Episode 98: Guest Michael Sandel Against Market Society

On his book What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (2012), and also bringing Sandel into the discussion begun without him in our last episode about his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Free economic transactions are supposed to benefit both the buyer and the seller, so why not allow prostitution, vote buying, pay-to-immigrate, selling ad space on your house or body, and premium versions of everything for those willing to pay more? Sandel thinks that these practices are degrading even if uncoerced, and argues that classical liberalism--by trying to maintain neutrality on philosophical questions like "what is the good?"--doesn't have the resources to prevent rampant and undesirable commodification. Read more about the topic and get the text.

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  1. dmf says

    this was excellent thanks for having MS on I want to highlight his central point that one shouldn’t try to draw a strong line between ontology and sociology (in the broad sense of what we human critters do not the limited academic social “science”) because we are not really able to do so and because I think this brings us back to both feminist views (yes others have made similar points) that everything we do is in some real sense political and with that Richard Rorty’s point that Philosophy/Reasoning than is quite limited as a democratic tool (and certainly doesn’t/can’t provide a grounding or overarching framework) when it comes to governmental processes/processing and that what we ultimately depend on in liberal (broadly speaking) democracies are institutions/practices like voting, courts, etc.

  2. Douglass Pinkard says

    You guys are fucking KINGS! I haven’t even listened to this yet but am so pleased just by the subject matter itself because of how much I believe that no subject matter matters more (ooh, English major moment). I was in other places intellectually during my time in Cambridge, Mass and never took a Sandel class (if he was even there in the early-to-mid ’90s), but I am all but wetting my Depends to know that yet another big-leaguer has come to see what an incredibly important contribution you guys make to public discourse, further establishing what major fucking leaguers YOU guys (and your podcast) are! Rock on, Partially Examining bros!

  3. Lance Hunter says

    The continued use of the prostitution example in the criticism of market society was jarring. I am surprised that none of you raised any objections when that example kept on being pulled out. Are you not familiar with the sex worker rights movement? The use of that example undermined a lot of Sandel’s argument as it was dehumanizing (not providing or accepting any agency for the people who are engaging in the sex work), it was hypocritical (as I have a very difficult time believing that Sandel has never enjoyed the prostitution that is recorded for pornography), and the real-world consequences of considering sex work to be inherently degrading in the way Sandel proposes are the prohibitions that make sex work much less safe for the people who do it.

    Put it this way, every time Sandel pulls out the example that prostitution could be viewed as inherently degrading, replace it the word “prostitution” with “curse words in rock and roll music”. Except for the economic persuasion (which Sandel seems to want to move past anyways) both are interchangeable for the purposes of the argument.

    • Profile photo of Michael Burgess says

      It’s an example because people use human dignity arguments, not because those arguments are correct. The example had nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution.

      • Lance Hunter says

        But if Sandel had used “curse words in rock and roll music” as the example (something that, growing up Southern Baptist in the 80s, I can certainly say people used human dignity arguments to try and ban) would the guys have just let that slip in the same way they did with the prostitution example?

        Sandel seemed to be saying that human dignity arguments were a valid way for a society to find and pursue the good, and are a preferable alternative to the market-oriented methods he is arguing against. The prostitution example is in fact a rather clear case of where arguments from human dignity actively hurt and debase other human beings, and seems to directly counter the point Sandel was trying to make. (In fact, the sex worker rights movement itself argues primarily from a market position in that sex work is work, and that it has the same value and rights as other labor in our market society.)

        • Mike Davies says

          I think Sandel uses the prostitution example because it is a clear case of (formally) uncoerced market exchange in which the commodity being sold is arguably degraded precisely by its being treated as a commodity. There may be a powerful argument to be made that this is not the case, but there is a debate to be had. As such the example of prostitution clearly illustrates his idea that market rationality should not be uncritically utilized as a mechanism for structuring all areas of social life, and that deferring to markets is not a value-neutral action .
          In the case of curse words in rock songs its not the commodification of cursing which causes outrage but the cursing itself.

  4. Nate says

    Wonderful podcast as always, guys. I would like to make a note, though, that as far as i can tell, ‘PEL’ is not working as a coupon code on harrys.com (i tried ‘pel’, ‘P E L’ and ‘p e l’ as well).

