The most depressing thing about Michael Sandel’s book, What money can’t Buy is that the list is so short. You name it, there’s a market for it. What’s even more depressing – there are respectable and authoritative figures ready to argue that the market is the right and proper place for discerning the value of unborn children, or for trading on the probability of a terrorist attack.
The connection that Sandel made for me, more clearly than I’d seen it before, is the one between the economically orthodox view of human beings, and the ethical degradation it drags in its wake. Through many examples, he shows how a view of human beings as ‘rational actors always looking to maximise their utility’ (sorry, I didn’t come up with the definition) carries with is an unacknowledged ethic of individualist satisfaction at the expense of any public good or commonly held ethical standards.
I heard about this book through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s article about it in Prospect: he sums up the ethical problem thus:
A world in which every object is instantly capable of being rendered in terms of what it can be exchanged for is one in which there is nothing worth looking at for itself, a world systematically ‘de-realised’.
How do we make the world real again: how to extract the market from those parts of our society into which it has wormed its way? Maybe the other book the Archbishop was reviewing will help with some answers. But I am also reminded of a meeting a few days ago in my area, at which we were discussing educational achievement for excluded young people. When we began to discuss the importance of a wider and deeper sense of purpose in life, as a crucial factor in young people’s lives, there was no dissent – I’m sure a few years ago it would have been written off. Maybe a tide is turning? In which case, will the churches be brave enough to articulate what Christian faith has to offer, not as a private lifestyle option but as a gift to the whole of society?