Repugnant Markets

02 June 2018

Our topic this week is what we’re calling repugnant markets. We have in mind potential markets in goods and services the buying and selling of which people tend to find repugnant for one reason or another. We say “potential” markets because society tends not to allow markets in such goods to operate in the open… though there are often black markets in such goods. Are we right to prohibit markets in goods the buying and selling of which some people find repugnant? That’s the kind of question we will be addressing this week, with our guest, Nobel Prize winning economist, Alvin Roth—who may be the first Nobel Laureate to ever appear on Philosophy Talk.

Clearly, there are many things that just shouldn’t be for sale for any price… human beings chief among them. Now markets in human beings—that is, slave markets—are the easiest markets to justify the banning of. After all, nobody has the (moral) right to own another person. And you can’t legitimately sell what you don’t own in the first place. But there are many things that we do own such that the buying and selling of those things is considered in some way abhorrent or repugnant. But we still ban such markets, despite our "ownership" of the relevant goods.  For example, we own our own bodies. Still, in many places, the buying and selling of bodies for sex purposes is prohibited.

Why should the buying and selling of sex be prohibited? If two—or possibly more—consenting adults want to trade money for sex with each other, whose business is it but theirs? Admittedly, some people find the idea of buying and selling of sex degrading and so just not the sort of thing a self-respecting human being ought to do with his or her body. But frankly that response seems to me to smack of an outmoded puritanism. Besides, given how sexually permissive society has become, given the prevalence of hook-up culture among the young, and given the widespread and easy accessibility of pornography, I don’t see how allowing the buying and selling of sex would significantly alter the current sexual landscape—especially if sex markets were well-regulated so as to ensure the health and safety of all involved. Some people might respond that this approach misses the real point. Prostitution is probably hardly ever the first resort for anyone. In fact, it’s mostly a desperate last resort. So perhaps banning prostitution is a way of protecting desperation—women with few other options.

Perhaps there is more to be said for this line. It is certainly less puritanical, but it also seems much more paternalistic. What exactly are we protecting women from by banning open markets in prostitution and forcing these still desperate women underground? Themselves? No, we’re protecting them from exploitation, the anti-prostitution person will say. And we’re protecting them from exploitation out of deep respect for their dignity as persons. That’s not at all paternalistic.  

I’m not so sure. It’s not clear to me that it shows more respect for human dignity to drive desperate people into an unregulated underground economy in which anything goes. If we really wanted to respect the dignity of the potential prostitute, wouldn’t we bring sex work out of the shadows and design a market with some measure of safeguards meant to preserve human dignity?

There’s an even deeper point about human beings and our ability (or inability) to reliably detect affronts to human dignity. I don’t think that we’re nearly as good at doing so as we like to pretend. On the one hand, our "dignity violation detectors," if we can call them that, are subject to an awful lot of false negatives. That’s partly because as a species we’re awfully good at denial. Only our capacity for denial could explain how, for example, slave markets could persist for so long. When it’s convenient, we have a well-developed capacity to look right past violations of human dignity, even when they are staring us right in the face.

On the flip side, we also prone to false positive. People used to find the idea of selling life insurance repugnant. They thought that it was repugnant to place a price on a human life. We now find the idea that life insurance violates human dignity just silly. People once found the very idea of interracial marriage or gay sex repugnant too. Did those things really violate human dignity? And I could go on. The catalog of what we would now regard as false positives is enormous. And all of these false positives delivered by our built-in, viscerally powerful violation-of-dignity-detectors, have motivated us to constrain markets, stigmatize certain behaviors, and so much more, throughout the history of our species.

Thankfully, we’re pretty much past if not all of that, at least a lot of it. In light of that, we might be tempted to dismiss our foregone visceral aversions as irrational, to insist that we’ve made moral progress relative to our irrational ancestors. But this way of thinking presumes that we are better at detecting violations of human dignity than they were because, perhaps, we are somehow less prone to both false negatives and false positives than they were. Maybe so. Maybe not. I wouldn’t be too quick to jump to any such conclusion. Think about California and its ban on sale of horsemeat—of all things—for human consumption. Why is it banned? Because eating horses is more repugnant than eating cows? After all, what self-respecting human being would stoop so low as to eat horse meat, as opposed to cow meat! Really?  

Bottom line, it's not clear that we should always or even ever trust our visceral reactions to perceived affronts to human dignity. I know we tend to think our own moral sensibilities are infinitely more fine-tuned than those of our benighted ancestors, who couldn’t recognize patriarchy, racism, classism, you name it, when such evils were staring them right in the face. But that doesn't mean we should undersestimate our own capacity for moral blindness either.