    • Nate says

      I meant to post this on the page for Episode 97, not 98. Also, I realized the problem – I was using an account on which I placed orders already. This coupon code looks to only be good for first-time buyers. No worries. (Feel free to delete this comment and its parent if you want to tidy up).

      Anyway, super excited that 98 came so soon after 97! Downloading now.

  5. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Just finished both episodes on Sanders, and as always apprecite the PEL quadrophonic philosphical perspectives, which reflect strengths and weaknesses with excellent volume. We have it well established (thanks Wes) that neither Rawls nor Kant necessarily ascribed to a “thin” transcendental ego/self, but also included the “thick” empirical self associated with Sanders’ rooted, embodied, community based self. And I think these are good points Wes.

    However, I think the primary epistemic issue here is not so much about the self, but about the basis of truth claims, and that Sanders is disagreeing with Kant and Rawls primarily regarding their insistence on the basis of truth (and Justice) being too abstractly based on reason and not including person/Good (even though Kant and Rawls do not deny person, the just do not appeal to person/selfGood as the basis for Justice/truth).

    Sanders is trying to establish parity of Good (morality) with Justice (Rational truth claims). The problem with Rawls for Sanders, is that his pragmatic approach does not give parity to morality. The problem with Kand for Sanders is that his giving primacy to the rational over the empirical does not give parity to Sanders’ concept of embodied morality. Sanders shows his philosophical smarts in “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice” by not making moral claims, but that led to the frustration as expressed on the podcast: how do you incorporate Sanders’ views into society beyond just dialogue? –which remains a valid concern).

    Sanders’ objection to liberal neutrality (justice) is that it does not allow discussion of morality, which denies access to values/morality for both liberals and moralists. I think Sanders is the first moralist I have ever seen trying to make peace with liberals rather than trying to raise hell. He would be a great friend.

    But I think all of this begs the point: what is the problem with morality as a position of right versus wrong and how should that category be integrated into society? Well, I would say in the spirit of Nietzsche, not a good idea, (thus the concerns voiced over the indroduction of totalitarianism with the concept of morality.) I do not wan’t people feeling free to tell me what is right (usually wrong), and even is Sanders is being reasonable, we do not wan’t to return to those dark ages “right” and moral people. Why bring up your vaues in the context of morality? Why not bring it up in the context of dialogue?

    Which brings me to the last point. Even the wonderfully heuristic approach that Rawls gives us identifying “Justice” in society can be approched moralistically when considerd “Justice,” as the “Right,” rather than an attempt at justice using rational minds to get together at times in society to try and establish our best paradigm of what justice might be for the present.

    Thanks guys for an enjoyable wild toad ride into the pits of morality :)

  6. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Just to give an idea of the problems that are not fully addressed, I include this speech by Deleuze from his Documentary:

    “The reverence that people display toward human rights — it almost makes one want to defend horrible, terrible positions. It is so much a part of the softheaded thinking that marks the shabby period we were talking about. It’s pure abstraction. Human rights, after all, what does that mean? It’s pure abstraction, it’s empty. It’s exactly what we were talking about before about desire, or at least what I was trying to get across about desire. Desire is not putting something up on a pedestal and saying, hey, I desire this. We don’t desire liberty and so forth, for example; that doesn’t mean anything. We find ourselves in situations.

    Take today’s Armenia, a recent example. What is the situation there? If I understand correctly — please let me know if I don’t, though that’s not the point either — there’s an Armenian enclave in another Soviet republic. So there’s an Armenian republic, and then an enclave. Well, that’s a situation. First, there’s the massacre that the Turks, or the Turkic people, I’m not sure, massacre the Armenians once again, in their enclave. The Armenians take refuge in their republic — I think, and again, please correct my errors — and then, there, an earthquake hits. It’s as if they were in the Marquis de Sade. These poor people went through the worst ordeals that they could face, and they’ve only just escaped into shelter when Mother Nature starts it all up again.

    I mean, we say “human rights”, but in the end, that’s a party line for intellectuals, and for odious intellectuals, and for intellectuals without any ideas of their own. Right off the bat, I’ve noticed that these declarations of human rights are never done by way of the people that are primarily concerned, the Armenian associations and communities, and so on. Their problem isn’t human rights. What is it?

