Michael Sandel makes a connection between “market triumphalism” and “moral vacancy,” in an interview about his new book, What Money Can’t Buy. According to Sandel, economics has cast itself as a value-neutral science, and in trying to maximize value without judging values, we have let economics decide the value of too many things — our bodies, human dignity, teaching and learning. Market-determined evaluation inhibits human flourishing.
Sandel has a point: value-neutral assessment is impossible in the human sciences, since value is what assessment assesses. But this tussle over precedence — the political philosopher telling economists that they need more political philosophy — seems a curious way of showing it. It invites unwelcome counter-punching (an economist might suggest that Sandel could use a clearer grasp of economics); and it invites piling on (Molecular and Cell Biology might urge that it has more to say about “our bodies” than the political philosopher; the Education School might challenge the Government Department professor’s turf-claim on “teaching and learning”). More than these, it misses the chance to explore with economists how their disciplinary rationality implies and includes and can acknowledge the range of values humans acknowledge. Explorations like that can be a slow business, and perhaps do not bring Harvard video podcasts. But they serve the common dignity of thinking, and have a chance to serve the common good.