At the same time,  I wouldn't say that we should totally ignore our visceral negative reactions to apparent and perceived affronts to dignity either. I don't doubt that sometimes they’re telling us something morally significant, something we had better stand up and pay attention to. The difficulty is sorting out what and when, given our acknowledged proneness to both false negatives and false positives.  

One problem with sorting these sorts of things out in a consistent way is the fact that what seems morally significant to you may not seem quite as morally significant to me. In one sense, it does seem rather subjective what should count as morally significant and what shouldn't – though I don’t mean to deny the very possibility that there might be objective truths about what should and shouldn’t be bought and sold, on moral grounds. Still, given the difficulty of determining where the objective truth lies in this domain—assuming there is such a thing—it’s a little hard to see why the fact that other people viscerally find something degrading should determine what I can or can't buy or sell, especially if I and my partner in the transaction don’t find it degrading ourselves.

One thing somebody could say to me—and I suspect that Debra will say this to me—is that it’s never just about the partners to an economic transaction. When someone buys a gas guzzling car or cigarettes from somebody else, they together impose costs on the rest of us. Here I’m talking about what economists call externalities—harmful effects imposed on third parties who are not involved in some economic transaction. The thought here is that perhaps when markets do impose externalities, we have a right regulate markets or even to ban them altogether.

But one has to be careful with this kind of thinking. A clever cynic could twist this argument so that it seems to imply that your disgust at my economic choices is an unacceptable externality. And the clever cynic could then ask if my freedom to sell my own body parts, say, should be restricted just because it makes you feel squeamish. So we need to make clear to the cynic that in the end we care about squeamishness only because we take it to be a reliable visceral indicator of the presence of violations of dignity and justice! That is, it’s not that we take the selling of kidneys or sex to be unjust because it makes us feel squeamish. It’s the other way around. The reason such things arouse feelings of disgust and revulsion in us is the fact that they violate justice. The real concern is not about our visceral reactions, but about human dignity and justice.

That’s not to say that it’s obvious where justice lies. Think of thousands of people who languish on waiting lists, hoping to be deemed worthy of receiving a kidney, with the shortage of kidneys being at least in part due to the fact that people with delicate moral sensibilities find kidney markets repugnant. Can we really call that that justice? On the other hand, it's not clear that it would be more just if we were incentivized to sell our kidneys and only rich people could afford to buy them. On the one hand, I suppose you could say that maybe some poor people wouldn’t be so poor if they were free to sell a kidney to the highest bidder. On the other hand, it seems right to say that kidneys should go to the people who need them the most, not to people able to pay the most!  

I don’t really have any neat answers here. Part of me agrees that markets aren’t a perfect mechanism for distributing goods that we are reluctant, on moral grounds, to see bought and sold. At the very least such markets need to be well-designed and well-regulated. And perhaps they can be if we don’t let our moral qualms keep us from even trying to make them work. As long as markets don’t diminish human dignity, they can do good things. If we could find a way to strike the right balance between human dignity and market efficiency, maybe we could agree. So how do we do that? Got any ideas? If so, add your voice to this conversation.

Comments (1)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 12, 2021 -- 12:01 AM

Surely not all things should

Surely not all things should be for sale.

Child pornography is the classic irrefutable use case but not the only one. I'm hesitant to include slavery as it is charged with recent history. Slavery is very much alive throughout the world, including in the nail salon down the street.

Repugnant markets are not the only markets that need to preserve human dignity either. All markets need to do this. Besides human dignity, other, sometimes overlapping considerations are; freedom, creativity, privacy, and human potential. To this list, I would add ecology and sustainability. Once a market designer meets these criteria, anyone would be hard-pressed to term a market as repugnant.

By this definition, many markets exist, maybe all that exist, have some repugnancy. How best to design and minimize this disgust is the question. I don't think we do this well now.

Disgust comes from the gustatory affect. When applied to morals, it takes on a very personal air, often common air. Indeed, we need to question disgust when others don't share that feeling. However, just because others don't find something repugnant, we need to be sure their tolerance is not due to ill health, immaturity, or mistreatment. If thus assured, then we need to question our values.

An excellent example of this is incest which is legal in France. Is this repugnant? Sure. There is no real market for it, I suppose, but I am disgusted by it. Pornography has a distinct cultural distaste and, if allowed, affect. It is tough to wear other shoes here.

Another example would have been slavery in the United States. Still, as I alluded to above, I am not sure we haven't just submerged that practice given our current racial lines, minimum wage, and lack of social safety nets.

I miss Ken. Having these shows repeat makes that and his legacy clear and appreciated.