By I. Glenn Cohen
Many people – non-philosophers especially, but some philosophers as well – loosely use the term “commodification” as an objection to a “taboo trade”. By “taboo trade” I mean the sale of a good or service such as an organ, sperm, egg, surrogacy, prostitution, etc.
This is unhelpful since it means that people often talk past each other and substitute rhetoric for reason.
In my own work I have tried to disentangle various separate objections falling within this family. This is also important in determining what, if any, form of regulation might help combat or minimize the ethical concern. It is also important because it helps us see that some forms of regulation might improve matters as to one of the ethical objections while at the same time worsen matters as to another one of the ethical objections.
For this blog post I wanted to share my taxonomy of ethical objections drawn from a recent paper I did on objections to buying and selling organs and the potential ways various regulatory tools can and cannot be used to deal with them: Regulating the Organ Market: Normative Foundations for Market Regulation, 77 Law and Contemporary Problems (forthcoming Nov 2014) In the paper itself it is set out more formally with supporting citations, here I present just excerpts more informally.
While I illustrate the taxonomy of arguments using the buying and selling of organs, in fact the same categories can be used for any taboo trade (prostitution, selling eggs, commercial surrogacy, etc):
The basic idea behind what I have elsewhere called the “corruption” argument is that allowing a practice to go forward will do violence to or denigrate our views of how goods are properly valued. This argument is sometimes labeled the “commodification” argument, but because that term is also used in a way that encompasses some of the other arguments I discuss below, I prefer the more specific label of “corruption.” The American Medical Association, among others, has voiced this kind of objection in the domestic organ-sale context, suggesting paying kidney donors would “dehumanize society by viewing human beings and their parts as mere commodities.”
We can distinguish two subcategories of this objection, which I have elsewhere called “consequentialist” and “intrinsic” corruption. “Consequentialist corruption” justifies intervention to prevent changes to our attitudes or sensibilities that will occur if the practice is allowed —for example, that we will “regard each other as objects with prices rather than as persons.” This concern is contingent and to be successful must rely on empirical evidence, in that it depends on whether attitudes actually change. By contrast, “intrinsic corruption” is an objection that focuses on the “inherent incompatibility between an object and a mode of valuation.” The wrongfulness of the action is completed at the moment of purchase irrespective of what follows; the intrinsic version of the objection obtains even if the act remains secret or has zero effect on anyone’s attitudes.
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