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How Moral Can A Market Be?

Brian Glanz

Andrew Haines - Ethika Politika - published on 11/11/13 - updated on 06/07/17

The New York Times recently featured a moral critique of free market capitalism by Amia Srinivasan - and she has some good points we should all think about seriously.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times online featured a critique of free market morality by Amia Srinivasan, a fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford. The article casts John Rawls and Robert Nozick as the “two poles of mainstream Western political discourse: welfare liberalism and laissez-faire liberalism, respectively.” The point is to show that Nozick’s market-driven idea of justice is untenable; Rawls serves mostly as a helpful contrast.

I’m not greatly familiar with Nozick’s thought per se, and concerns have arisen as to whether Srinivasan’s piece fairly represents it. Be that as it may, some real fruit comes from her questions against the base of what could at least be considered a popular version of “free market moralizing”—namely, (1) that exchanges between people without physical compulsion are free, (2) that any free exchange is morally permissible, (3) that people deserve what they get from free exchanges, and (4) that people have no obligation to do things they don’t want to do.

In response to these principles, Srinivasan offers counterexamples that purport to show each as wrong from a common sense perspective: (1) the desire to save a child by resorting to a life of prostitution; (2) the greedy and sometimes deadly exploitation of workers by owners of capital; (3) that what people deserve is a matter of luck and fortunate circumstances; (4) that we could morally select to walk past a drowning man in the pursuit of something more pleasurable.

One distinction that fails to emerge clearly in Srinivasan’s critique is that between the power of the state and the moral quality of individual actions. Arguing for an unregulated, free market state could mean defending principles like those above. But this does not equate directly with looking past any of the four counterexamples. I say directly since there might in fact be a link between the mindset of laissez-faire liberalism and the willingness to swallow the pill of, for example, pleasure over aid; it’s just not quite linear.

At the very least, what Srinivasan’s assessment hints at is that some questions are better dealt with in terms of community and positive virtue rather than freedoms-from and protections-against. Rights are most meaningful when coupled with other elements of the traditions whence they arise, and cannot be understood terribly well apart from them. That Lockean politics chips away at more suitable, human types of community is something frequently argued on these pages. And Srinivasan offers a wonderful example of why many consider a debate amongst two equally liberalized options something unattractive from the start.

Originally published by Ethika Politika on October 31st, 2013.

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