Trading in the souls of men

by Richard on April 27, 2012

Rowan Williams on the commodification of life

Should people be paid for donating blood? In the United States, there is a mixed economy of free donation and the sale of blood through commercial blood banks. Predictably, most of the blood that is dealt with on a commercial basis comes from the very poor, including the homeless and the unemployed. The system entails a large-scale redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich.

This is only one of the examples cited by Michael Sandel, the political philosopher and former Reith Lecturer, in his survey of the rapidly growing commercialisation of social transactions, but it is symbolically a pretty powerful one.

We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis. The force of Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy, is in his insistence that we think hard about why exactly we might see this as wrong; we are urged to move beyond the “yuck factor” and to consider whether there is anything that is intrinsically not capable of being treated as a commodity, and if so why.

The examples related show that in practice there is virtually nothing that has not somewhere or other (usually but not exclusively in the United States) been packaged as a commodity and subjected to “market” principles. Sandel lists a variety of schemes - some of which, thank God, never got beyond the drawing-board, some of which have become relatively uncontroversial - for marketing people’s time, health, legal liabilities and lifespan.

From the almost innocuous practice of paying someone else to stand in a theatre queue for you, through the nakedly rapacious business in employers taking out high-level insurance policies on their employees’ lives so that they enjoy a “return” on their death far in excess of what the bereaved family might expect, to the ghoulish trade in purchasing life insurance policies for the terminally ill (and waiting impatiently for them to die, hoping there will not be some medical breakthrough that secures a few more years for them) - this is a world that at first reading seems completely surreal. Yet it is manifestly a projection of a philosophy that has already taken over vast tracts of our social life in the “developed” world.

It is a philosophy that regards any imaginable object or transaction as capable of being exchanged for measurable material. It is the philosophy that has radically distorted how we view public services and education for the last few decades; and it has had an extraordinarily easy run, all things considered.

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Kim 04.27.12 at 3:18 pm

One is horrified but not, of course, surprised: the commodification of everything is the inevitable nihilistic end of unregulated market capitaism.

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