Thursday, October 29, 2015

Demanding a Post-Work World: Technological Unemployment and the Human Future

The political left has long been oriented toward the future. This is clear in its revolutionary ethos: the utopia of the revolutionary is, after all, always just around the corner. But in orienting itself toward the future, the left has not always been actively futurist in its outlook. Many leftists are uncomfortable with technology and science, viewing them as insidious and malign capitalistic projects. As a result, their utopian dreams often end up looking to a mythic historical Golden Age for inspiration.

This is why Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s recent book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work caught my eye. It is resolutely leftist in its political grounding, but also thoroughly futurist in outlook. Srnicek and Williams argue that their fellow travelers should not fear technology; rather, they should embrace it. In particular, they argue that the labour movement should embrace automation and technological unemployment. They are emancipatory forces, freeing us from the drudgery and degradation of work.

In this post, I want to explore and critically analyse two of the ideas in Srnicek and Williams’s book. First, I want to address a claim they make about the current crisis of work and the growth of surplus populations in capitalist societies. Second, I want to look at four demands that they think ought to organise and motivate those interested in bringing about the end of work. I do so in the spirit of constructive critical engagement. Although I share the authors’ interests in the postwork society, I do not share all aspects of their anti-capitalist outlook. Part of my desire here is to understand their perspective, and see how much of it accords with my own (underdeveloped and unsystematic) political views.

1. The Growth of Surplus Populations
I’ll start by examining an important concept in Marxism, that of the surplus population. As hinted, Srnicek and Williams have a way of looking at the world that I find difficult to get behind. They, like many Marxists, have a tendency to describe capitalism as an all-powerful, quasi-agential, and essentially malicious force that acts in the world; whereas I tend to view it as a relatively vague property, that can be ascribed to certain sets of human relations, and has good and bad elements. Furthermore, in identifying capitalism as this unique and powerful force, they have a tendency to subscribe to certain foundational myths about how capitalism came into being and how things were before it did. Consider the following passage from their book:

While work is common to every society, under capitalism it takes on historically unique qualities. In pre-capitalist societies, work was necessary, but people had shared access to land, subsistence farming and the necessary means of survival. Peasants were poor but self-sufficient, and survival was not dependent on working for someone else. Capitalism changed all this. 
(Srnicek and Williams, 87)

This strikes me as being an ahistorical fiction. Part of the problem is that the authors don’t clearly delineate what they mean by a capitalist or pre-capitalist society, but I assume they mean to draw a line between the hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies that dominated the world before the industrial revolution of the 1700s. If so, then I think they are being generous to the merits of agrarian societies. Ian Morris’s recent book Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels does a good job laying out the evidence we have regarding life in pre-capitalist societies (the broader thesis of Morris’s book is more uncertain, but it certainly fits within the historical materialist mode of analysis preferred by Marxists). It suggests that peasants in pre-capitalist societies were far from the egalitarian, self-sufficient freemen that Srnicek and Williams seem to suggest.

Despite my problems with the way in which Srnicek and Williams frame some of their argument, I think there is something important in what they have to say about the relationship between capitalism and unemployment:

…unemployment as we understand it today was an invention of capitalism. Having been torn away from their means of subsistence, for the first time in history a new ‘surplus population’ emerges that is unable to find wages work. 
(Srnicek and Williams, 87)

What they point to in this passage is an interesting consequence of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism is hugely impressive in its productive capacities. No one would deny this. If we compare the diversity of goods and services available to the average person today with what was available to even the richest of people 200 years ago, there is little doubt about the productive marvel of capitalism. But in this productivity, capitalism has a tendency to create and sustain surplus populations. That is: groups of people that are either permanently or occasionally unnecessary for that productivity.

Understanding this tendency to create surplus populations is crucial to understanding what Srnicek and Williams call the current ‘crisis’ of work, and the need to imagine a postwork world. There are three reasons for this:

1. The surplus population is on the rise: Fewer and fewer people (percentage-wise) are needed to keep the wheels of capitalism turning. At one point, Srnicek and Williams cite studies suggesting that the global number of unemployed outweighs the number of employed. This is tricky to estimate, but even if it is not true, there is evidence suggesting that surplus populations are on this rise. There has been an increase in the ‘natural’ rate of unemployment in developed economies, from around 1 to 2 percent in the 1950s and 60s, to about 5.5 percent today (in the US - higher again in Europe); there has been a decline in the labour force participation rate; a drop in the number of jobs being created worldwide; a significant rise in income inequality; a rise in the number of precarious forms of employment; and a series of innovations in the casualisation of labour (e.g. zero hour contracts). Each of these trends points toward an increasing surplus population.

2. Technology is, at least partly, responsible for this rise: This is something I have looked at ad nauseum on the blog before, but suffice to say Srnicek and Williams endorse the view that, at a minimum, technology is displacing many middle-skill jobs and leading to a significant polarisation in the labour market. The result is a few ‘superstars’ that benefit from the productive gains of technology, and a larger underclass of low-skill labour that find themselves in more precarious forms of work. Also, there is evidence of rapid de-industrialisation in some developing nations (such as China). In other words, these countries are seeing large numbers of manufacturing jobs disappear very soon after embracing full industrialisation. This also hints at the role of technology in the creation of surplus populations.

3. Surplus populations have important social repercussions: This point is obvious. If you have a large number of people not engaged with the machinery of capitalism, and if the entire economy and culture is organised around that machinery, you have a potential recipe for disaster. The surplus population becomes increasingly disenfranchised and ends up being ‘managed’ in often inhumane ways. Srnicek and Williams point to the rise of slums, mass incarceration, and immigration controls as just some examples of this.

These three things — the rise of the surplus population; the role of technology in their creation; and the important social repercussions they can have — should give us some pause for thought. In particular, it should encourage us to rethink our attitude toward work and the work ethic.

2. Four Demands for the Post-Work Future
The work ethic is woven into the fabric of contemporary culture. Most of us grow up with the view that work is both virtuous and necessary. Paid employment is dignifying: it motivates us, allows us to provide for our families, and to generate a sense of self and pride. Indeed, this fondness for the work ethic is something that even the labour movement seems to have imbibed. For them, the problem is not so much the existence of work, but rather the conditions of employment. “Good jobs for all” is their rallying cry.

But how sustainable is this fondness for the work ethic? If Srnicek and Williams’s claims about the rise of surplus populations are accurate, then the answer would seem to be ‘not very’. If technological advances mean that fewer people are needed for high rates of economic productivity, then we need to start imagining a post-work world. This could be desirable for a number of reasons. Although there may be people who are deeply engaged and satisfied by what they do, there is reason to believe that they are in the minority. A Gallup poll in 2013, cited by Srnicek and Williams, found that only 13% of people worldwide were actually ‘engaged’ by what they did. Consequently, the authors think that creating a post-work world should be a major project for the political left, and that this project should be organised around four key demands:

Demand 1: Full Automation - We should not fear technology; we should embrace it. Improvements in automating technologies can free people from the drudgery and indignity of work. Furthermore, technological displacement is already happening (to at least some extent). This demand simply encourages us to push it as far as possible. That said, Srnicek and Williams accept that there may be limitations to how far we can go. Some of these might be technical, some economic. But one of the chief ones is likely to be the moral value we attach to work via the work ethic. This is something we should aim to dissolve.

Demand 2: Shorten the Working Week - This used to be one of the central aims of the labour movement, before it dropped out in the mid-20th century. Srnicek and Williams lament this, noting how the work-life balance has eroded over time. Nowadays, with 24/7 markets and communications technologies, we are constantly at the beck-and-call of work. To resist this, the demand for a shorter working week needs to resurface. Srnicek and Williams favour a demand for a three-day weekend. They do so for four reasons: (1) it will allow for increased leisure time; (2) it is necessary in an era of increasing automation; (3) it will benefit the environment (reductions in energy consumptions etc.) and (4) it can enhance the bargaining power of the working class. The last of these is defended on the grounds that a coordinated withdrawal of labour supply strengthens the bargaining position of the workers vis-a-vis the capitalists (this is the standard rationale behind strikes).

