In September of 2016, a 20-year-old student from Russia entered an online auction site to fund university education abroad. What was for sale? Her virginity. The student, who identifies herself as “Ariana,” posted a starting bid of 150,000 euros—enough money for housing, food, and medical school tuition. Moreover, prospective buyers were given the opportunity to bid for up to two virgins in one evening should they desire to add one of Ariana’s friends, also willing to retail her virginity. “That means you can bid for 2 virgins in 1 night,” read the auction website. 1 Like many students today, Ariana sought to identify a more efficient way to pay university expenses. Yet unlike many students, her idea of efficiency was atypical. Many will find such an auction strange (or perhaps gross and distasteful) or, alternatively, they will condemn it as morally reprehensible. Ariana, herself, did not appear to discern anything morally impermissible about her actions: “I am … an independent woman and I can do what I want. … It is the easiest way to earn money in a short time.” 2

Unconventional auctions such Ariana’s virginity sale raise larger philosophical questions: What are the moral limits of market activity? Where is it appropriate to exhaust gains through trade, and where is it not? On what moral grounds can we reasonably condemn transactions in virginity, or other goods such as organs, prison-cell upgrades, surrogacy, or even votes?

These questions are hardly new. Moreover, an array of notable scholars has given considerable attention to morally imposed market boundaries over the past few decades. Some object to particular goods for sale, while others object to markets, in general, as a dominant means for distributing goods. Some would advocate for a broader reach of government, specifying the non-market goods or services ineligible for commercial exchange. Alternatively, others object to any degree of imposed market limits, arguing instead for the liberalization of market activity irrespective of its nature.

While there are considerable, and in many cases incommensurable, differences between these scholarly voices, they also share an array of commonalities. Less clear are the standards by which to substantiate the necessity of market boundaries. This lack of clarity undervalues the moral weight of the discussion, risking a discourse that merely talks past one another. To minimize this risk, it is worth considering the philosophical space that undergirds the very conversation, a material conception of reality that does not draw from a transcendent realm (that is, an “immanent frame”). 3 This article aims to move the conversation forward by providing an appraisal of market limits that considers an “open take”—or is open to the possibility of a transcendent realm (and, in particular, one that is consonant with the Christian faith tradition).

What Should and Should Not be for Sale? Salient Voices

As this article will seek to argue below, an “open take” provides a helpful paradigm by which to ground arguments related to the sphere of goods eligible for market exchange. However, prior to considering this perspective, it is first necessary to visit some of the more influential voices in the discussion. Given the scope of this paper, this section is hardly exhaustive. However, the background below seeks to capture the principal arguments made for, and against, the moral limits of markets.

Markets Without Limits—Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski

“If you may do it for free, you may do it for money.”4 This view, put forward by Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, suggests that markets do not introduce wrongness where it did not previously exist. Indeed, their 2015 book Markets Without Limits argues that there are no inherent borders to markets. The message is simple: if an exchange can be transacted freely, then it can be transacted financially (such as organ donation or sex services). Conversely, if an exchange cannot be transacted freely, then it should not be transacted financially (such as nuclear weapons or child pornography). In other words, “the market [alone] does not transform what were permissible acts into impermissible ones.”5

While we might categorize their position as reflecting the stereotypical libertarian perspective when it comes to assessing the moral limits of markets, Brennan and Jaworski avoid a direct default to traditional libertarian arguments (that is, reliance upon consent, self-ownership, and so on). Commendably, they seek to raise legitimate philosophical rebuttals to other contemporary “anti-commodification theorists” and their arguments for keeping markets in their rightful place. In particular, Brennan and Jaworski identify several relevant considerations that demand attention from anyone concerned with the boundaries of commercial exchange.

First, according to the authors, while markets may not have any inherent limits, they do have incidental limits. That is, it is not what is being sold; it is how it is being sold. In this sense, they claim that so-called anti-commodification scholars have misdiagnosed the problem. This claim is paralleled with freedom of speech rights in the United States. Specifically, “it’s not what you say, but when, where, and how you say it.”6 The relevance to markets becomes clear: it is not the what, but the where or the how. To illustrate this, they draw on the familiar story of Jesus angrily running the money-changers out of the Temple (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22). The problem, they note, was not commercial exchange itself; it was commercial exchange within a space otherwise designated for religious worship.

Second, they (rightly) point out that the manner of market exchange matters. Specifically, markets are far more heterogeneous than critics often describe. A free and open arrangement for exchange offers a variety of different participants (buyers, sellers, brokers, and so on); various means of exchange (money, bartering, bitcoins, gift cards); differing prices (high, low, moderate); varying proportions or distributive practices (such as how much each party gets); multiple modes of exchange (auctions, lottery, bazaars, co-ops); various modes of payment (salary, scholarship, tips, contributions); and finally, several motives of exchange (for-profit, public benefit, cost-recovery, non-profit, charitable, and so on).

While this point in itself may not satisfactorily address some of the moral objections to carte blanche commodification, it raises an important point. It is difficult to speak of a “market” in a singular, homogenous sense. Moreover, this is of particular importance when we consider the nature of the objection (for example, one may find paying a stranger for sex objectionable, but may not object to paying their child for household chores).

