Book/Article Reviews

Review of Markets without Limits at NDPR

Jonathan Anomaly reviews Markets without Limits at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. In addition to providing an excellent and useful summary of the main moves the the book, Anomaly argues that Jaworski and I are perhaps too conciliatory to the other side:

But Brennan and Jaworski arguably don’t go far enough by offering us moral permissions rather than requirements.

It is plausible that we have an obligation to exert significant effort to change socially harmful semiotic conventions, even at great personal cost, when we have the power to do so. Influential academics like Satz and Sandel, or Brennan and Jaworski, can be thought of as norm entrepreneurs with special obligations to defend or criticize the prevailing semiotics with novel arguments.


Anomaly has considerable background in moral psychology, so he’s particularly interested in the part V of the book, where Jaworski and I start to question whether philosophers’ intuitions about market exchanges are merely dressed-up disgust reactions:


Our moral intuitions evolved, in part, to solve collective action problems in small-scale societies.[6] So they are often unreliable guides to how we should organize large-scale political institutions, or react to how people raised in very different communities choose to live their lives. This suggests that we should be careful to avoid elevating a moral intuition or a value-laden gut reaction to the status of an enforceable law unless we can show that doing so prevents harm to others, improves social welfare, protects autonomy, or promotes other widely shared values that can survive scrutiny. Aversion to incest and homosexuality almost certainly helped our ancestors maximize inclusive fitness, even if these aversions fail to promote human welfare, especially in the modern world. Evolution has never “aimed at” making creatures happy, but at least some of the moral intuitions that gave our ancestors reproductive advantages in the past cause tremendous misery in the present, especially when we unreflectively use these intuitions to ground social norms or legal sanctions.[7]

Some critics of markets that elicit repugnance would argue that we just haven’t yet found a justification for these attitudes,[8] while Brennan and Jaworski would likely say this is because a justification is not forthcoming. Both sides are making an inference to the best explanation, but I suspect Brennan and Jaworski are right.

It’s worth exploring some parallels between inferences we might make in ethics with those in the sciences. Long before the advent of genetics, Charles Darwin knew that for evolution by natural selection to work, there had to be some mechanism (what we now know to be DNA) for faithfully transmitting information to create body parts and repair tissues (from what we now know to be proteins). The best explanation was that something was there doing the work, although Darwin didn’t quite know what.

Similarly, cosmologists have noticed that the universe is expanding at a rate that exceeds what gravity alone can account for. Many cosmologists assume the best explanation for the universe’s accelerating rate of expansion is something they call “dark energy” (dark energy differs from dark matter, but has a similar placeholder status as an unknown feature of the universe that is supposed to help explain well-understood phenomena).

Are the gut reactions we feel when we encounter a market that makes us queasy an indicator that our queasiness is justified, for reasons we don’t yet understand? Maybe so, but I doubt it. In high stakes cases like markets for organs or genetically engineered babies, we should take our cue from Brennan and Jaworski and look to the expected consequences of markets — including regulated markets — on human welfare as a way of gauging whether our gut reactions are a reliable indicator of whether a market is morally justified.

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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Reasonable Extremist

    Hi Jason,

    Very interesting book and it’s on my list. I was wondering if you and Peter Jaworski engaged with Satz’s weak agency critique which, as I understand it, holds that the market in X is not really free because people are too poor/ ignorant to meaningfully consent?