One of the stranger arguments against commodification Peter and I encountered holds that it is wrong to commodify certain things, because doing so would diminish other people’s freedom to enjoy having that good have a particular social meaning. Some excerpts from Markets without Limits:
Elizabeth Anderson claims that in order to produce the social conditions under which people can be autonomous, “Constraints may be needed to secure the robust sphere differentiation required to create a significant range of options through which people can express a wide range of valuations.” She says “people value different goods in different ways,” and to preserve their freedom we must create different “spheres that embody these different modes of valuation,” boundaries “not just between the state and the market, but between these institutions and other domains of self-expression.
Anderson has another argument. She claims that allowing the sale of sex reduces some people’s freedom. In particuar, it reduces some people’s freedom to have sex have the meaning they want it to have.
According to Anderson, people value having the freedom of being able to induce sexual pleasure in those whom they love. But, Anderson claims, people not only want the freedom to induce sexual pleasure in those they love, they also want the freedom of having sex insulated from money. She says that a moral culture that accepts prostitution makes it hard to “establish insulated social spheres where [sex] can be exclusively and freely valued as a genuinely shared and personal good.” The idea here is that Jane might not just want to give sexual pleasure to Kevin. She also wants sexual pleasure to be insulated from the market, such that the sex they enjoy together is something they both recognize as a “genuinely shared and personal good”. In a world where Kevin (or Jane) can buy sex, then the meaning of sex is different. So, Anderson concludes, allowing people to buy sex reduces the freedom of those who want sex to have a certain meaning.
Anderson is, in some sense, right. If people are free to treat sex as not having the meaning that Jane wants it to have, then Jane is not free to have sex have the meaning she wants it to have. So the freedom of some to treat sex as having one meaning conflicts with Jane’s freedom to have sex have a different meaning.
But it’s hard to see why this has any moral upshot. To show that buying and selling sex is wrong, it’s not enough to point out, as Anderson does, that prostitution reduces Jane’s freedom to have sex have the meaning she wants it to have. We need an additional premise, namely that Jane is entitled to have other people create a social environment in which sex has that special meaning. [Bold added for emphasis]
We’re happy to grant Anderson that commodifying sex does indeed remove or diminish the freedom in question. But, so what?
Consider, as a parody: Suppose we prefer that Swedish progressive death metal be seen as sacred. Suppose, in our view, Swedish progressive death metal should not be bought and sold on the market, but should only developed through gift exchanges inside churches. If our culture allows Swedish progressive death metal to be bought and sold, it thereby reduces our freedom to have Swedish progressive death metal have the sacred meaning we want it to have. But, even if so, so what? Other people don’t have any moral duty to ensure that Swedish progressive death metal have the meaning we want it to have. When they don’t treat it as sacred, we lose our “freedom” to have it have the meaning we want, but we are not entitled to this freedom, and no one owes it to use to help us realize that freedom. We don’t have any right to impose our view of the music on others, and they have no duty to comply with it.
Similarly, Anderson is correct that if people can buy and sell sex, this may reduce Jane’s freedom to make sex with Kevin have exactly the kind of meaning she would like it to have. But that does not make it wrong to buy and sell sex. Rather, we need an independent argument here that shows us that other people are entitled to supply Jane with the social environment she desires, that is, that other people are obligated to impute the meaning onto sex that Jane wants sex to have. So, Anderson’s argument doesn’t show that selling sex is wrong because it reduces freedom. Rather, it presupposes that selling sex violates a particular meaning that some people are entitled to demand that others share. Jane wants sex to be seen as an exclusive gift. If others don’t treat sex that way, this reduces her freedom to make sex be seen that way. But Jane isn’t, as far as we can tell, entitled to have that kind of freedom, so there is nothing wrong with taking it away from her.
I’d prefer to live in a world where Swedish progressive death metal had a higher status. I think Opeth’s Ghost Reveries is a far more valuable contribution to culture than what all the humanities academic fields, excluding philosophy, have collectively produced in the past 100 years. But, so what? No one owes me the freedom to have this form of metal have the meaning I want it to have.