One of the more strident claims from Brennan and Jaworski comes in the form of a challenge to anti-commodification scholars who, they claim, will not be able to show “that there are certain kinds of things that it is acceptable to have or do for free but which must not be placed on the market.”7

Before undertaking a closer examination of Brennan and Jaworski’s arguments, it is helpful first to turn attention to the “theorists” who dominate their attention.8 While the views differ among these scholars, they each share the conviction that not everything should be for sale.

Free Markets Are Not Fair Markets—Debra Satz

Stanford Ethicist Debra Satz correctly points out that markets, whatever their form, have no mechanism by which to associate moral value to the goods and services they produce and exchange. “It doesn’t matter whether the goods on the market are bibles, guns, butter, human organs, ‘blood diamonds’ that fuel bloody civil wars, or sex. … It all looks the same in the economist’s equations.” 9

If markets have no inherent means by which to appraise the normative dimensions of the preferences they satisfy, on what moral grounds should they be challenged? Here, Satz focuses on exchange asymmetries that question the supposed freedom in the moniker “free” markets. Not settling for common arguments against markets that merely revile their failures (that is, externalities), Satz characterizes some markets as “noxious” in the sense that they are prohibitive to important human values, particularly the ability to relate to each other as citizens and/or equals. Note here that Satz is not interested in challenging the market’s reach based upon the social meaning of the goods it facilitates. “I think we should reject the main contemporary alternative arguments for limiting markets based upon the social meaning of goods,” she writes:

As I see it, a major problem with noxious markets is not that they represent inferior ways of valuing goods (as those who link the limits of markets to social meanings claim) but that they undermine the conditions that people need if they are to relate as equals. 10

Noxious markets arise in two distinct ways: the source of the market and the effects of the market. To the former point, some markets originate around conditions of “weak agency” (poor information or limited decision-making ability). Satz writes:

The Pareto efficiency results assume that agents are fully aware of the consequences of their actions and have complete information about the goods exchanged. But, as is widely noted by economists and others, in most circumstances these assumptions do not hold. 11

She provides the example of child labor, where “children are parties in some sense to the exchange, but they are not authors of the exchange.” 12 Another noxious market distinctive relates to an agent’s “vulnerability.” This arises when significant power asymmetries fundamentally shape the exchange (that is, selling oneself into slavery for lack of other options).

Markets may also be considered noxious when they produce bad outcomes for individuals or society. Related to individuals, Satz describes a grain market “whose operation leaves some people starving because they cannot afford the price at which grain is set through supply and demand.”13 Moreover, markets can produce poor outcomes for society as well. As an example, Satz invites readers to imagine a market in votes (something Brennan and Jaworski distinctly argue for). Referencing James Tobin, such a market would likely increase both sellers and buyers, but “the legitimacy of the democratic process depends upon the prohibition of such transactions.” 14 Some exchanges, suggests Satz, must be blocked in order for citizens to encounter one another as equals. In other words, the efficiency gained through a voting market would come at the expense of other democratic values.

In summary, Satz believes that market liberalization threatens our political identities. Markets facilitate asymmetries in how we relate to each other—which, accordingly, disfigures democracy and equal participation in society.

Markets Corrupt—Elizabeth Anderson

Just as Brennan and Jaworski helpfully point out the heterogeneity of markets (that is, different market manners and mediums), Elizabeth Anderson is right to point out the heterogeneity in the means of valuation. In her book Value in Ethics and Economics, she offers five: use value, respect, appreciation, consideration, and love. Here, Anderson is describing our attitudes towards valuable things. In other words, value, respect, love, and so forth all reflect differing attitudes that one may have toward a particular object.

Like Satz, Anderson is skeptical as to the degree of market reach and rationality. Yet her argument relates to the social meaning of the goods and services facilitated in market transactions. That is, markets do not simply allocate goods; they also express certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. In other words, market logic fails to accommodate the variety of attitudes that exist toward valuation, instead deconstructing value to a “monistic” mode:

To attempt to reduce the plurality of standards to a single standard, ground, or good constituting property threatens to obliterate the self-understandings in terms of which we make sense of and differentiate our emotions, attitudes, and concerns.15

This is the essence of the corruption argument against market liberalization: if some goods possess an elevated essence over others, then a blunted, monistic form of valuation threatens to degrade, corrupt, or corrode the meaning of a “higher good” (she references Kant’s famous distinction between goods that have a “dignity” and goods that have a “price”).16 How, we might ask, are we to determine “higher goods”? Here, Anderson provides her “pluralist-expressive theory” which purports to “make sense of intuitions that some goods are incomparably higher in worth than others.”17 She continues:

One way of valuing something is higher than another if the things concerning it make deeper, qualitatively more significant demands on the attitudes, deliberations, and actions of the valuer. And one way to express this difference in demands is to prohibit tradeoffs between states of affairs concerning the goods that express a lower kind of valuation for the higher good than it merits.18

