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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Moral Limits of the Market - Michael Sandel, 13 August 2012

Genomics Forum blogging team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012
Blog by Hazel McHaffie

As I stood in the queue around Charlotte Square waiting to go into the Main Theatre, a young man approached the elderly gentleman in front of me to ask what this session was about. 'Money and greed', came the answer. 'Ah, that's why there's such a big queue,' the young man said, and walked away. The summary was only partly accurate; the discussion was much more finely nuanced than that.

And I use the word 'discussion' advisedly because American political philosopher, Michael Sandel, adopted the same techniques he uses in his now famous course on 'Justice', at Harvard University, a course which he's taught for two decades: a winning combination of facts, case studies, and challenges to provoke active participation. Nearly a thousand students pack the halls of Harvard to listen to him, and there his challenges include questions like: Is torture ever justified? Would you steal a drug that your child needs to survive? Is it sometimes wrong to tell the truth? How much is one human life worth?

In his appearance at the EIBF he examined one of the biggest ethical questions facing society today: What is the proper role of markets, where are the boundaries, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that money cannot buy? Ruth Wishart was in the chair and instantly set the tone with her trademark crisp analysis and wry sense of humour. Sandel himself was summed up as a 'rockstar moralist'; his most recent book What Money can't Buy as 'about what should be the role of money and markets in today's society.'

Sandel is a charismatic speaker and he brought the subject to life within seconds with his accessible tales of cash incentives to drug-addict mothers, inducements of room-upgrades to prisoners, advertisements for Viagra. The issues instantly have a clarity, immediacy, humanity. We feel we are in the hands of a master who is both wise and understanding.

Ah, but that deceptively engaging approach veils a determination to get us to confront our own assumptions, our biases, our lazy thinking. A market society has been developing for three decades, he tells us, the values associated with it reach into every aspect of our lives, but how conscious are we of its ramifications? He outlines actual examples of financial incentives being used: to overweight people to get them to diet and eat healthily; to a Swiss mountain village to encourage them to accept the dumping of nuclear waste close by; to children to encourage them to get good grades or read books or write letters of thanks. On each topic the audience are asked to vote. Specific members of the audience are called on to identify themselves and defend their stance - and he has an impressive ability to remember names and speak of each person as if he knows them personally. Ruth Wishart awards him Brownie points for 'getting the audience to do half his work!'

But through the entertainment of the exercises, Sandel teases out important philosophical issues. He demonstrates that money can change the value of the goods being exchanged - for example, the concept of gratitude behind a letter of thanks; or a kidney donated by a poor peasant in India to a wealthy American businessman; or a prostitute fuelling her drug addiction. Cash incentives can crowd out higher motivations like civic duty, family welfare.

Society, Sandel concludes, must ask how important these higher values are and then decide where market incentives fit in. Democracy requires citizens to share in a common life, to care for the common good. Markets are not so much about economics but about the threat to this common good.

How could we get this genie back into the bottle? Ruth Wishart asks. Sandel's answer is swift and incisive: reinvigorate public debate. We need to argue together democratically, using morally robust discourse, about how much we truly value the higher motivations and values of life in questions about health and education and individual rights and reproduction etc. And this underlying philosophy underpins Sandel's answers to subsequent questions. We need to ask ourselves: Is it acceptable for companies to hire homeless people to stand in queues in order to promote sales of products? Is it tolerable for a poor person to sell a kidney to a rich recipient in order to educate his children? Should taxes be used to price unhealthy commodities out of the market? Should a 'sin tax' be levied against cosmetic surgery? Is it enough to offset our carbon imprint when we drive or fly? What are the core intrinsic values at stake here? How far are we eroding our civic responsibilities to the higher causes? Which market incentives serve the common good? What sort of a society do we really want to live in?  

(This event was sponsored by an independent investment management partnership (Baillie Gifford) who manage money globally for both institutions and individuals.)

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