More on Michael Sandel, justice and price gouging

Michael Giberson

Yesterday I commented on Michael Sandel’s book, Justice, and on his discussion of price gouging I hoped that Sandel would go deeper into his ideas about justice and price gouging, but the book’s index suggests that the introductory chapter is all he has to offer specifically on price gouging.

In re-reading parts of his price gouging discussion, I was particularly struck by Sandel’s rhetorical move here:

… So to decide whether price-gouging laws are justified, we need to assess these competing accounts of welfare and of freedom.

But we also need to consider one further argument. Much public support for price-gouging laws comes from something more visceral than welfare or freedom. People are outraged at “vultures” who prey on the desperation of others and want them punished — not rewarded with windfall profits. Such sentiments are often dismissed as atavistic emotions that should not interfere with public policy or law. As Jacoby writes, “demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery.”

But the outrage at price-gougers is more than mindless anger. It gestures at a moral argument worth taking seriously. Outrage is the special kind of anger you feel when you believe that people are getting things they don’t deserve. Outrage of this kind is anger at injustice.

Since I believe, more or less, that “such sentiments are … atavistic emotions that should not interfere with public policy or law,” I was interested to see Sandel’s counter to this view.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer a counter argument. Instead he makes the claim that outrage points to the presence of injustice, and highlights an underlying moral sentiment. He follows up by pointing out that societies can encourage virtue by penalizing vice.  The point, he said: “By punishing greedy behavior rather than rewarding it, society affirms the civic virtue of shared sacrifice for the common good.”

The problem with this kind of argument is that it takes the underlying moral sentiment as somehow foundational when in fact such sentiments are problematic. A real question here is whether a particular moral sentiment is in fact a virtue (i.e., a belief or behavior that will make the world a better place) and not an atavistic emotion (that is to say, some sort of old fashioned belief or feeling that ought to be discarded).

Sandel says outrage at price gougers is a moral reaction to injustice that highlights a virtue which should be promoted at the expense of price gougers’ freedom.  But the list of things causing outrage is long and various: alphabetically – alcohol, bigamy, cannibalism, … , same sex marriage, taxation, usury, vivisection, X-rated movies, Yankee imperialists, and zone pricing.  In each case I suspect a moral sentiment is involved, at least for the outraged persons, but we need not rush to the conclusion that society should affirm the associated (claim of) civic virtue.

The interesting question, to me, is which moral sentiments ought to be affirmed and which ought to be discarded? Sandel raises the issue of morality and justice in price gouging, but (if the book’s index is complete) he doesn’t follow the argument into what I think are the most difficult and interesting questions.  Maybe his answer is implicit in other discussions in his book, but now I’m less inclined to buy it and find out.

4 thoughts on “More on Michael Sandel, justice and price gouging

  1. Yes, the selectivity reveals his biases. I’m sure he’s familiar with Martha Nussbaum’s book impugning intuitive and visceral thinking in matters of justice.

  2. The only reason anyone is in a position to be “price gauged” is if they were ignorant and unprepared. If you didn’t buy enough bottled water before a major storm shut off the city supplies, are you better or worse off if somebody can truck in fresh water at 10 times the normal cost (even if they end up making twice the “normal” profit by doing so?

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