9th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Cotton

Simon Cotton

What is Market Corruption?

Michael Sandel (1998) has argued that:

…certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold for money. The argument from corruption cannot be met by establishing fair bargaining conditions. If the sale of human body parts [for example] is intrinsically degrading, a violation of the sanctity of the human body, then kidney sales would be wrong for rich and poor alike. The objection would hold even without the coercive effect of crushing poverty (p.94).

But what does it mean for a market exchange to be corrupting? In Sandel’s view, there is no single version of the corruption argument, which necessarily must be made ‘in a different way, case by case’ (p.106). Yet there are at least two problems with this response. The first it is that it leaves the reader wondering whether it makes sense to speak of a single corruption objection at all. Second, if there is a diversity of such objections, it may well be that ‘corruption’ is not always an appropriate term to employ. This essay seeks to correct for both of these failings by providing an (albeit non-exhaustive) typology of market corruption. Three forms of market corruption are identified. The first is a process whereby the market adversely reshapes the underlying drivers of human action, whether preferences or social norms. This might be thought of as corruption of moral character. The second alerts us to the way in which the market allows people to avoid their obligations, or even to profit from doing so. This might be thought of as the market facilitating corrupt acts. The third describes a process whereby the use of the market for producing and distributing information leaves people with insufficient knowledge to make informed choices for themselves and others. This might be thought of as corruption of a particularly important good: knowledge.