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Study on Money and Conscience: Can't Buy Me Love

Michael J. Sandel shows with the study "What money can't buy" that market logic damages the social cement.

If mom doesn't get to kindergarten on time, children and educators are unhappy. But mom doesn't have a guilty conscience. Image: dapd

At some point the educators in an Israeli kindergarten had enough. Every day parents came to pick up their children too late, so educators had to work longer every day. So the kindergarten resorted to the obvious means of sanction. Anyone who came late from then on had to pay. A service that was previously free should now cost something. That should discipline the parents.

But amazingly the opposite happened. From then on there were more parents who were late. The moral philosopher Michael J. Sandel illustrates a key thesis with this example: When something is for sale, it changes relationships, feelings and rules. What becomes a commodity is imperceptibly transformed into something else. In this case, the money eroded the norm that it is immoral to force carers in kindergarten to work longer hours.

Debt turns into debt that can be paid for. The parents reinterpreted what punishment should be into a kind of fee that gave them the right to be late. Sandel, a Harvard professor and co-founder of communitarianism, has seen a widespread movement towards the market in Western societies, especially in the United States.

Money and markets are conquering more and more "areas of life that were once ruled by other norms". Couples unable to have children pay surrogate mothers in India. Burger King adverts emblazoned on schoolchildren's certificates. In the sports arenas there are more and more VIP areas for the well-off who keep normal fans at bay.

Put on death

It has become a common practice in the United States to buy life insurance from strangers. Wal Mart collects a few hundred thousand dollars each time an employee is unlucky enough to die in their mid-fifties. For the life insurance market, the introduction of useful AIDS medication has recently proved to be a hard blow. Buyers who had expected a decent return in anticipation of the imminent death of sick policyholders, had to write money to the wind.

TV presenter Larry King, who made more than a million US dollars in profit from the sale of his life insurance, is worried that the mafia is now the owner of his life insurance. The secondary market for life insurance is a business in the US with billions in sales. And an example of the collision between market logic and ethics.

Life insurance as a commodity, according to Sandel, corrupts its original “moral and social purpose and turns it into a kind of game of chance”. Fortunately, Sandel completely dispenses with moral fanfare in his study. The study, which is more like an analytical series of a considerable number of examples, is extremely factual and inspired by the spirit of American pragmatism.

It is by no means just about life and death - what is more original are the casual, everyday case studies. In the United States, for example, less eloquent witnesses can buy ready-made wedding speeches online. A tailor-made four-minute speech costs approximately $ 150.

The wedding address in the shopping cart

At first it seems to be a practical event that rhetorically helps the less well-off out of a tight spot and secures underemployed authors an extra income. The market makes it possible. However, it is precisely this market shape that also destroys something. Because nobody who gives a speech bought on the internet at his best friend's wedding would admit it.

Success is based on deception - and deception contradicts the claim to authenticity, without which friendship cannot exist. “Wedding addresses are goods that can be bought. But that reduces their value ”, so the sober résumé.

The German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde has astutely analyzed that the democratic state lives from conditions and traditions that it cannot guarantee itself. It is the same with the market: it lives on conditions that it cannot create. The market can even act like a kind of odorless poison that penetrates into everyday areas and decomposes them.

It is noticeable that in Sandel's colorful mosaic of cases, work is completely excluded. How it behaves from a moral-philosophical point of view with the compulsion to turn one's labor into a commodity is not even worth a marginal comment.

Moral philosophy on Youtube

The trend to ultimately define all human relationships as calculations and incentive systems has been around for around 30 years. Sandel dates it to the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher thought they discovered the happiness of mankind in a market free from all rules.

Sandel is kind of an academic star. His Harvard lecture “Justice with Michael Sandel”, which is peppered with examples, has had several million clicks on YouTube. This discourse is so appealing because it operates at the interface of two areas, both of which tend to be grueling theoretical hermeticism: economics and moral philosophy. Sandel, on the other hand, designs an ethical discourse suitable for everyday use that everyone can follow, in a sense moral philosophy without a relative clause.

Its recent fame is also due to its unease with financial capitalism, whose promise of efficiency has become porous. Like all of his book, Sandel's proposed solution is simple, perhaps a little too plain. Because the logic of the market is conquering new territory wordlessly, so to speak, the only answer can be discourse.

Far from wanting to breathe the big narrative again, Sandel doesn't bother anyone with blueprints for the good life. Rather, it is a matter of considering the consequences of commercialization in each specific individual case.

Between the promise of efficiency and collateral damage

That is also far from fundamental skepticism about capitalism. It aims at the ideal image of a community that constantly weighs up goods between the promise of efficiency and the expected collateral damage. That sounds nice, the tone is calm, the downfall of the West is not evoked either.

But there is, despite the gesture of demonstrative modesty, a tricky problem that only sounds between the lines, but requires more reflection. What is the source of the resistance to market metastases? The decades-long market euphoria has banished "moral and spiritual substance from public discourse," said Sandel. So do we have to cut back the growths of the market armed with “spiritual substance”?

It is a truism that all values ​​also have religious ancestors. But more is meant here. In this formulation the typical American ideal of a vital community of free equals shines, in which individualism and egoism are contained by an invisible force.

180 years ago, in his essay “On Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville attributed to religion the magical power to synchronize freedom and equality, the individual and the common good, in the most wonderful way. For Sandel, is “spiritual substance” just a metaphor for the unusable, for the value for which there is no price? Or for more?

John Rawls, the liberal theorist and opponent of the communitarians, wrote that ideas of justice must be “metaphysically free-standing”. If they are armed with ultimate religious justifications, they can have an exclusive effect and not create a social context, but have an exclusive effect. At Sandel, religion is secretly smuggled into political discourse as a community-building magic drink.