December, 2019

Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi, Do markets corrupt our morals?

Book Review
  • Michael Munger

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Philosophers and social theorists have long been skeptical about the morality of market exchange, especially when that exchange is motivated by a desire for obtaining wealth. Aristotle, in both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, argued that exchanging to obtain the things that the household–or by extension, the city–requires to satisfy basic needs is natural. Such exchanges can therefore be morally permissible, or even perhaps a quotidian techne. But participation in markets cannot be a real virtue, and to the extent that such activity in markets is motivated by the pursuit of wealth rather than the pursuit of needful things. As Aristotle put it:

"One kind of acquisition therefore in the order of nature is a part of the household art, in accordance with which either there must be forthcoming or else that art must procure to be forthcoming a supply of those goods, capable of accumulation, which are necessary for life and useful for the community of city or household. And it is of these goods that riches in the true sense at all events seem to consist. For the amount of such property sufficient in itself for a good life is not unlimited…for a limit has been fixed, as with the other arts, since no tool belonging to any art is without a limit whether in number or in size, and riches are a collection of tools for the householder and the statesman. Therefore that there is a certain art of acquisition belonging in the order of nature to householders and to statesmen, and for what reason this is so, is clear. But there is another kind of acquisition that is specially called wealth-getting, and that is so called with justice and to this kind it is due that there is thought to be no limit to riches and property." (Politics, Book I, 1.1256b.)

In this view, the activities of the household are necessary, and the use of markets to obtain things for the household—value in use—are perfectly sensible everyday activities. But “business” activities are the pursuit of wealth, engaging with market activity above and beyond what is necessary to obtain only the necessities of the good life–i.e., exchange motivated by “wealth-getting,” or value in exchange. This sort of business, particularly financial business, is unnatural, because it is most removed from physical goods. Wealth-getting of this sort could never be a routine activity of a virtuous person, at least for Aristotle:

"[I]t is the work of nature to supply nourishment for her offspring, since every creature has for nourishment the residue of the substance from which it springs. Hence the business of drawing provision from the fruits of the soil and from animals is natural to all. But, as we said, this art is twofold, one branch being of the nature of trade while the other belongs to the household art; and the latter branch is necessary and in good esteem, but the branch connected with exchange is justly discredited." (Politics, Book I, 1.1258a.)

An interesting variation of this view can be found in Cicero, who appears to have believed that one can be both “wealth-seeking” and virtuous, calling “mischievous” the claim that goodness (virtue) and wisdom (business) are incompatible:

"[A] good man will neither pretend nor conceal anything for the sake of buying or selling on better terms… All falsehood, then, must be removed from contracts. The seller must not employ a sham purchaser, nor the buyer one to depreciate the article on sale by too low a bid. Let either party, if it comes to naming the price, say once for all what he will give or take. Quintus Scaevola, the son of Publius, when he asked to have the price of an estate that he was buying named once for all, and the seller had complied with his request, said that he thought it worth more, and added a hundred thousand sesterces."

"There is no one who would say that this was not the act of a good man; but men in general would not regard it as the act of a wise man, any more than if he had sold an estate for less than it would bring. This, then, is the mischievous doctrine,regarding some men as good, others as wise…"

I see, indeed, that Hecato of Rhodes, a disciple of Panaetius, says, in the books on Duties which he dedicated to Quintus Tubero: “It is a wise man’s duty, while he does nothing contrary to morals, laws, and customs, to have regard to his private fortune. For we desire to be rich, not for ourselves alone, but for children, kindred, friends, and most of all for the state,—considering that the means and resources of individual citizens are the wealth of the state.” De Officiis (Book III, Chapter 15; emphasis added).

In effect, the question is whether “virtue” requires only that we do no harm to others, and obey the law, or whether virtue is something more. Cicero thinks Quintus Tubero goes too far in calling it a “duty” to obtain wealth, but neither is there a duty to pay too much after a price is agreed on. In Cicero’s view, “The act of Scaevola just named cannot, then, be in any way pleasing to Hecato. Nor is any great praise or favor to be rendered to a man who merely says that he will not do for his own benefit what is unlawful.” (de Officiis, Book III, Chapter 15). Thus, acts of exchange and trade whose purpose is to acquire wealth are at best, on this account, permitted, and then only if there is no misrepresentation or false dealing.

Thomas Aquinas gives the most important and—in terms of actual Western practice and norms— most nuanced elaboration of Aristotle’s argument.

"It belongs to [business] to be occupied with the exchange of commodities…[T]rade, considered in itself, contains a certain unseemliness, inasmuch as it does not essentially involve any honorable or necessary end. Still though gain, which is the end of trade, does not essentially involve anything honorable or necessary, neither does it essentially involve any element of vice, or aught that is opposed to virtue. Hence there is nothing to hinder gain from being referred to an end necessary or even honorable. And thus trade will be rendered lawful: as when one refers the moderate gain that he seeks from trade to the sustenance of his family, or to the relief of the distressed; or once more, when one applies to trade on behalf of the public interest, that the necessaries of life may not be wanting to his country, and seeks gain, not as an end, but as the wages of his labour." (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, #77; emphasis added).

