Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

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Commodifying Moral Concerns

Can market-based approaches be applied for social decision-making on animals, food, and the environment?

The production and consumption of agricultural products has an ethical dimension. It is not solely about the efficient use of resources. Therefore, in agriculture the classical ethical questions about justice, fairness and the consideration of moral claims of third parties like people in developing countries, future generations or even non-humans arise. However, in secular democratic societies no homogenous ethical commitment to theses questions exists. Social decision-making therefore has to balance plural values, where people are aware of and can articulate them. Currently, we can observe a strong tendency to apply market-based approaches to solve non-market problems by integrating people's moral concerns as preferences via monetary valuation into the decision-making process. Creating a hypothetical market where people can articulate their preference in monetary terms and  integrating these results into a cost-benefit analysis is one of the most common forms of social decision-making. These market-based approaches include normative assumptions about the formation of preferences, choices and rationality that are not without controversy. By now there is a comprehensive literature that criticise on the one hand the implicit assumptions about value formation and on the other hand the process by which values are expressed. However, this literature only deals with hypothetical markets.

In the meanwhile real markets for the articulation of moral concerns have been established especially in the area of food. Labelling food regarding its impact on the environment, animal welfare or working conditions in developing countries is a common practice that should allow consumers to buy in accordance with their moral attitude. Here, the market as an institution to coordinate the exchange of goods and services receives an addition role: an instrument to clarify controversial moral questions within the society.

It is the aim of this research project to analyse whether ethical consensus building can be conducted via commodifying moral concerns.

  • Therefore, first we analyse by ethical reasoning whether the principle objections against the establishment of hypothetical markets also count for real markets. Here, animal welfare labelling serves as a case study.
  • Second, people's ethical views on moral claims of third parties when consuming food will be elicited by methods from experimental ethics. With this we study whether people's views are compatible with the consequentialistic  assumptions of the market.
  • And third, alternative forms of social decision-making like deliberative methods  will be elaborated and compared with market-based approaches. Taking the example of the human right to water and sanitation, agreed with in the UN Resolution  64/292 in 2010, we aim to analyse how different moral justifications correspond with different governance structures for decision making on and implementation of moral norms.