Is nothing sacred?

On the internet there is a site called Professional Friends. The going rate for a rented friend is around £10 an hour. How do you feel about hiring friendship? This a is a question which Michael Sandel, who is a philosophy professor at Harvard, asked at an Intelligence Squared lecture recently. The topic he was exploring was whether market economics is a tool at our service in society or whether it has invaded society in such a way that there is little which cannot be valued in monetary terms.

This could scarcely be more topical, as Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford pointed out recently. MPs’ expenses, phone mis-selling, the Libor crisis and broad financial disaster are among the signs that the market is no longer made for man. Rather, man is becoming slave to the market.

If you are familiar with Sandel’s work you will know that he holds that people should do philosophy rather than merely study it. Above all, he believes that we should all take part in public discourse about how we want our society to be and what values should be respected. So, let’s take Sandel’s lead, and ask ourselves some questions.

On your birthday last week the card from your daughter contained a poem she had written. It wasn’t Shakespeare but the sentiment was pleasing and she had taken trouble to get the metre and the rhyme. That evening her revolting younger brother sneaked that she had paid half her pocket money to a clever friend to compose it for her. Does that affect the value of her offering?

Some childcare centres had problems with mums making late pick-ups, thus obliging staff to stay on. The obvious solution was to fine tardy mothers. Would this work?

In fact, matters became worse. It appears that mums, who felt at least a little guilty at inconveniencing child minders, felt no guilt at all after being fined. They simply mentally converted fines into fees. No need to feel guilty about that. When the fines were later withdrawn, the mothers’ outlook did not revert. It seems as if the payment of “fines” had permanently sullied the whole transaction.

Two groups of lawyers were asked to provide legal services for members of an old-age charity. One group was offered a discounted hourly rate. The other was asked to provide their services for free. One group refused, the other agreed. Which?

I know the answer to this. At one time in my life I was doing professional public speaking. If I was asked by a charity which could not afford my four-figure fee, I preferred to speak for nothing rather than a lower fee. I did not want to see my value lowered in the market.

In our family we chose to give gifts of money related to age. This was very acceptable since, unlike us, the children and the grandchildren knew what they wanted. But any of our adult friends would feel surprised and perhaps hurt if we gave them money rather than a conventional present, no matter how ill-chosen. Why should this be so? An interesting study calculated that a chosen present was valued by the recipient on average at some 20 per cent less than the cash cost.

Suppose that you badly need tickets for an important show and they are sold out. How much extra would you pay to a seller on the internet to get them? If you pay anything extra you are encouraging a black market which means that your money buys you privilege not open to others. Similarly, if you could buy a ticket which would enable you to go to the front of a bus queue, ahead of the little old ladies, would you do so? Either of those facilities will be at the expense of others.

You have a child approaching the end of primary school. You know that final tests will influence which stream she will be in at secondary level. But your child is easily distracted from revision. Would it be right to offer a financial bribe to get the errant nose to the grindstone?

To your disappointment your child cannot be persuaded to read. In fact, he is not even inclined to try. You decide to offer him £2 for every book he reads – and you will check this with a little questionnaire. Do you think this might be a good way to inculcate the reading habit?

Is it beneficial to bribe children to work hard or to read books, or do you think that education is not a commodity to be bought or sold? You might think about this if your child goes to a private school or needs special coaching to pass an exam.

If you have worked your way through those questions (based on, but not always identical to, Sandel’s) you will have a clearer view about your attitudes to the value and the relevance of the market. And you may, as I did, discover inconsistencies in your values or your reasoning. As Sandel said to his Harvard students (I summarise), once you have started serious moral thinking you will never be the same again.

In a later part of his book What Money Can’t Buy Sandel examines more general subjects such as being paid for the use of one’s name. While this may be more remote I should be sorry to have missed the poverty-stricken lady who, for a fee, had an advertisement tattooed on her forehead or the baseball player whose spent chewing gum was sold for $10,000 (£6,400).

Does our society know the price of everything and the value of nothing? Is our slide into a market economy an inevitable corruption of society’s values? Have we built a society in which we should expect public dishonesty?


What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel is published by Allen Lane, priced £20

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy, Quentin queries and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Is nothing sacred?

  1. tim says:

    Another cracking topic! But I can’t keep up! (it may come as a relief to many to hear this…)

    • John Candido says:

      I get tired sometimes as well. I do enjoy Secondsight very much though, I must say.

      • tim says:

        That is good to hear, when you frequently get roundly abused for expressing opinions not all of us sympathise with. Your taking this in good part is an example to all!

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    A great deal that happens in the market is appalling. Nevertheless its essential purpose – to provide goods and services that people actually want, at a price they are willing to pay – is all but essential, and if honestly conducted commendable.

