Big question of a world for sale

Sally Rugg

Can we bring the house-lights up so I can see who has an answer?” The darkness of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night lifts as hands wave, stretched into the air; enthusiastic responses to an ethical dilemma posed by the guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, author and political philosopher Michael Sandel.

The Harvard professor, who is described as a “rock star moralist”, had the audience bursting with theories and opinions about the moral and economic quandary he put to them. Two audience members move to the microphones in the aisles, and now both sides of the debate have a voice.

For children from deprived backgrounds, if we could introduce a monetary incentive to allow them to find a love of reading, then we’ve killed two birds with one stone; we help their deprivation and their lack of education,” said Dan from row B.

I think money corrupts,” counters Siobhan from row F. “What’s wrong with learning to read and love literature via inspirational teachers and through other means aside from money?”

Dr Sandel pointed out that schools all around the world struggle with the challenge of motivating students to study hard and do well, especially students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? 

Is there something wrong with a world where you can pay your way to the front of the line at the theme park? Where you can buy a fill-in-the-blanks best man speech for your brother’s wedding? Does it matter if the thank you card you receive from a friend’s child earned that child a dollar for writing it?

When, and how, does the introduction of money change the meaning and the value of a social good or practice?” Dr Sandel continued. “Doesn’t money sometimes corrupt or erode non-market values which are worth caring about?”

The audience considered whether social life, civic life or personal relations are diminished by becoming attached to a market value. Should we regret the loss of these values to an ideology based around financial capital?

But there are aspects of life that money cannot buy. More hands are raised as the audience call suggestions: “love”, “friendship”, “humour”, “immortality”. Indeed, Dr Sandel pointed out, sometimes the supply of money aiming to affect an intrinsically human value doesn’t work out the way that basic economics dictates, and humanity prevails.

Michael Sandel: a question of how we want to love together. Picture: Stephanie Mitchell

Michael Sandel: a question of how we want to love together. Picture: Stephanie Mitchell

The audience was invited to consider a small Swedish community that was offered ongoing financial benefits for having a nuclear waste site built in their town. Before the money was offered members of the community were far more open to the idea, but then felt repelled by the idea of being bribed, despite their own financial gain, and rejected the nuclear site. Sandel also described a high school that implemented a fine for parents who were late to collect for their children, which actually increased the amount of late parents as they then felt they were paying for the service so felt less guilty about arriving late.

So what are the long-term implications when the goods of the market aren’t flat-screen televisions, cars or toasters, but are teaching and learning, expressing gratitude, developing friendship, showing up on time, being willing to sacrifice for a common good?  

Dr Sandel said we need to reconnect economics with its origins in moral and political philosophy, rather than considering it as a value-neutral science.

In the end, the question of the markets is not mainly an economic question, it’s really a question of how you want to live together,” he said. “Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour, and that money can’t buy?”