Demand 3: Universal Basic Income - This will be familiar to readers of this blog. The UBI is an income grant that is given to all citizens/persons within a particular political state irrespective of their willingness/ability to work. The UBI is a popular welfare reform strategy among both left and right. But one thing Srnicek and Williams insist upon in their demand is a uniquely leftist version of the proposal. To them, conservative arguments for the UBI are all about maintaining consumer demand in an era of increasing inequality and automation. This is not truly revolutionary in nature. They believe the case for the UBI should be grounded in an attempt to overthrow the political regime of capitalism, strengthen the hand of labour, rethink the value of work and challenge the gendered division of labour. To this end, they insist upon a UBI that is sufficient to live on, truly universal and supplementary to other forms of welfare.

Demand 4: Devalue the Work Ethic - The final demand brings us back to what I said about the work ethic at the start of this section. Srnicek and Williams think we are far too much in thrall to the ennobling power of work. Work has become the primary avenue for self-realisation. This needs to change. As they put it, ‘work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified’ (2015, 125). This necessitates a change in our culture and willingness to articulate a vision for a postwork world.

These four demands work together as an integrated whole. While they could be taken individually, Srnicek and Williams think it would be best if they were pursued side-by-side.

3. Concluding Thoughts
As I said at the outset, there is much here with which I sympathise. I too think it is important to take seriously the implications of technology for the economy and society. And I think the concept of surplus populations is a useful framing device for thinking about these concerns. I also agree with most of their proposed demands. That said, I have two quick concerns.

First, I am concerned that their four demands are not as coherent and consistent as they seem to think. In particular, I worry about the consistency of the demand for full automation with strengthening the hand of the labour movement. If it is true (or highly likely) that automating technologies can take over most forms of productive labour, then surely this weakens the bargaining power of the labour movement? The reason why strikes strengthen bargaining power is because you need workers to perform certain roles. When train drivers go on strike in London, everyone notices and starts to complain. They need the human workers to run the train system. This mounts pressure on employers to reach some settlement with the workers (provided the public doesn’t also turn against the workers). In a world of ‘full’ automation, I fail to see how this will continue to be the case. It seems to me like the demand for full automation must go hand in hand with recognition of the depleting power of the labour movement as a whole. This might be a naive and obvious point, but I don’t see it discussed anywhere in Srnicek and Williams’s book.

Second, as with many political tracts of this sort, I find Srnicek and Williams are better at rallying the troops and presenting a political platform for change than they are at mapping out the shape and form of the post-work society. In other words, they are good at describing the journey we ought to take, but not the destination we should reach. To them, demanding a postwork society is part of the emancipatory project of the left. I can see this being true, and I have written about the relationship between work and freedom in the past. But emancipation to do what exactly? We get some hints in their final chapter. The result will not be an ‘end of history’, they say. Society will continue to evolve, but it will be a society in which people are free to conduct more experiments in living:

The synthetic construction of freedom is the means by which human powers are to be developed. This freedom finds many different modes of expression, including economic and political ones, experiments with sexuality and reproductive structures, and the creation of new desires, expanded aesthetic capabilities, new forms of thought and reasoning, and ultimately entirely new modes of being human. The expansion of desires, of needs, of lifestyles, of communities, of ways of being, of capacities — are all invoked by the project of universal emancipation. This is a project of opening up the future… 
(Srnicek and Williams, 180-81 - references omitted)

While some of this sounds interesting — and echoes the desires of the transhumanist movement — it still seems maddeningly vague to me. I think those who are truly interested in imagining a postwork world would be well-advised to think more systematically about what it takes to live a full and meaningful life, and to assess whether that will be possible when people lack the economic motivation to work. I am intuitively optimistic in this regard, but the details remain clouded.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Philosophy of Consent and Sexual Assault (Index)

I have written quite a few posts about the philosophy of consent and sexual assault over the past couple of years. This is obviously a controversial but important topic. For those who are interested, I have collected all the posts together in this handy index:

  • Voluntary Intoxication and Personal Responsibility: A follow up to the previous post, focusing on the link between intoxication and responsibility. Doesn't directly engage with the question of responsibility for sexual assault, though that lurks in the background.

  • Drunken Consent to Sex and Personal Responsibility: An analysis of two arguments about the connection between personal responsibility and drunken consent to sex. The first, from Heidi Hurd, argues that anyone who is voluntarily intoxicated must take responsibility for their intoxicated consent to sex; the second, from Susan Estrich, argues the opposite. Both arguments are found lacking.

  • A Rawlsian Approach to Intoxicated Consent to Sex? An outline of Alan Wertheimer's take on intoxicated consent to sex. Wertheimer thinks we can approach the setting of consent standards much like Rawls approaches the setting of standards of justice.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Commercial Surrogacy Debate - Opening Statement

On 22 October 2015, I participated in a debate about the legalisation of commercial surrogacy (that's why I have been writing about the topic recently). Above you can find an audio version of my opening statement. This was a version that I recorded in advance to see whether what I had to say would fit within the allotted 15 minutes, but it should be pretty close to what I actually said.

When I initially agreed to participate in this debate, I was asked to argue against commercial surrogacy. In the week before the debate, I was asked to switch sides by the organisers, which I did. The very fact that I was willing to do so probably indicates that this is a topic about which I feel somewhat divided. In general, I lean in favour of legalising most things (e.g. drug use, sex work), but prior to this debate I had never really thought about the surrogacy issue. On balance, I think legalisation is probably the better option, largely for reasons I expressed in a previous blog post (and repeat in my opening statement), but I'm not sure.

Anyway, you can listen to what I had to say above. Before you do, here are a few listening notes:

  • I really struggled to reduce what I wanted to say to 15 minutes. To do so, I had to skip over some of the nuances and grey areas in my argument. This was an interesting exercise for me as it was the first real public debate in which I participated with such time limits.

  • In my initial definition of surrogacy (and later when responding to one of the anti-commodification arguments), I did not distinguish between genetic and gestational forms. I am aware of the distinction, but decided not to mention it because I felt my argument covered both types.

  • I did not discuss all possible forms of the anti-commodification argument. I do a slightly better job of this in one of my previous blog posts.

  • The empirical studies (or reviews of such studies) that I mention in the speech are more complex than I let on. Although I stand by the claim that surrogacy agreements in developed countries are pretty well implemented, I appreciate there have been problems with them too. 

  • I am aware of issues associated with exploitation and consent in surrogacy agreements. I discuss them at greater length here, but I did not have time to address them in my opening speech. The idea was that the third argument I offered could address these concerns.

If you care, the proposition won the debate (i.e. the audience voted in favour of commercialisation), but I view this as being virtually meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Ethics of Commercial Surrogacy: Gender Inequality Arguments

(Previous Entry)

This is a follow-up to my previous post on Debra Satz’s analysis of commercial surrogacy. In that post, I reviewed three classic objections to surrogacy and presented some of Satz’s critiques of those objections. As I mentioned, this was a ground-clearing exercise. Although Satz’s thinks that the traditional objections are flawed, she is not herself a supporter of commercial surrogacy (to be precise, she is not a supporter of ‘contract pregnancy’, which makes the target and conclusion of her arguments less clear — I’ll return to this point below).

She thinks there is something deeply troubling about commercial surrogacy arrangements, particularly when facilitated by for-profit intermediaries (so-called ‘surrogacy brokers’). She thinks that commercial surrogacy serves to reinforce systematic gender (and other) inequalities. This gives us a sufficient reason to oppose its legalisation (at least, I think that’s what she believes — as I say, it’s not entirely clear).

In this post, I want to go through her main argument. I’ll do so in three parts. First, I’ll outline the basic structure of the argument. Second, I’ll look at her defence of the key premise in this argument. And third, I’ll offer some critical reflections on that argument. As you shall see, although I appreciate the concerns that Satz raises, I’m not convinced that opposing commercialised surrogacy is the best way to correct for systematic gender (and other) inequalities.

1. The Systematic Inequality Argument
Satz’s argument works off two assumptions. It’s worth making these explicit because if you don’t share them the argument is unlikely to be persuasive. That said, I expect pretty much everyone will share these assumptions.

The first is simply that women have been (probably still are) victims of systematic gender inequality. This seems unexceptionable. It is certainly true that women’s lives and (importantly) women’s bodies have been controlled and limited by oppressive legal-moral regimes in the past; and it is probably true that they still are (though the situation has undoubtedly improved in most developed countries). I’m being equivocal on this latter point because it doesn’t need to be true for the argument to work. It is enough that there was historical oppression and that society needs to guard against slipping back into it.

