You’re Not Wrong Walter…

The rationaloptimist blog is written by Frank Robinson, an intelligent individual with views that differ significantly from this author’s.  His posts at the same time spark thought and induce ire (both are appreciated).  A recent post was no exception.  Of particular interest were the following words (pertaining to the buying and selling of kidneys):

“But that ignores the fundamental logic, and virtue, of all free market transactions: people buy and sell to each other only when it makes both better off. You can argue that the impoverished kidney seller is not really a free agent in the transaction because his poverty leaves him little choice. Perhaps so. But this is condescending elitism of the worst sort.

“Nobody is ever totally free; everything we do or choose is constrained by a myriad of factors – economic, social, cultural, psychological, physical. Poverty is just one such constraint. Still we try to do what improves our circumstances. Thus the kidney peddler may be constrained by dire poverty, but given that reality, he judges that selling the kidney will improve his situation. He needs the money more than the kidney. Where does philosopher Sandel get off telling him he shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice for himself?” [second and third emphasis added]

We both agree that there is no such thing as absolute freedom, that the kidney seller in question is more free than someone with a gun to their head, and that this person is a sound individual able to make responsible decisions.  (We are also similar in not having actually read Sandel’s book.)

Having established this let us examine some mistakes in the quoted argument.  First, whether or not all free market transactions leave both participants better off should be open to empirical proof or refutation.  It is not correct to use it as an a-priori assumption unless one really believes in a world that places efficient market transactions above all for their own sake.  In the case of the kidney seller, if we accept notions of good and bad that go beyond financial remuneration, there is ample room to doubt whether the kidney seller is really better off.

Second, the claim of elitism is a bit of an adhominem attack.  (Or perhaps Sandel actually is elitist, in which case, the claim is a bit of a straw-man attack.)  Arguments against kidney selling are not aimed at telling the seller what to do.  They have to do with wanting a different world where nobody has a need to sell a kidney to make ends meet, where asymmetrical power relations are not swept under the rug by the supposed equality of all market participants, where there still exist meaningful aspects of life that are not just market transactions, and where market transactions have no weight in arguments of morality.  Some of us want to tell the kidney seller, “Do what you have to do.  Sell the kidney if you have to.  I know I can’t help you.  I’m sorry you have to make this decision, and I’m sorry I can’t do anything for you. I do think the whole situation is wrong and I at the very least can argue against people who think otherwise.”  Framed like this, the argument is not elitist, but just a different desire for what the world should be.

What we have then is a simple case of disagreeing on the basic axioms of an argument.  While neither side is demonstrably right or wrong, the disagreement bears a resemblance to a scene from The Big Lebowski.  Walter, taking here the pro-market position, is arguing with The Dude.

Walter: Am I wrong?
The Dude: No you’re not wrong.
Walter: Am I wrong?
The Dude: You’re not wrong Walter. You’re just an asshole.
Walter: All right then.

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2 Responses to You’re Not Wrong Walter…

  1. rationaloptimist says:

    So — I guess the conclusion is simply that I’m an asshole?
    But seriously — sure, we’d all like a world in which nobody, due to economic exigencies, has to sell a kidney. Also a world in which nobody has to die. Or suffer pain. But we’ve got the world we’ve got, and wishes for a better one are irrelevant to how people can make the best of the world they live in.
    You might judge that the kidney seller is NOT in fact better off after the sale. You might even be right, viewing it of course from your perspective. But here is the key point — you have no right to make that judgment for the kidney seller and impose it on him. The point is that, in general, people can achieve better outcomes for themselves if they can make their own choices rather than having choices imposed upon them by others who think they know better. Because the people themselves are likely to have a better knowledge and understanding of their own needs, circumstances, wants and desires. Thus freedom is not only morally preferable to non-freedom, it also tends to produce better human outcomes.

  2. Thank you for the comment. It’s the policy of this blog not to engage in conversation in the comments, but instead to carry interesting ideas forward to additional posts. The concept of freedom is a tricky one and has lived on at

    (And to be sure, no offense was intended by the movie quote.)

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