Published October 22, 2013

piece in the Opinionator of The New York Times by Amia Srinivasan on Sunday addresses a perennial debate in philosophy that is increasingly at the focus of modern political debates.

I’m interested in one particular (small) move she makes in the course of her lengthy piece, so you’ll have to bear with me.

Srinivasan opens with the debate between John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Simplifying greatly, should the state redistribute wealth from rich to poor (Rawls) or just enforce contracts (Nozick)? In the modern discourse, this plays out as, again simplifying greatly, as the heartless money-grubbing Rand-loving capitalist pigs on the right versus the pinko welfare queen coddling Marx-loving commies on the left.

She uses a series of questions to invite the reader to think about the virtues of free markets, claiming that “If you’re going to buy Nozick’s argument, you must say yes to all four.” Here is the first one, followed by her comment on the question

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

If you say yes, then you think that people can never be coerced into action by circumstances that do not involve the direct physical compulsion of another person. Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to prostitute herself or to sell her organs. Since she undertakes these acts of exchange not because of direct physical coercion by another, but only because she is compelled by hunger and a lack of alternatives, they are free.

What struck me was her choice of the two options the hypothetical woman had to save the starving children. She chose transactions that were both illegal and, more interestingly, banned for reasons that psychologists can’t quite puzzle out.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time trying to work out both of those cases. They seem to follow the pattern that Jon Haidt famously discussed in the context of sibling incest. People more or less uniformly judge consensual (enjoyable, non-reproductive) incest to be morally wrong, but are unable to supply reasons for their view. Haidt termed this “moral dumbfounding.”

As I say, I’ve spent some time trying to figure out prostitution and organ-selling. Both are banned in most parts of the world, and most people in my casual conversations on the topic think that these transactions are morally wrong. I and some of my students and collaborators have even gathered some data on the prostitution issue. We never published anything on it, but the short story from the data is that people are weird about this. Most of our subjects say that if John and Susan are married, and John says he’ll mow the lawn if and only if Susan has sex with him, this within-marriage sale of sexuality is still morally wrong.

Srinivasan could have chosen legal ways that the hypothetical mother could earn money. But she didn’t. What if she had written, “Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to take a job flipping burgers.” Would readers be led as strongly away from the Nosickian view? My guess is that Srinivasan thought that such a hypothetical wouldn’t strike the reader as wrong, and so be less effective. (For what it’s worth, a world in which unskilled labor has only those two options would result fairly quickly in driving down the wages in both cases. The hypothetical is a bit unstable.)

There’s also the matter of the relationship between the hypothetical and the question Srinivasan is after. Recall that the question was, “Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?” Is the fact that we find prostitution and organ-selling morally wrong, even repugnant, relevant to the question of whether the character was free versus coerced? Staunch Nozickians would probably resist conceding that point; we might not like the world in which people have only such choices, they might say, but that doesn’t mean that the choices weren’t freely made. (If one were to be entirely draconian about it, one might say that she has the option of letting her family starve. I presume there are few if any occupants of that Nozickian pole.)

(I’m also not sure if Srinivasen has in mind a world in which prostitution and organ-selling are legal or illegal. If the state (effectively) bans prostitution, and we take freedom to mean something along the lines of people having more rather than fewer choices, then it seems to me that the state has reduced her choice set, and so coerced her into some other choice, possibly letting her family starve.)

It’s worth noting that Srinivasen doesn’t feel much better about burger-flipping than prostitution, lamenting that “there is certainly no prohibition against the mind-numbing and often humiliating menial work that poor people do in exchange for paltry wages from hugely rich companies.” Given her dim view of the fast food industry, it’s a bit more surprising this example didn’t feature in the question she posed. Further, if the issue is about coercion, then it seems worthwhile to ask who is doing the coercion in the burger-flipping case. If Burger Prince offers her a low wage—offering her a choice that she did not have before the wage was offered—has the firm coerced her? The coercing entity would seem to have to lie elsewhere.

None of this, of course, answers the psychological puzzle of the origin of the moral intuitions regarding prostitution and organ-selling. When I discuss this with people, I get various answers, but most of them don’t address the key point. In both cases, it’s just fine to give the good or service in question away. Therefore, the right answer can’t be something like, “well, organ transplants are disgusting.” We’re perfectly fine letting people have a doctor take people’s organs out as long as no money changes hands. The answer would seem to have to have something to do with adding money to the transaction. And it doesn’t seem like the answer can be something along the lines of how unpleasant it is and how only poor people will X if it is legal. Again, burger-flipping cases indicate that we’re happy to tolerate, as a society, a whole array of soul-crushing jobs. There seems to be something else happening that needs some extra explanatory oomph. I have one thought on this topic—he added mysteriously—but haven’t run the right studies yet. And, I should add, I’m happy to hear people’s views

I’ll let Srinivasen have the last word, which I actually liked because of her attention to the notion of moral consistency, which some of us worry about quite a bit:

Rejecting the Nozickian worldview requires us to reflect on what justice really demands, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the market can take care of morality for us. If you remain a steadfast Nozickian, you have the option of biting the bullet (as philosophers like to say) and embracing the counterintuitive implications of your view. This would be at least more consistent than what we have today: an ideology that parades as moral common sense.