The second assumption is that surrogacy is a peculiarly female-dominated form of labour. This also seems unexceptional. There are many forms of employment that are, for historical, cultural and maybe biological reasons, female-dominated. Examples would include certain forms of teaching, care work, cleaning, secretarial work and sex work (the latter often being analogised or compared with surrogacy in ethical debates). But you don’t have to be female to perform these kinds of work. Men can and do work in these jobs. That’s not true of surrogacy: to be a surrogate you must have the biological characteristics of a female (it is true that some transgender males could work as surrogates, but only if they have these characteristics). This means that surrogates will tend (overwhelmingly) to be cisgendered females. This makes gender inequality arguments particularly salient when it comes to debates about surrogacy.

With those two assumptions in place, we can develop the argument proper. It works a little something like this:

  • (1) If commercial surrogacy reinforces and perpetuates systematic gender (and other) inequalities, it ought to be prohibited.
  • (2) Commercial surrogacy does (or is likely to) reinforce and perpetuate systematic gender (and other) inequalities.
  • (3) Therefore, commercial surrogacy ought to be prohibited.

The argument looks logically valid, but is it any good? We can grant the motivating moral principle stated in premise (1). Gender (and certain other) inequalities are widely recognised as being bad things, and it is generally agreed that we should seek to minimise and mitigate their occurrence (there may be some dispute about the merits of some modicum of income inequality but I don’t know of anyone who thinks we should seek to maximise income inequality). Whether that should lead us to prohibit or ban commercial surrogacy is slightly more dubious, but I will grant the claim for now.

That makes premise (2) critical. Satz proffers an elaborate defence. Let’s look at the details.

2. Does Surrogacy Reinforce and Perpetuate Inequalities?
Satz’s defence of premise (2) has four main prongs. The first three are all concerned with the various ways in which commercial surrogacy can (and does) reinforce and perpetuate gender inequality. The fourth limb notes how these gender inequality effects may compound on top of other socially problematic forms of inequality (e.g. racial or income). Satz doesn’t make much of this fourth limb, only really noting it in passing. She focuses her energy on the first three.

The first prong of the defence is concerned with the effect of surrogacy contracts on women’s bodies. Such contracts often try to exert significant levels of bodily control. As Satz puts it:

Pregnancy contracts involve substantial control over women’s bodies. Such provisions include agreements concerning medical treatment, the conditions under which the surrogate agrees to undergo an abortion, and regulation of the surrogate’s emotions. Thus, in the case of Baby M [a famous surrogacy case], Mary Beth Whitehead not only consented to refrain from forming or attempting to form any relationship with the child she would conceive, but she also agreed not to smoke cigarettes, drink alcoholic beverages, or take medications without written consent from her physician. She also agreed to undergo amniocentesis and to abort the fetus. 
(Satz 2010, 129)

For Satz the critical point is not just that the contracts exert significant control over the body — other employment contracts can do the same and be relatively unobjectionable — it is the fact that the body in question belongs to a woman:

…the issue is that in contract pregnancy the body that is controlled belongs to a woman, in a society that historically has subordinated women’s interests to those of men, primarily through its control over women’s sexuality and reproduction. 
(Satz 2010, 129)

Defenders of surrogacy will intervene at this point and argue that some appropriate regulation could be introduced to correct for these negative effects. But Satz argues that it will be difficult to come up with such regulations. The purpose of a contract pregnancy, after all, is to produce a healthy baby and “[t]o help guarantee a healthy baby, a woman’s behaviour must be highly controlled” (Satz 2010, 129).

The second prong of her argument focuses on stereotyping. As she sees it, the rise of contract pregnancy will serve to reinforce negative stereotypes about women being ‘baby machines’. Satz has a somewhat nuanced view of stereotypes and their negative effects. She admits that stereotypes can be empirically grounded. Her concern is that even when empirically grounded they will end up being ‘self-confirming’. People who are affected by the negative stereotype will start to conform and adapt to social expectations, and thus we get a negative feedback cycle:

In early twentieth century America few women aspired to be doctors; their ambitions were powerfully shaped by the structure of opportunity, but also by the expectations that they and others had about their role in the household. If the practice of contract pregnancy were to become common and widespread, it might affect the way all women see themselves. 
(Satz 2010, 130)

This brings us to the third prong of her argument. This one focuses on the social and legal understanding of motherhood. Satz worries that if contract pregnancy is normalised motherhood will start to be understood solely in terms of genetic contribution to offspring and not (also) in terms of gestational contribution. To support the concern, she refers back to the Baby M case, in which a surrogate mother won back parental rights because she was also the genetic mother. This is then contrasted with the case of Anna Johnson, another surrogate, who lost parental rights because she was not the genetic mother. Satz explains the problem like this:

By not taking women’s actual gestational contributions into account, the courts reinforce an old stereotype of women as merely the incubators of men’s seeds…By defining women’s rights and contributions in terms of those of men, when they are different, the courts fail to recognize an adequate basis for women’s rights and needs. These rulings place an additional burden on women. 
(Satz 2010, 131)

These three prongs form the major part of Satz’s argument. She does, however, add to them the further observation that gender inequalities may tend to compound on top of other social inequalities. Thus, for instance, the kinds of women who will end up being surrogates may tend to be from lower-income households, or be members of racial and ethnic minorities. I discussed some of these concerns in a previous post about transnational surrogacy.

I’ve tried to summarise Satz’s defence of premise (2) in the argument diagram below.

3. Three Concerns about Satz’s Argument
What should we make of all this? I certainly wouldn’t deny the potential for surrogacy to compound and reinforce gender (and other) inequalities. As I noted earlier, surrogacy is going to be a strongly female-dominated form of labour due to current biological constraints. So there is no doubt that its legalisation will add to the gendered division of labour. But I’m not convinced that this, by itself, is a sufficient reason to oppose legalising its commercial form. I have three concerns in particular about Satz’s argument.

First, I worry that it relies too heavily on initially plausible, but on reflection somewhat dubious, quasi-empirical claims. For instance, her talk about how normalisation of contract pregnancy could reinforce negative stereotypes, or about how women’s bodies will need to be closely controlled in order to ensure a healthy baby, or about the effect of normalisation on society’s understanding of motherhood. These are all empirical claims but they are somewhat speculative in nature. As best I can tell, Satz cites no evidence in support of these claims (although she does use court cases to support some aspects). I would like to have something more empirically robust. For example, I have my doubts about whether surrogacy agreements would require close control over a woman’s body. This claim seems to assume and reinforce a negative stereotype — viz. that a surrogate mother would be reckless and would not have the interests of the child she is carrying at heart. Furthermore, Satz’s discussion ignores the existing empirical research on surrogacy practices and the experiences of surrogate mothers. Jenni Millbank reviews much of this evidence in a recent article and concludes that most surrogacy agreements are well-implemented and that the practice provides satisfaction for the women who engage in it. Likewise, Satz ignores the ways in which paid surrogacy may be used by women to overcome pre-existing social-economic disadvantages.

Second, I don’t think Satz does a good job of convincing us that regulation is not an appropriate solution to the problems she raises. For example, in relation to the claim that surrogacy agreements involve significant levels of control over a woman’s body, Satz dismisses the case for regulation on the grounds that it would be difficult to negate this given the purpose of the contract. But I’m not at all convinced that this is true. As I just noted, Satz’s defence of this claim rests on a somewhat dubious assumption about the (reckless) proclivities of the surrogate mother. More importantly, Satz’s problem seems to be with a situation in which the intended parents have all the bargaining power. But you could set up a regulatory regime in which the surrogate has most of the bargaining power. You could make surrogacy agreements a very special kind of contract in which nearly all the risk is absorbed by the intended parents, or in which there are extra protections for the gestational privacy of the surrogate (e.g. no right to require an abortion).* Furthermore, as Millbank points out, there are ways in which professional intermediaries (i.e. people who screen, counsel and match surrogates to intended parents) can help to minimise the risks associated with surrogacy contracts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t think Satz’s argument does enough to explain why prohibition is the preferred alternative. I think applied ethical arguments should always be evaluated in comparative terms: is the proposal that is on the table better than the alternatives and the current status quo? When assessed in these comparative terms, I don’t think Satz’s argument does the necessary work. Part of the problem is that she just isn’t very clear about the overall conclusion she wants us to reach. She speaks against ‘contract pregnancy’ but then at other times seems to suggest the need for regulated contracts, or for contracts that are permitted but ‘unenforceable in the courts’ (Satz 2010, 131). This leaves me confused, so I’ll just offer my own analysis of the situation.

