Nation & World

Genuine debate illuminates knotty ethical questions

9 min read

Three-man teaching team unties issues of ethics, economics, and the market

Should students receive financial compensation for high test scores? Would a market for organ donation make saving lives more efficient? Should a nation be permitted to buy the right to pollute?

These questions represent just a few of the many ethical issues that Harvard professors Michael Sandel, Amartya Sen, and visiting professor Philippe van Parijs from the University of Louvain (Belgium) have been considering this semester. The trio is team-teaching a philosophy seminar titled “Ethics, Economics and the Market,” which explores morally controversial uses of markets and market reasoning in areas such as organ sales, procreation, gambling, and language rights. The seminar also explores the commodification of fields such as medicine, law, and education.

“The role of ethics in economics and indeed the place of economics in ethics arouse a lot of general interest without the connections being investigated carefully at an academic depth,” says Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor. “Markets constitute a major part of the institutional structure of a society, and their role in economic success and in ethical evaluation demands careful scrutiny.”

The course is designed to encourage debate about the application and limits of market-oriented ways of thinking. Each week, the professors and their students — a mixed group of undergraduates and graduate students from nearly all of Harvard’s Schools — gather to evaluate the “hard questions that arise at the intersection of ethics and economics,” as Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, puts it. The seminar is highly interdisciplinary, bringing in themes from a range of fields including environmental science, political philosophy, medicine, and government.

“The main purpose of this work and of our teaching is to encourage students to think in an integrated way about the ethical, economic, social, and political aspects of any issue,” says van Parijs, visiting professor of philosophy. “It is impossible to discuss policy in a way that is not naïve without mobilizing several disciplines.”

As one might expect in a course that addresses controversial topics, the professors — and their students — don’t always agree. Aptly, the professors structured the seminar to offer a comfortable outlet for lively discussion.

Each course begins with an in-depth presentation on a selected topic by Sandel, Sen, or van Parijs. The opening presentation is followed by a shorter, often opposing, commentary from one of the other two professors, and then all three engage in debate. Finally, the floor is opened to student discussion.

“Since the three teachers have somewhat different views on the subject, it has made the discussions lively,” says Sen. “The students do not hesitate to express disagreement sharply since the teachers are doing that to each other all the time!”

Van Parijs agrees.

“I enjoy that there is a desire not to concede too easily; a willingness to bring out disagreements,” he says. “It is useful to evaluate what we disagree on, and why — and it is certainly possible to disagree with colleagues but still remain friendly.”

The central issue that drives much of the course discussion is what role markets should play in the challenges of contemporary society.

Sandel takes what he calls a “market-skeptic” approach, arguing that certain goods should simply not be bought and sold.

“It is important to keep markets in their place,” he says. “Markets are appropriate where the goods at stake are commodities: consumer goods like toasters and automobiles. But market reasoning has a tendency to invade spheres of life that should be governed by nonmarket values and ideals.”

Sandel cites many examples to support his position, such as the recent implementation of financial incentives for New York City public school children.

“In certain schools, children are paid for achieving high scores on standardized tests or compensated for the number of books they read,” he says. “This is an example of how market incentives can crowd out nonmarket values and norms, such as reading for the pleasure of it.” Sandel worries that cash rewards for students may not cultivate a love of learning, but lead students to think that reading is worthwhile only if someone is bribing them.

In addition to questioning the role of the market in educational policy, Sandel has challenged the application of economic reasoning in the fields of public health and the environment.

“Some people favor markets for human kidneys, or babies up for adoption … or international agreements that enable countries to buy and sell their obligations to reduce pollution,” he says. “But I think it is a mistake to disregard the corrupting effect that markets can have on goods such as social solidarity and shared sacrifice.”

Sandel has argued that attitudes toward markets typically fall into three categories: “free market fundamentalism” (the laissez-faire view that celebrates markets as instruments of efficiency and freedom); “market-friendly liberalism” (accepting of markets but only to the extent that they operate under fair background conditions); and his own “market-skeptic” view, which holds that, even under fair conditions, certain goods should not be bought and sold.

Sen finds Sandel’s classification “both interesting and important, as well as ultimately misleading.”