For example, slavery is objectionable on moral grounds—not simply because it is harmful to the individual(s) involved, but also on the grounds that they are improperly valued (instrumentalized as commodities, not as dignified human beings, and so on). Indeed, “A practice treats something as a commodity if its production, distribution, or enjoyment is governed by one or more norms distinctive to the market.”19 To commodify people, places, or things that have elevated value (a “higher good”) is to reduce or alter how they are understood in a degrading way, corrupting the meaning of the good in question. Thus, for Anderson, a pluralist approach to valuation will by its very nature limit market activity insofar as it appeals to “modes of valuation appropriate to different kinds of goods.”20

One of Anderson’s more popular examples relates to commercial surrogacy. The example is important, as it bypasses the consent argument and the autonomy and choice it is understood to uphold. Specifically, Anderson suggests that commercial surrogacy, even when engaged voluntarily by fully informed participants, fails to respect the autonomy and dignity of the parties properly: “The error in this argument is the failure to recognize some rights in one’s person are so essential to dignity and autonomy that they must be held inalienable.”21 Some obligations to others should be upheld irrespective of the consent of the parties. “[M]arket norms,” she writes, “should not be allowed to come between a mother and her love for her child.”22

Markets Leave Their Mark—Michael Sandel

Perhaps no voice is more recognizable relative to the anti-commodification position than Harvard’s Michael Sandel. Sandel highlights two dominant arguments against the “markets without limits” philosophy: inequality and corruption. While the former mirrors Satz and her position in many ways (that is, advocating for moral limits to markets on egalitarian grounds), Sandel’s philosophical attention is dominated by the corruption argument.

Similar to Anderson, Sandel recognizes that markets are not inert. That is, they express attitudes about the goods and services they facilitate. For example, paying children to read books might incentivize them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction; auctioning seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise revenue but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma; hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens but corrupt the meaning of citizenship. “Markets,” Sandel writes, “leave their mark.”23

In this sense, Sandel’s arguments directly contrast with the thesis posited by Brennan and Jaworski. That is, some goods are diminished or corrupted by virtue of being bought and sold.24 “To corrupt a good or a social practice,” writes Sandel, “is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to it.”25 While his arguments mirror Anderson’s in many ways, Sandel makes an explicit appeal to an Aristotelian framework by which to establish the legitimacy, or illegitimacy, of market logic as it is applied to persons, places, and things. In other words, such logic threatens to “crowd out” other normative considerations by altering the meaning or ends of particular goods. For example, commodifying practices around friendship or meaningful relationships may wrongly displace norms of sympathy, generosity, thoughtfulness, or attentiveness.26 This appraisal naturally draws upon larger questions of the “good life,” thus making moral judgments an inescapable exercise in economic rationality and the market mentality they are said to promote.

Markets are instruments in efficiency. Ultimately, argues Sandel, efficiency is no virtue in itself. He makes the distinction between having a market economy, and being a market society. The former imagines a social arrangement comprised of citizens with civic sensibilities; the latter an arrangement of consumers limited to mere tastes and preferences. Sandel writes:

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong—and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.27

While sympathetic to his impulse against unfettered market activity, Satz does not share Sandel’s corruption argument. “There is no close connection between the way we value a good and its commodification through markets,” she writes. “A person can view food as a basic human need without rejecting the sale of spaghetti.”28 Yet ultimately, for Sandel, the corruption argument is not meant to provide a formula or taxonomy for goods ineligible for exchange. Rather, his larger concern relates to self-governance and the community it requires so as to realize common ends as a social unit.29 As Robert and Edward Skidelsky suggest, the good life is intricately bound up in a common life with others.30 Given this, Sandel recognizes markets as being a good servant, but a poor master. “The real question is whether introducing this or that market mechanism will improve or impair the … societies in which we live.”31

Interpreting Price

What are we to make of these various appeals? Perceived through the lens of orthodox economic theory, there are reasonable grounds to dispute some of the interpretations of anti-commodification scholars. For example, both Sandel and Anderson reference a 1993 Swiss Waste Facility research study, where the Swiss government surveyed its citizenry about their willingness to live in proximity to a waste facility. Another survey was sent asking the same question, but this time various financial incentives were provided (such as, “Would you be willing to live near a waste facility if you were compensated X amount of dollars?”). The results revealed that when financial incentives were introduced, less of the Swiss were willing to live near the facility in contrast to the percentage willing to live nearby when no incentive was provided.

What might this mean? According to Sandel, market considerations had “crowded out” non-market norms. He writes: “Against the background of this civic commitment [to the common good], the offer of cash to residents of the village felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote.”32 Similarly, Anderson suggests that “the offer of compensation changed the perceived relationship of the Swiss government to the town residents and thus changed the practical identity they assumed in contemplating the waste facility.”33 Thus, for both Sandel and Anderson, the case provides evidence that the introduction of market principles wrongly invited the Swiss to think less of themselves as citizens (with associated civic duties), and more of themselves as market participants (with individual preferences).

