St Paul's Institute

What Money Can't Buy - Join the Debate

by St Pauls Institute

Posted: 23 May 2012

Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don't belong? What are the moral limits of markets?

The response to our event with Michael Sandel was outstanding, with around 1,800 people filling the Cathedral to capacity and an evening of discussion and debate on the topic of Sandel's latest book What Money Can't Buy. The audience was visibly attentive throughout the discussion between Michael Sandel, Bishop Peter Selby, Julian Le Grand and Stephanie Flanders; with questions and comments coming in from the floor and plenty of debate between the speakers on the panel.

This debate comes at an important moment, as attention to markets and their role in shaping our lives and social relationships continues to intensify- from the leaders of the Eurozone countries dealing with macroeconomic concerns to individuals confronting the fall-out from continuing economic instability as demonstrated by the Occupy protests. Michael Sandel ended the evening's discussion by saying that we need a "morally more robust public discourse" and that "to renew public life we need to exercise [our] civic virtues more strenuously".

This is exactly what St Paul's Institute has always been about, and we are delighted at the level of engagement that took place last night.

Michael Sandel commented, "A market economy is a tool - a valuable and effective tool - for organising productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour. It is a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market. The great missing debate is about the role and reach of the market. I am delighted that St Paul's Institute are seeking to foster just this debate."

The debate does not end with the event. What do you think?

We think it's vital that as many people as possible take part in this discussion and that the debate - the public discourse - continues, and so we are providing this page on our website for you to comment with your thoughts and views on the two following questions:

What things do you think money can't buy and, if you can't buy them, how can you get them?


What are the most important things you think money can buy, but shouldn't?

So, make sure to have your say and join in on this important debate. Let us know what you think by using the comment system below.

Want to know what people were saying on Twitter? Download our PDF of the full #moralmarkets stream.


About this author

St Paul's Institute seeks to foster an informed Christian response to the most urgent ethical and spiritual issues of our times: equality, stewardship, and the meaning of the common good.

Bree Johnson - Posted: 24 May 2012

1) Money can't buy a genuine connection with another individual and because of this, it can not buy the virtues we hold dear because of our relationships with others. Because we live in a society with others, notions of respect, trust, love, generosity, contributions etc are vital, and if money is used in an attempt to gain these or replace these valuable expressions of humanity, it cheapens and devalues what it is to be human.

2) The most important things that money can buy, but shouldn't is power and an ability to influence decision-making in society that shapes and effects the lives of many with a focus on the interests of the individuals with money and not the wider good.

Revd Andrew Wakefield - Posted: 24 May 2012

I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love, can't buy me love, everybody tells me so.
Paul McCartney, The Beatles, 1964

Still true.

Peter Challen - Posted: 24 May 2012


Until the 16th Century, Western Civilization prohibited the practice of charging interest on money on both moral and legal grounds.[ See St Basil, Luther, St. Thomas,] In our modern monetary system, however, money is created by commercial banks through loans issued with compound interest. Though the full implications of the loans that create our money are seldom understood, their effects upon society are pervasive and powerful. Three consequences of interest as a built-in feature of our monetary system are that (1) it encourages systematic competition among the participants in the system; (2) it continually fuels the need for endless economic growth; and (3) it concentrates wealth by transferring money from the vast majority to a small minority.

An Occupy banner on the steps of St Paul's declared this year - 'Root out Usury' [i.e. exploitation]. That must be our constructive non-adversarial intention if we are to deeply change economic structures to serve a global society with inclusive justice.

Helene - Posted: 24 May 2012

Islamic Finance is based on this very principle - we take it as a new "upcoming" and niche field of Finance: should it become instead a norm for our financial system?

Rachel - Posted: 25 May 2012

Excellent debate at St Paul's last night; it was a privilege to hear such a great discussion in the heart of the City, and to see such widespread interest in the topic. There were so many thought-provoking asides e.g. Professor Sandel arguing that markets fill the moral vacuum in our public discourse and Bishop Peter countering that markets themselves create the vacuum; Stephanie Flanders asking whether the root problem was the underlying inequality which market allocation of resources exacerbates; Bishop Peter suggesting that behaviour governs ideas rather than vice versa, several speakers pointing out that markets are not neutral...

It was fantastic to have Ann Pettifor in the Chair too. Her role in Jubilee 2000 is another link with the morality of markets. Was it moral for developed countries to lend oil dollars to the (often corrupt and oppressive) leaders of developing nations? Is it moral that some developing countries, whose citizens live below the poverty line, are still paying $millions daily to service these debts to developed countries like the UK? What does 'moral hazard' mean in this context?

1) What can't money buy? Value. Money is a symbol or measure of value but it has no intrinsic value itself.

2) What can money buy that it shouldn't? Money! Money should be a means of exchange, not itself a commodity.

Thanks to all the speakers, the LSE and St Paul's Institute for such a great debate. I hope the conversation continues!

David - Posted: 27 May 2012

"When the Stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?"
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other"? or "This is a community"?
And the stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions."
T.S.Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

1. Money can't buy love, personhood, community. You get the first in giving it away, and the second and third flow from that.
2. Money should not buy human beings, either against their will (as with various forms of slavery) or because we allow it to in the way we compromise with it.