“Michael is absolutely right that these are prominent among the distinct ways in which people often see themselves in terms of their attitudes toward the market,” he says. “Yet it is not helpful, I think, to try to place people in one of these little boxes since a sufficiently probing investigation of the role of markets tends to lead us to conditional and contingent evaluation of the goodness and badness of the role that markets play.”

Instead, Sen is inclined to think of markets primarily as instruments to achieve other objectives. He suggests that whether or not the market mechanism will enhance social well-being or reduce it will depend on the exact circumstances involved and the particular context.

“One cannot, therefore, be generally pro-market, or generally anti-market, or mechanically somewhere in between, without scrutinizing what the markets actually achieve in a given context,” he says.

As an example, he turns to the distribution and export of food.

“Markets can be quite useful in getting food to the hungry, particularly if the deprived people can be given the opportunity to earn income through emergency employment and other means, since markets often do much better in moving food efficiently to where the demand is,” he says.

On the other hand, Sen argues, when people starve because they do not have income to buy food, the market for food will do nothing to alleviate hunger. In fact, Sen says, stopping food exports (and thus interfering with the market mechanism) might actually reduce hunger.

“In the 1840s at the time of the Irish famines, when food was being systematically exported out of starving Ireland to prosperous England because the English had more purchasing power than the famished Irish did, stopping that export would have lowered the price of food in Ireland and contributed a little to reducing the great hunger in Ireland,” he says.

Van Parijs tends to align with Sen, arguing that the market should be seen as an instrument that must be evaluated case by case in terms of how well it serves the well-being of the worst off.

“Markets are useful tools; albeit imperfect ones that must always be regulated and constrained in the light of their likely consequences,” says van Parijs.

He departs from Sen, however, in asserting a deeper conceptual relationship between the market and justice.

“We need the market in order to define what is just, not only to achieve it once it is defined,” van Parijs claims.

To illustrate, he gives an anecdotal example of Jon and Ben, quite similar in all respects, except that Jon chooses to go to work every day by cab whereas Ben commutes by bike. Jon’s choice is more expensive: he has to pay for the driver’s time, the gasoline, etc. This strikes us as “right,” says van Parijs. But why?

In part, at least, because it is required by efficiency, he says. Making Jon pay for his more extravagant way of life provides an incentive to save scarce resources. But is it not also fair that Ben’s way of commuting should cost him less, wonders van Parijs?

Answering yes to this question, he argues, amounts to ascribing a role to the market in defining what justice requires.

“Market prices capture the value to others of what we consume. Sometimes, these prices need to be corrected to take so-called ‘externalities’ into account, such as the pollution generated by the cab,” says van Parijs. “Nonetheless, by aggregating information about how scarce resources are relative to how much people want them, the market provides a crucial baseline. Without it, there would be no way of knowing how much it is fair — not only efficient — that we should pay for the satisfaction of our preferences.”

Though their opinions may differ, the professors agree that teaching the seminar has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

“Of all the courses I have taught in my life, this is the one that has taught me the most,” says van Parijs. “Every teaching experience is a human and intellectual adventure, and a pedagogical relationship is always far more than the transfer of knowledge. It has been so enjoyable to work with professors Sandel and Sen.”

Sandel also notes that he has “learned a great deal” co-teaching the course, and he has enjoyed engaging in debates with the students.

Sen, who has been teaching for more than 50 years, says that he loves teaching “not only because it is wonderful to interact with students and enjoy the way sometimes their faces light up in excitement and at other times their eyebrows go up in disbelief, but also because I am never quite sure that I have understood a problem adequately until I have tried to explain it to students, who can be both hugely receptive and powerfully critical.”

Several of the students in the seminar have lauded the way Sandel, Sen and van Parijs interact in the classroom.

“It has been refreshing to be in a course in which all three of the professors passionately defend their positions,” says Brendan Saloner, a student in the health policy program at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). “Though they may disagree, they really bring a lot to the material by engaging with it and engaging with the students.”

Candice Player ’02, who is currently enrolled in a joint J.D./Ph.D. program at the Law School and GSAS, has also been impressed.

“I’ve enjoyed learning by listening to the conversation professors Sen, Sandel and van Parijs have had throughout the semester,” she says. “I’d like professors to try team-teaching more often. It creates a more relaxed atmosphere in which students feel more comfortable asking questions.”