Over at Truth on The Market, Todd Henderson has an interesting post, Do Motives Matter?, about a seminar he’s teaching with Brian Leiter. The seminar, “Capitalism: For and Against,” sounds great, and the format is much like our readings in ethics seminars. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently teaching one on financial crises.
Henderson notes that the class has so far read “A Communist Manifesto” and “The Road to Serfdom,” and will read G.A. Cohen’s “Why Not Socialism?” for the next class. Says Henderson:
[S]hould we care whether the underlying motives are ones that when examined in depth are philosophically troubling to us? I love my wife. I love my children. I would do anything to protect them. That is a good thing. Should we look deeply beneath that for the motives: an insecurity about being alone, a lust for the pleasures of the flesh, a desire for intellectual companionship, a gene-driven greed for perpetuating my DNA, etc. are all possible, even likely motives. But who cares? The issue is not unpacking the true reasons for why I act the way I do, but simply to look at what flows from my actions. This is, as most else is, just Adam Smith: we owe our daily bread not to benevolence but to greed. As long as getting bread is good, why should it matter whether it is because the baker loves me or sees me as purely instrumental to his own happiness?
This is a question that we discuss in pretty much every class meeting of my Taboo Trades and Forbidden Markets seminar. The course covers a variety of “taboo trades,” including blood, organs, oocytes, sperm, surrogacy services, sex, and many others. Debates about acceptable motives for engaging in such transactions are, in many ways, the heart and soul of much of the literature in this area (debates about economic coercion being another primary source of ink-spillage).
It is posited, for example, that motive influences the quality of the product traded, as well as the amount supplied, reduces the possibility of coercion, and implicates broader issues of commodification, social cohesion, and community. The contention is that altruistic exchanges are preferable to commercial ones on all counts.
A few weeks ago, the seminar revisited the 1971 publication of The Gift Relationship by Richard Titmuss, so Henderson’s post made me recall Kenneth Arrow’s summary in Gifts And Exchanges (a response to Titmuss) regarding fears of the negative impact of unchecked commercialization on broader societal goals:
The picture of a society run exclusively on the basis of exchange has long haunted sensitive observers, especially from the early days of the capitalist domination. The ideas of community and social cohesion are counterposed to a drastically reduced society in which individuals meet only as buyers and sellers of commodities.
These debates about the import, if any, of motive continue to rage today, as resource constraints, scientific innovation, and changing social mores challenge existing conceptions of the proper spheres of altruism and commercialism. In my seminar, we also explore a different set of motivations associated with taboo trades: what motivates the resistance to such trades? We discuss commodification, coercion, and slippery slope objections, of course. But also explore conceptions of repugnance and disgust, such as those articulated by Al Roth and Martha Nussbaum, as well as political economy arguments (see here, here, and here, for example).
Like Henderson, I’m often skeptical of both normative and descriptive claims regarding the altruistic motivations of suppliers in taboo markets (even assuming that there is such a thing as altruism that can really be fully unpacked from self-interest). In particular, I’m troubled by the repeated insistence that much valuable female labor (including sex and reproduction) should only be supplied altruistically, despite its high economic value. The focus on altruistic motives (and related commodification objections) seem to me an especially poor fit in the face of extensive, profitable, and highly commercial industries built around the provision of female reproductive and sexual labor.