What’s it Worth? Values, Choice and Commodification

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In this lecture I shall look more directly at the idea which has been central to the others - namely that in fact it is not possible to see markets as a morally free zone. However, it is one thing to establish this, but it is quite another to provide a good explanation of how such values can be understood and justified. If values are subjective can there be anything that can legitimately restrict choice and the transformation of values into market values? In a market based society can we make sense of intrinsic values - the values which are to be seen as independent of choice - or are all values just a matter of subjective commitment? If so, is there any reason for thinking that certain types of goods should not be bought and sold?

This is a part of the lecture series, Religion and Values in a Liberal State.
The other lectures in this series include the following:
Markets in their Place: Moral Values and the Limits of Markets
Markets, Freedom and Choice
Just Markets
Selling Yourself Short: The Body, Property and Markets

Trust in Markets?

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9 April 2013

What's it Worth?
Values, Choice and Commodification

Professor The Lord Plant

The general theme of these lectures is the role of religion in a liberal state and in the current series of lectures I am attempting to tease out some of the issues at stake between religious values and the market economy. A market economy is a central feature of a liberal society and in trying to focus attention on religious values and the market order is therefore part of the general theme that I am trying to address. We have already looked at the role and understanding of the ideas of freedom and choice , of social justice, and the basis of property rights. In this lecture I want us to think about what has come to be called the growth of commodification.

This growth in commodification is the result of the extension of markets and the idea of valuing goods in monetary terms in a way that was until recently not the case. So what is at stake here is the boundary of the market order and what reasons of principle there might be for trying to restrict market relationships rather than allowing markets to colonize more and more areas of social life. Ever since Christ threw the merchants and money lenders out of the Temple the appropriate context for markets this has been an issue for Christian thought. So we need to look at what the arguments are in this sort of context.

Central to the moral case for markets is the privileging of freedom of choice and subjective preference. In the second lecture In tried to concentrate our minds on the idea of freedom of choice in relation to markets and in what I say now I shall draw upon those ideas to some extent. The market order is in some sense the institutional embodiment of the idea that values are subjective and that the value preferences of individuals are basic and are incorrigible in that there is no adequate basis on which they can be criticised. A preference of an individual for A rather than B has to be taken as a given and it is the preference which gives A greater value than B. Value is the creation of given subjective preferences. Value does not track some kind of objective moral order outside ourselves and in terms of which the value imputed by the preference for A rather than B can be criticised. Rather what is valuable – good and bad, right rather than wrong is a matter of subjective preference. Reason has a role in matching means with these valued ends. That is to say that if I prefer A to B reason can help me to determine which means will allow me to achieve my valued goal in the most effective way. Reason does not however prescribe the ends we should pursue. These are matters of desire and preference and are beyond reason to determine. David Hume, the philosopher who first formulated this idea with great precision, argued that it is not contrary to reason for me to prefer the destruction of the whole world to my scratching of my little finger. Means can be rationally evaluated, ends cannot on this view which has become very important as a foundational idea to liberalism generally and to economic liberalism in particular. A working out the social and economic consequences of these ideas can be found for example in F.A.von Hayek The Constitution of Liberty and Law Legislation and Liberty. Each individual therefore has the authority to determine what is valuable to him or her subject only to the proviso that in exercising this preference it does not prevent another person pursuing what is regarded by that person as being most valuable.

So how does this relate to the issue of commodification. It operates in two parallel ways. First of all let us assume that not only do I have a preference for A over B and thus value A more than B but that also I believe that when and if I acquire A is should be able to trade A in a market and realise a monetary value for it. Let us equally suppose that you also place a very high value on A or As but that you do not believe that it would be appropriate or right to trade for A in a market. Going back to the theme of the last lecture on selling parts of the body we can assume that both you and I place enormously high value on our bodies but I want to be able to be able to trade my blood, a kidney, a gene line in a market for money – that is to say I am prepared to regard my body as being at least in part a commodity and the source of commodities. This on the view that we are exploring is a matter of choice. I chose to regard parts of myself as commodities but you do not. The difference between us is that you believing that the body should not be commodified want to prevent me typically through the law from selling parts of myself. This is how things stand in UK law at the moment. It is illegal to trade in body parts- however replaceable like blood - they may be. If value is created and only created by choice then what is it that privileges your choice over mine? I am quite happy that you should not sell parts of your body –that is your choice but on what moral basis, given that moral values are created by choice and preference can you insist that my choice should be blocked ? If value is subjective is it possible to draw a line between what is and should be seen as a commodity to be bought and sold and what should not. Wasn't Christ in cleansing the Temple imposing his view on what the Temple is appropriately for on others who clearly didn't share his view?

