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Have We Forgotten Morals In Our Market Dominated World?

Michael Sandel, the American political philosopher widely known for his book on Justice, has some compelling insights to offer about the porous nature of market values. He initiates a debate on the role and reach of markets in contemporary politics and offers a philosophical framework of thinking through them.

The book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Market’ presents a lucidly crafted nexus between philosophy, economics, and public policy. Resting his argument on these three pillars, Sandel contends that “we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society”. But what exactly does that mean? We have transitioned from using the market economy as a tool to organize and enhance productivity to its transgression into every prominent aspect of human endeavor.

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Market forces have always worked under the assumption that their involvement does not change the character of the industry, that is to say, they are value-neutral. However, Sandel challenges this very assumption and suggests that the encroachment of market values leaves an impression on the way we conceive of certain industries. He makes it unambiguous that markets have a moral impact on the goods that are traded in them.

The mobilization of markets and its increasing deregulation have been conceptualized as the key to economic prosperity and freedom. But in an increasingly money-based value system, the prevalence of such a discourse has challenged the stronghold of morals in the non-market spheres of life. That is to say, markets have displaced the non-market ways of allocating goods and resources. He suggests that a morally debased landscape has emerged due to the ubiquity of market thinking.

Markets position themselves as utilitarian forces that benefit buyers and sellers alike, thus maximizing our collective well being. However, this understanding ignores that by using the exchange of money as a token for assessing value, we run the risk of turning goods into commodities. This invites corruption – where the prevalent way of valuing goods is less appropriate than the others. To exemplify the same, we can study the instance of paying children to read books or achieve good grades. There is merit in contending that this would improve the academic performance of children. However, their progress is hinged on the incentive of monetary compensation. This myopic approach could corrode the intrinsic desire to learn. It replaces the higher value of learning with a baser one by means of its commodification.

The glorification of a free-market economy has led to its proliferation in realms that have traditionally not been dictated by market values. The other argument Sandel makes is one of fairness. With the increasing reach of money – in swaying political influence, attaining better healthcare, and access to quality education, concerns of inequality emerge. If the potency of money to buy more keeps rising, the ones suffering a lack of it are systematically disadvantaged.

In contemporary affairs, morality and immorality are judged only by whether or not somebody was fairly compensated monetarily for their participation in the market. And not whether it was right to do so in the first place. This is a precarious path to the thread as it assumes that anything can be bought or sold as long as it is based on legally equitable contracts. Sandel decodes this by using the alternative paradigm of fairness and corruption to highlight the more suitable non-market ways of thinking through value.

By taking the example of the line-jumping market - people who are paid to stand in line at airports, congressional hearings, or public theaters - we observe that it takes away an opportunity from those who cannot afford to pay for a service that was meant to be accessible to all in the first place. This is at odds with the egalitarian notion of the ‘first come, first serve’ basis which was known to create a level playing field for all by discarding money-based privilege. While these examples may seem insignificant at first, the reality they depict broaches onto something much larger. When market norms crowd out valuable non-market behavior, they have the potential to erode commonality. The alarming reach of money creates fewer occasions where people of different walks of life can encounter one another. The proliferation of the market economy is taking away opportunities for engagement with fellow citizens, from people who belong to different socio-economic backgrounds. This lack of common life and ethos shared by the individuals of a nation can imperil the health of a democracy.

It is important to note that Sandel does not contend against the presence of markets per se, but rather their reach and seeming lack of limits. However, the book falls prey to the criticism that it fails to provide a sophisticated understanding of markets. It only makes a passing distinction between for-profit and nonprofit market spaces and assumes homogeneity in market exchanges which is far from the case. Further, while the book instigates a debate on the limits of markets and a compelling one at that, it falls short of guiding readers to coherently identify them. While the book points towards moral ways of conceiving and examining instead of merely a market value-oriented method, it does not take into cognizance that morals themselves may be shaping themselves in novel ways which are based on market interactions and economic transactions. As a result of which, the abstract notions of higher values are being diluted by the overarching assumption that everyone and everything functions within the all-encompassing market system.

We need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to create and the values that underpin it. Should we allow these market values to dictate aspects of our lives and if so, to what extent? How can we establish a regulatory mechanism to ebb the corrosive effects of the spillover of market values into the traditionally non-market spheres of life? Should everything be up for sale? The book raises some broad questions of overwhelming concern that we must assess at the level of the individual and that of the government.

As a way of engaging with these increasingly relevant questions, the author suggests that the answers lie not in market reasoning but moral reasoning. Markets and morals are not divorced from each other, and treating them as such would continue to manifest the problems of a money-based value system in different forms. Instead of contrasting one against the other, which has so far been the status quo, the contemporary forces that influence these debates compel us to strike a delicate balance between the two. Economists have to “traffic in morality” after all to help find answers.

About the Author

Khushi Baldota is a final year student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. Her interests include security studies, public policy and political economy. She can be reached at:


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