Author:Jonker, Julian

ARE THERE ANY viable semiotic objections to commodification? A semiotic objection holds that even if there is no independent consequentialist or deontic objection to marketing a good--such as that it is exploitative or causes third-party harm--there remains a problem with what is said by participating in that market. Consider Michael Sandel's arguments against markets in (among other things) death bets and children. (1) Sandel claims that, even if these markets are not exploitative, do not exacerbate inequality, and do not set the wrong incentives, they are nonetheless objectionable because of what they express. Betting on a stranger's death in the context of a terrorism-prediction market is wrong because it signals a "dehumanizing attitude." (2) And even if auctioning off orphans did not result in any harm to them or others, such a "market in children would express ... the wrong way of valuing them." (3)

Recent discussions have suffered from a basic ambiguity in such talk. The anti-commodificationist who presents a semiotic objection must bear in mind an elementary distinction between two uses of "meaning." As Grice pointed out, there is a difference between saying that smoke on the horizon means fire, and saying that it means there will be war tomorrow. (4) We could say that in the former case smoke indicates fire because of its causal connection with fire, while in the latter case smoke expresses a call to war because that is the nonnatural meaning given to it by convention or by its place in a communicative practice. Note that causal indication relations are non-revisable, being a matter of natural law, whereas expressive relations are typically revisable because they are grounded in contingent social practices. (5)

It is this distinction that makes a recent anti-anti-commodificationist move by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski particularly compelling. (6) They argue that if there is no non-semiotic objection to a market in some good, but the market nonetheless has an objectionable meaning, then we should change the meaning of the market to reflect its otherwise unobjectionable nature. For example, if we think the market for surrogate mothers says something degrading about motherhood, though it in no other way does wrong or causes harm, then we should do what we can to change our understanding that the market for surrogate mothers is degrading. Call this the "collapsing move": it collapses a purportedly intrinsic semiotic objection into a consequentialist objection grounded in the contingent costs and benefits of revising the meaning of a market. (7)

The collapsing move gives rise to a dilemma for the semiotic anti-commodificationist. If she thinks that the market has some objectionable non-revisable meaning, then that must be because the existence of the market indicates something objectionable. But then the anti-commodificationist's objection is really a non-semiotic one, since the problem lies with what is indicated. On the other hand, if the anti-commodificationist thinks that the market expresses something objectionable, rather than merely indicating it, then she raises a semiotic objection. But since expressive meaning is revisable, the objection is vulnerable to the collapsing move.


    Some recent defenses of semiotic objections fall prey to the Gricean dilemma. Consider Anthony Booth's claim that a market has at least one non-revisable meaning: if a marketed good is incommensurable, then the marketing of that good signals that the good is proto-on-a-par--i.e., (i) a rational choice can be made with respect to choosing between the good and another (it is comparable) and (ii) either the comparison (the rational choice as to how to choose between the goods) has been made or a mechanism is in place for making it. (8) We put incommensurable goods up for comparison in this way when we adopt norms for choosing between the goods. An individual may do that by accepting the comparison offered by the market's price mechanism. In such a case, Booth thinks, the individual's acceptance of the market price noncontingently communicates that they have accepted that the good is up for comparison in this way.

    Now it could not be a semiotic objection that the individual has accepted the comparison of what should not be compared. (There may well be prudential or deontic objections.) So Booth objects to the divergence between what the individual's acceptance of a market transaction says and her own beliefs about the good's noncomparability, and this objection is semiotic since it is grounded partly in what the individual's participation in the market says. Such a concern could also be raised at the political level. If a political community accepts the market's incursion into a domain such as sex, then this signals acceptance of the market as the mechanism for comparing sex and money, though the community may fail to collectively believe that sex and money are comparable. If that fails to be straightforwardly hypocritical or dishonest, it is at least inauthentic. As Booth puts it, "the moral wrong of signaling the commodification of sex is that it reflects something about who we are, and it is something we have chosen not to be." (9)

    But Booth's claim that commodification "reflects" something about ourselves is subject to the same ambiguity we find in words like "says" and "signals." Ifwhat he means is that the fact of participating in a market for sex indicates that the participant has accepted that sex is up for comparison by the market, then whatever...

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