What We Should Feel and What We Should Not Sell

[Will Wilkinson]

Almost everybody thinks some things ought not go on the auction block. I, for one, think it is morally impermissible to sell oneself into slavery. Generally, though, I think it's wrong to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults. If you want to buy sex, and I want to sell it, there are gains from trade to be had, so stay out of our way! Suppose I want a baby and you're happy to rent your uterus from the purpose of cooking one up for me? Should the state get in our way? It should not. But plenty of folks are very uncomfortable with this idea, and the discomfort is common on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum.

In this excerpt from her new book, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, Stanford philosopher Debra Satz raises an interesting problem for liberal objections to pregnancy contracts based on a normative conception of the emotional connection of a mother to her fetus.

[T]here is a dilemma for those who wish to use the mother-fetus bond to condemn pregnancy contracts while endorsing a woman's right to choose an abortion. They must hold it acceptable to abort a fetus but not to sell it. Although the Warnock Report takes no stand on the issue of abortion, it uses present abortion law as a term of reference in considering contract pregnancy. Because abortion is currently legal in England, the Report's position has this paradoxical consequence: one can kill a fetus, but one cannot contract to sell it. One possible response to this objection would be to claim that women do not bond with their fetuses in the first trimester. But the fact remains that some women never bond with their fetuses; some women even fail to bond with their babies after they deliver them.

There is no paradox for the conservative. Outlaw abortion, too! Pro-choice options include (a) go libertarian and argue for legal baby-selling, (b) bite the bullet and defend a principle that justifies killing but not selling on grounds other than a normative view of the mother-fetus bond. (It's not clear from the snippet offered by OUP what Satz's own view is, but I would guess (b).) Satz continues: 

Are we really sure that we know which emotions pregnancy "normally" involves? Whereas married women are portrayed as nurturing and altruistic, society has historically stigmatized the unwed mother as selfish, neurotic, and unconcerned with the welfare of her child. Until quite recently social pressure was directed at unwed mothers to surrender their children after birth. Thus married women who gave up their children were seen as "abnormal" and unfeeling, and unwed mothers who failed to surrender their children were seen as selfish. Assumptions of "normal" maternal bonding may reinforce traditional views of the family and a women's proper role within it.

This puts me in mind of (my fiancée) Kerry Howley's classic post defending her right to have been untroubled by the experience of selling her ova:

[I]t will always be more subversive, more difficult, to admit a lack of emotion in these circumstances rather than an excess. To say: I had an abortion, and felt nothing; I sold my eggs, and enjoyed it; I was a sex worker, and loved it. Break taboos, and the world wants contrition. Didn't you receive your emotional marching orders?  

People are different. Women are different. Satz is right that we should be wary of conventional ideas about the "normal" or "right" way for women to feel. What may be traumatic for one may be no sweat for another. Indeed, individual diversity is the lifeblood of specialization and the division of labor, a font of our blessings. We ought to remind ourselves of this before making the leap from personal uneasiness to law. Personally, I find the idea of a career in sales profoundly off-putting, and against all reason I suspect that it is soul-destroying. I'm quite glad others strongly feel otherwise.

Here are Alvin Roth's blog posts on repugnant transactions.