Satz to graduates: Some goods should never be for sale

Philosophy Professor Debra Satz argues that "noxious" markets are a reflection of some of our most intractable problems and that they will not go away until we address the underlying issues.

L.A. Cicero Debra Satz

Debra Satz, professor of philosophy, gave the Class Day Lecture on the moral limits of markets.

People in Chile can buy alarms built into their coffins in case they are inadvertently buried alive. Someone advertised the meaning of life on eBay, garnering a winning bid of $3.26. A mother raising money for her son's education tattooed her forehead to advertise an online casino. Students at a Midwest university were paid to keep their dorm rooms neat and to be up and out before noon, so prospective students and families can see how students live.

"Sometimes it seems as if everything is for sale," philosophy Professor Debra Satz observed in Saturday's Senior Class Day Lecture – although she granted that the last example had a low compliance rate.

Acknowledging that her talk originally was titled "What Do We Owe Each Other? Responsibilities in a Globalizing World," Satz opened her remarks with a candid admission every graduating senior could identify with: "Sometimes papers do not turn out the way you plan … and so it is with talks." Instead she examined the moral limits of world markets, noting that many of the questions would be the same.

What are the different characteristics of markets? Why do some exchanges prompt "extreme revulsion"? Among the examples Satz raised: child labor, body parts, reproductive services, international arms, addictive drugs.

"What makes particular markets appear undesirable or, in my terminology, noxious?" she asked. The intrinsic nature of certain goods – friendship, a person's good name, various prizes and honor – can immediately diminish their value when they are sold.

There are also extrinsic reasons that make markets noxious, and this was Satz's focus. Is the agent fully aware of the consequences of his or her actions? Do all agents have the same information? Does the market cause extreme harm to individuals? And how extreme does it have to be to make it noxious? Does it cause harm to society?

As Satz said – with a nod to Tolstoy's line about unhappy families – "Each noxious market is noxious in its own way," and there will not be agreement on these issues. For example, the sale of kidneys is among one of the most difficult questions. Sales are illegal in every developed society, she said. Kidneys can be donated altruistically while the donor is alive or after death, but no society makes donation mandatory, even in death. Some would argue that with two kidneys people have more than they need. As of June 10, more than 80,000 Americans were on the waiting list for a kidney, and many of them will die waiting, Satz said. She asked the audience to consider this and other questions through the different lenses discussed, noting for example that there could be unforeseen health complications, especially in less developed parts of the world, unforeseen influences on other markets, and greater impact on the poor as more likely sellers.

In closing, Satz threw up two final challenges: "Noxious markets" reflect some of the most fundamental problems of our globe, and they will not go away unless and until the underlying problems are addressed. That will require public debate and a willingness to confront hard issues.

Then, after asking everyone to look to their left and to their right into the faces of friends and family members, she left the Class of 2010 with this final charge:

"Never forget there are some goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy. Find these goods. Treasure them. But don't keep them to yourselves. Spread them around. … Take an interest in the lives of others."

A highlight of Commencement Weekend for more than 40 years, the Senior Class Day lecture is given by a distinguished professor chosen by graduating students. This year's lecture drew an audience of several thousand students and their families to Maples Pavilion on Saturday.

Debra Satz, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, is a professor of philosophy and, by courtesy, of political science. She is also the director of the Bowen H. McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. A member of the faculty since 1988, she has received two of the university's highest honors: the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize. Her research interests include the ethical limits of markets, political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of social science and issues of international justice. Author of a number of works, her most recent book is Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.

The Stanford Alumni Association sponsored Senior Class Day. Before Satz's talk, the crowd was entertained by the popular student a cappella group Everyday People. Howard Wolf, vice president for alumni affairs and president of the Stanford Alumni Association, welcomed the crowd, which included President John Hennessy, Provost John Etchemendy, chair of the Board of Trustees Leslie Hume, a number of trustees and faculty members, in addition to graduating seniors and their families. Etchemendy introduced Satz, noting that she was "an inspired choice as a Class Day speaker," a renowned teacher who challenges students with hard questions and helps them to think critically about what really is at issue.