Monday, December 7, 2015

The Ethical Significance of Symbolic Meanings


Is burning a body on a funeral pyre a mark of respect for the dead?


Suppose you are married and have two children with your spouse. Ordinarily, you share various household and childcare duties equally but recently you have become fed up with this arrangement. You feel like your time could be better spent on other activities. Fortunately, you have a solution. You can pay your spouse extra money to perform your duties. Should you do it?

There are many reasons why this would probably be a bad idea. But one of them is that to make such an offer would communicate the wrong message. You are locked in an intimate relationship of mutual recognition and exchange with your spouse. To suddenly start offering money might suggest a degree of indifference to their well-being. It seems to say ‘my time is more important and valuable than yours’. Surely that is not the signal you wish to send to the love of your life?

Symbolic (or semiotic) arguments of this sort are popular among anti-commodification theorists. Although there are many reasons to object to commodifcation, one of the most popular has to do with the negative meaning that attaches to commodified exchange. But how persuasive are such arguments? In their recent paper ‘Markets without Symbolic Limits’, Brennan and Jaworski present a detailed and systematic rebuttal of symbolic arguments. In this post, I want look at what they have to say.


1. General Argumentative Strategy
I start by considering Brennan and Jaworski’s general argumentative strategy. The paper is part of a larger book project. The book is entitled Markets without Limits and it defends the commodification of pretty much everything. To be more precise, it defends the view that if you can do something for free, you can also do it for money. Monetising or commoditising an activity that was previously permissible does not magically render it impermissible. For example, it is wrong to exchange child pornography for free; and exchanging it for money doesn’t change things in this respect. In defending this view, Brennan and Jaworski respond to many of the most prominent anti-commodification arguments in the literature.

That’s the larger project. When it comes to this specific paper, their general argument remains the same, the details are simply adjusted to address the specific concerns raised about the meaning of commodified exchange. To do this, they first isolate distinct versions of the symbolic objection. They identify three in the original paper. Here, I focus on the two that are relevant to my particular concerns:

Wrong Signal Objection: “holds that buying and selling certain objects is wrong because it expresses wrongful motives, wrongful attitudes, or fails to communicate proper respect. This expression occurs independently of the attitudes or motives the buyer or seller may have.” (Brennan and Jaworski 2015, 1061).

Wrong Currency Objection: “begins with the premise that offering money for services tends to communicate estrangement. Since it can be wrong in some cases to communicate estrangement, it can be wrong to buy and sell services within certain relationships—such as between romantic partners, between fellow citizens, among friends.” (Brennan and Jaworski 2015, 1061)

The objections are similar but subtly different. The first objection is about a general mismatch between the social meaning of the commodified exchange and one’s actual intentions; the second is about a particular meaning that seems to attach to commodified exchange, in this instance distance or estrangement. Sometimes there is a problem if there is a mismatch; sometimes it is wrong to communicate distance or estrangement. Indeed, this might explain the reaction to the opening example of offering your spouse money to perform household chores. Doing so seems to communicate distance and estrangement, which is out of keeping with the character of the relationship.

Brennan and Jaworski concede that commodified exchange can sometimes communicate an unintended meaning, and that in some settings it may communicate estrangement and distance. They reject, however, the notion that this provides a general reason not to favour the commodification of certain exchanges. Their argument is somewhat convoluted, but it essentially boils down the following three propositions (I have not knitted these together into a formal argument):

(1) The meaning that attaches to a particular social practice or symbol is highly contingent. In particular, the meaning that attaches to commodified exchange varies quite considerably from culture to culture and time to time.

(2) If the meaning of a social practice or symbol is highly contingent, then it cannot be treated as a given in our ethical analysis, i.e. the symbolic practice itself must be subject to ethical scrutiny and, if warranted, reformed in light of that scrutiny.

(3) In at least some instances, the negative social meaning that attaches to commodified exchange is trumped by the positive consequences of commodification.

The first two of these propositions are critical to the argument Brennan and Jaworski are trying make; the last proposition merely ties the argument to some real-world practical consequences, which certainly bolsters their view but is not strictly speaking essential. How can the three propositions be defended? Let’s start by considering the contingency of symbolic meaning.


