The morality of money

Recently, philosopher Michael Sandel headed this debate (essays, public lecture) on the moral dynamics that result when money is introduced to activities that are normally motivated by other means: duty, friendship, etc. Sandel makes an argument of two pillars: One, money may somehow corrupt the transaction it is involved with; two, given existing inequality, making everything a product can yield very negative distributional outcomes.

To be honest, I think he uses too many words. Let me try to do better:

1. Subjective transactions

Sometimes, we care not just about the objective goods or services that are produced and exchanged, but also for the subjective experience of the participants in the transaction. We care that a gift is an expression of love and not a forced or calculated gesture. We care that expert or legal judgements are free of personal interest, and that honour is given according to merit rather than in exchange for favours. Men care that women are at least happy with sex, unless they’re sadists and want the opposite. Most of us are alarmed when others make transactions that are too invasive or too damaging to the self, such as selling organs, being a soldier or a prostitute, or working under hazardous or unhealthy conditions, because we suspect these people are facing terrible choices that we would like to not have to face. When people volunteer to do something worthy or refrain from something selfish out of a sense of community, duty, or justice, we care not just that they do the right thing but also that they maintain and nourish these valuable feelings.

In all of these scenarios we not only assess the material outcome but also model the subjectivity of the participants. We mentally assess how they are be feeling, what they experience, and how they’re motivated, and put a moral value to it. We do this calculation once without money motives and then with them, and if the outcome varies significantly we feel that the effect of money on the transaction is controversial: usually negative, but sometimes positive as when people treat it as worthy recognition. The purpose of money is to enable material exchanges without personal relations or compassion. It lets you go to another city and get a nice meal and a comfortable bed without having to befriend or marry anyone, but getting someone to sleep with you the same way is controversial because we expect intimate things to be part of human relations with attendant emotions. The essence of this pillar, then, is that we value not just the inanimate transaction that takes place but also the subjective experience and emotions of the people who take part.

2. Multiple stories

Human beings are creatures of narrative. We see human lives, including our own and those of others, as stories and not just as a motionless state of being. People are proud of their career and their kids as stories and project a storyline into them, often too much. Socialist systems that cover the basic needs of people but lack opportunities for developing one’s life story are seen as less satisfactory than perhaps they should be counting material welfare alone. People whose life is unremarkable seem captivated in consuming the life stories of celebrities and royalty, which is after all the latter’s main product. Money and business success is one dimension along which a life story can be developed. Here are some others: Academic, artistic, or sporting success; having an audience or a following; political status; holding public office; scientific excellence; volunteering and charity; contributing to a community; achievement in a cult niche such as a subculture or in games; personal journeys such as meditation or religion.

We care about maintaining this multitude of dimensions for a life’s story, because there’s too many of us to just pursue money. The money story is a kind of slope, with some people at the top, many stuck at the botom, and a good number climbing or sliding in the middle. There’s not enough room for everyone soul on that one slope, even if there’s enough material subsistence for our bodies. The money story is, by definition, a meaningful story for too few, which is why we need the others: We need a nurse or an artist or an athlete to have their own story that is equally affirming, and is protected from assimilation into the story of the entrepreneur. We don’t want the winners of the money story (or any other story) to wield power over every other domain. Globalization removes artificial local niches for a life story, as well as pushing a western agenda to make other domains convertible to money, to bury them into the lower parts of the money slope. This leaves people powerless and desperate for a life story. The second pillar, then, is that we need a separation of the values along which humans can build a life story to avoid the nihilistic result of a single story, money, with a only a few winners.

One thought on “The morality of money

  1. Money is essentially an I.O.U. — a promise to exchange something I want for something you want. An exchange of your labor and abilities for mine. In its complications, it allows us to store time … to collect later.

    But it goes far beyond barter. Most of us produce nothing that would exchange directly for anything else. (My boss offers neither food nor housing nor even transportation. And I just show up.) Yet without money, there would be no civilization.

    Of course, the plot thickens. It’s in all of the imbalances and injustices and breakdown of relationships that we encounter trouble. Add to that all of our underlying emotions and spiritual states. This is where all of us, individually and as communities and nations, need to do serious study and reform.

    You’re on the right track when you suggest that money is not the appropriate way to value everything. Even though many people try.

    Thus, may our promises be true, within our ability to respond and share.


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