Welcome to our discussion of Hayden Wilkinson’s “Market Harms and Market Benefits”! Kian Mintz-Woo has graciously provided a critical précis, which appears below. Hayden will offer an initial comment, and then all are encouraged to join in the discussion.
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Some philosophers have influentially attempted to guide choices in charitable giving so as to increase (or even maximize) the impartial benefit of that giving. In short, if we choose to give in ways that are more effective, then those choices can do more good. In Hayden Wilkinson’s exciting new paper, Wilkinson extends similar reasoning to everyday supermarket purchases. The gist of the piece is: if we can choose some staple foods in an informed manner—information the paper includes!—there are weighty (perhaps decisive) moral reasons to select the foods that will contribute to more just global distributions.
In line with the remit of Philosophy and Public Affairs, this paper offers something to both the interested layperson and the trained philosopher. I recall the quinoa panic amongst my friends which Wilkinson discusses; the concern was that the trendiness of quinoa would make it unaffordable to those in Bolivia and Peru who have eaten it for a long time. At the time, I felt a vague unease that there were surely more complex effects than just that some were unable to afford quinoa. Wilkinson’s paper helpfully provides a framework for understanding the twin effects of price changes, effects in terms of both those who buy (or demand) the food and those who sell (or supply) the food. In other words, the extra profit to those selling the quinoa after westerners demand more means a higher quality of life and greater welfare to those selling. This kind of discussion is helpful to anyone wishing to be an informed consumer.
Before I get to some objections, I will sketch the argument. Wilkinson points out that there are three possible outcomes when one purchases a good: it is purchased and there is still inventory left over with no other action by the seller (small benefit to the seller, no other major effects); it is purchased and there is no inventory left over with no other action by the seller (small disbenefit to someone else who would have liked to purchase the good, no other major effects); or it is purchased and the seller increases the price—perhaps slightly more likely when no inventory is left over, but possible regardless of inventory levels (small subsequent disbenefit to each of the future purchasers, significant subsequent benefit to the seller). The issue is how often (and how much) a given purchase can make a difference to the price of that good. Some philosophers have been skeptical that individual actions can be morally relevant difference makers in contexts with a large number of actors whereas other philosophers have argued that some actions make a difference in expectation, so there are morally relevant expected harms caused by individuals.
Wilkinson takes the latter side, arguing that these price changes do occur at some thresholds where supply curves meet demand curves. While it can be objected that these curves are actually step functions (where the ‘curves’ are actually just steps with horizontal sections punctuated by vertical climbs), Wilkinson makes the sensible point that in global markets, most foods are traded by so many people that all their individual step functions will combine to make international functions that are much closer to a smooth curve than for individual demand or supply functions. In other words, although Wilkinson takes the expected impact to be morally important, in the cases of globally traded foods like quinoa we should think that the actual impact is often the expected impact (or close to it).
The curvature of these supply and demand functions is given by what economists call the demand and supply elasticities: the percentage change in demand or supply in response to a percentage change in price. When the elasticity is higher (more elastic), a change in price leads to larger shifts in how much people buy or sell that good (more precisely, how much is produced or consumed). When the elasticity is lower (more inelastic), a change in price leads to smaller shifts in how much people buy or sell that good. One thing economists do is try to estimate these elasticities empirically by looking at how much buying and selling is done in response to historical price shifts.
One of the valuable contributions of this paper is bringing together some estimates of elasticities for goods that many people will find in their supermarket everyday (wheat, quinoa, coffee, bananas, etc.) and another contribution is to bring together some idea (at a very rough national level) of how those elasticities would affect globally poorer versus globally wealthier people. The idea is that if the foods are predominantly consumed in wealthy countries, wealthy countries benefit if the price goes down; if the foods are predominantly made or grown in poorer countries, poor countries benefit if the price goes up). When all of these values are small (or ‘marginal’), we can approximate the effects of increasing the demand for these foods in a simple equation that depends on just these elasticities and the amount you spend. When we put all of these points together, they give us a rough idea of which food price increases are good for the global poor (Wilkson reports that this applies to foods like bananas, quinoa, tea and coffee) and which are good for the global rich (Wilkinson reports this applies to foods like lentils, rice, soybeans and wheat). Wilkinson is fairly convincing that this conclusion is robust in that it could be justified for theorists of different types (I would be interested in conversation below about whether those from different theoretical starting points are convinced). To me, the most valuable contribution of the paper is in bringing some of these concepts into philosophical discussion—that isn’t to say others have not, but it is to say that they are still uncommon and I hope this paper leads more people to think in these kinds of quantitative and empirical terms in order to draw out important practical conclusions.
I am largely in agreement with Wilkinson’s points, and I don’t think it very productive to critique the coarseness of these claims (obviously, wealthy and poor countries alike include significant heterogeneity); I think the steelman of the project is an invitation for others to provide more empirical evidence and expand the scope of goods to try to allow for more informed choices with this paper as a strong first pass. This conception of the project is very similar to the attempts to systematically compare charities in order to improve choices about charitable giving. However, there are three points I want to press on in this precis. The first relates to reasons and rights; the second asks what whether these reasons can be motivational in light of observed preferences; and the third presses the role of prerogatives.