This idea of appropriateness is one that we need to explore a bit more. One line of argument that is often pursued in this context is to assume that valuable things have some kind of essential nature such that some uses of that valuable thing defile its nature. The Temple has this ideal and essential nature: it is a house of God to quote Jesus and given that this is its essential nature that assumes that to use it for trading is wrong because it violates its essential nature. Very broadly speaking this essential nature might be thought to be underpinned by one of two things. The first is that somehow our understanding of its essential nature reflects some kind of metaphysical understanding of what the thing really is and what its necessary and sufficient condition and boundaries are. A Platonic theory would be the clear example of this. Each particular thing in the world is what it is because it shares in the eidos of that sort of thing. To consult its essential nature will enable us to determine whether some use of the thing like turning it into a commodity is wrong. In the Christian context this idea is also linked to the teleological idea of creation. That we inhabit a created world and things have been created with an indwelling telos – some end ,goal or purpose which again would allow us to plot the moral limits of how these created things can and should be used. These are both quite difficult arguments to present in a compelling way. The first because it runs against a good deal of modern and certainly post modern thought because of the emphasis on essence or substance. If the law is going to be used to prevent me from treating my body as a commodity then the law so it is often argued has to be based on public reason – that is to say on reasons and considerations which all people might accept. In the present case though we have a platonic and metaphysical argument about the essential nature of something being used to block treating my body as a commodity. This cannot form part of public reason because it is far too controversial as a piece of philosophy to be a basis for public policy. This is equally true of citing a Christian teleology of creation as a basis for blocking my attempt at market exchanges with my body. Many people do not accept these premises nor do they accept the religious authority on which such claims are made. So, on the face of it religious claims fall outside the scope of public reason as a basis for legislation in a liberal society. This is a theme which I shall have at the centre of attention in next sessions lectures. For the moment all we have to notice is this: If our claim that a market in X somehow violates X on the basis of claims about the essential nature of X then we have to be prepared to cite and argue about the authority to make such claims about X and its essential nature.

We can see this point working in an informal way too. Say we believed that medicine should not be a market matter – that it should not be bought and sold and we believed that to do so would be to distort the essential nature of medicine which is to respond to medical need. Market based medicine distorts this essential nature by weighing up need with monetary reward. Let us say that because this is of the essential nature of medical services that it should meet need, then its internal goal is to meet such needs. However as Robert Nozick has pointed out in Anarchy State and Utopia if we cannot claim that the essence of what we might called doctoring has no metaphysical sanction or underpinning then we are perfectly free to invent a new form of doctoring –what he calls Schmoctoring which is the profession which seeks to meet medical need and to charge for it. Again the issue is about how to provide a basis for the social authority which would rule out uses of something in contexts which others regard as a violation of the thing in question. It won't do to argue that we have to have mind the fundamental importance of medicine in human life such that only doctoring rather than Schmoctoring would be legitimate. It is because we are dealing with life and death situations that that makes it inappropriate to treat medicine as a commodity. However, this is a value judgment which is entirely subjective on the approach we are considering and we only have to go to Hume's little finger to see why in a situation of radical subjectivism such an argument will not work . We are quite happy that barbers should charge for exercising their skill and to regard doctoring as being in some sense fundamentally more important and therefore being exempt from charge is to assume that we can make rational judgements about the ends, goals and purposes of human life which in fact cannot do if values are matters of subjective choice.

The other strand of argument is to dismiss the idea that we are looking for the essential nature of something before we can figure out whether or not something can be turned into a commodity. Rather we should concentrate on what meaning something about which the issue of marketisation and commodification applies has in our own particular culture. That is to say we should look at the contextual social meaning of a good and not some abstract metaphysically based meaning. To try to determine whether or not something should be commodified we should try to understand what its social meaning is and that will tell us how in our sort of society that thing should be treated. So for example in Britain it seems quite likely that there would be quite a strong sense that human tissues including blood, semen, stem cells and the like should not be bought and sold. This is not because of their metaphysical status. The meaning of these goods and the meaning which stands in the way of commodification is a social product and is the result of many influences and may well be fuzzy around the edges but it provides a basis for making judgements which are relevant to our sort of society. Such judgements may of course change in time and we may regret that but whether the social meaning of a good stays the same or it expands to include commodification in neither case is this likely to be the result of metaphysical or religious argument so much as some more general change in social attitudes which will be multicausal.