Assume that there are three broad possibilities when it comes to surrogacy agreements: (i) they could be criminalised or, at least, not legally recognised; (ii) they could be permitted but only on an altruistic (i.e. not for-profit) basis; or (iii) they could be permitted on a commercial basis (i.e. surrogates should be paid). The latter is consistent with a high degree of regulation and protection for the surrogate. Indeed, the market for surrogacy services could even be run entirely by the government if you like. The key is simply that surrogates are paid for their services beyond medical and living expenses. Of those three possibilities, I suspect that (iii) is the preferred alternative, even for someone who is concerned about gender (and other) social inequalities.

Why do I think this? Well, (i) seems highly problematic. A complete ban would not negate the desire for surrogacy and it is very difficult to implement such bans (particularly given that some forms of surrogacy are not that technologically sophisticated). The result would be to drive the market underground and/or overseas to countries like India (see my previous post on this). This would arguably make the practice more exploitative and more regressive from a women’s rights perspective. This is one area in which an analogy with sex work might be appropriate. You may dislike sex work and find it morally problematic, but it is not at all clear that banning or criminalising it is the best way to protect the vulnerable people who work in the industry. Indeed, many sex workers and feminist activists argue the exact opposite. I think the same could be true of surrogacy.

That leaves us with (ii) and (iii). Both could work and could include important regulatory protections for the surrogate. The problem I have with (ii) is that it can be very difficult to police the boundary line between altruistic and commercial forms of surrogacy, and, furthermore, it is arguably more unfair and more exploitative than commercial forms. For instance, the UK permits ‘altruistic’ surrogacy and surrogates can be paid reasonable expenses of around £13,000. In some cases courts have authorised higher payments, but even the standard payment often amounts to commercialisation in all but name. The reality is that people often try to circumvent the law with other forms of payment. Similarly, in countries like Australia and Canada altruistic surrogacy agreements are permitted in which intermediaries (fertility clinics and the like) are allowed to profit from the agreements but surrogates are not. The Marxist within me recoils at this: why should these intermediaries be allowed to extract all the profit from the surrogate’s labour? What is so terrible about her taking some form of compensation? You could even argue that assigning an economic value to her gestational labour sends an important social signal. It indicates that this is a type of labour that deserves some economic reward. Furthermore, as pointed out above, providing such an economic reward may provide a means for some women to ameliorate their social-economic disadvantage. Altruistic surrogacy doesn’t permit this.

So, in the end, even if commercial surrogacy is not ideal from a gender equality perspective, it seems to be better than the alternatives. The sad fact is that we live in a morally imperfect world and our attempts to set policy need to take this into account.

* Despite some sensational news stories, I am not aware of any case in a developed country, like the US, where a woman has been forced to undergo an abortion under a surrogacy agreement.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ethics of Commercial Surrogacy: Three Standard Objections

Debra Satz’s book Why some things should not be for sale is an interesting take on the commodification debate. There are some — let’s call them economic imperialists — who think that we should have markets in virtually everything. Satz’s book is an extended debate with the imperialist view. Satz argues that some markets are morally noxious, particularly when they are likely to prey upon weak and vulnerable agents, and result in great harms to both individuals and society at large.

One such morally noxious market is, in her mind, the commercial surrogacy market. She argues that we should not endorse commercial surrogacy because the market for ‘contract pregnancies’ (her preferred term) is likely to reinforce and worsen systematic gender inequalities. In defending this view, Satz takes issue with a number of standard objections to commercial surrogacy.

In this post, I want to briefly review her analysis of these standard objections (I’ll cover her inequality argument at a later stage). There are three main classes of them. The first claims that there is something special about the nature of reproductive labour that renders it off-limits from commercialisation. The second claims that commercialisation of reproductive labour corrupts the special bonds of motherhood. The third claims that commercial surrogacy is bad for children. Satz thinks that none of these arguments is successful. Let’s see why.

1. Is there something special about reproductive labour?
It’s important to define our terms. ‘Reproductive labour’, in the present context, is to be understood as the surrogate mother allowing commissioning parent(s) to use her body for the purposes of gestating a foetus and giving birth. In some cases, that reproductive labour includes contribution of genetic material to the foetus, but that is not essential since in many contemporary surrogacy arrangements the surrogate mother is not the genetic mother.

Many authors have objected to the commodification of reproductive labour by arguing that there is something special about that kind of labour that means it should not be commodified. We can call this the essentialist thesis:

Essentialist Thesis: ‘[H]olds that reproductive labor is by its nature something that should not be bought and sold’ (Satz 2010, 117)

To say that there is something special about reproductive labour seems like a truism. Of course there is. What is at issue is whether there is something about this specialness that renders it inappropriate to buy and sell. Satz identifies a range of claims made about the specialness of reproductive labour that might support such a view (note: as best I can tell, she provides no sources for these claims - so I’m not sure who, if anyone, has actually tried to defend the essentialist thesis on these grounds):

  • (1) Reproductive labour is special because (a) it involves a genetic relationship between the worker and her work product; (b) has many involuntary components (e.g. ovulation, conception, gestation and birth all occur without conscious direction); c) involves a long-term (24/7) commitment; and (d) involves many significant restrictions of a woman’s behaviour during pregnancy.

This provides the first premise in an argument against commercial surrogacy. The argument can be rounded out as follows:

  • (2) Any form of labour that includes some or all of features (a)-(d) ought not to be bought and sold.
  • (3) Therefore, reproductive labour ought not to be bought and sold.

Is this argument any good? There are two major problems. First, although most of the claims made in premise (1) are true (in the sense that they describe a feature or property of pregnancy), not all of them are. In particular, feature (a) is not true. As pointed out earlier, in many modern-day surrogacy arrangements, the surrogate mother is not the genetic mother. She is, however, the gestational and birth mother, and one could argue that there is something else about these biological relationships that means surrogacy ought not to be commercialised, but we will consider that possibility when looking at the ‘bonds of motherhood’-argument, below.

  • (4) Not all of the claimed features are true of contract pregnancy: in particular, in ‘gestational surrogacy’ there is no genetic link (beyond chimerism) with the surrogate.

The other problem is that premise (2) seems to be false, at least if we consider other forms of labour that we find it perfectly acceptable to buy and sell. For example, many people think it is acceptable for men to sell sperm to fertility clinics, despite the fact that this may result in a genetic relationship between the man and the ultimate ‘work product’. Similarly, (b) is in fact true of most professions: there are many involuntary aspects to many work processes. The long-term commitment feature is also common to many jobs. Satz gives the example of military service and book contracts. These are also contracts that one cannot simply and easily ‘quit’. Finally, many military service contracts and athletic forms of labour involve invasions into and restrictions of behaviour during the period of employment. In fact, some of the physical restrictions placed on professional athletes, particularly in relation to drug-testing, are arguably more invasive (and more long-term) than restrictions on the surrogate.

  • (5) Many forms of labour include features (a)-(d) and yet we deem it perfectly acceptable for them to be bought and sold (e.g. sperm donation, military service contracts, athletic labour).

The diagram below maps out the argument and the objections.

