel uses this example to show how some goods diminish in value once they are a part of a market.

In the example, a small number of freshman places are auctioned. Since the number is small, the auction, supposedly, does not affect the academic quality of the university. Nevertheless, Sandel argues against such a market on moral grounds. The reason he gives is that universities embody certain ideals such as “the pursuit of truth” and a market corrupts “the norms that give universities their reason for being” (p. 110).

First of all, I don’t think this example supports Sandel’s argument. Even if these university ideals exist, it is hard to see how such ideals are diminished by selling a few places in a world where professors are paid competitively, where research opportunities depend on funding, and where a degree may be unattainable simply because of the tuition fees.

But more importantly, how does this example or many other examples that Sandel presents in his book (such as buying custom-written wedding toasts or paying kids to read books) relate to cases like markets for kidneys or babies? It is clear that for some people, all these cases may fall under the same category (a category of squeamishness or discomfort, maybe), but a deeper resemblance seems to be missing.

[Page numbers refer to the edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.]

Cansu Canca

Cansu Canca

Cansu Canca, Ph.D. is a philosopher and the founder and director of the AI Ethics Lab. She leads teams of computer scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars to provide ethics analysis and guidance to researchers and practitioners. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy specializing in applied ethics. Her area of work is in the ethics of technology and population-level bioethics. Prior to the AI Ethics Lab, she was a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School, Osaka University, and the World Health Organization. She tweets @ccansu

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