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.