Are there better defences of the essentialist thesis? Satz looks at one more. It comes from the work of leading feminist theorist Carole Pateman. Pateman argues that there is something about reproductive labour that directly involves the woman’s sense of self. And this integration between the sense of self and the work product renders it off-limits from commercialisation. Pateman develops this argument by way of analogy with prostitution. Very roughly, she argues that since prostitution deeply involves the woman’s sense of self, surrogacy is even more likely to do so, and this means the latter is at least as objectionable as the former. Here’s what she has to say about prostitution:

Womanhood, too, is confirmed in sexual activity, and when a prostitute contracts out use of her body she is thus selling herself in a very real sense. Women’s selves are involved in prostitution in a different manner from the involvement of the self in other occupations. Workers of all kinds may be more or less “bound up in their work”, but the integral connection between sexuality and sense of self means that, for self-protection, a prostitute must distance herself from her sexual use. 
(Pateman 1988, 207 - quoted in Satz 2010, 119)

Pateman’s point seems to be this: in order to buy and sell labour on a market, you must be able to alienate yourself from your work product. But this can be damaging when your sense of self is deeply integrated with your work product. Women’s sexuality (which includes sexual activity and reproductive labour) is deeply integrated with a their sense of self. So if they buy and sell their sexuality, they must alienate themselves from a integral part of themselves. This, presumably, results in great harm to the self and so should not be permitted. To put this into more formal terms:

  • (6) If commodification of a particular type of labour requires you to be alienated from something that is deeply integral to your sense of self, then that type of labour ought not to be commodified.
  • (7) Commodification of reproductive labour requires women to be alienated from something that is deeply integral to their sense of self.
  • (8) Therefore, reproductive labour ought not to be commodified.

Is this argument any good? It is abstract, somewhat metaphysical and empirically dubious. As Satz points out, Pateman provides no real argument in favour of (7), she just seems to assume that it is true. There could be other things that are deeply integral to the sense of self (possibly even more so than sexuality). For instance, religious identity, or friendship or nationality could all be integral to a woman’s sense of self. Who is to say that sexuality trumps all these other possibilities? Furthermore, premise (6), if true, may implicate far more types of labour. My academic work is pretty integral to my sense of self. Does this mean it should not be bought and sold? Economic payment is, for better or worse, one of the chief ways in which we value something in contemporary societies. If something so integral to my sense of self was not economically rewarded, it might be more harmful to my sense of self than if it were. Indeed, rewarding it might reinforce and strengthen my sense of self.

  • (9) There is no argument provided for thinking that reproductive labour is deeply integral to a woman’s sense of self; and there are many other things which could be deeply integral to their sense of self (religion, family, nationality etc.).
  • (10) Premise (6), if true, could implicate far more types of labour; furthermore, it may arguably be worse for something that is so deeply integral to your sense of self to go without economic reward.

Pateman’s argument and the objections to it are illustrated in the diagram below.

2. Is there something about the special bonds of parenthood?
Let’s move on to the second type of argument. This one claims that surrogacy ought not to be commercialised because it does something to distort the relationship between parents and children. There are two main sub-types of this argument discussed in Satz’s book.

The first focuses on the emotional bonds between a pregnant mother and the foetus/child. This is something frequently referenced by former and would-be mothers. There is a strong biological connection between the pregnant mother and the child developing within her. That is obvious. But this is also said to give rise to a natural and important emotional bond. The problem with commercial surrogacy is that it would force the pregnant mother to deny or distort this natural emotional bond. In this sense, she would have to alienate herself from her natural feelings, and would be viewed as little more than a ‘baby-making’ machine.

The argument here is similar to Pateman’s insofar as it is about the alienation of important emotions, but it is different because it is not about harm to sense of self but harm to a natural relationship. We can put it like this:

  • (11) There is an important natural, emotional bond between a pregnant mother and her child.
  • (12) If commercial surrogacy forced us to distort or deny that natural, emotional bond, it should not be permitted.
  • (13) Commercial surrogacy does force us to distort or deny that natural, emotional bond.
  • (14) Therefore, commercial surrogacy ought not to be permitted.

There are two major problems with this argument. The first is that there is reason to doubt whether we know what emotions are naturally and normally involved in pregnancy. Satz makes a nice historical observation on this point. It used to be the case that the nurturing and altruistic relationship between mother and child was associated with married mothers only. Unmarried mothers were portrayed as “selfish, neurotic, and unconcerned” with the welfare of their children. So much so, in fact, that such mothers were often encouraged or obligated to give up their children for adoption after birth. We now have a different social attitude, but the fact that we have gone through such cycles should give us some pause when we see people introducing claims about ‘normal’ emotional bonds.

A second problem with the argument is how it relates to abortion policy. Many feminists are keen on the right to abortion. But surely granting (and exercising) a right to abortion involves just as much of a distortion of the ‘natural’ emotional bonds between a pregnant mother and her child as would granting her the right to sell her gestational services? Of course, this is only a problem for those who endorse the right to abortion, but it highlights an important point about the need for consistency in this area. If you think that aborting a foetus does not distort the natural relationship, why think that agreeing to be a surrogate is any worse?

  • (15) It is difficult to say what emotional bond is a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ feature of pregnancy; historically, the special emotional bond was only thought to exist between married mothers and their children.
  • (16) If this principle (premise 12) is accepted, it may create tension with abortion policy, viz. the right to abortion may also distort this ‘natural’ emotional bond.

Now, to be clear, Satz thinks there is something to this style of argument. She thinks there is something about the surrogate’s contribution to the development of the child that may not be recognised when surrogacy is commercialised. But she thinks this is better dealt with under a general ‘inequality’ argument against commercial surrogacy. We’ll get to that in the next post.

This brings us to the second variant on the ‘special bond’ argument. This one doesn’t focus on the relationship between the surrogate mother and child, but rather on the relationship between the commissioning parents and the child. The concern is that commercialisation of surrogacy would lead to an inappropriate attitude toward parenthood. Specifically, it would encourage people to ‘shop’ for children and treat children as commodities (or pieces of property) that can be bought and sold for the right price. To put it more formally:

  • (17) If commercial surrogacy forced us to distort the appropriate relationship between parents and children, then it should not be permitted.
  • (18) Commercial surrogacy would force us to distort the appropriate relationship between parents and children by allowing parents to ‘shop’ for children and to treat such children as property.
  • (19) Therefore, commercial surrogacy should not be permitted.

Is this argument any better than the previous one? Not really. As Satz points out, most people opt for surrogacy (over, say, adoption) because they want a genetic link with their child. It’s not that they want to shop around for the ‘best’ child. There is every reason to think that they will love this child in the normal way. Furthermore, children who are produced via surrogacy arrangements will not be the property of their commissioning parents. They will have all the rights and protections that are normally afforded to children. It will not be about selling a baby; it will be about selling gestational services (and maybe, depending on the legal jurisdiction, parental rights and responsibilities).

That said, there is some cause for concern here. There have been cases in which commissioning parents have rejected genetically disabled children, or in which they have taken a child away from a surrogate mother who did forge some deep bond with the child. But, as Satz points out, there is no reason to think that an appropriate set of regulations (rather than an out-and-out ban) couldn’t deal with these issues. Indeed, similar regulations are already in place in the case of adoption (e.g. regulations to deal with change of mind by the biological mother or adoptive parents).

  • (20) Commercial surrogacy is unlikely to distort the relationship between parents and children: commissioners are usually motivated by the desire for genetic offspring (not for the ‘best’ possible child); they will not acquire property rights over the child; and problems with change of mind (etc) could be dealt with by appropriate regulations.

3. Will it have bad consequences for children?
This brings us to the third and final class of argument. This one focuses on the effect of commercial surrogacy on the children. Up to this point, the arguments have focused on the nature of reproductive labour and the relationship between parents and offspring. It is appropriate to focus purely on the offspring too. Will surrogacy be better or worse for them?

Some people are attracted to a ‘best interests’ or ‘harm to children’ argument against commercial surrogacy. The argument itself has a relatively simple structure:

  • (21) If commercial surrogacy is not in the best interests of the child (or, alternatively, if it would harm the child in some serious way) it should not be permitted.
  • (22) Commercial surrogacy is not in the best interests of the child (or would harm the child in some serious way).
  • (23) Therefore, commercial surrogacy should not be permitted.

The argument equivocates between ‘best interests’ and ‘serious harm’ because although the former phrase has legal significance and is used a lot in this debate, it may be overly idealising and avoiding serious harm may be more important than achieving the best possible outcome. In any event, one presumes that the concern being expressed in this argument has to do with the potential harms of taking the child away from its birth mother and/or the negative psychological effects on the child of knowing that they were the result of a surrogacy arrangement. There are two responses to this.

