Religion, Exploitation

Commodification on Twin Earth

I debated Jennifer Roback Morse this past week on the topic of markets in kidneys, sex, and kids, at the University of Texas (Austin). It was co-hosted by the Austin Institute, and the Texas Economics Association.

Jennifer runs the Ruth Institute, which is an institute in favor of traditional marriage, against the sexual revolution, against surrogacy (paid and unpaid), and so on.

Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to defend the thesis in my book Markets without Limits, the opponents are typically left-liberals. So they don’t like markets in certain kinds of things because they are wrongfully exploitative, or they fail to symbolically signal equal respect, or they’ll promote inequality, or the poor won’t get as much of the good things, and so on.

But Jennifer is a social conservative. And because there are almost no social conservatives in the academy to speak of, it was a bit difficult for me to try to figure out what she might argue.

Brennan suggested I just do a Twin Earth thought experiment throughout, and see what she has to say about it. So I did.

Here’s video of the debate, and, below, I’m posting the text of my introduction:

Let me tell you a story about a recent trip of mine.

I was on Twin Earth last month.

Twin Earth is just like our regular Earth, with just a few differences. They share all of our moral convictions, but they have many different conventions.

For example, around here, if I were to give you the finger, that would be disrespectful.

But on Twin Earth, they use the middle finger as a respectful greeting. If you want to say “hello” to someone respectfully, you do this.

Don’t wave to them on Twin Earth.

When we wave, we communicate “hello.” When they wave, they communicate something like what the middle finger communicates around here.

Now they think, like we do, that it would be morally wrong for you to be disrespectful in public. They just use different symbols. In fact, we do not disagree about the deep truths of morality, we just disagree about superficial things, like customs, conventions, and symbols.

As it happens, I bumped into a professor of ethics on Twin Earth, and I told her about this debate.

I told her that I thought that anything you may have, use, or exchange for free, you may have, use, or exchange on a market, usually for money. But that my debating partner disagreed, and thought that there were at least some things that you can do for free, but not for money.

I clarified the thesis as best I could.

I told her that I thought markets don’t introduce wrongness where none was present, that they were morally neutral. I told her that the wrong of slavery, for example, has nothing to do with the exchange of money. That slavery would be wrong even if you weren’t allowed to sell people, but could only get them as a gift. The wrong of “slaves for sale” is not located in the “for sale” part but in the slaves part.

I told her that the specific kinds of limits I have in mind are moral limits, and not other kinds of limits. So that, in principle, a regulated market, even a highly regulated one, is compatible with what I mean by “markets without limits.” That I’m not defending laissez-faire or a totally free and unregulated market.

The professor told me that I was going to lose the debate.

“It is pretty obvious,” she told me, “that there are at least a few things that it is morally permissible for you to have, use, or exchange, for free, but not for money.”

I asked her for examples.

“Well, the most obvious ones,” she said, “are medicine, and education.”

Puzzled, I asked her to explain. Here is what she said:

“Consider medicine for a moment. Clearly we don’t want to pay people who treat you for certain kinds of medical conditions, like anything to do with your genitals or your heart.”

“Indeed, our whole society is founded upon the ideal of one heart & genitals doctor, one patient, to the exclusion of all others. Every religion here on Twin Earth insists on this traditional definition of medicine.”

You see, on Twin Earth, you can go to different doctors for various ailments, and you can pay people for a whole variety of health care services, with the sole exception of anything to do with your heart and genitals.

For that, you can only have one doctor, who does not get paid for it. There is also a public ceremony where each person promises to be faithful to the other, and so on.

“There are a few obvious reasons for this,” she continued.

“For example, this sort of medicine is profoundly intimate and sacred. Think about the shame a person feels when they visit a doctor to talk about these issues. But we feel no shame when we have a lasting relationship with our one doctor.”

“In addition, when people go outside of this traditional institution, when they get this kind of medical help on the black market, they are more likely to contract various diseases. There is also a higher risk of violence.”

“Now consider education. It, too, is sacred,” she told me. “It involves the exchange of private and intimate views on matters of philosophy, economics, history, literature, and so on. This is partly why it would be wrong to pay professors or school teachers.”

On Twin Earth, they don’t pay teachers. There is no tuition, and there is no teaching profession. Instead, some people have a regular job, and sometimes volunteer to be a guest lecturer.

“If we paid people to teach,” she continued, “it would debase the sacredness of preparing our children for the future. It would corrupt our educational institutions.”

“It also leaves a space for altruism. A market in education would crowd-out altruism.”

“When we rely on altruism — on giving the gift of education — we are ensuring that the people who teach genuinely care about children and education for its own sake, not for the sake of profit. Children should be educated in a context of love.”

“In addition, knowing how markets work, there would also be an underclass of labourers — call them “adjuncts” — who would be paid a pittance and exploited by profiteering schools.”

As I said, she was a professor. I asked her how she managed to get a PhD without a market in education.

“Mostly you have to know someone,” she said. “So if your mom or dad, or a slightly more distant relative is qualified to take on graduate students, then they’ll take you. Otherwise, you have to get on a waitlist until someone is willing to be your supervisor for free.”

