What We Shouldn’t Buy and Can’t Sell

Society has many strictures about money: we shouldn’t use it to bribe judges; we shouldn’t pay for sex or traffic in slaves. Those things are often actually done. But then there are the issues that really feel wrong, that are sacrilegious or taboo.

Cynics tend to believe everything has its price, while economists track markets to find out how much we are willing to pay. In a market economy such as ours, a surprising number of things become commodities, and the number is growing. The Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has made a career of exploring this issue, noting how traditional considerations of fairness seem be eroding under market pressure.

As Sandel points out, now one can buy a place at the head of most lines, or get an upgrade to a better jail cell. One can rent a womb, or purchase rights to pollute the atmosphere, or buy the insurance policy of someone dying. Nowadays, it is possible to buy a Green Card, a seat at a Papal mass, or a place in college. (See What Money Can’t Buy)

For Sandel this raises questions of ethics and public policy. Is it good for us to be able to buy and sell anything? And the issue is intensified when the divide between the rich and poor continues to grow. Now it seems there is nothing the rich can’t buy.

But psychologists are casting a new light on the topic. According to The New York Times: The study of what are now called sacred values began in the mid-’90s with two psychologists, Jonathan Baron at the University of Pennsylvania and Philip Tetlock, then at the University of California, Berkeley. In both economics and game theory, the conventional assumption is that we humans are “rational actors” — that we respond to a given situation by weighing our options and picking the one that seems to offer the greatest benefit. But psychologists, who study actual people as opposed to abstractions of people, have long been aware that humans don’t always exhibit behavior an economist would consider rational.”

And now some are peering into the brain: “In one recent experiment, Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, took M.R.I. images of participants’ brains as he asked them to consider changing their personal beliefs in exchange for money. Would they trade their preference for dogs over cats? What about their belief in God? Would they be willing to kill an innocent person?”

“When participants were questioned about issues of the dog-or-cat variety, their brain scans showed activity in the parietal cortex — a region that’s thought to be involved in making cost-benefit calculations. But when asked about issues on which they declined to make a trade, entirely different parts of the brain were activated — systems that are associated with telling right from wrong and with storing and retrieving rules. The result, Professor Berns observes, could be a new way to gauge sacred values ‘that is not solely dependent on self-report’.” (See, “Don’t Mess With My ‘Sacred Values’.”)

Such research cannot help us discriminate right from wrong. That’s not a matter of biology. But it can help us to understand what we can or cannot tolerate, and it can give us a better understanding of the emotional price we pay, the personal cost of buying and selling.