First, there is no reason to think that children produced via surrogacy arrangements are likely to suffer long term harm, or that taking them away from their birth mothers is not in their ‘best interests’. Satz is a little sketchy on this, claiming that there is ‘very little empirical evidence’ on this issue. I had a quick look for studies on PubMed and found a few, though most agreed with Satz and lamented the lack of good data. One systematic review, published in the past year, found no major psychological differences between children born via surrogate and other children, based on a 10-year follow up. Another study, published a few years back, reported similar findings based on 7-year follow-up. (Also, interestingly, both studies suggest that surrogacy arrangements are usually well-implemented, with surrogate mothers rarely experiencing great difficulty in ‘giving up’ the child). There is certainly nothing out there to suggest that children suffer from major harm.

Second, even if there were some negative effects — e.g. bullying by other children or negative stereotyping — it is not clear that these would be sufficient to ban the practice. As Satz puts it, once the basic interests of a child are being met, it’s not clear that we should intervene to remove all negative influences. If we did, then we’d probably have to take a far more interventionist line with child protection. For instance, a child’s basic interests could be met in a low-income household, but they may do better in a high-income household. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should redistribute children from low-income to high-income households. The point is that once the basic interests are being met, other moral and social considerations could weigh against intervention.

  • (24) There is no evidence to suggest that children are seriously harmed by surrogacy, and nothing to suggest that their ‘best interests’ would be served by staying with their birth mothers.
  • (25) If we endorsed this principle (premise 21), we would have to intervene in far more familial arrangements: once the child’s basic interests are being met, other considerations may count against intervention.

Another point is that this style of argument applies just as well to non-commercial forms of surrogacy. The diagram for this final argument is below.

4. Conclusion
To briefly sum up, we have looked at three main types of argument against commercial surrogacy. The first type claimed that there is something special about reproductive labour that makes it inapt for commercialisation. But we didn’t find any persuasive account of this specialness. Many other forms of labour share features with pregnancy and yet we do not consider them inapt for commercialisation.

The second type of argument claimed that commercial surrogacy would damage the relationship between a (birth) mother and her child, or between (commissioning) parents and their children. But neither of these claims seems warranted. It is dangerous to claim that there is always some special emotional bond between a birth mother and her child; and it is doubtful whether commissioning parents will have a distorted relationship with their children. On the contrary, there is every reason to expect them to love those children in the normal way.

The third type of argument claimed that commercial surrogacy is either bad for children or not in their best interests. This argument was also found lacking. There is no good evidence to suggest that a child’s best interests are not being served by such arrangements. And once a child’s basic interests are being served by their current familial arrangement, there are usually good reasons not to interfere with those arrangements.

Of course, all of these criticisms are designed to clear the way for Satz’s own ‘inequality’ argument against commercial surrogacy. We’ll look at that argument another time.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Does Money Poison Everything? Sandel and the Corruption Effect

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn de Morgan

(Previous Entry)

There is a serious shortage of kidney donors throughout the developed world. This has obvious consequences for people with severe kidney disease. I’ll use my home country of Ireland as an example. According to one 2009 study, which covered the period 2000-2005, the average waiting time for someone on the transplant list was 8-15 months (with waiting times varying considerably depending on blood type). According to more recent figures from the Health Service Executive’s webpage, the average waiting time is two years, and at present there are over 650 people on the waiting list . These figures need to be appreciated in the appropriate context. A patient is only placed on the transplant list when their kidney damage reaches the point that they will require dialysis. So these are already people facing severe health complications. Also, Ireland is not that bad when it comes to kidney transplants. The lack of donors and length of waiting times is much more severe in the US (even taking into consideration population differences). There are currently over 100,000 people awaiting kidney donations in the US and the average (median) waiting time is 3.6 years.

Economists think that there is an easy way to solve this issue. The problem is a lack of supply. Transplanted kidneys come from two main sources: (i) deceased donors (who were in position to have their organs harvested); and (ii) altruistic donors (usually family members; sometimes strangers). We could easily increase supply if we added a greater incentive to non-family donors. How could we do that? Simple: we could pay people to donate their organs.

Paying people for kidney donation is an instance of commercialisation, i.e. the process of converting something (in this case one’s bodily organ) into a commodity that can be bought and/or sold for a price. Is this something we should get behind? In my most recent post, I looked at Sandel’s two main arguments against commercialisation: (i) the corruption argument and the (ii) the fairness argument. Following these two arguments, Sandel claimed there are some things that money shouldn’t be able to buy because the process of commercialisation either corrupts or undermines the value of the thing in question, or because it leads to an unfair allocation or distribution of that thing.

In this post, I want to dive deeper into the corruption argument. I’ll do so in four main phases. First, I’ll look at three examples Sandel uses to motivate his corruption argument and note something interesting about the structure of these examples. Second, I’ll look at the standard economist’s argument in favour of commercialisation in these kinds of cases. Third, I’ll outline Sandel’s responses to those arguments. And fourth, I’ll offer my own criticisms of Sandel’s views.

1. How Money Corrupts
The economist’s case for paid kidney donation is structurally interesting. It looks something like this: there is an outcome which we recognise as being socially beneficial (i.e. more kidneys being transplanted) and there are two pre-existing pathways to that outcome (deceased donors and altruistic donors). The economist’s claim is that we could open up a third pathway (paid donors) that would generate more of the socially beneficial outcome.

The argument is superficially appealing. It seems to feed upon standard and intuitive assumptions about how people react to economic incentives. Furthermore, it doesn’t involve anything like Sandel’s proposed corruption of a socially valuable good. Quite the contrary: it seems to promote something of social value. So where’s the problem?

Sandel’s claim is that it doesn’t always work like that. Opening up an additional (commericalised) pathway towards some social good may not have a beneficial effect and may actually cut-off some of the pre-existing pathways. This is the corruption effect. He uses three empirical studies to support this argument:

Nuclear Waste: Nobody wants to have a nuclear waste site in their ‘backyard’. This was a problem in Switzerland for years (apparently). One proposed site was near a small village called Wolfenschiessen. The Swiss like to have referendums about everything and so shortly before a referendum on where the waste site should be located, two economists (Frey and Oberholzer-Gee) conducted a study into what might motivate the local residents to agree. They conducted an initial survey which found that a slim majority of villagers (51%) agreed to their village being chosen as the location, largely out of a sense of civic duty. They then did what any good economist would do: they tried to see if more people would agree to it if they got annual monetary compensation. Oddly, this cut the acceptance rate in half to 25%.

Donation Day: There is an annual ‘Donation Day’ in Israel. High school students go door-to-door collecting money for worthy causes. One year, a group of economists conducted a study to see whether they could motivate students to collect more money. They divided the students into three groups. All three listened to a motivational speech about the importance of the cause. For one group, that was all they got. The other two groups were told that they would get a small percentage of the money they raised (1% and 10% respectively). This would not be directly deducted from the donated money, but would come instead from another fund. The results were interesting. The first group of students raised the most money. The students who were paid 10% raised the second-most. And the students who were paid 1% raised the least (by a considerable margin).

Day-Care Pickup: This is another famous Israeli case study. It involved children being picked up from day-care by their parents. Day-care centres had a problem with late pick-ups. They tried to do something about it by introducing fines for parents who were late arriving to pick up their kids. Again, oddly, this actually increased the number of late arrivals (nearly doubled it, in fact). What’s more, when the day-care centres tries to reverse their policy after 12 weeks, the elevated rate of late pick-ups remained.

In each of these cases, commercialisation seems to have had a negative impact on the desired outcome: it made villagers less likely to agree to the location of a nuclear waste sit; made students less motivated to collect money for charity; and made parents more likely to pick-up their kids late. Of course, it is slightly more complicated than that. The Donation Day example shows that money can have some motivating effect (the students getting 10% did significantly better than the students getting only 1%), and it is possible that in each of these cases including the monetary incentive de-motivates because they think ‘Oh you could get other people to do this for money, instead of me’ or ‘Oh, now I can simply pay more for the privilege of picking up my kids late’.

Sandel insists that the examples show the corrupting effect of commercialisation. In this respect, the structure of the scenarios is again worth noting. The structure is like the kidney donation scenario. There is some desired outcome (agreeing to the location of the waste site; raising money for charity; picking up your kids on time) and there is one pre-existing motivational pathway to that outcome. I’ll call this the ‘sense of duty’-pathway. The economists then propose adding a second pathway to the desired outcome (the ‘commercialisation’ pathway) in the hope that this will improve the outcome. But this is not what happens. On the contrary: opening up the commercialisation pathway actually cuts-off the sense of duty pathway, and hinders achievement of the desired outcome. This is corruption in action.