However, as Brennan and Jaworski point out, some economists would likely offer another plausible explanation: prices matter because they communicate important information. Under forces of supply and demand, a price can be understood as a knowledge surrogate for market participants. Brennan and Jaworski write: “By offering compensation, it signals … that living near waste is the kind of thing for which one should be compensated.”34 That is, prices may be signaling disadvantages associated with one’s proximity to a waste facility. If this is true, it would only be logical that a participant’s willingness would decline.

Or consider another example referenced by both Sandel and Satz: the Israeli Daycare center. To deal with the problem of late pickups, the daycare chose to administer a fine for parents who did not meet the timeline. Oddly, the number of late pickups increased. For Sandel, the seemingly counter-intuitive response by parents occurred because, under market conditions, we are more easily led to confuse a fine (which registers moral disapproval) with a fee (a benign market transaction involving the exchange of value). Satz writes: “[The payment] ‘crowded out’ their altruistic concern for the daycare workers.”35

Again, as Brennan and Jaworski suggest, “low prices” also communicate information as well. That is, when they daycare charged a low fee (“price”) for late pickups,

[The] low prices communicate to parents that late pickups are not and never were a major transgression. Putting a tiny financial penalty on something is not the market crowding out non-market norms. Rather, the low price communicates that it is not and never was a big deal. 36

Brennan and Jaworski’s rejoinder is a reminder that there are other ways to interpret seemingly non-market phenomena in market-oriented logic (for instance, what outcome would we expect at the Daycare if the late pickup fine was several hundred dollars?). If true, then the discussion over market limits may be understood as nothing other than an interpretive exercise. As we have seen, some will characterize market liberalization as a legitimate economic structure, while others will appeal to limiting markets on egalitarian grounds or in favor of protecting the character of established moral and civic practices. Either way, without an overarching narrative by which to arbitrate between these claims, the arguments for or against market limits risk being conceived as “ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing” to borrow Longfellow’s famous expression.37

A “Cross Pressured” Age

Of course, these perspectives do not exist in a vacuum. Normative commentary, whatever its nature, will inevitably rely upon a variety of philosophical assumptions to substantiate its claims. Specifically, varying beliefs about market limits necessarily draw from our “take” on reality, to use an expression by James K. A. Smith. In his commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Smith describes an era where people of faith (that is, those who appeal to a transcendent realm) are nevertheless embedded in a “plausibility structure” that is overwhelmingly secular in its makeup. 38 And yet, he says, those who reject the transcendent cannot shake a prevailing sense that there is something more than the flattened, dis-enchanted material reality propagated by strident naturalists or the likes of the “new atheists.” Thus, we exist in a “cross pressured” age; a secular realm “haunted” by transcendence.

Smith provides a relevant insight, as the discussion of markets, and their moral limits, occurs within this cross-pressured space. Drawing from Taylor’s work, Smith critiques secularism as a “subtraction” story. That is, when we strip reality of myth, enchantment, superstition, belief, and so on, secular is what is left over; a “flattened” world. Before unpacking Smith’s critique of this notion, it is useful to point out that Brennan and Jaworski seem to rely upon a similar subtraction account of reality to anchor their arguments. According to their narration, we need to mature beyond uncomfortable intuitions around certain market exchanges. “If markets in kidneys and sex disgust you,” they write, “you should just get over it, the way we get over our feelings of disgust when we attend a live birth. It may be disgusting, but so what?”39

What is being subtracted here? Primarily, Brennan and Jaworski want to take independent criterion or other metaphysical propositions off the table. Once those impediments are removed, a much more prosaic reality unfolds, where humanity has evolved into a world where meaning is, at best, specific to culture. They describe human practices as being “contingent, culturally specific, and not written into the moral fabric of the universe.”40 This, of course, makes intuitive sense given their overarching argument. How could anything that is merely contingent or culturally specific be “corrupted”? How can anything be desacralized when there is no such thing as the sacred? How can we make judgments of higher and lower when there is no independent criterion by which to evaluate such judgments against? At best, they suggest, many simply have unsavory reactions to some market exchanges; that is, some just “feel” as if money exchanges for certain goods is wrong.

Brennan and Jaworski also suggest that the revulsion we might experience from the sale of sex or other distasteful market exchanges merely reflect our evolutionary adaptation of “disgust,” which serves to prevent contamination, but does not reflect any larger intuition toward transcendent order. The problem is not evolution, they write. Rather, we have just not evolved enough:

We contend that we should be deeply suspicious about anti-market intuitions, as our moral psychology has not caught up with our new environment. We have a stone-age moral psychology that is unfit for the modern world. In short, our moral intuitions are out of line with our moral demands.41

To be clear, if the underlying vision of Brennan and Jaworski is indeed accurate, then their propositions are not necessarily out of line. That is, if we are merely organisms that randomly copy with variation, and we exist within a competitive environment, then stretching our “limits” and engaging in new, unconventional human practices is not only natural, but would rightfully be considered as a necessary step toward “progress.” Even further, if this “subtraction story” is true, then moral sensibilities and values that constrain, or reorient, our actions are more of an arbitrary hindrance than a lubricant to progress.