There are however some social meanings which block exchanges (to use Michael Walzer's phrase) which seem rather exempt from the potential contingency ofsocial meanings in that it might be argued that it would be completely incoherent for a particular social meaning to change. These meanings could include the following:
Gift relationships

All of which would be destroyed if they were somehow put into markets and made into economically exchangeable items and there are many more than these. If we recognise that there are some values which seem to be indispensable for human social life then it cannot be true that all values are entirely subjective nor can all values be translated into market values. It is not just that treating values such as those mentioned would be altered by being treated as marketable commodities but in fact they are destroyed by this process. If this is so then two very important features of the liberal account of social life and the market have to be re thought.

Also reverting back to the difficult second lecture on choice you may remember that without some agreed and accepted values it is impossible to make sense of the idea of threat which is essential to the idea of coercion and the law. What makes the law coercive is that it threatens some important value in the lives of citizens and if these values such as freedom of movement, family life, relationships are essential to the understanding of coercion. This is not a small thing because part of what makes up the idea of a liberal society is equality before the law or, if you like equality before the coerciveness of the law which consists very largely in terms of threats. This can only exist if people cannot exempt themselves by treating these basic goods entirely as commodities. A good example of this is the fact that fines can be seen depending on the resources of those being fined a fine can be seen as a threat (to those with few resources) or as an offer for those with large resources. It is an offer in the sense that one can perform the prohibited act at the cost indicated in the fine. This then makes the law itself as something rather like a commodity.

So a radical form of subjectivism about values allows people to interpret values as commodities and to act on that assumption but this approach cannot be carried through in a coherent way.

So the position that I have arrived at is this. A subjective approach to values can be seen as underpinning the idea that goods of virtually any sort can be treated as commodities and that the attempt to prevent this will be seen by those who seek that commodification to argue that to allow such prohibition is an attempt to impose one set of choices on those of others. So what can justify that imposition? As I have suggested the answer lies partly in disputing the idea that all values are to be seen as subjective in that it may well be difficult to have a coherent account of some of the central themes of liberalism if that is true.

However there are other considerations to be engaged in the discussion about goods and commodities. The first of these is inequality. If goods which at one point lie outside the market then financial and economic inequality become involved when such goods re incorporated in the market. This means that access to such goods is heavily influenced by the inequalities thrown up by free markets. As we saw in the third lecture many liberal thinkers believe that such inequalities if they arise out of non coercive exchange are not to be seen as unjust and therefore morally objectionable. However in the third lecture I tried to show that issues of justice are still morally salient. This is particularly true of those goods which relate most closely to meeting fundamental human needs. If the goods such as health and education which relate to such needs become marketised commodities then issues of inequality and justice in respect of such goods become central and cannot be evaded.

There are other arguments too which require careful consideration because they do raise important issues about the character of goods and the relationship between buyer and seller in a market. I want to concentrate on one theme here. One of the most controversial areas of commodification applies to health and medical care and some economists have argued that there are special features of health care as an economic commodity which have to be taken into special consideration. It has been argued for example by Kenneth Arrow the Nobel Prize winning economist that the good of medical care is of a sort that should lead us to think very carefully before putting it into a market. His argument focuses on the nature of the relationship between the consumer and the patient. Arrow argues that the purchase of medical care is rather unlike the purchase of other commodities in particular there is an asymmetry of information between the doctor and the patient which makes the patient into less than equal figure in the relationship. The doctor – particularly if a consultant or specialist has a great deal of technical knowledge about the proposed course of medication or surgery which the patient/consumer typically does not have. This makes it very difficult for the consumer to come to an independent decision about the proposed medical treatment. Usually in a market exchange defects of information can be remedied by finding out about a car for example and its price on a web site. So why cannot defects of information not be remedied in the same way in a medical market. The answer given is that first of all a great deal of the appropriate information is of a highly technical sort which does not translate easily into a format for general consumption. Secondly individuals differ in relation to proposed courses of treatment. So for example in terms of drug therapy questions of interaction between different drugs have to be considered or in the surgical case the interaction with previous surgical interventions on the same person. It may only be a difference of degree and complexity but defects of information cannot easily be remedies. It is also the case that in general medical procedures whether medical or surgical cannot be reversed or can only be reversed at considerable risk. So if one makes a mistake in relation to information and advice then you have to live the rest of your life with the consequences. This is not typically the case with the purchase of other commodities which can be returned, exchanged, discontinued etc without risk. Even in the case of food which is the nearest commodity to medical therapy it is possible to discontinue eating a certain food and its effects will be reversible.

