The Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest foray into the world of political economy does him even less credit than his previous attempts. He is an intelligent man, but capable of arguments that are laden with the highest degree of sophistry. This comes not from any deliberate desire to deceive, but, I suspect, from a desire not to re-examine certain prejudices about the world of business and economics – in other words what, for most of his flock, is the practical world in which we have to live.
The title of the article set up and knocked down a straw man: ‘Markets alone should not determine our conception of what is desirable’. Are there any readers of this blog who believe that markets alone determine our conception of what is desirable? If there were, I suggest, they would not be reading this blog as they have chosen to come to the blog of a charity for which no charge is made to access the content.
Perhaps the Archbishop did not write the headline. So, let’s move on from the straw men to the non-sequiturs...
The Archbishop says: ‘We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis.’
If this were an undergraduate essay, one would run out of space in the margin to make comment. I can find no example, except that of Iran, where the organ trade takes place on a legally recognised basis. The Archbishop may be right and Wikipedia and other sources I have looked at wrong but, even so, he might wish to note that in Iran there is no waiting list for transplants and that the illegal organ trade causes untold human misery in those countries where trade takes place but is illegal.
When it comes to a command of the facts, the Archbishop has form. He recently argued in favour of a financial transactions tax citing Pope Benedict’s apparent support for such a tax, a claim that has no foundation whatsoever. However, for a theologian, the Archbishop’s reasoning with regard to organ sales is very poor. There is a straightforward reason for a Christian to oppose organ sales – our bodies are not ours to sell (Muslims, I am told, take a different view). That does not necessarily mean that Christians should believe that organ sales should be illegal – the common good and human dignity may not be served by creating the conditions for a black market in organs – that is a matter for debate and prudential judgement.
So, why is the Archbishop using the example of organ sales to have a pot shot at the market economy? Organ sales tell us nothing about the market economy in general, partly because there is, indeed, no market in organs, but also because organ sales are a special case. For a Christian, the existence of organ sales simply tells us that people do things that Christians regard as immoral. However, the problem according to the Archbishop is not that people do things that Christians regard as morally wrong; it is that society has taken on a general disposition of commodification which sees everything as a potential object for economic exchange.
Indeed, he argues this explicitly:
‘He [Sandel] quotes the reasonable and even eloquent apologias offered by financial metaphysicians for these practices so as to remind us that, once the principle of universal exchangeability is granted, we are going to have to work hard to establish any exemptions. If - to take the most extreme example - my bodily life is a thing that I own, like a car or a computer, what exactly is there that makes it unacceptable for me to offer it on the market, or for someone else to offer me a measurable profit in return for it?’
For a Christian – though not for the Archbishop apparently – the answer to this question should be straightforward. According to Christian teaching, we do not own our bodies. How more exact would the Archbishop like the Christian faith to be?
Instead of taking such general pot shots using inappropriate analogies backed up with bogus facts, would it not be better for a moral theologian to help us understand ‘what is desirable’ rather than arguing in an unsophisticated way that markets alone cannot help us understand what is desirable? Am I alone in finding Archbishop Williams’ sermons on markets very unhelpful? After all, markets are about human action in the economic sphere. Williams argues that markets are corrosive of morality. Surely, it is the action of persons, not markets themselves that are the problem.
Part two will follow tomorrow…