On Prudence
Can Consequentialists Honour the Special Moral Status of Persons?

Baker, "A Stoic Defense of the Market" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)

Mark D. White

Today we continue our preview of Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems with Chapter 4, "Don't Let the Best Be the Enemy of the Good: A Stoic Defense of the Market," by Jennifer A. Baker. (Chapter 3 by James D. Gwartney and Joseph Connors was discussed here, Chapter 2 by John Meadowcroft was discussed here, Chapter 1 by me was discussed here, and the preface was posted here.)

From the introduction to the chapter:

The moral relevance of general affluence is often overlooked. We might wish for humane conditions, we might talk of human value, but short of some minimal level of general affluence, life is too grim to entertain ethical notions beyond it. It seems we can hardly count the very poor of the world into our moral considerations. If everyone has to be considered, “well,” the ethicists seem to harrumph, “then we are dealing with too much need and everything thought conventionally moral is off the table!”

In this chapter I would like to offer a corrective, a way to acknowledge the moral significance of general affluence without disassembling conventional morality. To do this we have to recognize that markets are our only means of bringing about general affluence. We have, literally, nothing else capable of doing the job. Yet markets are, for reasons we will go into, left out of our moral calculations. We either suggest “it isn’t personal, it’s just business” in the hopes that all moral bets are off when we are engaging in trade, or simply live with the cognitive dissonance of refusing to integrate our support for markets with the rest of our beliefs about what is good. (p. 69)


For many reasons, it will be helpful to point out a way in which we can situate support for general affluence within conventional morality. Clearing up the deep confusion we so often display about the role of ethics in the market is one, clarity about our own behavior is another, and what we owe other humans worldwide is a third. After reviewing approaches that will not work, I will offer a means for this. I argue that the solution is to organize our thoughts about morality using an ethical theory—Stoicism—that has a two-level structure. One of these must acknowledge the value of material inputs to human life, and the other must function to maintain a standard for personal choices. How these levels serve as a framework for making choices we already admire is what I aim to demonstrate. (p. 70)

Baker surveys the difficulties with justifying the market using standard theories of moral and political philosophy, as well as attempts by economist-philosopher to do so, before laying out her Stoic alternative, based on essential concepts thereof such as indifferents, neutrality, and the bi-level theory of value.

She phrases her conclusion exceptionally well (emphasis added):

Is the market just? Not in the sense that it meets some discrete ideal of political good. The market, not being an ideal, simply cannot measure up to such standards. If we are to dismiss it as amoral, we are left without guidance when it comes to how we should act in the market. Far better is to determine that the market has a peculiar status of “just enough.” It is not glorious. It is never how we would prefer it to be and never as good as it could be. But humans thrive in market-based systems and can do so without the cost of horrific violations of human dignity. Higher standards cannot be imposed on a social system until the possibility of meeting these higher standards exist. We are not to expect too much, or to confuse political ideals for actual social good. (p. 83)


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