The first point relates to the way Wilkinson situates the paper. Since there is relatively little philosophical discussion of market harms, he considers John Stuart Mill and Judith Jarvis Thomson. They say something like it infringes no right to take an action that leads to market harms. While I understand that few have discussed market harms in the way Wilkinson does, I do not think that his claims really refute these: Wilkinson’s conclusion is that there is a weighty (perhaps decisive) reason in favor of buying foods that have the effect of transferring resources from the globally wealthier to the globally poorer. That does not establish any rights violations in failing to do so; it is at least deontically consistent with their claims. I don’t think that Wilkinson has to establish that they are wrong (and he may be happy to admit this); however, since he sets these up as his interlocutors, it could seem to a reader that he intends to.
The second point has to do with motivation and internal and external reasons. The simple version is that Wilkinson argues that there are reasons to choose items that transfer resources from the globally wealthier to the globally poorer, but this seems to be an external reason in Williams’ sense. An internal reason is one that an individual can be motivated to do given their antecedent goals or motivational sets; an external reason is one that has no necessary connection to anyone’s motivational sets.
In particular, many actual people reveal through their behavior that they would not have altruistic motivational sets. For this reason, few would be moved by this argument. I suppose that the primary audience of Wilkinson’s piece are wealthy consumers (or at least wealthy in a global context). But this audience reveals its preferences through their actions. Most of these preferences seem to be self-interested, or to only apply to those nearby. Many people do not donate in generally altruistic ways. Most of those who do donate do so in ways that reflect their personal projects (e.g. diseases their friends or family members have had, arts giving that is important in certain social spaces, funding wealthy universities from which they graduated as opposed to poorer colleges that might have greater need), not in terms of improving the world impartially. Let us grant that if they bought $10 worth of bananas, that action would shift roughly the same amount in expectation globally from some who have more to some who have less. But given that people do not demonstrate interest in helping those around the world, this does not seem very motivationally relevant. So it seems that, at the very least, there are a few more steps needed to make this fact an internal reason for them. Perhaps Wilkinson is satisfied with merely providing evidence for an external reason, but I would guess that he wants more, so I would be interested in hearing what he thinks about how to change people’s motivational sets (or if he agrees that most people are not altruistic).
The final point is perhaps the most substantive. Wilkinson considers an objection (the first in his list of objections) that there are agent-centered prerogatives, asking where what principled basis could they have (and attempting to reductio ad absurdum that people’s eating habits could be morally innocuous by considering food grown by slaves). While I do not myself agree with common-sense morality, I do think that this morality does hold shopping, clothing and eating habits (and perhaps choices about having children) to be in a private sphere untouched by morality, perhaps excepting extreme circumstances. I suspect that many, perhaps the bulk, of philosophers might also endorse some version of this view.
Wilkinson responds that prerogatives are most plausible when it is extremely demanding to avoid the action in question, but I do not think common-sense morality adopts that position. For instance, suppose that you know that everyone in your office likes red and if you wear a red shirt everyone will have a somewhat more pleasant day; I believe the common-sense view is that you are not obliged to wear red (or really even to take into account everyone’s preferences about what you wear)—you can wear exactly what you want. This permissibility is the common-sense view even though it is not extremely demanding for you to wear red (or to refrain from wearing red).
Similarly, even when it is not demanding for you to select bananas over apples or quinoa over wheat, I believe common-sense morality does not oblige you to consider the market harms (or benefits) these choices could make. These personal choices are outside the sphere of moral concern.
Wilkinson attempts to rebut this point by saying that if such choices were outside the sphere of morality, then it would be morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat or to buy products that were made with slave labor. But from a common-sense point of view, this is an unconvincing slippery slope. The market harm one is contributing to in Wilkinson’s case is something along the lines of $10-50 being distributed from the globally wealthy to the globally poor. The fact that we could imagine decisions with sufficiently important side effects that duties of beneficence or non-maleficence apply does not undermine these choices being within our personal sphere free of moral concern. There are several sophisticated ways that common-sense morality could justify this position. For instance, as when making most other eating and purchasing decisions, those global transfers might be good side effects, but they are not intended and they are legitimate to disregard. Or the fact that there is intervening agency in the marketplace means that you are not morally responsible for these outcomes or effects.
A small anecdote: a distant family relative once said that, while she was comfortable buying meat from the butcher and eating it, she would be somewhat critical of anyone who married a butcher. The butcher, I believe she meant, is doing something morally suspect or betraying a bad character, but the fact that she pays him to do it did not tie her close enough to that suspicious or vicious activity to be morally responsible. In line with this kind of reasoning, it might be good to transfer $20 from someone (or someones) who need it less to those who need it more, but common-sense might suggest that you do not get the moral credit if that transfer is mediated by the market—even when you incentivized that transfer to happen yourself.
With those three critical points, I welcome discussion both by the author and by anyone else on this excellent paper.