PPE Discussion: Natalie Gold “The limits of commodification arguments”

Ryan Muldoon and I welcome you to the discussion of Natalie Gold‘s recent “The Limits of Commodification Arguments: Framing, motivation crowding, and shared valuations” (also available here). To kick off the discussion, we have a précis from Peter Jaworski and reply from Gold. Please join us in the discussion!

Critical Précis to “The Limits of Commodification Arguments” by Peter Jaworski 

SUMMARY (Scroll down to “RESPONSE” if you’ve read the paper and don’t need my long-winded summary)

Here’s some praise to convince you to read the article. This is an excellent article that clarified a lot of complicated social science literature for me. I tried my hand at the same literature in Markets without Limits, also trying to explain the crowding effect through overjustification, signaling, and framing, but my efforts were less precise than Natalie’s and so, I think, much less persuasive than hers.

Natalie tries to find the right mechanism to do two things: One for purposes of solving, what she calls, “Titmuss’ puzzle,” and the other for underwriting two specific commodification theories, which I will call the “commodification puzzle.”

Richard Titmuss compared blood collection systems in the U.S. and the UK. In the U.S., in the 1960s and 70s, there were two parallel systems — commercial blood clinics that collected blood by paying donors, and an unpaid system of blood collection. The UK only had an unpaid model. Titmuss argued that the UK system was better both in terms of quality (meaning: the blood that was collected had fewer transfusion-transmissible infections, like Hepatitis C), and, surprisingly, quantity. The unpaid system resulted in higher total blood collections, he said. Apart from other questions (why would payment lower blood collections?), the puzzle that Natalie wants to answer is why would the offer of payment in commercial blood clinics impact what happens at non-commercial blood clinics? This puzzle is extra puzzling when we realize that these clinics presumably attracted different types of people (higher rates of hepatitis C at the commercial clinics suggests this). So then why would people who want to give blood without payment, and have the option to do so at a non-commercial blood clinic, be affected by the mere presence of a clinic that pays for blood? That’s Titmuss’ puzzle.

A minor, but important, note: The dominant view is that payment, by itself, lowers the quality of blood collected. This is one reason why the World Health Organization recommends unpaid blood collections. It is also why blood collected in the U.S. that is paid for must be labeled as such (this labeling requirement, made legally mandatory after the tainted blood scandals of the 1980s) is why we overwhelmingly don’t see paid-for blood collections in the U.S. It’s not illegal, but hospitals have, thus far, avoided using paid-for blood).

However, the Mayo Clinic used to run a blood clinic that paid providers with higher quality blood than most unpaid systems. That suggests either that payment, by itself, does not affect the quality of blood collected, or even if it does, we may be able to use prophylactic deferral procedures to overcome that effect. For the former, some have suggested that the quality of the blood collected is more a function of the background rates of TTIs in a clinic’s catchment area. As for the latter, a prophylactic like requiring a college degree for blood sellers may result in blood collections of sufficient quality, and possibly of higher quality, than unpaid collections.

This matters because blood collections matter, donation rates have fallen (even before this pandemic), and we should not close off options like payment. Especially in light of recent evidence about the relationship between incentives and blood donation (see Mario Macis and Nicola Lacetera), and the general effectiveness of paid plasma collections compared with inefficient and ineffective unpaid plasma collections (not only do unpaid plasma collections cost at least 2-4 times more than paid plasma collections, but they also fail to meet the need for plasma protein therapies in every country in the world. More than 80% of the therapies Canadians rely on are made with paid plasma, Australia is at 50%, the UK is 100%. The United States alone supplies about 64% of the entire world’s plasma therapies). Saving lives is morally more important than any of the purported wrongs that attend “commodification.”

Back to the puzzles: Titmuss’ puzzle requires an answer. Elizabeth Anderson and Margaret Jane Radin’s specific commodification arguments are also puzzling for a similar reason. Anderson defends the view that prostitution, for example, “debases” even unpaid-for sex. Radin defends a similar view that similarly suggests payment for sex will impact values for third parties who don’t pay for sex. For both, prostitution does so by undermining the shared meaning or shared value of any and all kinds of sex, whether paid for or not.

