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Scholars Tackle Ethical Questions at Symposium

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From human organs on the black market to child labor to prostitution, the objects – or people –bought and sold across the world raise important ethical and moral questions: Are there any goods or services that should not be bought or sold? Are there any market activities that should be prohibited because they undermine human dignity? Are there certain types of transactions that are by their nature immoral?

More than a dozen ethicists, philosophers, legal analysts, and political scientists came together to tackle questions of ethical limits to markets at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics symposium on Nov. 21 at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Scholars presented their research, which will be part of a forthcoming issue of the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy.

Peter Jaworski and Jason Brennan, McDonough School of Business faculty members and co-authors of “Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests,” argued that if it is moral and ethical for a person to possess or exchange something for free, then it is moral and ethical to have or exchange it for money.

“Often our objections are to how something is sold, not that it is sold,” said Jaworski, using the example of cadavers that are donated for scientific purposes versus those that are sold on the black market for a profit.

For Richard K. Greenstein, professor of law at Temple University, the issue is not with markets themselves, but with the social norms and attitudes that allow unethical practices to exist.

He believes attitudes, such as the objectification of female bodies, lead to commodification, and that demand is not necessarily created by the market.

“Markets do not bring these norms into existence,” he said.

Other panelists argued markets play a larger role and should be subject to greater regulation, because they often facilitate and amplify social problems.

The Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics brings together the finest scholars and best teachers from different fields to advance understanding of the ethical issues inherent in the functioning of the market society.