    There’s a set-up! As I was saying, desire is always through set-ups. Well, there’s a set-up. What can be done to eliminate this enclave, or to make it livable? What is this interior enclave? That’s a territorial question: not a human rights question, but a qusetion of territorial organisation. What are they going to suppose that Gorbachev is going to get out of the situation? How is he going to arrange things so that there’s no longer this Armenian enclave delivered into the hands of the hostile Turks all around it? That’s not a human rights issue, and it’s not a justice issue. It’s a matter of jurisprudence. All of the abominations through which humans have suffered are cases. They’re not denials of abstract rights; they’re abominable cases. One can say that these cases resemble other, have something in common, but they are situations for jurisprudence.

    The Armenian problem is typical of what one might call a problem of jurisprudence. It is extraordinarily complex. What can be done to save the Armenians, and to enable the Armenians to extricate themselves from this situation? And then, on top of things, the earthquake kicks in. An earthquake whose unfolding also had its reasons, buildings which weren’t well built, which weren’t put together as they should have been. All of these things are jurisprudence cases. To act for liberty, to become a revolutionary, this is to act on the plane of jurisprudence. To call out to justice — justice does not exist, and human rights do not exist. What counts is jurisprudence: *that* is the invention of rights, invention of the law. So those who are content to remind us of human rights, and recite lists of human rights — they are idiots. It’s not a question of applying human rights. It is one of inventing jurisprudences where, in each case, this or that will no longer be possible. And that’s something quite different.

    I’ll take an example I quite like, because it’s the only way to get across what jurisprudence is. People don’t really understood, well, not everyone. People don’t understand very well. I remember the time when it was forbidden to smoke in taxis. The first taxi drivers who forbade smoking in their taxis — that made a lot of noise, because there were smokers. And among them was a lawyer.

    I have always been passionate about jurisprudence, about law. Had I not done philosophy, I would have done law, but indeed, jurisprudence, not human rights. Because that’s life. There are no human rights, there is life, and there are life rights. Only life goes case by case.

    So, taxis. There was this guy who didn’t want to be forbidden from smoking in taxi. So he took the taxi driver to court. I remember it very well: the taxi driver was ruled guilty. If the trial were to take place today, the taxi driver wouldn’t be guilty, it would be the passenger who’d be the guilty party. But back then, the taxi driver was found guilty. Under what pretext? That, when someone took a taxi, he was the tenant. So the taxi passenger was likened to a tenant; the tenant is allowed to smoke in his own home under the right of use and support. It’s as though he was an actual tenant, as though my landlord told me: no, you may not smoke in my home. And I’d say: yes, if I am the tenant, I can smoke in my own home. So the taxi was made out to be a sort of mobile apartment in whcih the passenger was the tenant.

    Ten years later, it’s become almost universal: there is almost no taxi in which one can smoke, period. The taxi is no longer made out to be like renting an apartment, it’s a public service. In a public service, forbidding smoking is permitted. All that is jurisprudence. There’s no issue of rights of this or that. It’s the matter of a situation, and a situation that evolves. And fighting for freedom, really, is doing jurisprudence.

    So there you have it, the Armenian example seems typical to me. Human rights — what do they mean? They mean: aha, the Turks don’t have the right to massacre the Armenians. Fine, so the Turks don’t have the right to massacre the Armenians. And? It’s really nuts. Or, worse, I think they’re hypocrites, all these notions of human rights. It is zero, philosophically it is zero. Law isn’t created through declarations of human rights. Creation, in law, is jurisprudence, and that’s the only thing there is. So: fighting for jurisprudence. That’s what being on the left is about. It’s creating the right.”

  7. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    To elaborate on Deleuze’s position above:

    “Deleuze is not opposed to rights as such but only to the idea that there exists a definitive set of human rights grounded in some rights-bearing feature of human nature. His understanding of jurisprudence clarifies the sense of his opposition to empty universals such as human rights in the abstract: these are useless because they are fixed and a-historical, unable to evolve in accordance with the requirements of a particular case. His preference for jurisprudence over declarations of human rights or their enshrinement in legal codes is a preference for the ongoing and open-ended creative process that leads to the modification of existing laws and the invention of new rights. As such, it parallels the kind of conceptual abstraction that he endorses in philosophy. Just as philosophy responds to problems by the creation of concepts, so when we respond to particular situations by legal means we are involved in jurisprudence, meaning the creative modification of existing legal principles or the invention of new ones to fit particular cases:”