These views are all of them incomplete, explains Natalie, since they are missing a mechanism that explains why the option of being paid for sex should affect the shared value or meaning of unpaid-for sex for the rest of us, or why something similar happens in the case of blood leading to, as Titmuss suggested, lower total blood collections. As they stand, the views are similar to the theory of the underpants gnomes in an episode of South Park:

Step 1: Permit payment for blood or sex

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Penury! (Meaning: Less blood and debased sex)


Natalie argues that the two most-frequently invoked purported mechanisms for this interpersonal effect, overjustification and signaling, will fail to solve the Anderson-Radin puzzle. Overjustification will also fail to solve Titmuss’ puzzle, although signaling will work.

Overjustification fails for both of the puzzles because it is intrapersonal. The offer of money, when interpreted as an attempt to control us, will make us less inclined to do whatever it is we are offered payment to do. There’s no reason why this effect should affect third parties, so it’s the wrong mechanism.

Signaling may work for Titmuss, but it won’t solve the Anderson-Radin puzzle. Signaling involves a sign (it’s like a brand), that has a shared meaning (a brand-image), that some people use to communicate that they possess the thing represented by the shared meaning. Blood-providing in a context where it’s unpaid is a brand that has the brand image of altruism. When payment is introduced, it complicates (“muddies) the brand-image of blood-providing. Now blood-providing has split into two brands, blood-giving and blood-selling, with different brand images (altruism and desire-for-money), whereas before there was just one. Providing blood is now a less efficient way of signaling altruism than it used to be. Here’s how that works:

Before payment is introduced:

You: Wearing an “I gave blood” sticker (hoping to communicate that you are an altruist)

Everybody: “Wow, look at that altruistic person!”

You: Joy!

After payment is introduced:

You: Wearing an “I gave blood!” sticker (hoping to communicate that you are an altruist)

Everybody: “Did you do it for money?”

You: “No, I donated it.”

Everybody: “Wow, look at that altruistic person!”

You: Joy.

This inefficiency in signaling might resolve Titmuss’ puzzle. Titmuss just wanted an explanation for why payment for blood at some places can affect how much blood is donated at the unpaid places, he didn’t suggest that anyone’s values change. And muddying of the signal can do that. But since we need a mechanism that changes third parties’ values, and since signaling doesn’t do that, we still have no resolution to the Anderson-Radin puzzle. Signaling can tell us why payment affects brand-image, but it doesn’t tell us why what people want to signal would change.


Natalie then goes on to explain why framing can work as a mechanism to resolve all of the puzzles. In doing so, however, she also demonstrates that the nature of the mechanism that can function to answer the puzzle will also tell us what kinds of things are subject to crowding. It turns out that framing can affect blood, but not sex.

A frame is “the set of concepts that [an agent] uses to think about her situation.” In the literature, framing effects are cases where a mere change in description of the same underlying thing can prompt the use of different concepts leading to different choices or behaviours. Kahneman and Tversky show this. If I tell you that an affirmative action program will lead to success amongst 80% of the students chosen by the program and ask if you approve of the program, you are likely to say that you do. But if I were to instead tell you that an affirmative action program will lead to failure amongst 20% of the students chosen by the program and ask if you approve of the program, you are likely to say that you don’t. The descriptions affects the concepts you use, and that affects what you choose.

Natalie gives us a few more examples to show how framing can affect not just what we choose and do, but our motivations as well. One is an example from game theory, which I’ll ignore because I know that doing game theory makes people more selfish, and the other is a real-world example from a tram company called Yarra Trams. They increased enforcement of fare dodging and so increased the chance that people will get caught, but chose to advertise an appeal to intrinsic motivation (“Fare evasion is stealing”) rather than focusing on the extrinsic motivation of an increased chance of getting caught and fined. And this looks like the use of a framing effect (the two descriptions are of the same underlying thing) in order to get people to think about what it means to dodge a fare rather than to engage in an economic calculation about whether or not they’ll get caught and how much that will cost.