2. The Economic Objections and Replies
Sandel notes that economists resist this conclusion. They have two standard arguments they proffer by way of reply. The first can be called the ‘no-harm’ argument. According to this, Sandel (and others like him) are wrong because commercialisation doesn’t harm the social good in question. It is still possible to achieve that good. Here’s how Sandel describes the objection:

…commercializing an activity doesn’t change it. On this assumption, money never corrupts, and market relations never crowd out nonmarket norms…If a previously untraded good is made tradable, no harm is done. Those who wish to buy and sell it can do so, thereby increasing their utility, while those who regard the good as priceless are free to desist from trafficking in it. 
(Sandel 2012, 125)

Of course, this objection seems pretty unpersuasive in light of the three examples mentioned above. In each of those cases, commercialisation didn’t simply open up an independent (parallel) pathway to the beneficial outcome. All it did was cut-off the pre-existing pathway and open up a less efficient one. So it’s hard to see how anyone could find solace in the ‘no-harm’ argument.

But I wonder whether this is slightly misleading. I think an economist could object to the artificiality of the three examples Sandel uses to support his argument. Each of those examples involved some enforced policy of commercialisation. The villagers were told they would get monetary compensation if they agreed to the nuclear waste site; the students were divided up into groups against their will; and the parents were threatened by a fine. This is not at all like opening up a free market in some currently non-commercialised good. Take, for instance, kidney donation, or adoption, or surrogacy. Economists have argued for the commercialisation of all three of these things. I think you could make a decent argument that in those cases opening up a commercial pathway may not have the same corrupting effect. So if you wanted to donate a kidney altruistically, this would still be permissible. Or if you wanted to conceive a child in the traditional manner, no one would stop you (indeed, most people would, presumably, prefer this route if it were available to them — they would only resort to surrogacy if this fails). Commercialisation may consequently be a genuinely parallel pathway to the desired outcome.

Of course, this is somewhat speculative. The important point is that the studies cited by Sandel may not have the argumentative power he claims. The other possibility is that Sandel thinks the motivational pathway to the outcome is partly constitutive of the good in question. Thus, he may argue that donating altruistically or agreeing to a policy out of civic duty is part and parcel of the alleged social good. If that were the case, there may be more to be said against opening up the commercialisation pathway (I discussed this briefly in a previous post when I raised the example of honorific goods: in those cases how one achieves the outcome really does seem to matter).

This brings us to the second leading economic objection. This one can be called the ‘depletion’-argument. It claims that we should open the commercialisation pathway to at least some beneficial goods because the alternative motivational pathways are in short supply. In other words, they claim that there is a limited amount of altruism or civic-duty in the world. If people expend some of their altruism and civic-mindedness on one set of outcomes (like kidney donation or agreeing to the location of a nuclear waste site), then they will have less to expend on other desirable outcomes. It is best then to reserve our altruism and civic-mindedness for the cases that really matter, and rely upon commercial incentives when we can.

Sandel finds this dubious. For one thing, it ignores the evidence cited above suggesting that commercial incentives can be inferior. For another, it ignores the possibility that acting on our generous virtues may amplify, rather than deplete, our supply of altruism and civic-mindedness. As he puts it:

To those not steeped in economics, this way of thinking about the generous virtues is strange, even far-fetched. It ignores the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice. Think of a loving couple. If, over a lifetime, they asked little of one another, in hopes of hoarding their love, how well would they fare? Wouldn’t their love deepen rather than diminish the more they called upon it? 
(Sandel 2012, 129)

Sandel admits that there is little empirical evidence for this alleged amplification (and he certainly doesn’t cite any), but there is little empirical evidence for the depletion effect too. In fact, Sandel thinks it is merely a piece of ‘folk wisdom’ to which economists subscribe. His folk wisdom is just as good as theirs.

3. Is Sandel Right?
So much for Sandel’s corruption argument. Is it any good? I have already expressed some doubts about the studies upon which he relies and how generalisable they might be. I want to wrap up by suggesting two broad lines of criticism.

First, I want to accept that in some cases commercialisation may have a corrupting effect. Indeed, I think this is almost certain to occur when the non-commercialised pathway to the desired outcome is partly constitutive of the value inherent in that outcome. But in other cases, I think the corrupting effect will be highly contingent. In some instances commercialisation might reduce the desired outcome; in other cases it might actually increase the desired outcome. Kidney donation may be an example of the latter. Iran is (as far as I am aware) the only country in the world that pays donors for organs and, according to some evidence it suffers from no backlog or waiting list. So the commercialised pathway has improved things. Now, to be clear, the Iranian case is complex. The commercialisation process has gone through a few iterations, and the market has been carefully managed by the government (though less so in recent times). Nevertheless, it does suggest that Sandel’s argument is not as robust as he seems to suggest. Thus, I would submit that his elaboration of the corruption argument moves it away from being an ‘in principle’ objection to commercialisation, and turns it into a contingent ‘in fact’ objection.

Second, I think that Sandel’s argument is ill-equipped to deal with cases in which there is a pre-existing black market for a good or service (e.g. recreational drugs, sex work, some organ donation). You could argue that these cases are different because the outcomes in question (supply of drugs or sex workers) are not obviously socially valuable. Fair enough. We could dispute this, but let’s not. The point is that the markets exist and we need to do something about them. There are two basic options: double-down on the policy of making them illegal, or legalise them. Oftentimes, economists are very keen to push for legalisation is these scenarios. The argument being that there is already a commercial pathway to the particular outcomes, but because it is illegal, it makes things worse for the workers in those illegal markets, and for society in general. Legal commercialisation is consequently the better option. So even if we might worry about the corrupting effect of commercialisation, we sometimes have to live with the reality of pre-existing black market commercialisation. In light of that reality, legal commercialisation may be the preferable option.

Anyway, those are my quick thoughts on Sandel’s arguments. What do you think?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are there some things money shouldn't buy? Two Anti-Commercialisation Arguments

I have a confession: I don’t like marking student assignments. Last year, I marked over 1000 of them. That includes formative assessments, in-class tests, case notes, essays, problem question assignments, and exams. Some were relatively short (80 were just one page); some were much longer (just over 90 were 5,000 words or more). Still, that’s a lot of marking, and even if the process can sometimes be enjoyable (e.g. when you read a particularly well-argued essay), most of the time it is tedious. Students say the same things, about the same topics, and make the same mistakes.

It would be great if I could avoid all this marking. And this year I think I may have hit upon a solution. Instead of wasting all that time and effort trying to work out whether one particular student deserves a 68 or a 67 or whether another deserves a 48 or 50, I’m simply going to start auctioning off grades to the highest bidders. I’ll have a fixed quota of first class grades, a larger fixed quota of 2:1 grades and so on. I’ll then allocate people to grades based on how much they are willing to pay me. This will reduce my work burden and teach students a valuable lesson: money really is the currency of success in this world.

No doubt you are appalled (and, to be clear, I am only kidding), but why are you appalled? Well, let’s consider exactly what I am proposing. I am proposing to commercialise grade-giving in my classes. Commercialisation can be defined in the following manner:

Commercialisation: This is when you take something (a good, a service, a status etc.) and convert it into a commodity that can be bought and sold for a price.

Commercialisation, so-defined, is often thought to be a good thing. Market prices provide incentives for people to engage in certain behaviours; and markets themselves are often efficient ways to distribute and allocate goods and services. Still, we can’t help but think that commercialising university grades is wrong. Why is this?

In his popular book What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel suggests that there two main arguments against commercialisation of the sort just described. In this post, I want to outline and analyse these two arguments. Although I won’t refrain from critical commentary as I go along, I’m saving up my more substantive critiques for a later post. So you can look on this as a sort stage-setting exercise (though hopefully it has some utility of its own). Also, I’m writing about this with a particular topic at the back of my mind (namely: the commercialisation of surrogacy), but I’m going to suppress that particular interest for the time being.

1. Two Things Money Can’t Buy
Sandel likes to argue using stories and illustrations. Instead of starting with some basic moral principles and deriving arguments against commercialisation from those principles, he likes to start with case studies and examples and build the arguments and principles from their. This is common enough in moral philosophy, but Sandel is a particularly strong proponent of it (at least in this book). He starts by considering two scenarios in which it seems pretty clear that we cannot commercialise.

