The morality of money

Recently, philosopher Michael Sandel headed this debate (essays, public lecture) on the moral dynamics that result when money is introduced to activities that are normally motivated by other means: duty, friendship, etc. Sandel makes an argument of two pillars: One, money may somehow corrupt the transaction it is involved with; two, given existing inequality, making everything a product can yield very negative distributional outcomes.

To be honest, I think he uses too many words. Let me try to do better:

1. Subjective transactions

Sometimes, we care not just about the objective goods or services that are produced and exchanged, but also for the subjective experience of the participants in the transaction. We care that a gift is an expression of love and not a forced or calculated gesture. We care that expert or legal judgements are free of personal interest, and that honour is given according to merit rather than in exchange for favours. Men care that women are at least happy with sex, unless they’re sadists and want the opposite. Most of us are alarmed when others make transactions that are too invasive or too damaging to the self, such as selling organs, being a soldier or a prostitute, or working under hazardous or unhealthy conditions, because we suspect these people are facing terrible choices that we would like to not have to face. When people volunteer to do something worthy or refrain from something selfish out of a sense of community, duty, or justice, we care not just that they do the right thing but also that they maintain and nourish these valuable feelings.

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On Myth

We in the west tend to think that myth is a naive attempt to understand nature. That’s untrue and not sufficiently generous to those who came before us. Myth is not a failed theory of the universe; it’s a brilliantly successful technology for changing it.

What is the world? It is of course the stars, the Earth, the weather, life, and all the things that are out there. But we do not perceive these things directly, nor do they affect us. What affects us comes through our senses, and the way we perceive is as much a product of our embodied senses and our mind as it is a representation of the true disposition of things. Our perceptions are shaped by the ideas we already hold.

As soon as our ancestral apes became intelligent enough to affect the world, seeking to make it more hospitable to their vulnerable existence, two paths were open. They could make tools, draw predictions, and try to alter the physical world immediately around them, or they could alter their own minds so that their experience would be less harsh, more hopeful, more meaningful, fanciful and interesting, and even less bound to the actual sensations of cold and hunger that the body sometimes offered. The ability to alter the human experience of the world through the communication of ideas is myth.

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