Meanwhile, Natalie tells us, “[r]easons are connected to motivations. We can think of the reason for which an agent acts as her motivating reason, so framing can affect an agent’s motivating reason.” (P. 177)

At this point, Natalie draws on literature that suggests that elements of the market (payment, prices, money, profits, etc.) can function as frames. Not a description of the underlying thing (money, prices, payment, etc.), but the underlying things themselves (money, prices, payment, etc.). Add to that the literature on the gift/market (and entitlements) distinction found in anthropology and, especially, economic sociology, then we will see that elements of a market can prime us to think of the thing in question in terms of the institutional logic of the “market” (to use language from the communications and management literature). That institutional logic comes pre-equipped with shared understandings, which include the meaning and value of the thing so framed. So: “The existence of a market marks something out as a commodity, the creation of a market for blood is a sign that the shared understanding that is necessary for giving does not exist, and the participation of people in the market is a further sign.” (P. 182)

And so even if I want to think of blood as having the meaning and value of a gift, rather than a commodity, this cannot be what we think of as the meaning and value of blood, since what we think is a shared understanding that is not up to me.

“The crowding out of motivation crowds out frames; shared valuations depend on shared understandings, so the crowding out of frames can cause shared understandings and, hence, shared valuations to break down.” …“the result is the destruction of the shared understanding of blood as a gift and therefore of the loss of the option to give.”


Here’s the trouble for Anderson and Radin on prostitution: Framing is unlikely to have a negative effect, or have only a limited effect, on the value of sex for non-participants. This is because the shared understanding necessary for the relevant value at stake needs to be shared, but needn’t be shared by the culture at large. There can be communities and sub-communities with unique and eccentric shared meanings. Provided we have some way of figuring out that this person or that person shares our understanding of what we’re doing when we’re having sex with each other, which we do, the presence of prostitutes doesn’t have to change our values at all.

To use an analogy of price-taking and price-making from economics, when it comes to sex, we can be shared meaning- and shared value-makers. Prevailing values and meanings can be irrelevant when it comes to sex because our sub-community can have a monopoly or oligopoly on the shared-by-us meaning and value of sex.

However, says Natalie, at least at the moment, when it comes to blood, we are shared meaning- and shared value-takers. So the presence of elements of the market can crowd out non-commodity frames, and so the shared meaning and value of blood as a gift is elbowed out in favour of a shared meaning and value of blood as a commodity.


In my judgement, all of the above is exactly right. The only mechanism thus far on offer that could possibly underwrite the pragmatic commodification views is the framing mechanism. In future, it’s possible that we’ll find others that will work, but this is the only one that is currently available. And given how framing works, it does significantly weaken the case against prostitution on pragmatic commodification grounds.

I tried my best to find faults in what Natalie wrote, but my best efforts came up very short (this is why it took me so long to finish this. I felt like there was an obligation for me to offer at least some criticisms, based on the understanding that I have of what philosophers like me are expected to do in situations like this, but the paper continues to strike me as being just correct).

Here’s what I’ll do, then: First, I want to offer an observation about the commodification literature in general that crystallized in my mind while reading her paper. This observation is not about Natalie’s paper, but her paper raised it in my mind.

And, second, I want to offer a complication for the case of blood, and, later, an extension of Natalie’s paper that attempts to show that the framing mechanism provides us with tools that undermine commodification theory. So if it turns out that framing is the only way to underwrite it, then commodification theory will turn out to be self-undermining.


So, first, let me make an observation that came to mind when reading Natalie’s paper:

Commodification has a descriptive sense. It is putting a price tag on something. “Commodification,” as understood by pragmatic commodification theorists, has a normative sense. “Commodification” is debasement. The elements that constitute debasement can include our values (and attitudes too, but I’ll ignore this) and motives and how we reason about what to do. Debasement is thinking of something as possessing only instrumental, use-value (when that is not, or not the only, value that it in fact has or otherwise ought to have); and/or having a self-interested or selfish motive (when we shouldn’t, and/or when prosocial or other-regarding motives are called for); and/or reasoning in an instrumentally rational way, in accordance with cost/benefit analysis (when we ought not to).

For pragmatic commodification theorists, Commodification causes “Commodification.” We shouldn’t commodify sex because then we’ll have “commodified” sex.