    “To act for freedom, becoming revolutionary, is to operate in jurisprudence when one turns to the justice system …that’s what the invention of law is … its not a question of applying ‘the rights of man’ but rather of inventing new forms of jurisprudence … I have always been fascinated by jurisprudence, by law … If I hadn’t studied philosophy, I would have studied law, but precisely not ‘the rights of man’, rather I’d have studied jurisprudence. That’s what life is. There are no ‘rights of man’, only rights of life, and so, life unfolds case by case.( L’Abécédaire, ‘G as in Gauche’.) From http://www.palgrave-journals.com/cpt/journal/v4/n4/full/9300236a.html

  8. Graham Wright says

    While I think Sandel makes a number of good points about the intrusion of markets in everyday life, I’m not sure I agree with his claim that a greater emphasis on “the good” and “morals” into public discourse, and greater use of moral in the justification of legislation would be good for democracy. There was a time when legislation was explicitly based on morality, religious or otherwise: until 1965 contraception was banned in some US states, precisely because it was felt to be “corrupting” and immoral. If we were having the debate over this law today, Sandel would want the discourse to be about whether non-procreational sex is morally wrong or not. But what argument could you possibly make to a Catholic priest that would convince him that non-procreational sex is not morally wrong? How could he be persuaded that you were right without renouncing his entire “empirical self?” People (whether they’re religious or not) don’t let go of their conception of the good just because of rational argument. In many cases they would rather die than renounce it. Consequently there is not a good track record for arguments over morality being settled by civil discourse, as opposed to violence. But people are willing to accept laws which they don’t like, as long as they’re still free to pursue their own moral agenda.

    In Griswold v. Connecticut the issue of contraception was settled by appealing to a right of privacy. The Catholic church might not have liked that ruling, but they accepted it. Imagine if, in order to decide the case, the justices had to decide, once and for all, whether or not the Catholic church’s doctrine is correct. Now imagine what the Catholic church’s reaction might be to an adverse ruling. What would be the reaction of atheists if the justices decided that the Catholic church was right?

    America has a lot of problems right now, and Sandel articulates many of them eloquently. But as much as American Liberals and Conservatives might hate each other, they’re not doing what Catholics and Protestants did to each other in Europe in the 1600s, or what Sunni and Shiite are doing to each other in the middle east right now and the evidence seems to suggest that the extent to which our classical liberal government tries (to the extent possible) to stay out of issues of morality has something to do with that.

  9. Tony Gilkerson says

    Very good. I have actually listened to this Episode 98 several times. Michael Sandel has given a voice to intuitions that I have had for a long time but did not have any way to express them. Most of my moral thinking has been first person, what should I do, but I just love how the argument is setup, rights vs the good. Thanks for having Michael as a guest, I did not know who he was before this.

    And good job Wes. Michael is to professional/practiced and has to many real world examples and so he came off rhetorically better but stick in there, your concerns are good ones. As excited as I am about this new (new to me) idea about rights vs the good and the possibility of considering the good in matters of justice I already see the danger in my thoughts.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

      Moral truth claims (virtue, righteousness) tend to be about the good (truth) versus bad (false); while claims about Rights (justice) make claims about rights (truth) vs wrongs (bad, false); and epistemic claims are about truth (in fact) or falsity (in fact). These arguments tend to become conflated and confused, shifting topics from righteousness, to rights, to reality under various arguments.

  10. H.S. says

    This is again a little tangential, but here’s a fun sprawling article summing up a particular view on a lot of topics that are touched on here: individual vs society, (neo-classical) economism and utilitarianism, human nature etc. and how they may be related to certain enduring ideological strains in Western thought.

    Marshall Sahlins (1996) The Sadness of Sweetness: The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology


  11. Lucy Mendes says

    After listening to this podcast, I realize why I find the term “out-of-touch liberals” so frustrating. It is a means to shut down and shunt away humanist and moral concerns as they are expressed. If someone is “out-of-touch,” they are not credible, their concerns remain hypothetical or quaint. The ultimate reality of market ideology and its apparent pragmatism trump all. We don’t need to have a discussion.

  12. Harry Rogers says

    Great podcast and Mr Sandel is one of the most articulate speakers I have heard for a long while (maybe I don’t get out enough).

    Seth raised the relevant matter on religious and moral issues “interfering” with debates. Does this now come down to political correctness or as Mr Sandel suggests a lack of moral courage to openly debate all matters relevant to an issue.

