Sunday, September 20, 2015

Semiotic Objections to Business

Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski have a book published through Routledge just this month titled Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. So far, the book is excellent in its defense against critics of commodification. The first few chapters consist mainly of abstract philosophical arguments explaining both the position(s) of various anti-commodification theorists and why they fail. In the chapter I'm currently reading, Brennan and Jaworski are beginning to get into the empirical claims of these theorists using peer-reviewed social science. Anti-commodification theorists tend to lay out several objections to markets, including their potential to:
  • Violate human rights
  • Cause harm to others
  • Exploit the vulnerable
  • Misallocate of resources
  • Lead to self-destructive behavior
  • Develop unseemly tastes or character traits
However, there is the semiotic objection that participation "in markets can express or communicate certain negative attitudes, or is incompatible with holding certain positive attitudes...So, for instance, some hold that organ sales communicate the idea that the human body is a mere commodity--a piece of meat--and thus fail to show proper reverence for the body. Others say that markets in surrogacy services express the idea that women are mere incubation machines."[1] This semiotic objection carries over on to certain institutions within the market system, specifically businesses. Aside from both known and potential incidents of exploitation, asshole bosses, and the like (which should all be avoided or addressed), many critics implicitly and explicitly claim that the mere participation in business communicates a profit-driven corporate cosmology.

Yet, the view that monetary exchange--and, by extension, for-profit business--is an expression of the basest desires of human nature is largely a Western social construct. As Brennan and Jaworski write,

[Anti-commodification theorist Michael] Sandel complains that giving money instead of a non-monetary gift communicates a lack of concern. Yet there is evidence that this is merely a construct of current Western culture. For the Merina people of Madagascar, monetary gifts carry no such stigma of being impersonal or thoughtless. For the Merina, giving what Sandel calls "thoughtful" non-monetary gifts expresses no greater concern or thoughtfulness than giving cash of equal value...In Western cultures, we are now more likely to view gifts of money or gift certificates as impersonal or thoughtless, but even this is just a recent cultural development. For Americans, monetary gifts used to have a different meaning. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer says that in the 1870s-1930s United States, monetary gifts were seen as especially thoughtful...Zelizer's extensive work on the meaning of money and exchange, work spread out over multiple books, seems to show us that the supposed "profanity" of commodification or cash is not a deep fact about market economies as such, or about money as such, but a peculiarity of our own culture at this particular time...Like Zelizer, [sociologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry] conclude money and markets do not have the same meaning everywhere that they have here. Instead, the reason commodification seems so repugnant to us Westerners is because we Westerners tend to regard the sphere of exchange and money as a "separate and amoral domain." Bloch, Parry, and Zelizer say that we then mistakenly assume that this is just a "natural" or essential fact about money. We could think of money a different way...[2]

Bloch and Parry explain that for Westerners, "money signifies a sphere of "economic" relationships which are inherently impersonal, transitory, amoral and calculating." Yet, when the economy is seen as "'embedded' in society and subject to its moral laws, monetary relations are rather unlikely to be represented as the antithesis of bonds of kinship and friendship, and there is consequently nothing inappropriate about making gifts of money to cement such bonds."[3]

Similarly, the claim that business is somehow anti-social or morally detached (aside from claims regarding harm, exploitation, etc.) is also culturally constructed. Deirdre McCloskey has argued that the change in rhetoric toward business and markets led to the modern world and the staggering rise in living standards. Economist Nimish Adhia has documented the shift in Bollywood portrayals of businessmen from villains to heroes, reflecting the transformation of cultural ideologies regarding commerce and business.

Understanding the underlying prejudices against commerce is a key component to both secular and theological theories of business. For-profit business need not be seen as an expression of greed, but perhaps an exercise in civic virtue or even an act of consecration.


1. Jason Brennan, Peter M. Jaworski, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (New York: Routledge, 2015), 21.

2. Ibid., 63-65.

3. Quoted in Ibid., 64.

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