This account, and its normative weight, relies upon a modern conception of secularism, where deconstructing reality is akin to scales falling from our eyes, allowing us to see accurately what was there all along. Smith refers to this as a “closed take.”42 Citing Charles Taylor, he points out that this perspective “parades itself as ‘a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses’.”43 Such a story, Smith suggests, is hardly a deconstruction. Rather, it is a construction in itself, a construal of the way things are. Today’s secularism is not simply a “subtraction project.”44

Alternatively, notes Smith, in our cross-pressured space, we all have a “take” on the world; a sense of the way things are. That is, our secular age is not necessarily an age of disbelief, but of believing otherwise.45 Thus, “our ‘take’ is not something reasoned to as much as it is something we reason from.”46 Note that this is no modern apologetic (such as debate or propositional argumentation). Instead, Smith, citing Taylor, appeals to what might be described as a spiritual sensibility—that there is more to reality than the flattened, subtraction story suggests. “Don’t you feel it?” writes Taylor. “Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more?”47 It is this impulse of something more – a felt sense of moral order or what Smith calls the “porous self” – that seems to animate much of the writing from anti-commodification theorists.48 After all, what is an elevated desire or the recognition of a higher good if not a religious or spiritual intuition?

An “intuition” is as far, though, as one will get when reading Satz, Anderson, or Sandel. They may implicitly appeal to a “porous self” or provide other rationale that has a residue of the spiritual (for example, Anderson’s challenge to the “consent” argument on the grounds of universal human dignity), but no further steps are taken to flesh out fully a religiously grounded or transcendent argument for the moral limits of markets.49 Rather, as discussed, the aforementioned anti-commodification theorists condemn the liberalization of markets in two distinct ways. The first occurs on egalitarian grounds (that is, an affront to engaging one another as equals), or related, conceptualizing ourselves as consumers and not co-deliberators of the common good (a threat to democracy). We might note, however, that such an appeal is legitimized in consequentialist terms (the consequence produced in a given arrangement validates the rightness of the action or practice.). For example, many will condemn markets (or market ideology) for the inequality it is believed to facilitate—to which Brennan and Jaworski write: “So what?” Differences in talent, taste, and risk preferences will always occur among humans. Thus, it is far more fruitful to consider the institutions that facilitate these inequalities, as opposed to the inequalities themselves. Reminiscent of Rawlsian liberalism, they suggest that a market society is actually the most beneficial arrangement for unequal talent and ability among its participants:

But for people living in market societies, it’s not only not a disaster, but good to encounter people who are stronger and smarter than you. Markets are not (generally) a zero-sum game. Markets make it so that the way extraordinarily talented people become rich is by offering goods and services to others at prices they can afford to pay. Few of us are as talented as, say, Steve Jobs, James Watt, Edwin Land, George Westinghouse, or Norman Borlaug, but at the same time, few of us would be better off in a world where they never existed. 50

Moreover, egalitarian appeals to market transactions still rely upon autonomous claims and the exercise of choice. Satz writes:

Most liberals think that individual sovereignty over mind and body is crucial for the exercise of fundamental liberties. Thus in the absence of clear harms most liberals would reject legal bans on voluntary sales of body parts or sexual capacities [prostitution]. 51

We might ask: would a market exchange lose its “noxious” dimension if fully-informed consent was present in the transaction? If self-selected into, is Ariana’s virginity auction noxious? In summary, egalitarian appeals need not rely upon any transcendent standard by which to support, or oppose, a market’s reach.

So while questions arise as to the market’s fairness, or lack thereof, this may do little to settle disputes as to the extent of its reach. However, there may be more legitimacy to the claim that markets, and the problems associated with commodification (monistic value) of elevated goods, have a capacity toward corruption—altering or degrading the higher goods its seeks to conceptualize and facilitate in monetary terms. Yet such legitimacy is unlikely to be found in a flattened, non-transcendent conception of the marketplace and society at large. That is, unlike inequality, the claim of corruption seems religiously oriented in its makeup. Moreover, as Brennan and Jaworski suggest, essentially disrespecting certain people, places, and things through commodification “are the most common class of objections against commodifying certain goods and services.” 52

As it relates to the corruption argument for market limits, market liberalization is, at worst, said to alter or degrade the norms associated with traditional practices. Or, in Anderson’s terms, money’s monistic standard of value “obliterate[s] the self-understandings in terms of which we make sense of and differentiate our emotions, attitudes, and concerns.”53 Yet as to whether corruption is objectionable because it violates a conventional, yet arbitrary practice – or objectionable because it prohibits individuals or society from participating in a transcendent order and thus enabling the flourishing of persons and society – is not established in the existing anti-commodification scholarship. Even further, to appeal to the corruption argument in a closed take fails to escape Brennan and Jaworski’s claim that practices are merely culturally contingent, and thus have little to no bearing on the fulfillment of human teleology and purpose. Indeed, what teleological ends would constitute humanity in a flattened account of secular reality?