Something similar is happening when we use market and “market.” A market, descriptively, is just lots of goods and services with price tags that many sellers offer to many buyers. A market exchange is conditional, so that you get what’s offered only if you provide whatever is on the price tag in return. A “market” meanwhile, includes narrowly self-interested motives, and instrumental values (and attitudes) towards not just the objects of sale but also the participants to the exchanges, and reasoning in accordance with instrumental rationality and cost/benefit analysis. Putting something on a market (which is what we do when we price it), makes it have “market”-value (which is instrumental use-value), and makes people act with “market”-motives (selfish) in accordance with “market”-reasoning (cost/benefit analysis). This is what is meant by the concept of the “institutional logic of the market” when wielded by communications scholars, and some sociologists, and some management scholars.

For pragmatic commodification theorists, markets cause “markets.”

This confusing way of using the same concepts in different senses is liable to make us think that the claims are analytic or somehow conceptual. I don’t think any of the commodification theorists discussed by Natalie do this, but my students repeatedly do. And maybe that’s why we just see gestures in the direction of social science work within commodification theory, rather than, as in Natalie’s contribution, full-blown, robust discussions of possible mechanisms and deep engagement with the empirical literature.

We need only recall that, once upon a time, the dominant view in the academy with respect to markets, prior to Marx who debased everything (ba dum tish!), was the doux commerce thesis. That thesis argued that markets caused us to be more civil, more gentle, more community-oriented, and so on. Markets didn’t make us selfish, they did the opposite. Markets encouraged altruism since to make money you had to figure out how to meet the needs of your neighbours in a way that they could afford. Whatever objections you might level against this thesis, incoherence is not one of them. That’s because the relationship between real-world markets and altruism or selfishness isn’t guaranteed by the concepts, but by real-world empirical facts.

So let me now re-present the pragmatic commodification theory in the most fun and, I hope revealing, way. It is this (empirical) claim: Markets cause homo economicus.

(Pause for the dramatic effect to subside).

More precisely, the thesis is that some or all of the elements of markets (prices, payment, profits, division of labour, and so on) cause (amongst participants to the sale, and/or non-participants to the sale) some or all of the values (and attitudes), motives, and reasoning style represented by the character of Homo economicus found in economics textbooks. Markets have both selection and treatment effects — they select for homo economicus, but, more importantly, exposure to markets in some good or service makes us behave like homo economicus with respect to that good or service.

Even more precisely, and on the assumption that framing is the only or the best mechanism for the pragmatic commodification theory, elements of the market (prices, payment, profits, division of labour, and so on) make us narrowly self-interested by invoking a gain frame, make us think of the object as possessing only use-value by invoking a (let’s call it) use frame, and make us reason in accordance with rational cost-benefit analysis by invoking a (let’s call it) calculating frame. I’ve divided it that way because these are causal claims about distinct kinds of things. It may turn out to be the case that, for example, invoking a gain frame is simultaneously to invoke a use and a calculating frame as well, or that some things (like prices) do this, but distinguishing all the possible kinds is necessary for social scientists to know what to look for and what might be a confound.


When we put it like that (and I want to be careful here, because I’m not completely confident that it is a correct or fair way of re-presenting the thesis, I just really think it’s fun), it looks like the commodification theory suggests that economists who use homo economicus as an explanation of, and to make predictions about, market behaviour are guaranteed to be right. Whether selection or treatment effect, the result is homo economicus. Of course, they might still be wrong to use homo economicus to explain non-market behaviour, so criticisms of the imperialism of the economic way of thinking can still stand.

But at least some commodification theorists have tried to show that the assumption of homo economicus is wrong even within markets. When they do that, they must think that the pragmatic commodification theory is false. To put this as a dilemma:

Either markets in x debase us by making us reason, value, and have the motives of homo economicus, in which case assuming homo economicus to make predictions about markets in x is going to be correct; or we are not like homo economicus even with respect to markets in x, in which case markets in x don’t debase us.


Now I want to defend the second horn of the dilemma by showing that framing, necessary for the pragmatic commodification thesis, simultaneously undermines a strong pragmatic commodification thesis, which is what I think Anderson, Radin, Sandel, and so on, defend. Defending this horn will raise the possibility that, on the condition that framing is a necessary and exclusive mechanism, commodification theory is self-defeating. Instead of the conclusion “we never ought to have markets in x,” framing only entitles us to the conclusion that “markets in x are impermissible under conditions a, b, c, but permissible under conditions d, e, f.” Put differently, in principle, there is a way of selling literally anything (except obligations, see Wells….). And that thesis means the pragmatic commodification theory is false.


