Organs for Sale? Outsourcing Pregnancy? What Should Be Allowed?

The more ambitious economics becomes the more it has to engage with hard moral questions.

Should there be a market, a free market in kidneys?  There’s a lively debate about this in the United States now.  You can’t buy and sell kidneys, although there is a quite significant global trade in organs.  Some of it is on the black market, and some of it is permitted in some places. 


There are debates about whether we should allow the sale, the buying and selling of blood for transfusion.  There are debates about surrogate motherhood, as it’s called: outsourcing pregnancy, paid pregnancy.  Should this be permitted?  Some states permit it, some don’t.  

All of these questions are not only questions about markets and about economic efficiency from the standpoint of economic efficiency, there should be a market in principle in everything including kidneys, including blood, including paid pregnancy.  But economic efficiency is not the only value; it’s not the only thing we care about.  We also have to decide what sorts of attitudes toward our own bodies and toward one another and in the case of surrogacy, what attitudes toward women are consistent with respect and with human dignity.  These are ethical debates that economics by itself can’t solve.  It’s where economics and ethics meet.  

What I think we need to do is not only to revitalize our public life through these moral debates, I think we also, especially those of us in the academy, need to rethink economics as a discipline.  The more economic thinking extends to bodies and reproductive capacities and educational practices, the less plausible it is to assume that economics is a value-free science.  The more ambitious economics becomes, the more it has to engage with hard moral questions.  It has to become, in effect, a branch, I think, of moral and political philosophy.  

So, the civic project of revitalizing our public debate about markets and where they belong is connected, I think, to and intellectual challenge, to re-conceive economics as a subject, as a discipline, to bring it into closer contact with moral and political philosophy.

In their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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