    Paid companionship used to be a perfectly respectable arrangement between women, one lonely and wealthy, the other indigent and humble. Both knew where they stood and in principle it was an honest transaction, if open to abuse. A difficulty arises with services that should be offered freely; but if they are not, however deplorable the circumstances, should those who feel a need for them be denied, or those who provide them at an acceptable rate be castigated? (I assume the services to be themselves legitimate.)

    I’m ducking out, at least for the time being, from issues involving the purchase of a competitive advantage.

  3. Horace says:

    “An interesting study calculated that a chosen present was valued by the recipient on average at some 20 per cent less than the cash cost.”

    This statement reminded me of advice that I was given by my nanny (yes, I do mean ‘nanny’) when I was about 4 years old – “If anyone offers to give you a present or some money instead, always ask for the present because they will spend more on a present than they will give you in money.”

    • tim says:

      But as much as 20% more? (if not, the research suggests you end up worse off – in money terms).

      You may not be better off (in money terms) simply because someone spends more money on your present, if you value the present at less than it cost (have I expressed that right?). But I think your nanny was right, though not because of the extra money. It’s easier to give money than to pick a suitable present. But someone who loves you will devote care to picking a good present, and this may help both of you to love each other more.

  4. John Candido says:

    ‘To your disappointment your child cannot be persuaded to read. In fact, he is not even inclined to try. You decide to offer him £2 for every book he reads – and you will check this with a little questionnaire. Do you think this might be a good way to inculcate the reading habit?’

    I don’t have any sympathy for such an approach to children, but I do understand parents’ concerns about the reading habits of their children. Looking back on my own childhood I am struck by how much television was of far greater interest to me than any reading whatsoever. I hated it.

    Despite having graduated as a mature student with a Bachelor of Arts from La Trobe University, entering honours in politics, which was not completed, and accepted into law twice but dropping out due to a lack of interest; reading is something that I don’t find pleasurable at all. It is akin to a chore for me. In retrospect, it was the right decision to drop-out of law because of the sheer amount of reading that lawyers do on a daily basis.

    I am not widely read in literature as I imagine a lot of other contributors to Secondsight are, such as Quentin, John Nolan, Paul Milligan, et al. What saved me in the end was an interest in quality television documentaries and current affairs on the ABC. It was this interest, as well as the prompting of one teacher in secondary school who extolled the virtues of reading quality journalism on a daily basis, such as found in Fairfax publications in The Age newspaper.

    I don’t read whole books from cover to cover, and I eschew fiction as a waste of my time. Of course the whole world will disagree with me about the virtues of fiction and literature, especially great classic literature. I am sure that the entire world is completely correct about the virtue of literature. However, as I dislike reading in general, it does not appeal to me in the slightest.

    What I do look forward to however is the mass production of eBooks. With hyperlinks throughout the text of any eBook, an expansive index of subjects, names, as well as any other form of knowledge that can be categorised in alphabetical form, quality eBooks will be a significant timesaver that I will look forward to in future. EBooks could also have concordances, and a ‘Find Function’, similar to that we are all conversant with in our browser’s tool bar under the ‘Edit’ function.

    As an example of what I am talking about go to the Vatican website and click on ‘Resource Library’ at the bottom of the page, near its centre. Then click on ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’, and go to any part of the text listed on the left-hand side. Then click on ‘Click here to show the links to concordance’, which is in the centre top of the page, and you will see that you can go to any example of the word that you are interested in, because it has been hyperlinked to the document’s concordance.

    Where any document does not have hypertext links to a concordance, for example the documents of the Second Vatican Council or encyclicals, simply use the ‘Find’ function in ‘Edit’ in your browser. The same ‘Find’ function is available in other browsers under ‘Edit’ in ‘Chrome’, ‘Opera’, or ‘Firefox’. I absolutely love timesavers such as these.

  5. Vincent says:

    Would it be tactless of me to suggest that the most inappropriate use of market values was the medieval market in indulgences? As Chaucer described the Pardoner, ” His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe, bretful of pardoun, comen from rome al hoot.”

    • tim says:

      Prime example!

      I confess to being slightly shocked at having an entry fee demanded in Anglican cathedrals (Westminster Abbey, Ely, Yorkminster). But such a fee is also required if you visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (unless you’re going to the crypt mass). In defence ot this, the building is both enormously expensive and absolutely wonderful, well worth every Eurocent!

  6. claret says:

    ‘The labourer deserves his wages,’ as a world famous character ( who never wrote a book,) said two thousand years ago. Put into more modern parlance : ‘everyone needs to make a dollar.’ Its fashionable to look at other people’s income and think ourselves more deserving than them or that they are grossly overpaid ( probably true.)
    Not quite the same I know but its just cost 2 billion dollars to land a tractor on Mars and for what gain? However all those involved in the process deserve their wages, and those millions of dollars filter down to provide an income for thousands of persons. (and help devise a better standard of teflon!)