Peter - Posted: 29 May 2012

The debate was great, but I think we need a bit more clarity in the terms we use and the way arguments are presented. For example, the discussion was mainly couched in terms of the impacts of the 'market', whereas much of the discourse was about the use of prices and monetary values. These are used a lot in the public sector to make investment decisions - with all the consequential potential biases - but there are no markets operating, as such, here.

Dennis Leech - Posted: 30 May 2012

I was very disappointed the dismissive attitude of Julian Le Grand towards Richard Titmuss's landmark study of the supply of blood, The Gift Relationship. (And actually rather shocking from one whose title is the Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy.)

His argument seemed to be that altruism, as advocated by Titmuss, is all very well but - lets face it - all the evidence is that markets are more efficient. But what Titmuss showed very powerfully is that there is no evidence that a market in blood is more efficient - quite the contrary. The concluding paragraph in the book was:

"Moreover, on four testable non-ethical criteria the [American] commercialized blood market is bad. In terms of economic efficiency it is highly wasteful of blood; shortages, chronic and acute, characterize the demand and supply position and make illusory the concept of equilibrium. It is administratively inefficient and results in more bureaucratization and much greater administrative, accounting and computer overheads. In terms of price per unit of blood to the patient (or consumer) it is a system which is five to fifteen times more costly than the voluntary system in Britain. And, finally, in terms of quality, commercial markets are much more likely to distribute contaminated blood; the risks for the patient of disease and death are substantially greater. Freedom from disability is inseparable from altruism."

A flippant anecdote about how the NHS once bought blood from the US is not an adequate reply to that.

iain andrews - Posted: 06 Jun 2012

'Money talks, but it don't sing and dance and it don't walk'

I'm not really a Neil Diamond fan, but I do find the sentiment that he is expressing here strangely comforting - that whilst money can undoubtedly have a influence on almost any area of life, from the decision to enter into a personal relationship to influencing policy and the way that governments and multinationals shape and guide our world on a global scale, there are some quieter, gentler things that it will never be able to dominate, namely an individuals ability to make beautiful choices. I find it slightly amusing that there can be an attempt to use money as a kind of insulator against death, and the natural cycles of growth and decay, which all of nature demonstrates and yet we seem unable to believe could apply to out economic model. I think any conversation about money will ultimately, or should ultimately, lead to one about death and the limitations of mortality, which has a way of both sobering and liberating one from the grip of the bank account.

Revd Professor James Jones Rutgers University - Posted: 06 Jun 2012

Regarding the debate, I thought Sandel presented his case very persuasively. And of course I am inclined to be persuaded already and I know the research pretty well on how rewarding people for things they naturally or intrinsically do will cause them to lose that intrinsic motivation. I thought Julian Le Grand was an embarrassment. He seems culpably ignorant of the impact of context on actions and their meanings. His example of how paying voluntary caretakers of the infirm increased their pride in what they did bears no analogy to Sandel's examples. That example involves people doing for free something that others are regularly paid for; so, of course, it would seem to make their work more valuable. Sandel's examples all involve paying for things people are rarely or ever (until recently) paid for. A huge difference. And his example about obesity is willfully blind: childhood obesity is a problem (at least in the USA) primarily among the poor because unhealthy calories are cheaper and more filling than healthy ones and they are marketed primarily to poor people. Ignoring the role of poverty here is breathtakingly stupid. Peter Selby said it best: the market creates problems that it than claims to solve. In that regard, his comments throughout were the most direct and raised the most fundamental points (and appeared to garner the most applause, for whatever that's worth).

Of course the question of how money has gotten so much power was often asked and answered in the abstract, like it was a mystery. But as Selby pointed out, there is no mystery, only mystification. There's a huge and powerful set of interlocking institutions that have a vested interest in putting and keeping people in debt (especially the marginal and precarious ones). Again Le Grand bordered on the disingenuous when he said isn't it better that more people can buy homes with less moneyno! not when they end up bankrupt and homeless when foreclosed upon long after the mortgage brokers have collected huge fees and bonuses. Better that the society provides for living wages so that people can legitimately own a home. There's no mystery here: money has itself become a commodity and it is marketed, advertised, and otherwise promoted like any other commodity by people who make a lot of money selling money.

Another mystification not discussed: I am always surprised how my students regard the so-called "laws" of economics as natural laws (like gravity) rather than social policies that are the result of political decision, matters about which we as a society often have choices if only we recognized it.

Other than that, I thought the discussion was quite good and touched on the important questions: especially the demonstrable decline in public discourse and the abandonment of public moral discourse, another recognized effect of market over-reach since now all goods (not just products and services) are allocated by markets rather than morals. Here in the USA (I don't know about the UK) I really hold the churches, and my own especially, responsible for this. The churches have not been places where serious moral discourse has taken place. The more "liberal" churches rely heavily on platitudes (or simple assertions of "rights") and the more "conservative" ones on apodictic pronouncements backed by no analysis or argument (the exceptions I am sorry to say are the RC's on social ethics-where they are ignored, the RC's are only cited when they take positions dear to the neo-con heart and some conservative evangelicals on issues like the environment and maybe now (hopefully) economic inequality. I would really like to find a way for the church to do better.

