Sunday, July 26, 2009

contra radin

"Guilty of Saving Lives" by Daniel Akst (via marginalrevolution)

This piece in the Atlantic is very much in the spirit against Radin's Contested Commodities, which was reviewed a while back.

His analogy to prohibition is off if we see body parts and beer as in a fundamentally different class of objects. His language is also strong at times, implying at one point that the issue is a simply yes or no: "It quotes a medical ethicist at my own alma mater arguing that it's better for people to die than buy organs" (where the quote really makes no explicit reference to him saying he think it's better for people to die than buy organs).

But at other times, he makes good points that are difficult to defend. For example, how do we wrestle with this point aside from saying that we need to abolish our entire conception of markets in society? Perhaps that is indeed what we need to do, but it's a much larger problem than simply reforming our democratic society in the spirit of Radin's criteria:

The unearned piety of those who condemn these transactions strikes me as outrageous. If someone has the right to abort her own fetus, why does she not have the right to sell her own kidney?

Of course, you can make the same argument for prostitution or wage labor. The problem is, how do we constructively debate with people who take this view?


  1. I'm not trying to sound like a jerk but, in all seriousness, what are his good points? The piece is just rhetoric. I'm not saying that as a necessarily bad thing. There is nothing wrong with using rhetoric but as someone who disagrees with him there is nothing I can spot in his rhetoric that amounts to a "good point" I would have to counter.

    Nobody was arresting for savings lives. Someone was arrested for selling organs. Yes the law was made by people who didn't need an organ, but thats just because most people don't need organs. And sure he might break the law if it would save a family member but I'm not sure why that matters. I might kill someone who murdered a family member of mine but that has zero implications in terms of the ethics or desirability of the death penalty.

    If this person honestly doesn't understand the difference between abortion and selling a kidney I think there is no way to constructively debate with him. At the very most it might be constructive to point out how ridiculous his arguments are to generally sensible people who might be tricked by the rhetoric.

  2. "If this person honestly doesn't understand the difference between abortion and selling a kidney I think there is no way to constructively debate with him."

    This is exactly my meaning for saying it's a "good point"! This type of view -- that markets can work for anything -- is very dangerous and also, I think, pretty widespread. So, how do we develop a theory that makes a concrete difference between abortion rights and rights to sell a kidney that can prove how ridiculous his argument is.

    Of course, I was giving this guy too much credit, but I'm tired of just saying someone on the far right is flat-out wrong without first trying to take the arguments seriously and see for myself how to break them down. Sometimes it's easy to do, but not always...

  3. To be clear, I'm not saying he is flat-out wrong. I'm saying almost the opposite. He can't be wrong because he is not making a point or argument.

    The question is whether a market for something is desirable or undesirable. His allusion to abortion is just a straw man and I honestly think the "serious" thing to do is not take the straw man seriously. I don't think we need a theory to differentiate between abortion rights and selling rights, they are just categorically different. It is like saying we need a theory to differentiate between free speech rights and the right to bear arms.

    Now, I get your point that the omnipotence of the market is widespread and that we should think about how to oppose this idea. At the same time I think one useful strategy is relying on the fact that distrust of the market is also very widespread. The power of the market narrative is strong enough, there is no use giving it even more power. Remember that in the case of kidneys it is market distrust that currently dominates. In my experience even the most pro-market students draw the line somewhere. Even if they "think they think" the market is always good there are things they want excluded from the market (i.e. human beings). In other words they've already drawn a line. I think the best starting point in attempting to overturn the market ideology is in pointing this out and then having a serious discussion about where to draw the line. Maybe at this point theory comes into play....