Markets and Morals after Laudato Si

By: Micah Musser

April 12, 2017

On April 7, 2017, Georgetown University and the Pontifical Council for Culture co-sponsored a day-long conference under the name "Towards a New Market Economy: Justice, Culture, and the Social Market." The conversation was exceptionally broad—ranging from the limitations of the market and globalization's effects on immigrant and low-income rural communities to an extended examination of copyright law—but the animating theme of the day came from a keynote delivered in the morning by Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard University.

In his keynote, Sandel criticized the increasing expansion of markets in public life. Resistance to the expansion of markets, he claimed, can arise in two ways: through objections to fairness or through objections to intrinsic moral value. In our cultural discourse, Sandel contended, objections from intrinsic moral value oftentimes are used less than objections from fairness. It is easy enough to see that kidney sales might be objectionable if they only go to serve the most well-off; it is less clear whether kidney sales might be objectionable on the basis of more fundamental claims—such as the claim that selling one's kidney improperly violates the integrity of one's body, or that there is moral value to preserving one's body in its natural form if medically possible, or that kidney donation is inherently devalued by the introduction of financial incentives. Sandel is concerned that this unwillingness to use appeals to intrinsic moral worth stems from a broader cultural unwillingness to discuss ultimate goods.

The thought generally runs that when agreement over ultimate goods is impossible, it is most fundamental to discuss the right—that is, appropriate mechanisms of justice and legal norms—while ultimately permitting individuals to pursue their own conceptions of the good. From this perspective, perhaps most lionized in A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, liberal societies must focus on distributive features of society without, to the extent possible, entering into discussions over ultimate goods. In this milieu, markets are a hallowed institution precisely because they purport to bracket questions of ultimate good; products are allocated to those who can pay based on the desires they have, not the desires they should have. Markets claim to be value-neutral; therefore, they are popular in a society that has trouble discussing values themselves.

Generally speaking, when market expansion is resisted on "liberal" principles, it is only because the free reign of the market would substantially impair some people's ability to pursue their own desires. Poverty keeps people unfree; therefore, welfare programs may be necessary to secure their greater freedom, even if they restrict the freedom of the wealthy. Both free market capitalism and welfare programs oftentimes operate around the same internal logic of liberal principles—namely, that people should be free to pursue whatever desires they currently have, and that those desires themselves should not be subject to forced change. (Of course, this logic of acceptance breaks down in the margin: Some desires, such as the desires of a proud racist to humiliate people of other races, can still be disavowed. Ordinarily, however, this is true only in cases in which a person's desires, if pursued, would cause direct and measurable harm to another person.)

Sandel views Laudato Si as an attack on this framework because of its insistence on the necessity of a cultural change in order to address environmental crises. Pope Francis does not believe that people should be entitled to pursue their desires if those desires would harm the environment, nor does he believe this merely because the pursuit of those desires would make other people less free; rather, he believes this because respect for the environment is an "ultimate good" and people simply should not have desires to harm our natural world. The question is not how best to secure freedom to pursue existing desires. Rather, the question is how best to change the desires themselves.

Another example: When Pope Francis justifies welfare programs, he does not do it solely in the name of freedom for the poor. Under at least one interpretation of the social teachings of Christianity, welfare programs are good not only because they make the poor freer, but also because they make the rich less free. One need only think of Christ's declaration that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven to be reminded that the constant pursuit of wealth is not a moral good in Christianity. Inequality is only one part of Francis' attack on "free market ideology"; the other half is an attack on the pursuit of wealth itself (here we see the Pope raising both objections under Sandel's typology—one from fairness, one from intrinsic moral values). From this view, unfettered capitalism harms not only the poor but the rich, too, precisely because it permits them to satisfy an unhealthy addiction. If taxation encourages wealthy citizens to spend less time working and perhaps more time with their families, it is unclear that the taxation necessarily harms them if strong families are another "ultimate good." If we take Sandel's suggestion and permit ourselves to discuss ultimate goods, these questions become substantially murkier.

Certainly this hypothetical line of argumentation—that taxation is good for the wealthy—goes further than anything which Pope Francis has publicly said (to my knowledge). But the internal logic, which rejects the maxim that people are better off when they are freer to pursue the desires they already have, seems consistent with the Pope's views on issues ranging from welfare to environmentalism to abortion; views expressed especially strongly by his vilification of the "throwaway culture" in Laudato Si.

The Pope's rejection of modern-day capitalism should not be viewed as capitulation to liberalism, in which the freedom of each person to do as they please becomes the greatest goal. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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