  7. Ion Xone says:

    “This a is a question which Michael Sandel, who is a philosophy professor at Harvard, asked at an Intelligence Squared lecture recently. ”

    To be honest this rather raises the bar on what I thought that ‘debate company’ did I thought they just tried to create these big anti-religious sermons under the guise of a debate. But anyway, no, you honestly can’t hire a friend any more than you can expect the personal ‘friend’ they assign ‘high-rollers’ in a casino to really be your friend.

  8. claret says:

    Marriage is hiring a friend.

  9. tim says:

    Is love of money the root of all evil?

    This won’t do as a précis of Sandel’s argument, but it may be a good place to start. Suggested answer – No – just of quite a lot of evil – and money has important uses.

    There is a thesis (which I find attractive) that the vital characteristic that has enabled man to dominate the world is his invention of barter. This enables him to specialise: Adam Smith, competitive advantage, etc. This is set out engagingly in Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist” (I think John C might enjoy this, if he could learn to read). Now, a medium of exchange is essential for effective and large-scale barter. Hence money – which all civilisations have used (or can anyone provide a counter-example?).

    The trouble with useful inventions is that they get over-used – and used inappropriately. There is more to life than money – this is trivially obvious. You cannot measure all value on a single dimension. Nevertheless there is always a temptation to quantify, in order to compare, and money offers a way of doing this. When is it sensible to do so?

    Sandel’s examples – of when not to – sound to be very illuminating (I haven’t nerved myself up to buy the book yet – even at only £11.99 on Kindle – so I’m going on Quentin’s account, and reviews). We in Britain have always felt superior to countries where they pay for blood donations, and the idea of paying for a kidney – or a human egg – to say nothing of maternal surrogacy – is very worrying.

    But a commercial aspect to a transaction does not rule out others. Take Horace’s nanny. She was a servant, paid a wage for what she did. But I shall be sadly disappointed if he does not report that he was very fond of her, and she of him. How often is money the crucial aspect of a relationship like that? We can of course be misled by economic theories (the non-existent ‘rational consumer’) into thinking that it should be.

    This applies to marriage – in some degree. Claret’s dictum “Marriage is hiring a friend” is at first sight shocking, but has much truth. Marriage is not solely or even necessarily about falling in love, desirable though that may be. It is also – in significant part – a contractual arrangement, the details of which differ from couple to couple. Each party typically expects to gain from the arrangement, as well as to contribute to it. You can consider this as a ‘hiring’, in not too forced a sense.

    I may want to argue that in some instances we don’t consider carefully enough the financial consequences of our decisions, but that can wait.

  10. Horace says:

    On the whole I agree with ‘tim’.
    Yes, of course, my nanny was paid.
    Yes indeed I was very fond of her. [There is a long story, but I am afraid that it is irrelevant here]
    What is perhaps at least marginally relevant is that I cannot understand all today’s fuss about “parenting”.
    I can’t see anything intrinsically wrong with paying a nanny to care for children, if you can afford it and the circumstances are appropriate.

  11. tim says:

    Quentin has offered us some very interesting examples, of which so far there has been little discussion. This offers me an excuse for yet another post.

    The Birthday Verse (hypothetical)
    I wasn’t completely surprised to learn my daughter hadn’t written that poem – it’s not one of her skills. What hurt was not that she paid for it, but the false pretence (to be fair, we haven’t talked it through yet, and I’m not quite sure that she intended or expected me to think that she’d written it herself). While I prefer a present she’s made herself, I don’t object to her paying for a present for me – half her pocket-money is a reasonable amount (we keep her fairly short). Her choice of present shows she’s thought about what I’d like – she’s heard me ranting about silly modern verse that doesn’t rhyme or scan. To sum up, the problem is not that money is involved, it’s the appearance of dishonesty.

    To go from the hypothetical to the actual, we used to encourage our children to give us presents they’d made themselves, and often they still do. My daughter for my latest birthday has given me a pot of blackcurrant jam and a tin of delicious lemon curd delicacies – both home-made. If –per impossibile – I were to discover they weren’t home-made, I’d be very disappointed, but not because of the money.

  12. Brendan O'Leary says:

    I recently brouight up with a young neighbour about solicitors firms chasing up people who they say may have been sold PPI illegally – I’m sure we’ve all had nuisance calls like that! Anyway, I described it as ” theft ” when people take your money for recovering monies taken unethically/illegally from you from some financial institution, when all one has to do – and this fact has been widely advertised – is to ask for it back free of charge, if that is the case. My young neighbour didn’t see it that way and replied, ” perhaps the person is to lazy to ask for it. ”
    Yet another example, becoming all too common where ” EVERTHING HAS IT’S PRICE” . After all the market hasn’t got a soul.