2. The Contingency of Symbolic Meaning
In some ways, the contingency of the meaning that attaches to cultural symbols is obvious and irrefutable. It seems pretty obvious, for instance, that the meaning that attaches to the three-letter symbol ‘cat’ in English is highly arbitrary. We could have used ‘kat’ or ‘cait’ or ‘chat’ to mean the same thing. Other languages prove this point. Why should it be any different when it comes to cultural symbols, including money? The temptation is to assume that the intentions and motivations behind monetary exchange are more universal, and hence the meaning that attaches to it is more fixed.

But this assumption does not appear to be correct. Brennan and Jaworski cite several examples of different cultural practices, each having a different meaning in a relevant culture from what we might expect. Most involve money; some don’t; they all point towards the contingency of symbolic meaning. They include:

King Darius and the Dead Bodies: According to Herodotus, King Darius of Persia once asked the Greeks if they would eat the bodies of their dead relatives as a mark of respect. The Greeks were abhorred by the notion, arguing that the way to show respect was to burn the bodies on a funeral pyre. Darius then asked the Callations if they would burn the bodies of their dead relatives as a mark of respect. The Callations were abhorred by the notion, arguing that this was to treat the bodies as trash. The proper way to show respect was to eat them. Both the Greeks and the Callations agreed on the need to show respect. But they had very different views about the symbolic act that best communicated this respect.

Monetary Gifts: Michael Sandel thinks it is improper to give someone a gift of money. To him, it communicates the wrong kind of attachment or thoughtfulness. But some cultures think that monetary gifts are perfectly respectable, maybe even better than non-monetary ones. Examples include the Merina tribe on the Island of Madagascar (according to the work of Carruthers and Ariovich) and the US (according to the work of Viviana Zelizer). This suggests that Sandel’s attitude toward monetary gifts is largely an accident of his cultural background.

Paying for Sex: Most Westerners agree that paying someone for sex is symbolically problematic. It says something about the person being paid, namely: that they are a sex worker. And since sex work tends to have negative associations in our culture, to communicate such a meaning is inappropriate if the person you are having sex with is not, in fact, a sex worker. But this is not true in all cultures. Again, among the Merina tribe of Madagascar a man is expected to pay his wife after sex as an expression of respect. In that culture, the monetary payment is not what distinguishes an intimate spouse from a sex worker.

Paid Mourners: Suppose your father died. When your friends show up at the funeral they are surprised to see so many grief-stricken mourners following the coffin and attending the grave. You tell them that you actually paid for all those people to be there. Your friends are horrified: that is no way to honour your dead father. This seems like a natural reaction to most Westerners, but it is not natural everywhere. In some cultures, paid mourners are a true mark of respect. Such cultures include (according to Brennan and Jaworski) those of Romania, China and England in Victorian times.

Commodified Relationship: As noted in the intro, the idea of commodifying the chores and duties that must be performed in a relationship seems like it sends the wrong signals, but not every couple agrees. Daniel Reeves and Bethany Soule (creators of the beeminder app) have apparently commodified much of their relationship. This includes payments for putting their kids to bed. They claim that this commodification has made them happier and less resentful of one another. They have rejected the symbolic meaning of the surrounding culture to positive effect.

I could go on. Brennan and Jaworski cite some other examples in their article but hopefully this suffices to make the point: the meaning that attaches to a cultural practice (like commodification) is indeed contingent. What appears twisted and corrupt to us may be perfectly normal and well-adjusted to others. Furthermore, unless one is willing to challenge the anthropological evidence and the personal testimony of the people involved in these symbolic practices, it is difficult to reject this claim.


