Last week I attended a How To Academy talk with philosopher Michael Sandel who made me question my convictions. Michael Sandel teaches at Harvard, has delivered lectures at Oxford and Sorbonne, his work has been translated into 15 languages and most recently he wrote a book What Money Can’t Buy.
“There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many.” Indeed, Sandel cites a few troubling examples:
- The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $6,250
- The right to immigrate to the US: $500,000
- “Concierge” doctor appointments: $1,500 - $25,000 per year
- You could earn $15-$20 per hour by queuing overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist
- If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, you could earn $2 by reading a book
- You could buy a life insurance policy for an elderly person, pay annual premiums while the person is alive, then collect the death benefit when he or she dies…
Sandel writes that “the recent financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risk efficiently. It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals and that we need somehow to reconnect them.”
The trouble is that some examples of markets stepping over non-economic values are less obvious than others.
It is clear to me that paying kids to read books may incentivise them in the short term but it will also make them regard reading as a chore rather than a source of pleasure and a long-term good. It is alarming to me that schools in Washington D.C. pay their students for attendance, good behaviour and turning in their homework, allowing conscientious kids to make up to $100 every fortnight. Paying NHS doctors £55 for each patient diagnosed with dementia appears to me equally morally dubious and ineffectively designed even as far as purely economic incentives are concerned.
But another example Sandel cited during his talk divided opinions. He told the audience about Namibian government running a black rhino hunting permit auction in the US. Approximately 5,000 endangered black rhinos live in Namibia and anti-poaching measures are costly to implement. The government auctioned a permit to kill one old non-breeding male rhino, raised $350,000 and did considerably better than the governments of the neighbouring countries struggling with their conservation efforts in the absence of funding.
Michael Sandel asked the audience to vote whether such an auction is the right way to tackle the problem at hand. Opinions were split. Many argued that since the ultimate goal is conservation of species and since the auction helped to achieve that, such means is justified. Others argued that however effective, killing a rhino to save the species destroys the underlying principles of conservation.
Then one woman in the audience shared her opinion. She said: “First we kill a rhino, then what? We hold an auction to raise money to tackle domestic violence by giving permission to the winner to beat up his wife?”
I was ‘happy’ to kill a rhino but of course I would not support wife-beating. It made me think, and I have been questioning myself ever since.
At which point do you draw the line?