It is here, then, that a more explicit “take” can be offered; a narrative that illuminates our sense of reality, and the spiritual, meaningful, moral, and hopeful sensibilities that human beings possess and, moreover, cannot be eradicated or flattened. We are haunted, says Smith. 54 What is it, then, that haunts us? Moreover, what are the implications for commercial (and non-commercial) activity?

To paraphrase Ross Douthat, most will agree that we find ourselves born into a mysteriously ordered universe.55 Yet the created order of the Christian faith tradition provides a narrative to ground this order. This narrative – this open take – offers helpful insight when considering the discussion of a market’s moral limits. 56 The Judeo-Christian narrative counters the flattened, subtraction story of Brennan and Jaworski, while also providing a more robust architecture by which to ground the aforementioned anti-commodification impulse concerned with the market’s capacity for corruption. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes the ethic of divinity and its implicit appeal to a moral and spiritual reality:

The ethic of divinity lets us give voice to inchoate feelings of elevation and degradation—our sense of “higher” and “lower.” It gives us a way to condemn crass consumerism and mindless or trivialized sexuality. We can understand long-standing laments about the spiritual emptiness of a consumer society in which everyone’s mission is to satisfy their personal desires. 57

This appeal to the sacred – an “ethic of divinity” – is embedded in, and emboldened by, the narrative of the Christian faith tradition. We shall now turn our attention to how this narrative – what I will refer to as the Imago Dei narrative – can assist us in adjudicating between what is, and what is not, eligible for commercial exchange. To be clear, this article does not aim to sketch out or articulate a formula by which to judge the moral permissibility of various goods and services and their eligibility for free market exchange. Rather, it is in the Judeo-Christian metanarrative, an explicitly open take on reality, where arguments related to the corruption of higher, non-market goods may find a more appropriate substantiation.

Imago Dei Narrative

In the modern era, we can identify three primary ways to distribute goods: allocation (often through a central mechanism; that is, governance), charity (non-reciprocal giving), and exchange (market trade). Determining distribution through a particular medium will inevitably relate to a host of factors. Regardless, each can be seen as a transaction of sorts (that is, interaction between two or more parties). In the domain of markets, the normative significance of a transactional exchange will be animated by an underlying ecology of moral, and even spiritual, considerations arising from the Christian narrative of reality. Much can be said here, but for our purposes, it is helpful to hone in on the Judeo-Christian account of human identity and function, where humankind’s irreducible quality is explicitly bound up in being an image-bearer of its creator (Imago Dei).

In opposition to the subtraction story that undergirds much of Brennan and Jaworski’s argumentation, there is value in considering some of the more salient dimensions of a Judeo-Christian narrative, where humans were deliberately created by a deliberate creator. Creation implies teleology—existing to fulfill design. Consider, for example, an inquiry into whether a flute is “good.” To answer this, we must first have an account of a flute’s purpose, aim, or end (that is, a flute is made so as to produce beautiful music). Further, it is in defining a flute’s teleology that we can characterize it in a normatively descriptive manner. That is, it is good because it fulfills its intended design (or not good because it fails to).

So, in the Christian narrative, what are the ends of the human as created in God’s image? While short of an exhaustive account of human teleology, one significant dimension narrated in the faith-tradition is the human as being constituted by what, and who, they love. Specifically, other-centered existence designed for right-relationship with God and with fellow neighbor. “Otherness” – rightly ordered – is wholeness. In contrast, sin is “Incurvatus in se”—or having a heart curved inward. Though borrowed by other theologians (such as Luther), this notion finds an early expression in St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Augustine, our loves are disordered because our self is disordered. That is, we love the wrong things. Here, sinfulness is not simply wrong action; it is a corrupted disposition. Wrong doing is a function of wrong being. In the creation story, theologians associate humankind’s sinful disposition with the fall because we were alienated from God as a source of fulfillment, fragmenting our relationship with him and with others.

Prior to the fall, we were in communion with God and with others. 58 Yet in the fall, our relationship with God was marred, and humankind became its own point of reference (that is, a mind set on the flesh, “hostile” to God—Romans 8:7). Moreover, the fall equally disfigured our relationships with neighbors: we conceive of others as objects, not subjects; as a threat or obstacle, not a meaningful source of fulfillment.

According to traditional Christian theology, Christ’s atoning work has justified us before him, and restored our capacity for other-centered love and righteousness (“right-relatedness”) toward God and neighbor. Love, properly ordered, is a matter of faith. Augustine’s conversion experience began with “a renunciation of the very idea that he could be the source of his own solution.”59 This relates to his famous “confession” to God where he says, “for you have made us for yourself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.” 60

To flourish as a human, wholeness is found in fulfilling one’s intended purpose or teleology: other centered-communion. So what are the implications for commodification and market boundaries? How does an open reality illuminate this discussion?