There is a waitlist on Twin Earth for people who want a college education. In 2016, there were over 100,000 people waiting to get into an undergraduate program in Twin America alone. That list keeps on growing every year, while the number of willing altruistic volunteers remains about the same.

I told her that, for the most part, nobody on Earth actually had a problem with paying teachers and, we don’t have a problem with people going to different doctors and paying them, even for heart conditions.

Instead, I told her, people on Earth object to markets of some sort in organs, sex, and surrogacy services.

She laughed at me.

“Oh,” she said. “People on Earth are silly. Apparently they can’t see the difference between mere convention, and the deep truths of morality.”

“Exactly what are they thinking? Why would they be willing to allow people to die on a wait list for organs? To preserve a space for altruism? But we do that here on Twin Earth by making education a matter of altruism. No one dies for want of a PhD, but people die, you tell me, for want of a kidney. Why don’t you switch?

And sex? Why make a fetish of sex? The purpose of sex is pleasure. Our religious texts have plenty of stories about husbands with, for example, multiple wives. Sex is intimate, of course. But it’s not as intimate as heart and genital medicine. Clearly medicine is actually sacred, while sex only seems to be so.

“As for children, it sounds to me like the system you have means that just anyone can have babies, without a system in place to ensure that these people will in fact provide a good home for the child. It’s like you don’t care about the well-being of children at all. If you cared for them, you would have more surrogates, like we do, who are contracted after careful deliberation, not careless intoxication.”

I was struck by how similar the arguments were against paying teachers and doctors on Twin Earth, to arguments that are used here on Earth against a market in organs, in sex, and in commercial surrogacy.

We want to leave a space for altruism, people on Earth say, and so therefore we are not to have a market in organs. They say the same thing on Twin Earth, except they think it follows that we therefore should not pay teachers.

I see why it’s important for children to be educated by people who genuinely care for the children. But when I think of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life, I’m convinced that very many, if not all of them, actually cared for me. They were paid for teaching, but the money wasn’t their sole nor even primary motivation. Just because you get paid for something doesn’t mean that you therefore eliminate space for altruism.

People on Twin Earth seem to think that education and medicine are sacred and special in the very same way that we here on Earth seem to think our organs and sex are sacred and special. Maybe we’re both right, but even if so, exactly what follows about paying people for teaching and for providing health care, or paying people for organs or for sex? A whole lot of nothing, it seems to me. Paying a teacher or a doctor is not incompatible with thinking that education and medicine are both a sacred calling. Selling your kidney does not seem to me to be incompatible with sacredness either.

People on Twin Earth worry that if we paid teachers, children would not be raised in a context of love. That children would be regarded by teachers as a means to the goal of mere profit. That seems to me to be similar in many ways to our worries about commercial surrogacy. Will children who are the result of surrogacy arrangements be properly cared for? Will children who are educated by people who earn a salary for teaching be well-educated? I think the answer to the latter question is, with some exceptions, obvious. Sure they are. And sure they will be. Doesn’t that tell us something about the former question too?

People on Twin Earth worry that if there was a market in education, there would be a group of people who would be exploited. Here on Earth we worry that paying for kidneys will lead to poor people selling kidneys. We have plenty of poorly-paid adjuncts here in the U.S. part of our Earth. That may be a problem, but is the problem impossible to overcome through regulation, for example? Is it a sufficiently large problem to even want regulatory intervention? I’m not sure. But I am sure that, at least in principle, the problem isn’t so insoluble as to want us to do away with markets in education altogether.

Of course my own view is that paying for all of these things is perfectly permissible, in principle.

Provided that commercial surrogacy is consistent with the best interests of the child, and that all parents heed the moral obligation of doing what is best for him or her, it is in principle permissible. Provided that a market in organs avoids wrongful exploitation, which can be addressed through appropriate regulation, selling a kidney is in principle permissible. And provided that sex is sold in a way that minimizes dangers to health, and reduces violence, it is at least better than a black market in sex.

In principle, markets in all of these things are morally permissible.

  • Chris Thomas

    That was a refreshingly polite and thoughtful debate.

  • Charles

    That was the most delightful debate I think I’ve ever watched. Well done on both sides.

    Question for Peter:

    If I kill one of your brain cells, are you still you? Of course. How about two? At what point do you cease to be you?

    Does the lack of a clear boundary imply that you are not your brain?

    • Dr. Jaws

      I think this is a different kind of thing.

      When I asked about prosthetics, I meant to show that they are not at all necessary for personal identity, not even a little bit. At the extreme end of this path is transplanting the brain into another body (or, suppose you and your twin are in a car accident. Your brain is fine but your body is toast, his body is fine but his brain is toast. The decision is made to transplant your healthy brain into your twin’s healthy body. Question: Who wakes up? You, or your twin?)

      As far as I can see, it isn’t like a sorites, since our body parts are not us, and only our mind is. So wherever my mind goes, there go I. One way to see this if you are a religious person is to ask about your soul. I’m not sure what the various religions say about this, but I don’t think you go to heaven or hell embodied, just your soul does.

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  • Chris Thomas

    It seems like Morse’s particular arguments against casual intercourse imply that she should be ok with casual oral sex. Would she bite that bullet, or is there more to her argument?