Of course the obvious answer to the case we have been looking at is that you have to trust the doctor but the question then is why trust the doctor in relation to what may be an irreversible procedure when that doctor in a medical market has a direct financial interest in the procedure which you will or your insurance company will have to cover. Trust seems to be intrinsic to the relationship but that trust may be deformed by financial interest which cannot arise in these of a health system which is free at the point of delivery which encourages straight forward and honest advice. The same issue of trust came up in the last lecture in relation to the case of a blood donor system. If people are paid for their blood and they need the money they may be incentivised to lie about their previous medical history. If there is no payment made then any financial interest in for example revealing that you have had Hepatitis C or that you are taking warfarin will not be present and one can have more trust in the system. Of course there can be tests for the presence of these things but this will add to the costs of the system whether based on payment or on donation. So the argument then was that the voluntary system was much better both in terms of cost, the quality of the product and in terms of trust than a market system.

On the views that we have just been discussing there is a much wider issue of social value which it might be thought is closer to religious considerations and this is the contrast between the market and community. The argument here on the market side of the case is that markets should be extended on the basis of choice and efficiency. Markets do not involve the imposition of someone else's choice on an individual but leave options open. Markets are more efficient because the threat of bankruptcy is the best incentive for good performance. Markets are more experimental and open up the search for profit via new goods and new procedures. On the other hand those who attach great weight to ideas of community and solidarity as well as the other relationships which I mentioned earlier which can be destroyed by markets are most likely to resist the case for markets and the case for the commodification of social values. In general I would think that Christian moral and political thought with some exceptions would favour the shoring up of community and solidaristic attitudes rather than risk seeing these undermined by the market mechanism and the way in which financial interest and exchange can corrode trust. But that is the topic for the next lecture.

I want to move onto another very important argument which also has the effect of limiting the role of the market while favouring collective provision for certain types of goods. This is to focus on the economists idea of a public good.

Although the term has a much wider use it has a precise meaning in political economy and political philosophy. The idea of a public good focuses on those goods which we might want or at least a majority of people in a society might want but which a market for logical reasons will not and cannot provide. These goods require cooperation across society usually by paying taxes to produce while at the same time the character of the good in question means that non contributors cannot be excluded from the benefit of the good in question. Clean air and defence are often cited examples. Assume that most or all people want clean air. It can only be produced through social agreement but you cannot exclude those who have not been party to the agreement from the benefit of the good; in the case of defence we all want defence but there will be very considerable costs involved in this to be met by coercion through the tax system. We cannot exclude those who do not want to pay from the benefit of the defence system. Because the non contributor will have access to the goods in question this will in fact provide an incentive for free riding. This means that the market will not produce such goods because why should I pay when others will do so and cannot exclude me from the good. However other people will calculate in the same way. All will try to free ride and non of the goods will be produced by the market mechanism. If such goods are wanted they will have to produced by collective action through the tax system. So even the most pro market economists accept that there have to be public goods of this sort which are not produced by the market and public goods cover a very wide range including for example law and order.

An interesting moral issue does however arise when technological advances do enable non contributors to be excluded from the good. Take the case of light houses. At the moment they are seen as public goods because by definition you cannot be excluded from seeing the light even if you haven't paid towards it. But let us assume that it is possible to replace a lighthouse with a radio beam which provides equal warning of dangerous rocks but the beam can only be accessed by ships which have bought the appropriate receiver or rent the receiver from those who are providing the mechanism. Here it is perfectly possible to privatise the warning system and to replace a public good with a private good. Swipe cards could also be used for entrance to a public park billing you for the use of the park at the end of the month and being a mechanism also to exclude non contributors. Those of us who believe that there is virtue rather than necessity in public provision would then have to come up with arguments which would justify say keeping lighthouses or parks when there is the technology to exclude people. So when religious voices are raised in favour of limiting the market in favour of more public or more collective forms of provision then these complex arguments have to be engaged with. In the next lecture I will focus directly on the claimed antithesis between community and market and in particular on the difficult question of trust in markets.

© Professor The Lord Plant 2013

This event was on Tue, 09 Apr 2013

raymond plant

Professor the Lord Plant of Highfield

Professor of Divinity

Lord Plant has been Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Philosophy at King’s College London since 2002 and he has been a Member of the House of Lords...

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