By fleshing out human purpose and teleology, the open take of the Judeo-Christian tradition provides a transcendent notion of human aim, and therefore a standard by which to establish the presence of corruption or corruptible practices. For example, Sandel writes that commodification may damage “attitudes and norms” associated with moral or civic practices. 61 Given a Judeo-Christian lens, we can amend, or perhaps more fully flesh out, this argument. That is, it is not simply the case that markets have the capacity to corrupt certain norms and practices; rather, commodification without boundaries risks corrupting our conception of others, stunting the exercise of our human capacities and prohibiting our full participation in human teleology. In the flattened reality that Brennan and Jaworski narrate, norms are nothing other than social constructions habituated by the practices of a given culture. At worst, then, commodification may breach a cultural norm, but in a closed take of the human experience, what harm is that? Indeed, is not such disruption necessary for progress in a material reality?

Alternatively, the faith tradition recognizes a created order, an alternative “take” on the way things are. Thus, creating market exchanges for otherwise ineligible goods does not simply risk an affront to cultural norms, but threatens humankind’s opportunity to participate in an other-centered teleology. Moreover, in this take, we need not simply appeal to a sense of disgust or the violation of a traditional practice to raise concern; rather, if market commodification alters the theological meaning of various people, places, things, or practices, then we have grounds by which to navigate what should, and should not be, eligible for sale. “The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved,” writes William Cavanaugh, “and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.” 62

Conclusion: Returning to Ariana

Let us return to Ariana, the Russian student who auctioned her virginity to pay for medical school. Again, we might ask, what is morally objectionable about the sale of one’s virginity? As this article has hopefully argued, to answer such a question in a closed take is to severely limit our moral imagination and the grounds by which to prohibit unsavory market transactions or unconventional commodification.

Opponents of Brennan and Jaworski have argued against market liberalization on both egalitarian grounds (asymmetrical transactions, inequality, threat to democracy) and semiotic grounds (corruption argument). Yet in an “immanent frame” – or what has been described as a closed take – how do these arguments hold up relative to Ariana’s auction?

In terms of inequality, an appeal to more neutral “liberal” considerations (fairness, rights, consent, and so on) will not itself be found sufficient to censure the commodification of sex. Auctioning one’s virginity may be unsavory, but it may also satisfy procedurally just market norms: a mutually beneficial exchange transacted by two rational, symmetrically informed, and consenting participants.

What about the corruption argument? Describing prostitution, Brennan and Jaworski note that while it might seem morally repugnant, sex markets are not “essentially exploitative.” Prostitution has the capacity to be exploitative, but commodifying sex does not, alone, make it exploitative.63 By Brennan and Jaworski’s logic, objections to markets in sex can only be evaluated by the consequences they produce since they are based upon culturally interpretive practices. 64 In other words, it may indeed be true that markets in virginity or other sexual activity may corrupt conventional norms. However, in a closed take on reality, such norms are merely cultural artifacts—constructed practices that ebb and flow with time, place, and culture.

To summarize, the dominant arguments related to the moral limits of markets rely, more or less, upon pragmatic rationale by which to substantiate their claims. Whether one supports markets without limits or an anti-commodification position, the nature of the argument itself is severely limited by the assumed conditions of the argument: a non-teleological, non-transcendent immanent frame.

In contrast, for those oriented toward a Judeo-Christian tradition and its narration of reality, the lens of human teleology and its associated aim of other-centered “right relatedness” toward God and neighbor ground the existing anti-commodification arguments in a transcendent reality—a felt sense of the ways things should be in light of a created order. Moreover, this lens subverts the mechanical, culturally relative worldview that Brennan and Jaworski subscribe to by acknowledging design from a deliberate designer, which in contrast to the subtraction narrative of secularism, recognizes other dimensions to our reality such as sacredness, essence, and human purpose. Furthermore, the lens of faith and the created order it bears witness to invites a transcendent possibility—one that serves to ground the intuition of Sandel and others that some things should not be for sale.

In the case of Ariana, the faith-tradition finds the sale of virginity objectionable not simply because it may constitute an asymmetrical transaction (which leaves the debate open as to the nature of the consent, and so on). Nor is it objectionable solely on the grounds that it violates the norms of sexual behavior, since as Brennan and Jaworski argue, these very norms are mere cultural contingencies. Rather, in an open take of reality, significant dimensions of reality are not open to construction and are, therefore, not contingent to culture, time, or place. By asserting that humankind is created, we are not, ipso facto, autonomous. That is, our fulfillment is necessarily bound up in apprehending, pursuing, and embodying the end of human life, or our participation in the life of God. Given this take on reality, we may necessarily concern ourselves with any arrangement that may threaten, corrupt, degrade, or prohibit this pursuit, including unconstrained commodification.


Thought leaders have long debated questions surrounding the normative boundaries of market activity (or, as it is more often put, “What are the moral limits to markets?”). The question has attracted an array of responses. Notably absent, however, is a distinctly transcendent perspective. This is important, as the two primary arguments for the moral limits of markets relate to inequality and corruption. Both of these positions are contestable within a flattened, “closed-take” of reality—making the existing argument about the market’s moral reach an interpretive exercise. By exploring an open take, a conception of the transcendent consonant with the Judeo-Christian tradition, we may better substantiate the intuition against unfettered market reach, grounding the legitimacy of market goods relative to realizing human teleology and participation in the life of God.