Jessica Giles Associate Law Lecturer Open University - Posted: 09 Jun 2012

If I may introduce another train of thought into the debate based on case law that I have recently covered and that is the attempted patenting of the human embryo and the patenting of a gene sequence. Patenting is necessary to protect inventors, inventions and to obtain further funding for research. Research in the field of biotechnical inventions and the discovery of gene sequences has potentially huge benefits for the health of humankind - money is needed for the research and the research is needed to ensure that science and discoveries made in a particular area can ultimately be applied for the benefit of humankind. However justifying the grant of a patent on the grounds that it will encourage businesses to fund projects and further research uses a consequentialist approach to legal reasoning that focuses on the financial element to justify a decision rather than taking a step back to look at the rights and wrongs of a situation. Money can indeed facilitate research but it cannot and should not influence a decision about what is and is not morally right or wrong when it comes to biotechnical inventions and research. The Court of Justice of the European Union has held that since by law it is wrong for humankind to claim to have "invented" the human embryo, it is therefore wrong for humankind to claim to have invented something which uses the human embryo as part of the process which might ultimately lead, for example, to a cure for Parkinson's. The fact that a grant of a patent might result in the grant of funding for a project did not influence this decision. In this case money could have bought physical health but the court refused to be swayed and instead based its decision on what was legally and morally right. Further discussion of this can be found in a case commentary on the Brüstle and Eli Lilly cases shortly to be published on the website of the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion

Ark - Posted: 21 Jun 2012

There are quite a lot things that money can't buy. Money can't buy love, self respect or peace of mind. It can't create a sense of our humanity or community. These are things that require honesty and an acknowledgement that we are all equal and have responsibilities to each other, even if just to treat each other as human beings.

Money can buy people's actions. I'm not sure it really buys them as people, but it can corrupt. Buying people's actions distorts our humanity

M Crosbie - Posted: 28 Jun 2012

I think the problems generated through the increased marketisation of society, which Sandel very clearly expresses, are intuitively felt by many. For most of us, however, our basic livelihoods and well-being are tied to our economic productivity (public welfare notwithstanding) . . . most of our energy as individuals is spent maintaining our capacity to physically exist.

Core physical needs are non-negotiable and we all agree on these, whereas people do not necessarily agree on those public goods and civic virtues which lack a price tag. Where the stakes are not financially quantifiable, the value systems of politics, religion and academia may step in - but these are typically inert forces in our society, which moreover are points of division rather than consensus. Even if politicians/churches/universities could come up with a compelling new social contract with a better defined role for the market, "selling" the incentives to populations who were essentially born into and kept alive by markets, would seem to be a very difficult thing. Remember, our livelihoods and well-being, in such a market system, are tied to economic productivity. Until public attitudes are galvanised by a natural or anthropogenic catastrophe, I predict only gradual change towards a society with a strong notion of the "public good".

M Crosbie - Posted: 28 Jun 2012

My comment above could also be well-expressed by quoting one of Sandel's final remarks: "I think the deeper appeal of markets is that they seem to offer us a way of avoiding public judgements and disagreements about the meaning of public goods."

Guy Wilkinson - Posted: 10 Aug 2012

I come a little late to this debate and have now read Professor Sandel's excellent book. What strikes me in overviewing the comments so far is that most are restricted to accepting that there is a problem - or several problems - and that we are not as a society where we would like to be with regard to markets, monetisation and morals. What is lacking is a clear description of ways in which we can move from where we are to where we might want to be. The grand ideological schemes of the past carry no weight; an Islamic approach is already under huge pressure in the face of the power of money and the development of sharia compliant financial instruments often seem complex, superficial and unlikely to be sustainable. What are the approaches which are consistent with our ethical culture and which are practicable?

Macy - Posted: 19 Sep 2012

i noticed that attaching monetary values to change habits, attitudes and even to follow certain rules are expected to be more effective in the underpriveleged sector of the society.

T Kro - Posted: 08 Dec 2012

It is an important task of any good society to decide, by moral or by law, on what can be bought and what cannot.

Unfortunately no political side targets this. The lefts and the rights assume money can buy anything, and commence to fight about who gets the money. Some European countries did reasonably good in reducing the value of money in the 1940ies to 1960ies, but seemingly by coincident, not by planned purpose. It was more a consequence of wealth distribution than of planning to make money less important.

By taking money out of the fundamental needs,we make money a means of getting luxury goods, but not for basic survival of you and your children. Then the equation of redistributing it equally becomes less important and the liberal ideas, admittedly resultng in increase efficiency in society can have a freer play. If the most you can do with your money is to buy a Ferrari instead of a Ford, it is okay to allow some people, who contributes a lot to society make much more money than others, contributing less. If the difference means that the less gifted's children do not get education or health care, society is on a very dangerous path.

This is not socialism, this is not conservatism, this is not liberalism.
All of these "isms" essentially discuss the issue of who shall be allowed to have more or less, and what differences we can tolerate. Seemingly thus assuming that money is the most important

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