Ordinary Language and Moral Markets

The tradition of western analytic philosophy has instilled a deep seeded necessity for precise language. Because of this, Philosophers concern themselves with description, precision, and meaning as much (if not more) than the general theories they propose. After all, what good is a general theory if the language is so imprecise that it renders the theory unusable? Indeed, a methodology of Ordinary language philosophy (OLP) has been devised to address this problem. OLP suggests that many of the problems that Philosophers have taken up are not, in essence, the dilemmas they have set them out to be, but rather they are problems that arise from our imprecise use of language, and from the flaws in the language itself. Contextualism says that the context naturally provides the meaning of this imprecise language. For example, if I say I know something, from context you can infer that this is not 100% certainty. But when the context does not provide sufficient clues to the real meaning of a word, and the word itself is so imprecise that the general idea remains elusive, what are we to do? This provides a unique framework in which to examine the issues raised by Michael Sandel.

In his 2012 book, What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel sets out to craft an argument that challenges some of the basic assumptions we make about free markets and their apparent benefits. In examining the arguments presented by Sandel in his text (especially with regard to OLP), it seems that there may be semantic traps he is falling into which can lead to problems in understand and risk logical fallacies of equivocation, false equivalency, and begging the question. There are, argues Sandel certain types of things that, if commoditized, have a change to their nature. These things are not fundamentally problematic, but once market forces act on them something about them is modified and can, where socially acceptable –or socially beneficial—a negative and destructive market is created. This has moral implications for those who engage in this market and create negative externalities for those impacted by the markets. Throughout the book Sandel points to numerous cases where it appears that these problems arise. He refers to this negative process as ‘degrading’. However, he never directly addresses what this term means exactly. His use of ‘degrading’ seems to be a catch all that functions both as a placeholder for the process described above, but also in the colloquial sense that the good has been violated. Determining the nature of this change is critical if we are able to understand his claims and evaluate their plausibility using more precise language. We will examine the legitimacy of Sandel’s concerns, bearing OLP in mind, on a case-by-case basis looking at some of his strongest arguments. Here, we will examine three examples Sandel provides and determine if OLP can provide insight into the conclusions he reaches.

In his discussion of incentives, Sandel discusses China’s now defunct one child policy  (OCP) stating “What’s at stake is the norm underlying the policy. If it were really a fee, the state would find itself in the awkward business of selling the right to have extra children to those able and willing to pay for it.” (Sandel, 70). Here Sandel attempts to outline a clear distinction between a fine and a fee and essentially asserts that there, at some level of affluence, is no distinction between a fine and a fee is one is ready and willing to pay the fine to have a given good (in this case additional children). This is problematic if Sandel is correct because it appears to be a severe rights abuse of the poor. Imagine a simpler but hypothetical case where a state, similarly concerned about population control, decides that for each child a couple (or individual) has the parent must pay a flat fee. This seems inherently more problematic as there has now been a market created in which the government can restrict the right to have a child, and this system clearly disproportionally adversely effects the poor. The distinction here is one semantics and is largely unhelpful for determining the source of the moral issues in the child market, if indeed issues exist. What you call something is descriptive of it’s nature. A fee is preemptive while a fine is reactionary. Can the fine (or fee) paid due to the OCP really be given such a simplistic descriptor? OLP would tell us that this is likely not the case.

The response from OLP would say that paying a fine, or a fee, or whatever you decide to call it has nothing inherently to do with what we call “morality”. There is no causal link from paying the fee to commoditization, from commoditization to exploitation, or from exploitation to immorality. We have no reason to believe simply because we can relate these concepts in simple English sentences and appear to see these connections, that they actually exist. Indeed, the term market is imprecise. A market may refer to the transactions, the justifications for the transactions, or the circumstances surrounding the transaction, or something else entirely. If we decide that the “market” is actually just the exact moment that a contract is fulfilled, how can this be immoral? It would appear that it can’t. Even with our broad definition of market, the creation of a child market might be similarly amoral.