Let’s just agree that blood currently has the shared understanding of being a “gift of life.” I’m not aware of any opinion polls or surveys or even efforts to check if this is true, but I’m prepared to believe it. The popular explanation for its possessing this shared understanding is that the people who give blood are not paid for it, and so it represents altruism, and participates in the institutional logic of the gift.

Now here’s what’s really strange about our shared understanding: people not being paid for providing blood is the only non-commodified thing at blood clinics. Everything else has a price tag. Phlebotomists, nurses, administrators, doctors, staff, and everyone else having anything to do with the clinic get paid. The electricity that powers their lights and the water that flows from their taps is paid for monthly. The building and chairs and syringes and coffee and personal protective equipment and so on, is just a bunch of stuff the clinic’s accountants put under the “costs” category of their annual revenue statements. There is also a cost for recruitment and retention of the providers of the gift of life (it turns out donors often need to be cajoled). Blood clinics also sometimes give t-shirts and pens and mugs and tickets to movie theatres, and so on, to, non-financially(!), incentivize the gift-givers.

The presence of all of those elements of real-world markets, of commodification, for some reason is not enough to prime a gain, use, nor calculation frame, and so doesn’t lead to “commodification.” That’s kind of weird.

But wait, there’s more: If you think there are two things preserving blood’s status as a gift (not paying donors with cash money and blood not having a price tag), then you’re wrong. In the U.S., blood clinics sell blood to hospitals. Hospitals sell blood to each other. Blood has a price. It’s weird that that doesn’t spillover and undermine blood’s status as a “gift of life.”

Maybe it’s possible that hardly anybody knows about this, and so we have resilient shared understandings as a consequence of ignorance. I had a conversation with a person from the Red Cross who told me about the fact that they pay for blood for research purposes in hushed tones. “If you really want to stir things up,” he said, “you should tell people that we do, in fact, pay for blood.” He made it seem like it was some sort of secret. But it’s actually hard to believe that it is a secret. Americans pay for blood at hospitals when they get transfusions. People are made aware that blood has a price all the time. It’s just that that thought doesn’t stick, it’s not salient, as compared to the thought that donors don’t get money for giving blood. Maybe you think there’s also the fact that paying people for blood is illegal, and so maybe that’s what amplifies the signal from donors not getting cash money, making it extra salient because the legislature is a powerful promulgator of shared understandings. But no, that fact is the opposite of a fact, since paying people for blood is permitted all over the United States. The law only says you have to label the blood as having been paid for and there’s less demand for that.

So the entirety of the shared understanding, it’s stickiness and resilience against commodification, has just a single Archimedean point: Donors are not paid money to give blood.


Now pause for a second and notice that, in the case of blood, not paying money to donors has caused spillover in all the other directions. Its gift-value has crowded-out its commodity-value up and down the supply chain of blood.

When the United States, almost en masse, switched from having a whole bunch of blood clinics that paid for blood to blood clinics that collected only unpaid blood after the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s, the shared understanding of blood as a “gift of life” spread like a contagion. Commodity-values were not resilient against gift-values. Third parties are affected. We all think that blood is “the gift of life,” not just the participants. This is extra remarkable given that so few of us are actually regular blood donors (it’s about 3 to 5 per cent of us), although many times more than that report being regular blood donors (is it about 30 or 40% of us that do?).

Call the view that introducing any of the elements of the institution of gifts anywhere will result in our thinking that it’s a gift everywhere the pragmatic giftification theory (the essentialist giftification theory is the view that there are some things that ought not be a gift for essentialist reasons). It is the exact same view as the pragmatic commodification theory, except for gifts, rather than commodities (we can construct additional such theories if we think there are additional institutions like gifts and markets that have distinct internal logics and shared understandings from those two).

(Again, pause for dramatic effect. Wait for laughter to subside…).

The giftification theory explains what happened to blood in the U.S. I think it also explains why people are so resistant to effective altruism. Effective altruists try to encourage us to use elements of the market, especially rational, cost-benefit analysis, to actually achieve the object of our altruism efficiently. But efficiency and rational, cost-benefit analysis belongs in markets, not in gifts, and gift-logic is stronger than market-logic. As Michael Sandel has pointed out, we shouldn’t give money as a gift. Doing so would corrupt and debase money. Thinking of money as a gift would encourage us to be irresponsible with money.

