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When markets and morals collide

Stephanie Mitchell

In his research and writings, Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, explores the often clamorous intersection of financial markets and morality in the modern world. He raises some big ethical questions: Is it OK to hire attractive sales clerks and flight attendants? Should someone be allowed to sell their kidney? Is it ethical to scalp a ticket?

Sandel, whose class “Justice” is one of the most popular courses at Harvard, recently launched a video podcastbased on his latest book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” Metro Minute caught up with Sandel to ask about his project and what he’s learned. (Comments have been edited and condensed.)

What got you interested in this subject?

One [reason] is to promote public debate about this question, and the other is to provide an educational resource for students who are studying economics . . . but who may not be exposed to some of the ethical dimensions. It poses a simple question in a way, which is: What should be the role of money and markets in our society? I think it’s one of the great missing debates in contemporary democratic life.

What have you learned about modern morality and how it has evolved?

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Stepping back and looking at the last 40 years or so, I think we’ve drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. It’s a way of life in which market values and market thinking begin to reach into almost every sphere of life, from personal relations to health, education, civic life, politics, law, the media. So we become accustomed to thinking and acting as if we can put a price on almost everything. But, after a while, we begin to notice that thinking in this way can be corrosive of important values.

Do you believe it’s possible to get to the bottom of this debate, or is it enough to get people thinking?

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The primary goal is to get people thinking. So often, economics as a subject matter is taught as if it were a value-neutral science of human behavior and social choice. But in fact, economic questions raise big ethical and civic questions. I think we don’t pay enough attention to the big ethical questions that underlie the choices we make as citizens.

How do millennials’ opinions differ from those of older generations?

It’s hard to generalize. I think college students today generally look quite favorably on allowing markets to be used in quite a wide range of social and civic life, although there is sometimes very lively disagreement. What intrigues me are the differences across countries. In the US, I find that people’s pro-market intuitions run very deep by comparison with audiences in Europe. In China, there is a great enthusiasm for market solutions comparable only to the US, in my experience.

What do you hope this series will accomplish?

To prompt a new kind of public debate. If you look at democracies around the world today, there is growing frustration with the empty terms of public discourse. I think this is why we see so much anger and frustration with politicians and political parties, because we’re really not debating the big questions that matter. What passes for public discourse today consists either of narrow, managerial, technocratic talk, which inspires no one, or shouting matches on cable television and talk radio. What’s missing, I think, is a morally more robust kind of public discourse.

Additional sources: Institute for New Economic Thinking and Bloomberg