Similarly, Sandel explores the idea that altruism (or deeds that would be seen as altruistic if altruism existed) is clearly degraded when financial incentives are imposed. Sandel takes us to Switzerland where he argues that “A monetary payment to residents for accepting a new runway or landfill in their town can be seen as a bribe to acquiesce in the degradation of the community.” (Sandel, 117)Here we have not just degraded the moral markets by offering monetary incentives, but the town itself has become degraded. This brings to mind the cliché slum neighborhoods rife with drunken hobos and street walkers. But what does degradation in this context actually mean? And what might it look like? It seems hard to believe that Sandel is arguing that the neighborhood has become physically changed or depreciated (a physical meaning of degraded), and it is equally implausible that the neighborhood has become less friendly due to the cash payouts. Quite the contrary, if cash stimulus increases consumption, as basic economics will tell us it is bound to, there will be more social interactions in the community, which are likely to increase group cohesion and friendliness levels. It is possible that the cash payouts being accepted by a slim majority of people, or by some civic council will lead a portion of the town feeling unheard and that this contributed to some kind of civic or political degradation, but this is a bit of a stretch from his claim. So, what does Sandel mean? It just isn’t clear.

Finally, Sandel tells us the conclusion of his beliefs, “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.” (Sandel, 203) The creation of these markets and the inequality that brings them about are leading to the degradation of American democracy. Here we have a clear example of how exactly imprecise this argument appears to be. The thing that the word “democracy” represents is independent of the thing he says it requires. OLP would tell us that the issue here is purely manufactured from imprecise (what one could call lazy) use of language. Democracy has no definitional requirements that citizens share a “common life”. What does common life even mean? Certainly, at some point you can tip the scale into systems such as oligarchy, such as the modern Russian Federation, which few would classify as a democracy (despite their apparent democratic election system), but democracy is simply a government comprised by the population which are governed by it. How exactly is this degraded by the degradation of the common life, which has been brought about by the creation and use of these immoral markets? The simple answer is that it isn’t.

Sandel offers many potent examples throughout his book which outline a general argument that some markets are wrong, and that by engaging in them we risk harming the fabric of our society. In setting out to do this, however, he falls into some common traps with the language used which seem to leave more questions than he answers. His use of the term degraded, for example, has many possible uses and it is not provided from context what it means. Because of this, the implications of the inferences he attempts to draw are similarly unclear and unconvincing. Markets may be immoral, but the arguments set out by Sandel are not sufficient to justify this, and so readers should not be convinced. This has illuminated the necessity for precise use of language and has reaffirmed the belief that common understandings of words need clear definitions without which we will be falling into these semantic traps infinitely.




Sandel, Michael J. “What Money Can’t Buy”. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.

Grand Hotel do Porto

Being one of the oldest cities in the country, over 2000 years old, Braga perfectly combines the traditional and the modern, providing a journey through the history and architecture of different times. In this city in the north of Portugal, the heart of the Minho region, it is possible to appreciate traces from the Roman era (when it was called Bracara Augusta, honoring Emperor Augustus). But also visit the first Cathedral in the country, built in the 12th century. 

Vila Galé Collection Braga

Being one of the oldest cities in the country, over 2000 years old, Braga perfectly combines the traditional and the modern, providing a journey through the history and architecture of different times. In this city in the north of Portugal, the heart of the Minho region, it is possible to appreciate traces from the Roman era (when it was called Bracara Augusta, honoring Emperor Augustus). But also visit the first Cathedral in the country, built in the 12th century. 


Set by the Nabão River and very close to the city centre, Vila Galé Collection Tomar is ideally located to explore the main sites such as the Tomar Castle or the Convent of Christ, classified as World Heritage by UNESCO since 1983. But also to explore the São Francisco Convent and the peculiar and unique Museum of Matches, the Sete Montes National Forest, and the Jewish heritage of the old Jewish quarter and synagogue.

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R. de São Pedro de Alcântara 59, 1200-459 Lisboa, Portugal

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My Story Hotel Ouro

My Story Hotel Ouro opened its doors to the public in February 2014 in an 18th century building, giving downtown Lisbon the concept of hospitality that this cosmopolitan and attractive European city needed. Here, you will find elegance, comfort, design and modernity distributed over five floors of charm and history in a privileged location: Aurea Street, better known as Ouro Street, one of the most historic and famous streets in Lisbon.