3. The Ethical Significance of Contingent Meaning
But what is the upshot of this symbolic contingency? It is simply this: the meaning that attaches to a particular symbol in a particular culture cannot be taken as an ethical given. It must itself be subject to ethical scrutiny. And when it is subject to ethical scrutiny, it may turn out that it should be reformed. This is where the second of the three propositions outlined above comes in. Brennan and Jaworski provide a useful case study in support of this proposition. It builds upon the ‘eating the dead’ example used earlier on. I’ll quote from them in full:

[C]onsider that some cultures developed the idea that the best way to respect the dead was to eat their bodies. In those cultures, it really was a socially constructed fact, regardless of one’s intentions, that failing to eat the dead expressed disrespect, while eating rotting flesh expressed respect. But now consider that the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea suffered from prion infections as a result of eating the rotten brains of their dead relatives prior to that practice being banned in the 1950s. The interpretative practice of equating the eating of rotting flesh with showing respect is a destructive, bad practice. The people in that culture have strong moral grounds to change what expresses respect. 
(Brennan and Jaworski 2015, 1067)

In this instance, the personal risk that attached to following the cultural practice was so severe that the cultural practice needed to change.

Of course, it may be difficult to make such changes. Symbolic meanings rarely arise overnight (though they can). Centuries of tradition and ritual may undergird any particular symbolic practice. It may be a struggle to change things for the better. But if the stakes are high enough, this is the appropriate course of action.

This gives Brennan and Jaworski all they really need. They have shown that symbolic meaning (including the symbolic meaning of money) is culturally contingent and that contingent symbolic meaning can be subjected to ethical scrutiny. This means that symbolic objections to commodification are not as robust or immune from empirical challenge as their proponents often assume. But to further bolster their case it would be nice if they could provide an example of a negative cultural meaning that attaches to commodification that ought to be changed. They duly oblige by considering the controversial example of markets for kidneys.

I discussed this example at length a few weeks back. I’ll just give the basic gist of it here. Many countries suffer from a shortage of kidney donors: more people are on waiting lists than there are available organs. As a result, many people suffer the terrible consequences of severe kidney disease (up to and including death). A suggested solution to this problem is to create a market for kidney donations. In other words, to pay people for donating kidneys. One country that has tried this is Iran and they, apparently, do not suffer from the same shortages as countries like the US. Despite this, many people object to the commodification of kidney donations. They have lots of reasons for doing so, some relating to the possible consequential harms of such markets, some relating to the fairness and justice of market-based allocations. In theory, these objections could be met through appropriate regulation and management of the market. Nevertheless, some people continue to object, largely for symbolic reasons, believing that paying people for organ donation sends the wrong signal.

Brennan and Jaworski’s argument reveals the silliness of this persistent objection. If the symbolic meaning of commodified organ donation is problematic, but the consequential benefits are great, then it is the meaning that should be changed to accommodate the commodification. In other words, the consequential benefits should guide our reasoning, not the symbolic meaning.


4. Conclusion
There is more that needs to be said. In the full article, Brennan and Jaworski consider various objections to their position, including those that appeal to ‘incorrigible’ social meaning and civic duty. I don’t have the time to consider those objections right now. I would simply close with two observations. First, I think the points they make offer a nice corrective to proponents of symbolic arguments (myself included). It has long struck me that symbolic practices are highly contingent and yet, despite this, I often accord them great practical and ethical significance. I don’t think I should necessarily refrain from doing this — there are prudential and ethical reasons to favour the status quo — but one shouldn’t presume that symbolic meaning has great weight in ethical reasoning. It can be trumped by other considerations.

Second, I think the argument has significance for some of the work I have done on virtual and robotic acts. In one of my papers, I objected to the use of sex robots to replicate acts of rape or child sexual abuse. I did so partly on the grounds of the social meaning that would attach to such acts (even if they did not cause harm to others). My argument was that someone who took pleasure from such symbolic acts revealed a troubling insensitivity to negative social meaning. But this negative social meaning must itself be subject to ethical scrutiny. There could be contexts in which we should abandon any queasiness we might have towards this social meaning. An example would be if such sex robots could be used to effectively treat those who might otherwise engage in real-world acts of rape and child sexual abuse. To be fair, I said as much when I wrote the original paper, I just didn’t appreciate its deeper philosophical grounding. Brennan and Jaworski’s argument allows me to appreciate this.

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