Sunday, June 18, 2017: “Questions of Value”


St. Mark’s Adult Forum

18 June 2017


Questions of Value*


‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’  Patrick Grim, Ph.D.


Everything Has a Price


Putting a price on something says a lot about what we genuinely value.  Or what we think we value.  Recall an old adage:  There are some who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.  The ‘market’ often sets the price, but it’s not always about supply and demand.  It’s often about intangibles.


Question:  The price of a commercial apple pie is clearly marked on the box.  What price for your Grandma’s apple pie?  What price for Grandma’s apple pie recipe?


Question:  Money.  What does it mean to you?  How much do you want?  How much do you need?  How much is enough?


Question:  Your employer gives you a raise, but cuts your work hours.  Your reaction?


Question:  The price is right!  What price would you ask to:  1) risk embarrassment, 2) compromise your values, or 3) buy your silence?


When we pay a price for something we typically rely on cash or credit to seal the deal.  But there are times we pay in kind – we barter.  Instead of cash, we give up something else of value.  We log onto Facebook or surf the web.  No need for money – it’s free!  Or is it?  Whether we realize it or not, we pay a price for ‘smart technology’…internet, smart cars, smart homes, etc.  For smart technology to work properly, it needs information, personal information, and lots of it.  Sold on the benefits of this technology, we willingly give up some privacy.  Moreover, we may be compelled to act in a certain way to reap full benefit, so we give up some freedom as well.


Question:  How much is your personal privacy worth?


What Money Can’t Buy**


We currently live in an era of ‘market triumphalism’, a time where almost anything can be bought or sold; an era where ‘markets’ and ‘market values’ are seen as the key to prosperity and freedom.  What’s more, the logic of buying or selling no longer applies to commodities alone but increasingly governs the whole of life.  True, market triumphalism took a hit following the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s regained traction since, despite growing skepticism and worry. 


Why worry that in our society everything is up for sale?  Well, for two reasons: one is about inequality; and the other is about corruption.

Consider inequality.  In a society where everything is for sale, opportunities often elude those of modest means.  To illustrate, Starbucks recently opened the doors to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room where customers can turn a cup of ‘small-batch’ coffee into an ‘experience’ at $10 a cup.  These Roasteries are billed as ‘ultra-premium’ destinations where people will go to linger.  Of course, the aim is to attract affluent elites with offerings designed for the few.  Now, it’s been said: ‘A rising tide (booming economy) lifts all boats’.  But such a prospect troubles elites.  To remain elite, they need to move ahead of the pack.  They succeed by seeking ‘experiences’ others can’t afford.  And Starbucks is all too willing to provide. 


Luxury suites at major sporting venues are another example of market driven inequality.  In the past, fans of all classes sat side-by-side – cheered for the home team – in a ‘ritual’ of civic pride.  Not so much today.  Lucrative skyboxes have separated the affluent and privileged above from the common folk below.  True, some fans – on both sides – might prefer this arrangement.  But it also reinforces the fact that people of affluence and people modest means increasingly lead separate lives. 


Question: Is our shared common life unraveling?  What’s at stake?


Aside from inequality and fairness, putting a price on some things can corrupt them.  Some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities.  According to contemporary philosopher Michael J. Sandel:


“In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life – medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations.  We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.  Is this where we want to be?”


Question: Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate organs?  Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades?  What about auctioning admission to elite universities?  How about selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?


Market triumphalism – market thinking – can change people’s attitudes and behaviors and crowd out moral and civic commitments.  Social norms such as civic virtue and public-spiritedness are great bargains – socially useful behaviors that would otherwise cost a lot of money.  Paying kids to read may get them to read more, but it may also teach them to regard reading as a chore or job or transaction.  Thus the value of reading for its sheer enjoyment is undermined.


When it comes to market penetration into daily life, some might claim immunity.  Just tune it out!  Get over it!  Easier said than done.


Question: The ‘best man’ at your wedding delivers a magnificent toast – one for the ages.  Later he confesses that he purchased the toast online.  What’s your reaction?



** See ‘What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets’ by Michael J. Sandel, 2011.

* The bulk of materials offered were borrowed and adapted by Wayne Harper for our use from: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim, produced by The Teaching Company.