Cite this article
Kevin Brown, “Revisiting the Moral Limits of Markets: An “Open Take””, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 147-164


  1. Nicola Oakley, Woman is Selling Virginity Online to Fund Studying Abroad and it Comes with a Hefty Price Tag. September 28, 2016. woman-selling-virginity-online-fund-8930726 (accessed October 2016).
  2. Ibid.
  3. This is Charles Taylor’s expression from his 2007 tome “A Secular Age.” For Taylor, an immanent frame relates to the “interiorization” of epistemic considerations from the supernatural, transcendent realm to “an inner realm of thought and feeling to be explored.” See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007), 539.
  4. Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (New York: Routledge, 2016), 10.
  5. Ibid (Italics theirs).
  6. Ibid., 30.
  7. Ibid., 20.
  8. In their 2015 book Markets Without Limits, the majority of Brennan and Jaworski’s argument is shaped in response to Debra Satz, Elizabeth Anderson, and Michael Sandel. Thus, this paper will specifically highlight the salient arguments from these scholars.
  9. Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets(New York: Oxford UP, 2010), 33.
  10. Ibid., 94.
  11. Ibid., 96.
  12. Debra Satz, interview by Russ Roberts, in Satz on Markets: EconTalk Episode with Debra Satz, EconTalk-Library of Economics and Liberty (August 8, 2011).
  13. Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, 94.
  14. Ibid., 96.
  15. Elizabeth Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 5.
  16. Ibid., 8.
  17. Ibid., 70.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Elizabeth Anderson, “Why Commercial Surrogate Motherhood Unethically Commodifies Women and Children: A Response to McLachlan and Swales,” Health Care Analysis 8 (2000): 19-26.
  20. Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics, 149.
  21. Anderson, “Why Commercial Surrogate Motherhood Unethically Commodifies Women and Children,” 23.
  22. Ibid., 26.
  23. Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 9.
  24. Ibid., 111.
  25. Ibid., 34.
  26. Ibid., 107.
  27. Ibid., 202.
  28. Debra Satz, Response: The Egalitarian Intuition (May/June 2012). (accessed October 2016).
  29. Michael Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 42.
  30. Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life(New York: Other Press, 2012).
  31. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, 179.
  32. Ibid., 115.
  33. Elizabeth Anderson, “Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 29.2 (2000): 170-200.
  34. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 82 (italics theirs).
  35. Debra Satz, “Ethics, Economics, and Markets: An Interview with Debra Satz,” Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics 3.1 (2010): 68-88.
  36. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 80.
  37. From Longfellow’s “Tales from Wayside Inn” part 3, section 4.
  38. James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
  39. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 221.
  40. Ibid., 82. One might respond by asking whether rationality, itself, is “contingent, culturally specific, and not written into the moral fabric of the universe.”
  41. Ibid., 198.
  42. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, 95.
  43. Ibid., 99.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid., 47.
  46. Ibid., 96 (italics his).
  47. Taylor in Ibid., 137 (italics his).
  48. Particularly Michael Sandel who, it should be noted, studied under Charles Taylor at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.
  49. Here, some may helpfully reference the public intellectual Michael Walzer, who seems to draw more explicitly from the well of religion in his discourse and, specifically, his concern that some market transactions may violate the meaning of the goods for sale. Yet a reading of Walzer’s 1983 work “Spheres of Justice” reflects concerns about the boundaries of goods that must be preserved in order to maintain justice and order. In other words, while Walzer sketches out market limits with associated rationale, he does not necessarily rely upon a distinctly transcendent realm by which to ground such boundaries. Moreover, like Satz, Anderson, and Sandel, his arguments are just as subject to Brennan and Jaworski’s critique, and his work is referenced by them accordingly. See Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (United States of America: Basic Books, 1983).
  50. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 172-173 (italics theirs).
  51. Satz, Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale, 141.
  52. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 49. It should be noted that Brennan and Jaworski distinguish between corruption objections (markets might cause us to have defective preferences) and semiotic objections (markets might cause us to wrongly value or disrespect goods and services). However, anti-commodification theorists such as Sandel seem to incorporate both ideas under the heading of “corruption.” He writes, “[The corruption objection] points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices.” Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, 110.
  53. Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics, 5.
  54. James K. A. Smith., How (Not) to be Secular (italics mine).
  55. From his interview with Bill Maher on “Real Time,” April 20, 2012.
  56. Smith., How (Not) to be Secular, 118. Open, that is, to transcendence.
  57. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion(New York: Pantheon, 2012), 106.
  58. Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2009).
  59. David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2015), 201.
  60. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Mark Vessey and Albert C. Outler (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics Series, 2007), 3.
  61. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, 110-111.
  62. William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), viii.
  63. Brennan and Jaworski, Markets Without Limits, 152.
  64. Ibid., 83.

Kevin Brown

Asbury University
Kevin Brown is an Associate Professor of Business at Asbury University.