What is mine to give, but not to sell

The moral limits of the market

There are few things money cannot buy. In India, you can pay a woman to give birth to your child. In Pakistan, you can buy a kidney. Around the world, sex can be bought from prostitutes. These markets are controversial and often illegal. But should they be?

Adults are morally permitted but never morally required to donate organs, become surrogate mothers, and have sex. So where (if anywhere) should we draw the line? The research project ‘What is mine to give, but not to sell: The moral limits of the market’ explores such questions. 

The project offers a novel, innovative approach and develops a framework to identify the moral limits of markets.

The first innovation, the focus on discretionary goods, is important because it limits the discussion to goods, which people are permitted to give. In the literature, much attention is devoted to markets in goods, which are not discretionary (i.e., selling a rented house or killing people for money), making a market problematic because the seller may not give these goods away. To know what makes markets wrong qua markets, we discuss discretionary goods.

The second innovation distinguishes three elements that jointly exhaust the persons and goods potentially affected by a market exchange: the good itself, the participants, and goods/persons external to the exchange. Anything that makes a market impermissible must relate to one or more of these elements. This helps classify and compare existing theories with respect to what they claim is wrong about a particular market.

The third innovation is to use insights from debates over distributive justice. We cannot properly assess markets without considering the distributions they create and the circumstances of buyers and sellers. This project employs a luck egalitarian understanding of justice, implying that people are unjustly worse off, if and only if, they are worse off than others through no fault of their own. The developed framework will inform policies and debates about controversial markets. Methodologically, the project will approach these questions from the approach of analytical political philosophy.

Project aims

The project aims to:

  • Assess strengths and weaknesses in existing frameworks for assessing the moral wrongness of markets
  • Contribute to and analyze ongoing academic debates over the wrongness of markets
  • Provide a new framework for assessing the wrongness of markets

Work packages

The project consists of 5 workpackages:

WP I discuss weaknesses in existing frameworks.

WPI I-IV is dedicated to particular kind of claims about what makes (some) markets impermissible. 

Specifically, WP II-IV address claims that the market in some good or service is morally problematic for reasons related to the good being sold; the participants of the exchange and goods or persons external to the exchange.

WP V develops the framework.