Morality in the Marketplace

Michael Sandel wrote in the Atlantic back in April that we as a society have allowed markets to play larger and larger roles in our lives without evaluating whether that role is desirable.  Here is a brief excerpt:

As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations?

This series of questions presents an uncomfortable reality.  Michael Sandel gives a bunch of rather benign examples of goods and services available through the market.  As for whether there should be any moral limits on the market, I rather think more unsettling options need to be put on the table. Continue reading

Opinions, Good god; what are they good for?

Now the question in the title is a little sneaky.  I don’t mean whether opinions actually do anything.  Taken quite literally, opinions do absolutely nothing on their own.  The question that I’ve been struggling with for the past half a week or so is as follows: Do we, responsible people of the world, have an ethical obligation to have an opinion?

It’s a nasty question, I think.   Opinions, in my opinion, are much of what form the very identity of an individual in our current era.  Without opinions, we are but pounds of flesh associating with whomever we will and saying whatever we will to keep associating until the day we suddenly become motionless, rotting pounds of flesh.

Bear with me: In this society especially, we value the individual identity.  I don’t think anybody really knows why, but in the modern western Era we value individual rights, individual liberty, freedom for the individual’s right to choose how to live her own life, you name it.  Okay, so in the US we still struggle a bit with that last concept.  But for the most part, we think that the gub’ment should stay out of our way as we bring success, justice, and beauty into the world.

There are a limited number of places that we can get a good sense of self-identity: we can identify ourselves by what we do, what we think, who we associate with, and where we want to be in the future, but not much else.  Opinions, values, and all that jazz a huge part of nearly all of these methods of developing a sense of self.  The only place where opinions don’t matter so much for the sense of self is who we associate with.  Don’t need to have opinions to hang out with people.

If you want an example of what I’m talking about, there are people in this world with a genetic disorder that prevents them from having many opinions.  The affliction is called Williams Syndrome.  People who have this rare genetic disorder tend to be extremely outgoing, love to talk to people, but they have breathing problems and shorter life expectancies because part of their genetic code has been deleted.  They have absolutely no fear of strangers and will approach nearly any human with a cheerful demeanor.  Effectively, people with this genetic disorder are the nicest people in the planet.

But there is a darker side, naturally.  In their drive to talk to people, they tend to talk about what we might see as more insubstantial things: sports, the weather, who’s on first, that sort of thing.  They have little sense of social dynamics.  For our purposes, they don’t really have opinions on many issues that we might think important.  They are, effectively, the Beatles’ Nowhere Men (and women).

Obviously, unless you have that genetic disorder, you don’t find things nearly as tough to come up with opinions.  In all likelihood you have a great deal of opinions that you’ve never bothered to articulate.  I know I have hundreds of opinions that I’ve never bothered to put into words.  But this is a real shame.  Our memories are so fickle, so bad at keeping information, that I don’t think trusting our brains to keep our opinions is a smart idea.  I think it is much better to write down our opinions somewhere for later reading.  I take sometimes exhaustive notes on the ideas that are more provoking that cross my mind, first on a little notepad that I carry with me, then transcribed when possible to Evernote, which is a beautiful little free note-organizing program.

And yet, even after I’ve written all that I have, the initial question still eludes me.  I’ve not answered whether there an ethical responsibility to hold an opinion.  I’ve detailed lots of benefits that opinions give us, but I haven’t said one way or another whether it is our responsibility to choose a side.  Part of the reason is that it is uncomfortable to make a decision on the topic.  It is uncomfortable to put my tentative stake in the proverbial sand and say: this is who I am.

Part of my struggle is that I don’t want to suggest that people should KEEP their opinions.  Opinions, like every other part of our lives, should change.  They should alter as we engage the world and learn new things.  They should be outright reversed if we find a new idea particularly compelling.  Opinions, while important to our identities, should not be set in stone.

I think that if I were really going to throw down the gauntlet, people should hold opinions.  Life is too short, and too important for us to fail to hold opinions about the primary issues of our day.  Because we Americans do value individual responsibility, and there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to hold opinions (and there are a huge number of distractions that would keep us from even thinking about having opinions), I think the most responsible thing to do is to say “I am Andrew, and I believe that humanity can be better.”

If I really want people to be better, I’d try to encourage them to think about who they are more often.  How do we have any hope of bettering ourselves if we don’t know where we are coming from? Or think of the issue like this: how can a blind man drive safely?