It is often said that money can buy anything; that is to say, that everything has a price on the market.
If we are to follow this assumption, the moral limits of the market do not exist. Everything is for sale!
In his series of lectures, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel recalled an episode to illustrate the moral limits of the market and social solidarity.
Some years ago, in Switzerland, a discussion about the storage of nuclear waste was held. After much debate on where to put this waste, the inhabitants of a particular village decided, by a margin of 51%, to take this burden upon themselves and accept the nuclear waste driven by their sense of civic duty for the common good. After all, the nuclear waste had to go somewhere and the inhabitants of that village were praised for their high sense of civic responsibility.
To reward their civic engagement and solidarity came a proposal to offer them financial compensation. Fair enough, some would argue – it is appropriate and just to offer a financial reward for such effort and sacrifice.
And that’s when the Harvard professor surprised the audience. The moment the incentive was considered, the willingness to accept the waste dropped to 25%. That’s the perfect illustration of the “marketization of everything”. When a sense of civic responsibility for the common good, a civic virtue, became a financial transaction, people were no longer willing to subject their families to danger because of money.
Sandel further elaborated by stressing that solidarity must come from one’s will and out of one’s personal conviction. It cannot translate into a transaction. It’s precisely what money can’t buy.
Regarding justice, he challenged meritocracies who cultivate attitudes among those who make it to the top, “the more we believe that our success is our own doing, the less likely we are to feel indebted to, and therefore obligated to, our fellow citizens”.
Elaborating further on solidarity, Sandel brought to us several thoughts: what do we owe one another as citizens? Do our obligations of solidarity and membership in the smaller community oppose that of the larger community of the society at large?
That’s what the inhabitants of the Swiss village showed us – the local sacrifice they were willing to assume was for the benefit of the entire country driven by a firm conviction to commit to the common good i.e. the good of all and each individual because we are all responsible for all. When the financial incentive was offered, the inhabitants of that village no longer wanted to accept the dangerous nuclear waste.
Solidarity is a product of our own will. If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a dedication to the common good whether near or far.
Solidarity is a moral and universal value that money can’t buy.
*President, Associação Internacional
de Filantropia (Macau)
Macau Daily Times is the official media partner of the Associação Internacional de Filantropia (Macau).