How Not to Argue for Markets (or, Why the Argument from Mutually Beneficial Exchange Fails)

JAMES STACEY TAYLOR

JOURNAL OF SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Volume 48, Issue 2

Abstract: In recent years, there has been considerable debate concerning the legitimate scope of market transactions. Markets in many goods that are usually held to be market-inalienable (including sex, human organs, sweatshop labor, women’s reproductive labor, humans, and votes) have all had their defenders—and detractors. Despite the variety of these “contested commodities,” one defense of the view that markets in them are morally legitimate is almost ubiquitous in the philosophical literature on the moral limits of markets. This “Argument from Mutually Beneficial Exchange” is simple. If a trade is voluntary, neither party would have participated in it unless they ex ante expected to benefit from doing so. Hence, provided that the trade in question does not violate the rights of any third party (e.g., it is not the sale of an assassin’s services) then a moral concern for the welfare improvement of each of both parties through the trade prima facie supports its moral permissibility. Taylor argues that this argument should be rejected. This is because it is based on illegitimately inferring from the fact that persons would prefer to trade in a good rather than not given the existence of a market in that good to the conclusion that consideration for the well-being of the would-be trading parties justifies allowing the market in question.