I suspect you will not find any giftification theory even remotely plausible. Too many counterexamples will pop up in your mind (“buy one get one free” doesn’t work. “Open an account and get a free toaster” doesn’t make my relationship with Ally a gift relationship). You can think of too few instances where something like it happens. You are convinced it is not generalizable. It’s just a weird and unusual thing that happened with blood in the U.S.

Let me give you a few more instances of giftification: In the United States, there are volunteer firefighters, and career firefighters. The District of Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions in the U.S. with exclusively career firefighters. Career firefighters often volunteer. We do not think of firefighters in ways consistent with the logic of the “market.” Why haven’t they been commodified?

I talked about nurses. Unlike blood donors, nurses are paid. Unlike blood donors, nothing about nursing is a pure gift. But try as I might, I can’t make myself think of nurses instrumentally, and as being anything other than altruistic. They get money, but they’re not doing it for that reason. I admire nurses more than most professions. I think of nurses as giving a gift, and I don’t care that someone cuts them a check at the end of the month. Giftification (in search of a mechanism).

I don’t know if you think of nurses like that. Maybe you think of them as a commodity. Okay, let’s focus on the philosophy profession. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of you philosophers reading this believe yourselves to be doing philosophy for intrinsic, gift-logic reasons. You think you are providing a gift. Speaking only for myself, and sincerely, I think Elizabeth Anderson is one of the best philosophers we have (and Debra Satz too), and that she is a gift to our profession. I don’t care that she is paid at least $207,558 to provide us and her students with the gifts of amazing research and teaching. Many of us don’t care that Michael Sandel charges five figures through ICM Speakers to talk about the kinds of things that ought not to be for sale. That’s still a gift.

(How do you feel about me listing Elizabeth Anderson’s salary? Are you judging me poorly? I honestly feel awkward and bad about it. I’m still doing it because it’s so illustrative of the point: it’s uncouth to talk about our salaries and one reason why is because there’s a strong, shared understanding that one of the rules of philosophy club is that we don’t talk about ourselves using the logic of the market.)

It’s giftification! (the bracketed part giving a clue to a possible mechanism)

Near as I can tell, there are two possible explanations from the commodification theorists. The first is that the Archimedean point for commodification has something to do with profits. Us professors work at non-profits, Sandel and I at private schools, Anderson and Natalie at public schools. It’s whether or not the institution within which professionals work is a for-profit or a nonprofit that matters. But then commodification theory reduces to the view that you can sell anything, as long as it’s done within an organization that is not a for-profit. And also, some nurses work in for-profits and I, at least, still think of them as providing a gift.

The other is by answering the question: How are we philosophers like prostitutes?

Neither undermine the shared understanding of doing philosophy and doing each other because we are members of sub-communities that are meaning-makers, not meaning-takers. Perhaps this is accomplished through enforcing self-understandings through professional associations or unions that promulgate specific understandings of the profession. Or perhaps it’s through rituals that enforce a self-understanding at accreditation bodies like universities (for example, like the iron ring ceremony for engineers, or professional ethics courses, or etc.). Whatever the specific mechanism, professions can avoid commodification if they engage in the right kind of theatre, provided the performance and the people putting on the performance are credible and/or legitimate communicators of what it means to be a nurse or a professor.

If so, that preserves pragmatic commodification theory at the expense of further narrowing its scope, making its scope resemble the scope of pragmatic giftification theory.

But back to blood for a second: Consider Germany. In Germany, they have parallel systems where some people get paid 25 Euro to donate blood, while others, like the German Red Cross, don’t pay. Not only does this parallel system compare favourably to Canada (all gift, no payment) in terms of unpaid blood donation, but the shared understanding of blood continues to be as “the gift of life.” At least, that’s what I learned speaking to two Germans about this. That’s not exactly rigorous social science, so it meets the standards of the commodification literature (ba dum tish!).

