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Commentary on Markets Without Limits

Business Ethics Journal Review has just published a short Commentary I wrote on Brennan and Jaworski’s excellent Markets Without Limits. (This can be readily accessed here!)  In brief, I argue that rather than offering a unified defence of their view that there are “no legitimate worries about what we buy, trade, and sell” Brennan and Jaworski unwittingly offer three distinct pro-commodification views—two of which are subject to counterexamples.  I then clarify what should be the thesis of their volume and identify the conditions that any counter-example to this must meet.


  • Selling the Nobel prize and other meritorious prizes for money would certainly be counter-productive (against the goals and principles of that organization, and vastly reduces the brand value for that organization), but what is immoral?
    At best you could say that it violates an informal and non-contractual public commitment by that organization.

    Saving drowning people for money is immoral? I suppose coast guards and lifeguards should be scolded immediately.

    You are correct that I can bind myself to do something for free (for example a warranty contract means that I will repair or replace a defective product). But that has no bearing on whether I morally may do the same activity (repairing products) for a fee.

    • CJColucci

      If I am walking along the beach and spot someone drowning, I may be morally obliged to rescue him or her (assuming I can do it without undue personal risk) without compensation. If I insisted on money in those circumstances, I would rightly be regarded as an utter shit. But I am not morally obliged to station myself on the beach and keep a lookout for drowning persons to rescue. I can insist on being compensated for undertaking this more comprehensive obligation.

      • Sure, it is highly preferable that you do save the drowning person and most people would not consider a good person if you didn’t, but that doesn’t establish that rescuing drowning people cannot or should not be done for money.
        In other words, you posit an obligation to do something for free, then claim it obliges you to do something for free. This only begs the question.

        • CJColucci

          I don’t “posit” an obligation to do something for free. I accept the considered judgment of mankind that I have this particular obligation. I take seriously the failure of a lot of very bright people over two millennia to create foundations for such judgments, and don’t think I or some tenure-hungry philosophy professor will come up with something they missed. That said, whether I have this particular obligation is beside the point. The point is whether compensating the Coast Guard or lifeguards is inconsistent with having the obligation to rescue someone for free. Or are you suggesting that if I, as an individual, see two drowning persons, I should choose whom to rescue by competitive bidding?

  • AP²

    It seems weird to me to use the hypothesis of a drowning person as a way to disprove their thesis without mentioning the Drowning Man example the book itself uses to counter those arguments[1]. It’d be more interesting to see a reply addressing that.


  • I think the Commentary could have been a bit clearer.

    It seems that a careful statement of the thesis of Brennan and Jaworski should run something like this (I have not checked back on the article and I have not read the book, hence the vague ‘something like’):

    (T) Everything is such that, if it is permissible to own it, then there are possible circumstances in which it is permissible to buy it and there are possible circumstances in which it is permissible to sell it.

    Are honours an exception to (T)? Obviously, honours can be, and are, bought and sold through corrupt practices (the UK honours system is an example, in which knighthoods and other ‘orders of merit’ are distributed to political party donors). But then they are not genuine honours: they are fake, though they may fool many people. It does seem plausible that a genuine honour could not, logically, be purchased or sold. But that means that it is impossible to buy or sell genuine honours, not that it is impermissible to do so. Does ‘it is impossible that p’ imply ‘there are no circumstances in which it is permissible that p’?

    Taylor says ‘no’ because ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ Is that relevant? ‘It is impossible that p’ entails ‘it is not the case that one ought to bring it about that p.’ That does not help much. Let’s try this: ‘one ought not to bring it about that p’ entails ‘it is possible that one does not bring it about that p.’ Now, the impossibility of p implies the necessity of not-p, which implies that not-p is possible; so it implies that it is possible that one does not bring it about that p. So, the impossibility of p is consistent with ‘one ought not to bring it about that p,’ that is, it is consistent with ‘it is impermissible that p.’ But is it consistent with ‘it is permissible that p’? The ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ principle does not seem to give us an answer.

    It seems therefore advisable to follow Taylor’s suggestion and reformulate (T) along the following lines:

    (T’) Everything is such that, if it is permissible to own it and it is possible to buy it and possible to sell it, then there are
    possible circumstances in which it is permissible to buy it and there
    are possible circumstances in which it is permissible to sell it.

    The drowning example is not a counterexample to (T) or to (T’): there are possible (indeed actual) circumstances in which it is permissible to sell rescue services, as Taylor notes.

    • AP²

      I think the “selling honours situation” is given as an example of a misguided objection to the thesis, as the Commentary continues with:

      Yet this first objection misfires. Although they are concerned with “the inherent limits of the market” Brennan and Jaworski are concerned only with the inherent moral limits of the market, i.e., whether there are any goods that ought never to be commodified. Since “ought” implies “can” they are only concerned with goods that it is possible to commodify.

      The actual objections of the Commentary seem to come afterwards.

    • AP²

      Sorry, I didn’t realize your comment continued. Nevermind my previous post.

  • Mike Huben

    Smallpox meets all four conditions nicely.

    The entire argument is preconditioned on ignoring externalities. Smallpox exposes that problem.