Buying the high moral market


WHO IS COMFORTABLE talking about morality these days? With the authority of politicians and the clergy at a low ebb, it seems there is an ethical void at the heart of our public discourse. There are few traditional guardians of morality left. So is it time to turn to a man who has been compared to the evil, avaricious Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons?

Michael Sandel, Harvard’s charismatic political philosopher du jour, is certainly making a tricky pitch. With a straight, thoughtful face (his Burns-like appearance spawned an urban myth that he inspired the TV character as an in-joke, but the show’s writers deny the claim), he is asking a much more cynical and world-weary public to look to the role of values in our public discourse.

Travelling across the US, Europe and Japan on a hectic two-month book tour, the celebrity academic has positioned himself on a moral platform that has been more traditionally occupied by bishops and priests. Evidently somewhat uncomfortable with the niceties of public relations, he declines to dedicate copies of his books “to my fans”, and instead opts for the more traditional, “to my readers”. He is more at home talking about ideas.

Analysising our unquestioning embrace of market solutions to society’s challenges, he argues the boom years of borrow and spend were fuelled, in part at least, by “a decline in traditional sources of meaning, including . . . religious community and faith”.

Sandel’s message has particular resonance for Ireland. We accepted faith in the markets so uncritically during the boom years that we never reserved a space in the debate for moral questions. Now, in the austerity era, the popular political message of “we’re all in this together” rings very hollow.

Societies across the world have adapted a style of living akin to the money-driven Premier League: in a space where rich and poor previously rubbed shoulders, we increasingly live, work, and shop in different places. “There are fewer and fewer class-mixing institutions and occasions and this is one of the corrosive effects that the marketisation of everything has produced,” says Sandel. The VIP box versus the cheap seats risks becoming the dominant model across society.

The financial boom covered up a rising inequality for many years, and Sandel fears that the affluent often buy their way out of public services, leaving fewer spaces where people from all walks of life can meet.

Without such interaction, it is easy to imagine a world in which stereotypes of the rich, money-hungry banker and the lazy, unwilling-to-work dole-taker not just abound but go unchallenged. The “other” is easy to vilify when we never cross paths.

It’s a reason Sandel feels we should slow down and “question the marketisation of everything.

“We have to find a way to bring moral and spiritual language back into the public discourse. For some people this will mean drawing on faith traditions and, for others, on secular traditions.”

To Sandel, what is truly striking about the financial crisis is that despite the obvious, desperate sign that pure market faith has not worked as promised, the crash did not lead to a new public debate about how to reconnect markets with moral purpose and what people want out of life.

“We need a more robust public discourse that draws explicitly on moral and spiritual conventions. We need to be open to all sources, religious or secular, that people bring with them. People disagree about moral questions, and that’s what democracy is about. It will invigorate our public discourse.”

Michael Sandel’s book What Money Cant Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is published by Allen Lane, £20

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