  13. tim says:

    Bribing children

    Bribes are a useful part of any parent’s armoury. But they need to be used sparingly. I don’t think you should set a paid tariff for something the child needs to do regularly.

    My parents both smoked like chimneys. Sometime in my early teens, they offered me £100 if I reached my 21st birthday without having begun to smoke. That was in the fifties (when £100 was real money). I was pleased, it seemed a good deal, though I wasn’t particularly attracted to smoking anyway, because I knew if I started I’d never stop. My 21st birthday came and went, and none of us remembered this. Decades later it came to me I’d never collected the £100! But thinking about it, I saw that I’d saved many times that sum by avoiding tobacco addiction – to say nothing of a longer life and better health.

    Another true story. A teenager moved school and found herself behind in Latin, to her considerable disgust. She wanted to give it up – and she is exceptionally determined. However, she was thinking of doing modern languages, so her parents thought this was madness. Eventually, contrary to (up to that time) deeply held principles, they offered her a bribe. “Stick with it this term and get a decent grade, and we’ll give you that expensive computer game you’ve set your heart on”. She set to with a will. By the end of the term, she saw the point – went on to do Latin and Greek at A Level, and Classics at university.

    Incidentally, I take it for granted that you not merely may but should pay for your children’s education if you judge it necessary (and you can afford it). Education is a prime necessity for a child to flourish, and there are no finite limits to it, unlike physical resources such as oil or water – I cannot understand a rule that requires you not to pay for it. Not all schools are fit to receive and teach children. If you are unfortunate enough to have your child assigned to one that (you judge) isn’t, you must do something about it. That may mean private education or home schooling – the latter increasingly popular, particularly among devotees of the old Mass, who tend to have large families.

  14. Brendan O'Leary says:

    I believe you’ve come straight to the heart of the matter,Quentin……. ” knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing “. Philosopher Sandel is right. Having lost our moral bearings underpinned by ” doing religion ” we can at least hope to resuscitate the West by “doing Philosophy ” which from the ancients down added so greatly to Western thought and culture, giving shape and direction to Faith with Reason. So why not – it’s a win/ win situation! ( Thinks.!…… I can’t wait for Part 3 of ” Jesus of Nazareth “. )
    Here I am reminded of the Apostle Paul before the intillectual elite of Athens. They at least had the breadth of thought and reasoning to leave an alcove empty to an unknown God amongst their deities. Put this against the narrowness and collective amnesia of some outspoken atheists today.
    For those among us who have little or no religious Faith and have somehow lost an anchor in life, this ” doing of Phoilosophy ” could make us adress the lamentable state of morals in public and private life, and as citizens lead us to a core of common values we can again adhere too ….. Pre-1960’s ? Then it’s up to the Evangelists , one and all !

  15. tim says:

    Brendan, maybe we can break the question down into parts

    1. What should I not pay for?
    2. What should I not be allowed to pay for?

    I have reached an age (and appearance) when from time to time young women in the tube offer to stand up for me. I don’t have a fixed rule, but I quite often accept, for fear of quashing a generous impulse, and discouraging them from repeating the offer to someone who might need it more. But suppose I got into a full railway carriage, and taking out my wallet, starting waving a £5 note. “Would anyone like to give me their seat?” That would hardly do – even if I were clearly in some need of the seat. But such behaviour does not need to be forbidden by law.

    Quentin suggests that paying extra to scalpers encourages a black market, giving you access to privilege not open to others. But money inevitably gives you more choice (if you don’t call it ‘privilege’ it doesn’t sound so bad). I’m not convinced that this is an evil bad enough to legislate against. We’ve just had the Olympics, with complaints about blocks of empty seats – the ‘Economist’ had a leader recently pointing out that this is just what you must expect if you suppress an open market in such seats. But of course there are many items – not only bads, such as narcotic drugs, but also scarce goods, such as donated body organs – for which we cannot accept a market. We can’t allow seats in the Titanic’s lifeboats to be sold to the highest bidder.

  16. claret says:

    Everything that can be bought has a price.

  17. Iona says:

    Somebody (Bertrand Russell?) said that marriage is the price that men pay for sex, and sex is the price that women pay for marriage.
    Not sure that it was ever true, and certainly very much outdated now.

    On a different subject (bribing children) when mine were little I used to stop at the sweet-shop on the way home from Mass for small treats if they could tell me something they remembered from the gospel reading. The idea was to make them listen. It worked quite well at the time; but they’ve all lapsed now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s