I am so happy to see that Japa Pallikkathayil is blogging over at Political Philosop-her. I’ve always liked Japa’s work and I think her Philosopher’s Imprint essay about coercion is an especially wonderful discussion of a difficult topic. In her post, Japa addresses a topic that will be of interest to readers of the blog—the morality of markets.
Drawing on a Kantian framework, which says we must never treat others merely as means, Japa explains that we may be blind to the ends of others when we enter into market arrangements with them without treating them merely as means. This is because voluntary exchanges generally further the ends of both parties by enabling buyers and sellers (of labor or goods) to make decisions that reflect their own assessments of the value of a service or a product relative to the wage or price.
But Japa is concerned about exchanges that happen against unjust background conditions. She writes: “there are some contexts in which the use of the norms of marketplace is inappropriate because of the circumstances of the potential participants.” First, market norms are allegedly morally suspect when one participant in the exchange is a victim of injustice. So, for example, if you were only selling a product to me because your landlord is unjustly evicting you from your home it would be wrong for me to profit from that injustice. Instead I should not use an injustice to further my ends in part because I should recognize that you are entitled to greater control over what you are selling than you currently have as a victim of injustice.
Second, when one participant’s ends are clearly more urgent and weighty than another’s, like if you are only selling me something to pay for your child’s chemotherapy, then participating in an exchange “reflects a misunderstanding of the values at play.” She therefore concludes: “those of us who are not subjected to injustice or struggling to survive should be very troubled by most of our market transactions. These transactions involve us in a blindness to the ends of others that is not justifiable.”
As someone with Kantian leanings, I especially enjoyed reading this post. But it left me with some questions:
1) How is this not the case for a lot of (if not all) market exchanges? It seems like even ordinary exchanges, e.g. most employment arrangements, are motivated by the need to provide for our basic needs or the basic needs of those we love. Of course there are other reasons to work, but I imagine that some people wouldn’t work if they could ensure that their needs were satisfied even if those same people love their jobs. And insofar as at least some taxation is unjust, but we must work more to pay those taxes, then some of our market exchanges are also premised on an injustice. If I am an employer, does the fact that my employee is only working for me as much as she is because she is a victim of injustice or so that she will not struggle to survive mean that my transaction is unjustifiable to the extent that this is true? In this way, the account seems over-inclusive.
2) Say that it is true that a transaction is not justifiable if one participant in the transaction is struggling to survive or a victim of injustice. Does it follow that I should not participate in the transaction? Even if there were something objectionably ‘blind to the ends of others’ when someone participates in a transaction instead of addressing the underlying injustice or need, as Matt Zwolinski often points out, this is rarely the relevant counterfactual. Instead, most people who encounter victims of injustice or those in great need don’t do anything at all. In this way participants in voluntary exchanges may do more to further the ends of others than anyone else, even if those participants could do more.
3) Japa argues that the duties to refrain from certain market transactions—duties that we have to people who are victims of injustice or those who are struggling to survive—needn’t be explained by duties of beneficence. Instead she references Kyla Ebels-Duggan’s Kantian account of love, which argues that we should share in our loved one’s ends rather than in aiming to promote their happiness. But most market exchanges do not involve loved ones, and in these circumstances it’s not clear that the same special duties apply. It might even be a mistake to aim to further or share in a stranger’s ends if that distance means that you are not well-suited to fully understand their ends beyond what they express to you, which in this case is an exchange.
4) In at least some exchanges, both participants in the exchange are either desperate or the victim of injustice. For example, Ann might sell a kidney to Bill only because Ann needs to pay for her daughters chemotherapy, and Bill may purchase the kidney only because he will die without it. In these desperate circumstances, there may be no other way for Ann or Bill to further their ends. But Ann and Bill do not treat each other in ways that misunderstand the values at play because presumably the values at play are comparable. Yet why would the permissibility of Bill buying something from Ann at a given price depend on whether Bill is as desperate as Ann or not? Would this view imply that whether exchanges are problematic depends not only on the circumstance of each participant but also on the degree of inequality between the participants? If so, does this mean that it is generally problematic for people who are well-off to enter into exchanges, but not for the badly off?