    Wes unsuccessfully put forward a counter reason for this on the assumption that to progress some things need to be left by the wayside.

    Is passion expressed in one’s beliefs now pushed aside by technocratic clap trap and are we returning to the days of that wonderful BS word “mindset” to explain how we are to deal with complex issues??

    Well done all and thanks for the effort.

  13. Profile photo of Lisa Sánchez González says

    I enjoyed this podcast so much that I decided to read What Money Can’t Buy. I get the argument that some choices spawned by this kind of market ideology may be coerced or somehow involuntary and that sometimes it’s just plain wrong to monetize certain things because it corrupts or degrades our communal life. I agree with that. But the bulk of the book is examples of this kind of problematic type of exchange in late capitalism. I’m about 50 pages from finishing it, and perhaps I should finish it before offering my opinion, but I was more interested in the philosophical argument against the market ideology and found the profusion of examples tiresome. I understand the logic behind reaching a broader audience, but an inventory of examples without a strong analytical punch line strikes here and there me as stylistically ineffective. I am a voracious reader with a lot of patience for difficult texts and texts with which I may disagree. But about 50 pages into this book I was so bored I started skimming.

  14. says

    Hayek is not typically associated wit the Chicago school, but instead with the Austrian school. Hayek did warn about the quantification of economics, however. Hayek argued economics should be a moral and political philosophy, not an empirical science.

    I really think this podcast would benefit from the inclusion of texts from the market-side or the economic consequential side i.e. David Friedman, Milton Friedman, Hayek, Bob Murphy, Jason Brennan or any of the guys and ladies at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. There is both consequential and deontological arguments for the market arguments you all often glide over, ignore, or never discuss. I truly believe David Friedman or Jason Brennan would provide a great podcast with great arguments that are sorely missing here.

    I’m guessing that while many liberals may be against prostitution, I’d guess most aren’t against pornography (the only difference is both parties are paid, not just the female), or marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, R-rated movies, heavy metal, rap music, etc. There is no such thing as society, or the public good, or overall values above the most simple ones such as force, fraud, and coercion. You may disagree with something like prostitution and selling kidneys, but if someone proposes outlawing marijuana, alcohol, or pornography, I’d bet you all would have issues with that. Consequentially, prohibition of vices – drugs, gambling, and sex – creates organized crimes, mafias, cartels, etc. and the consequences of these prohibitions are often far worse than the consequences of allowing these things to be sold on the market.

    The rest of Sandel’s arguments are for some kind of utopia, a utopia he would like, but not one the other 320 million people would like. Consequentially, what’s better, the market economy or the command economy?

    Secondly, I believe you all should read all of Nassim Taleb’s books, Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile. Nassim looks at arguments for how to construct the world from consequential, philosophical, religious, mathematical, statistical, and other reasons that would be great to discuss on this podcast. He attempts to help fix some of the worse parts of our capitalist systems like to big to fail companies or the other things you all may dislike but seems to simply prefer state intervention.

  15. John Halloran says

    This was a great episode, and a great interview. Thank you guys so much for the effort here.

    I have always read Sandel as a Rawls critic, and (as in my post on the previous Sandel episode) have always grumped that Sandel has missed the point. After this episode, I have a new appreciation for Sandel’s positive position–which I find myself substantially agreeing with in lots of respects (I seem to align very well with Wes here). I buy the framework that Sandel lays out for the inclusion of conceptions of the good in public discourse–though I would have liked to hear him speak to Rawls’s argument in Political Liberalism that you can bring conceptions of the good so long as there is independent justification that can be made for that position (again understanding that the limits of Rawls, in my opinion, don’t reach the specific cases that Sandel keeps bringing up).

    The other point that I’d like to acknowledge was Seth’s point that foundational neutrality sets people who advance conceptions of the good in the public debate up for being dismissed. I feel like Seth, there, makes Sandel’s point better than Sandel. I’m not sure that this is incommensurable with Rawls, but I feel like I understand the concern much more completely.

    Finally, this episode really makes me want to understand Sandel’s positive case for how we resolve conflicts between conceptions of the good in the political world. I certainly favor having debate about the good–and the debate in and of itself may be useful (particularly as an erosion of market thinking). But where does that ultimately take us? Especially as a political problem of resolving fundamental conflicts between conceptions of the good.


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