The Possibility of Market Morality

Major Nathaniel B. Davis of West Point writes recently of the need for a morality of the market similar to the way just war theory provides a morality for war. As one who believes all areas of human action benefit from and need ethical/moral reflection, I’m sympathetic with his position. I think it could use more clarification however.

Near the end of his essay he writes:

In a theoretical sense, law should approximate the normative ideal in the real world. Yet, in economic thought we have no normative ideal, no foundational morality. We have economic ideals derived from market theory, but these are not tempered by a coherent set of ethical ideals, allowing the market’s worst excesses, and resulting in many of the morally troubling outcomes produced by the economy. We need better laws and regulations, but first we must establish a foundational morality to guide their development.

My first observation is that our culture has intentionally sought out a divorce between law and morality. Morality pertains to the particular and the local. It may be that an act is immoral (according to some), but perfectly legal. Some people think abortion is the murder of an unborn child and thus immoral. In the US, however, abortion is legal. On another issue, some think it immoral to not use the pronouns someone desires, even though such refusal is still currently legal.

Similarly, some actions are moral – or at least possibly not immoral – but are illegal. This kind of relation between acts, morality, and law may be more common when judgments are made across cultures/societies. We would judge, for example, resistance to the Nazi regime and its evil actions to be fully moral, even if the law of the land (in Germany at that time) declared all resistance illegal. Seeing this gap between morality and legality is not hard for us to imagine.

Second, I wonder about his claim that “in economic thought we have no normative ideal, no foundational morality.” Whether this is true hinges on the referent of “we.” If we consider Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, we see in each tradition a history of morality that pertains to the market and its operations. Now it may be that his “we” is American Culture In General. But if this is what he means, then I don’t think his analogy to just war theory as a moral foundation holds up. It is not the case that American Culture In General adheres to just war theory. Competing theories include “Win at all costs” and “If they’re not for us, they’re against us.”

Third, again considering this “we,” I wonder who Davis is appealing to. Is he asking us as American citizens to think about a morality of the market? Or is he calling on philosophers to write studies and tomes on the subject? Or is he looking for action by the government, i.e., legislation to make it happen? I don’t think this third option is what he’s urging, though I believe it would be popular for those who are generally anti-market. My first reason for thinking this isn’t what he’s urging is that he doesn’t mention it when he easily could have done so. A second reason is that our culture is generally convinced that morality cannot be legislated.

On this latter idea, I part with our culture. Morality is legislated all the time. Now it may be that legislation alone cannot make people actually moral. Behavior and attitudes accompanying that behavior may be reckoned to be part of what morality is about. People can break laws. People can only grudgingly comply with laws, adhering to the letter, but not the spirit of the law.

So if he’s not calling for the legislation of a morality of the market, just what is he calling for? To which audience is he appealing? As I already mentioned, Jews, Muslims, and Christians – at the very least – already give thought to the morality of the market. Now it might be that the conclusions they (or some of them) have thus far reached are not agreeable to him. But that’s another matter.

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