We have already considered an instance of one of them: the commercialisation of university grades. This is my example. Sandel gives an alternative, possibly even starker, example: the commercialisation of the Nobel Prize. Imagine if you could simply buy a Nobel Prize in Physics (say). The very idea is absurd. There is something about the good in question (the grade/the prize) that is completely undermined by the commercialisation process. But what exactly is it? Sandel says the answer lies in the concept of honour. University grades and Nobel Prizes are honorific goods:

Honorific Goods: These are goods that are granted or bestowed in honour of some achievement or ability. Granting them on an alternative basis (e.g. ability to pay) will eliminate their value.

Note what this definition is saying: It is saying that, in the case of a purely honorific good, it is not simply that commercialisation lessens or reduces the good, it is that commercialisation changes it completely: if university grades are auctioned off to the highest bidder, they are no longer honorific goods. Their meaning and value has been altered.

So much for that. Now consider another example: friendship. It is widely agreed that friendship is not something that can be bought and sold. If you have a lot of money, you may be able to attract of lot of people to you, but if they abandon you as soon as the money is gone, they are not really your friends. There is something in the nature of friendship — properly understood — that immunises it from commercialisation. Friendship is about mutual interests, shared passions and reciprocal concern. This requires authentic emotional attachment and engagement. We don’t think (or don’t like to think) that this is something that can be bought or sold. In this respect, friendship is merely one of a class of friendship-related goods, that includes other things like certain forms of sexual intimacy and romantic relationships.

Friendship-related Goods: These are reciprocal goods, arising in the context of human relationships, born of an authentic emotional attachment and engagement. This authentic emotional attachment and engagement is denuded or undermined by commercialisation.

Note that the anti-commercialisation intuition here is strong, but not quite as strong as it was in the case of honorific goods. I’m pretty confident that it is conceptually impossible (not just undesirable) to commercialise a purely honorific good (unless the honour in question relates to having a lot of money). I’m less sure that is the case with friendship-related goods. I think authentic emotional attachment and engagement might be very difficult if the system is commercialised. But I am not sure that it is impossible. Human emotional systems are odd things. The authenticity of emotion may not always correlate with the absence of commercialisation, and there may be a lesser degree of emotional attachment and engagement made possible through friendship

With these two examples, we are feeling our way towards enlightenment. We are beginning to see that there are certain types of goods that might be corrupted or diminished if they are commercialised. With a few more examples, we might further refine our intuitions.

2. Two Things Money Probably Shouldn’t Buy
Let’s consider some less obvious cases. Instead of friendship, how about tokens of friendship like gifts? Gift-giving is clearly a heavily commercialised process. Excepting self-made gifts and gifts you buy for purely cynical reasons, gifts are things you buy in order to signal friendship. And unless we all switch to making the gifts we give others, this is not going to change. In this sense, it would be silly to think of gifts as things that money ‘probably shouldn’t buy’.

This is right, insofar as it goes, but it misses something important about the nature of gift-giving. A gift is not a purely economic commodity. In other words, the value of a gift is not (or should not be) reducible to its monetary value. A gift should reflect a degree of thoughtfulness and consideration for the recipient. To this extent, Sandel laments the rise of gift-cards and cash-gifts. He thinks they reflect the creeping commodification of social life.

Maybe you are not swayed by the gift example (I’m not because I think there are contexts in which cash-gifts can reflect thoughtfulness and consideration for the recipient). So consider two closely-related examples: apologies and wedding toasts. Both of these things are supposed to signal some genuine emotional commitment: contrition in the first case, fondness or friendship in the second. Yet, there are now companies in existence that allow you to buy bespoke, custom-designed apologies and wedding toasts (Sandel discusses examples in the book). Surely there is something wrong about this? Surely signals of genuine emotional commitment ought not be commercialised in this fashion?

That’s one example of something money can buy but probably shouldn’t. Here’s another. Previously, I gave the example of college grades as something that money can’t buy. This is because college grades are purely honorific goods. But what about so-called ‘honorary’ degrees or places at college? These are slightly fuzzier cases, particularly in elite private universities in the US. Most of those universities want academically (and otherwise) high-achieving students; and want to be beacons of high academic and scholarly standards; but they also need money to survive (to pay for staff, admin, upkeep of buildings etc.). A significant portion of this money comes from wealthy donors (usually alumni). Universities often pay homage to such donors in two ways: (i) by conferring ‘honorary’ degrees upon them; and/or (ii) through ‘legacy preferences’ in the admissions process (i.e. preferring offspring of alumni). In this sense, they could be said to have commercialised both processes.

Of course, the universities never say that this is what they are doing. They never say that they are rewarding so-and-so with an honorary degree because he/she just donated a large sum of money to the university: they always say it is because of their contribution to business or public life or something like that. Likewise, universities tend not to brag about their willingness to fix, relax or flexibly interpret admissions-standards for the benefit of the children of wealthy donors. But this silence is telling. To Sandel it indicates an awareness of the fact that commercialisation damages the value of the goods in question.

For what it is worth, this seems right to me. I don’t teach at an elite US university, but my experience of working at universities in the UK and Ireland suggests that money does change things when it comes to college places and degrees. This might be one reason why there is (and was) such resistance to student fees in both countries, and why there is concern among academics about the obsession (in both countries) with raising money by recruiting overseas students who pay higher fees. What’s happening here is that we have goods that really ought to be purely honorific, but which have (for whatever reason) become partly commercialised. The result is devaluation.

3. The Two Arguments Against Commercialisation: Fairness and Corruption
We have enough examples now. What about arguments? What are the normative principles that seem to motivate our resistance to commercialisation in all of these cases? Sandel thinks that there are two such principles and, consequently, two main arguments against commercialisation. The first is a corruption argument:

Corruption Argument: Commercialising X (where X is some good, service, status etc.) will corrupt the social/moral value of X.

This has been the most prevalent argument in the preceding discussion. We see it at work in the analysis of honorific and friendship-related goods. Recall how I said that if you put Nobel Prizes up for sale you would completely eliminate their value. This is because commercialisation corrupts the very essence of the prize. The same goes for the commercialisation of friendship and signals of friendship, only in those cases the corruption is not as complete.

Though the corruption argument dominates, there is another argument implied by some of the preceding discussion. This is a fairness argument:

Fairness Argument: Commercialising X (where X is some good, service, status etc.) will result in the unfair allocation/distribution of X among a relevant population.

Sandel suggests that fairness arguments are common in the case of honorific goods. Indeed, one could argue that part of the rationale behind such goods is that they are things that society thinks should be allocated/distributed on the basis of merit or ability, not on the basis of wealth. If you commercialise such goods (even partly), you bias the allocation process in favour of the wealthy. This is unfair. The same is true in other, non-honorific contexts. For example, many people oppose the commercialisation of healthcare for reasons of unfairness. Healthcare should be allocated on the basis of need, not wealth.

These two arguments differ in their strength. The fairness argument is contingent/empirical in nature. It claims that commercialisation biases allocation in the wrong direction because the true basis for allocation (merit/ability/need) does not correlate perfectly with wealth. This is likely to be true, but it may sometimes be false. For instance, it may be that the wealthy are the ones with the most ability (for whatever reason). Similarly, if one is concerned about fairness, there may be regulatory or procedural safeguards that could be put in place to protect against unfair allocations. Thus, for instance, in the case of college places you could correct for the unfair impact of wealthy candidates by increasing the number of scholarship positions to the less well off. In this way, the admissions process could become a small-scale wealth redistribution program: wealthy students could subsidise the education of poorer ones. That might be fairer than any alternative system that ignored wealth.

The corruption argument is different. It is conceptual/metaphysical nature. It claims that there is something about the value of a particular good or service that would be corrupted by commercialisation. Thus, to the extent that we care about that value, we should not be in any way tempted by commercialisation. No amount of regulatory intervention or procedural safeguarding will belay these fears. The commercialisation process is inherently corrupting of the value in question. This is more akin to an ‘in principle’ objection to commercialisation.

Given this greater degree of strength, it is no surprise to find that Sandel dedicates a lot of time to fleshing out and defending the corruption argument. I’ll take a look at this in a future post.