Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Greed and the Market Society
distributed 7/13/12 - ©2012

For ten years or so, I've been carrying on an extended debate with a close friend: Can the eco-justice crisis, about which we both care so deeply, be resolved?

Ted thinks that we'll never be able to address some parts of the crisis, because doing so would involve changing human nature. We'd have to get rid of greed, of a deep-seated focus on self-interest. I've held out the possibility that attitudes and behaviors can be changed if we offer an enticing, compelling and radically different vision of the good life.

For a decade, Ted and I have had long, lively, thoughtful conversations, and neither one of us has gone far in changing the other's opinions. This summer, I've found a new twist that may help me offer Ted some hope.

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Questions of greed and the good life run through a new, and widely reviewed, new book by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. But Sandel doesn't think we need to change human nature.

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was an expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. (p.7)

Within the last few generations, he says, the discipline of economics has changed its self-definition. "What economics offers, they argue, is not merely a set of insights about the production and consumption of material goods but also a science of human behavior." That's a problem that goes far beyond one academic field, because our culture and our institutions have been enticed into that expanded framework. In what struck me as one of his most chilling statements, Sandel wrote:

without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: A market economy is a tool -- a valuable and effective tool -- for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values creep into every aspect of human endeavor. It's a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market. (p.10)

In a market society, Ted is probably right. If everything is economic, if nothing has intrinsic worth, if people and nature are just commodities to be bought and sold, then we probably don't stand a chance of healing God's damaged and depleted creation.

But if those market considerations can be put back into some sense of appropriate boundaries, if we can affirm other qualities of the good life for individuals and communities, if we can recognize that some things should never be for sale, then we have a way to turn toward the healing of creation.

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What Money Can't Buy is a conversation starter for our society. It isn't designed to provide crisp answers or definite policy guidelines. The book's wonderful variety of provocative examples and historical perspectives do a great job of stimulating moral thinking. It could be a great study book for your church or community.

A couple of general principles are used over and over again to critique the intrusion of market values, and they align well with core eco-justice principles.

The first is a fairly pragmatic matter of justice. Markets increase aspects of injustice. "In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. .. Where all good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world." (p. 8) Other forms of community life -- ways of living that used to be much more common -- would foster justice and make the good life more available to us all.

Another principle, corruption, is harder to grasp. He's not referring to corrupt people, but to the corrosive tendency of markets. "Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them." Seeing only financial prices or economic incentives distorts and diminishes our view of the world. Because there are many kinds of value and worth, not just economic ones, there should be things that money can't buy.

The book ends with a warning that endorses my side of the debate with Ted, and (much more importantly) lifts up the urgent need to bring moral considerations into our public and political conversations.

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong -- and where they don't. And we can't answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.
      Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. ... For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize. (p. 202 - emphasis added)

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has published a fascinating column that takes Sandel's book as its starting point. Trading in the souls of men: What money can't buy brings some much needed philosophical and theological depth to the topic. Williams points toward some of the distinctive gifts that faith communities bring to this work of social transformation. "If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like -- and the costs of failure as well."

The gradual, unexamined shift toward a market society degrades the quality of our common life, and it makes environmental healing almost impossible. Unless we are bold in bringing moral values back into public conversation, the markets will strengthen their deadening grip.

There are civic virtues that can turn us back toward richer and healthier ways of life, including goals of justice and non-market worth. Our churches have rich traditions and profound teachings that provide alternative visions of the good life, and we have settings of liturgy and community where those values are effectively nurtured.

If we do not resist the market society -- if we do not claim justice, inherent worth, and the value of life in social and ecological community -- then our world is in great danger. Sandel's book has opened a space for this essential public conversation. Let us claim the opportunity. Let us resist and speak out, in our churches and in society.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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