When I ask this question, I'm specifically referencing ideas posited by theorists like Michael Sandel (The Tanner Lectures - What Money Can't Buy), Elizabeth Anderson (The Ethical Limitations of the Market / Is Women's Labor a Commodity?), Margaret Jane Radin (Market-Inalienability), Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice), Anne Phillips (It's My Body and I'll Do What I Like With It: Bodies as Objects and Property), Alvin E. Roth (Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets), etc.

When we discuss the moral limits of markets, and how we should define our conceptions of justice (in relation to these markets) in political philosophy, it seems to me like much of the current debate over the argument from corruption is deeply intertwined with moral philosophy. By the argument from corruption, I reference those arguments in which individuals are concerned over a contested commodity's permissibility and legal status (i.e. kidneys, sex, surrogacy, etc.). Michael Sandel, for instance, places an importance on the republican notion of citizenship when he says that, "A politics that emphasizes the civic consequences of inequality may hold greater promise of inspiring the reconstruction of class-mixing public institutions than a politics that focuses on individual choice" (pg. 121 of What Money Can't Buy). He contrasts the character-building nature of the republic conception of citizenship with the freedom/tolerance-protecting attitudes of liberalism (which might, in his eyes, lead us to condone the sales of things that could harm our civic bond with one another as democratic citizens). It seems that Sandel's concern, along with other philosophers concerned with the argument from corruption (such as Elizabeth Anderson's fears regarding the potential threat that commercial surrogacy holds against the value of motherhood) are concerned at their core with concepts of the flourishing human life, and moral issues of what is right and wrong.

But if this is the case, then how can we possibly differentiate this aspect of political philosophy from being a concern that rather belongs to the sphere of moral philosophy or ethics? It seems hard for me to believe that this stance can be taken seriously while in the context of our politically-pluralistic society.

*Edit: my question might be phrased badly. It might have been more appropriate had I asked, "Must political philosophy and moral philosophy differ (in the context of moral limits on the market) in order for arguments from corruption to be valid?" But that's a little long-winded. *

  • Why should we differentiate it? Political philosophy is deeply intertwined with ethics and economics as already pointed out by Plato; Adam Smith was also very critical of pure economics. Dec 15, 2017 at 21:48
  • No idea if this will make sense, but you make a good point. To clarify... given the fact that people within a politically-pluralistic society (like America, for instance - or Canada, or Australia, and so on) have fundamentally different beliefs about "the good life", then how can we agree on what is being corrupted in instances of the argument from corruption? For instance, Anderson believes that the value of sex is something shared between two individuals (specifically a man + woman) who love each other, and therefore to commodify it would degrade the value with which sex should be exchanged. Dec 15, 2017 at 22:06
  • But many individuals might hold that sex does not always need to (nor should it) coincide with love, and it need not always be between a man and a woman. Our differing values on this topic (among others) seems to make it impossible to say that a good is being corrupted by market exchange - because we cannot agree on what the value of that good is. If we could, then the state could surely make a law illegalizing the sale of sex without contestation. Dec 15, 2017 at 22:07
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    By the way, chat is general place for discussion... Dec 15, 2017 at 22:15
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    Habermas distinguishes three layers: Individual morals (What I think to be right), morals of communities (What my/a social group thinks to be right), and morals of societies (Basic values of societies allowing for interaction of individuals with different backgrounds). They do not dissolve into each other (or ethics for that matter). This might be relevant for this question.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 15, 2017 at 22:17

3 Answers 3


There are no free markets. Any society will impose moral limits on the market : on what can go into the market for purchase or exchange, on who can enter the market, and on what consequences market transactions produce (from externalities to income inequalities). In the UK we do not allow babies to be purchased for the purpose of being tortured; we do not let 5-year-olds work in the mines; and we regulate the externalities (from smoke to sewage) that market transactions produce. These moral limits will be politically imposed unless they are (increasingly unlikely these days) built into the customs and norms of the society.

Having economic life in the hands of the market has no implications for the republican notion of citizenship that Sandel espouses. If we have a market economy (of which incidentally I am no friend) this does not mean that we reduce our politics to one of individual choice. Citizens are free to decide collectively as a community that inequalities of wealth created by the market are to be diluted or removed by redistributive taxation. They are also free, and well-advised, to insulate areas of social life from the market and from market-thinking (competition leagues between schools, for instance, or the NHS's internal market). When the market produces gender paygaps and the like, there is nothing to stop Sandel's republican citizens from blocking this market malpractice.

Whatever the actual relations between a market economy and a community of republican freedom the two concepts are not antithetical. Sandel treats them as if they were and as if a political system that accommodates the market has sold its soul to the devil of individualism. Sandel cares deeply about justice and communitarianism as his republican freedom used to be called but he runs together concepts that need to be separated. He is also wrong to think that 'liberalism' is indelibly associated with a politics of mere personal choice. T.H. Green and LT Hobhouse, more than a century back, knew better than that.


I'm not sure really if I understand your question, so you should see the following as a comment on it.

Ruskin, an English artist wrote Unto this Last (which had a strong influence in Gandhi) in 1860; it's a work on political economy and claims that an ethical dimension cannot be excluded from economic argument; his central premise is this:

Among the delusions which at different periods have afflicted mankind, perhaps the greatest - certainly the least creditable - is modern economics based on the idea that an advantageous code of action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affections

In this he was in agreement with Adam Smith, who is usually understood, wrongly, that a pure economics is possible.


"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors,' and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous 'cash payment.' It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

That It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I think despite our political pluralism (which I doubt, I see more sameness than real differences) that most people are capable of understanding what Marx is saying here.

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