This conclusion, that trade is not virtuous, but is also not inconsistent with virtue, meant that traders had a respectable place in early medieval European society.

It is important to remember that for the Aristotelian tradition—advanced by Aquinas—virtue is not a single moral choice. Virtue is an aspect of character, a habit of right action that is the consequence of reflection. Moral virtues are those states of harmony that can be ruined by excess or deficiency. Thus, the coward cannot be virtuous. But neither can the fearless fool. The virtue—bravery—is a moral mean between these extremes. A corporate CEO, to be virtuous, would need to be neither too greedy and parsimonious, as workers would be unhappy and unproductive, nor too profligate, buying so many corporate jets and building new headquarters that the company goes bankrupt. The virtue—prudent liberality—is a moral mean.

Which brings us to the recent book by Storr and Choi, Do Markets Corrupt Our Morals? The useful thing about this book, in some ways an extension of work Storr has been doing for a decade, is that it considers a more dynamic problem than the classical literature on the morality of markets. That is, even if one concedes that markets allow for activities that we might perceive as moral or consequentially essential in a static sense, doesn’t “commodification” and the pursuit of gain for its own sake distort, and ultimately corrupt, the human impulses of altruism and mutual aid on which society depends?

The authors state the concern they are addressing on the first page of the text: Shouldn’t we worry that the “more we engage in market activity, the more likely we are to become, at best, selfish and corrupt, and, at worst, rapacious and debased”? Their answer is “perhaps, but not necessarily.” And, compared to other actual systems that might be used to organize large scale human activity, they argue that markets are actually more likely to nurture moral spaces in which people can find ways to cooperate and help each other.

The book has both theoretical and empirical elements. The primary thrust of the theoretical argument is to establish that markets create space for, and actively reward, moral action. That is, far from accepting the “mischievous” doctrine that being good and being wise are mutually exclusive, Storr and Choi make an affirmative argument that markets actively advance morality and community. That makes this book an interesting follow-up to Brennan and Jaworski’s 2015 book, Markets Without Limits. The Brennan and Jaworski strategy was to make a strong claim: if something is moral to make or do, it cannot be immoral to buy or sell that thing. They then considered a catalog of possible counterarguments and found that all such claims can be rebutted. Storr and Choi, by contrast, argue that markets are affirmatively moral, in several important senses.

As I see it, there are three central charges commonly leveled against the morality of markets. One is the claim that markets exploit workers and turn them into brutes; the second is that the commodification of things and the use of prices to direct allocation decisions corrupts the moral sense humans naturally possess and would otherwise use to motivate cooperation; and the third is that a common consequence of markets, extreme inequality, is corrosive to collective institutions of community and democracy. Storr and Choi acknowledge the potential force of each of these claims (and more besides; I’m simplifying a bit), but address the claims with an affirmative defense.

1. Markets, in the Storr and Choi view, actually improve the lives of workers, rather than making them brutes. There are two mechanism at work: first, on some margin it quickly becomes cheaper to “pay” workers with better and more comfortable conditions, safer working spaces, and more interesting activities, than it is only to attract labor with higher money wages. Second, higher pay and the improvements in access to desirable consumer products that come with a market economy mean that workers have leisure time and the resources to enjoy it, improving their lives overall even if their work is not very rewarding.

2. Commodification does in fact run the risk of detaching us from the kind of communities found in primitive societies. But commodification and division of labor foster a dramatic increase in scope and variety of new communities for humans to join and be part of. Further, the relation among workers in a firm, or the relation between a seller and a repeat customer, create new and important “moral spaces” in which the importance of character and personal familiarity produce both legitimately warm comradery and an increase in the efficiency of contracts and cooperation because of improvements in trust and personal commitment.

3. The question of inequality, both in terms of its sources and its impacts, is a major focus of the book. The authors note that market systems can in fact be associated with high levels of inequality, but it appears that increased inequality may often be the price a society pays for reducing poverty, a trade-off that very poor citizens are likely to embrace. Further, Storr and Choi show that (a) market societies generally have lower inequality than non-market societies, and (b) market societies show a great deal more social mobility, or a capacity for the very poor to become much more wealthy than their parents, than non-market systems.

There’s a lot more in this book to think about. I expect that some of the empirical conclusions will be contested, but that’s partly because the authors are trying to do something new. As Storr and Choi (p. 7) rightly point out, many previous defenses of market morality have not really addressed head on the concerns of critics. The merit of this book is that it does take on those arguments and concerns directly, and offers some persuasive answers and attractive avenues for further inquiry.