Obviously real studies need to be done here, but the two Germans that I spoke to about this were confused and a bit taken aback by me describing that as “paid blood.” That’s not how Germans think of it, Julian told me and Dagmar confirmed. This is so even in cases where the “donor” collects 25 Euro. No one is paid for blood, they said. What’s the 25 Euro for? That’s for the time and effort. See? Giftification is true!

That’s funny, I thought, because that’s exactly how paid plasma companies describe what is happening. Grifols, Takeda, CSL Plasma, Canadian Plasma Resources, Prometic Plasma Resources, even Octapharma(!), to name a few, describe the payment as payment for time and effort, not for plasma. But the trouble is that that is not the shared understanding of plasma. The shared understanding is, lamentably, that it is a commodity and that people do it just for the money. This is despite the fact that people who sell their plasma don’t conceive of themselves as doing that (according to surveys that I’ve conducted that haven’t yet been published. Sorry I can’t give you those details yet). See? Commodification is true!


One explanation commodification theorists can give for the above two conflicting outcomes is that the Germans are being tricked about blood, while the Americans see through the obfuscation. But this cannot function as a sufficient explanation for pragmatic commodification theorists. Here’s why:

If you think Germans are just selling blood, motivated only by the money, without a study to prove it, you’re probably falling prey to extrinsic incentive bias (a well-established exception to the fundamental attribution error) and, second, just begging the question against the giftification theorists (of which I hope there are now a few adherents after my really persuasive defense of it above).

Perhaps more importantly, pragmatic commodification theorists don’t have the resources to object to this trick. Recall that debasement is itself just a result of a trick. We are tricked into having a false shared understanding of, for example, sex, by the presence of elements of the market. Framing is just a trick. So unless you think we should use a gain, use, or calculating frame in the case of sex (which commodification theorists don’t), using a description to invoke a frame that results in the correct view regarding something isn’t a trick. It’s a way of turning a trick. And while commodification theorists might disapprove of prostitution, they should celebrate turning tricks.

Not only Germans, but art museums seem to think they’re turning tricks too. You see, art museums don’t “sell” art to “buyers,” they “deaccess” art to “accessors.” Does that work? Does it actually turn the trick? I don’t know.

Let me close by talking about the social meaning of money. If any of the elements of a market might invoke a gain, use, or calculating frame, all on its own, it has to be money. It is, if anything is, the commodity par excellence. But not only does it fail to invoke any frames that engage the institutional logic of the “market” in the case of blood in the U.S. and Germany, it is itself subject to framing. Viviana Zelizer tells us about “earmarking” and “mental accounting” which is a way of distinguishing the meaning of different kinds of money (yes, it’s not always just a fungible, interchangeable commodity). To see this for yourself, go to whatever shop or restaurant that has a framed $5-bill on the wall behind the register (there’s probably one near you now) and try to exchange it for a “fresh” $5-bill from your wallet. If they’re not indifferent, that’s not irrationality, it’s a consequence of its having a meaning as a non-commodity. They framed it because it was (non-tautologously) framed.


At least some of the above — blood in the U.S., nurses, philosophy professors, blood in Germany, or art museums — are counterexamples to the claim that any or all of the elements of a market lead to debasement of shared meanings and values via the invocation of gain, use, or calculating frames. Either there are sub-communities that are meaning-makers (sex, some professions), or something like giftification, rather than commodification, applies (blood in the U.S. and Germany).

At the very best, the pragmatic commodification theory with framing as the mechanism is entitled to the view that: sometimes, for some people, under some specific circumstances, for a really narrow range of goods or services where we are, at least for now, meaning-takers, it would be a mistake to use some one or another of the elements of a real-world market for fear of debasement.

If that’s all it can do, then it cannot live up to what it is representing itself as being. It cannot inform us about kinds or categories of things that we ought not sell. It can only tell us that if we are going to sell, say, sex, then we ought to avoid selling it like this. And if so, then framing both underwrites the pragmatic commodification theory, and simultaneously undermines it.

The pragmatic commodification theory is self-undermining in a second, ironic way. Shared understandings are a social construction. They are constructed, re-constructed, and de-constructed all the time. The thought that “sex is a gift” is a shared understanding that requires reinforcement by a lot of us in order to be sustained. But so, too, is the connection between a frame (like money), and the shared understanding of its meaning one thing (“commodification” or debasement), rather than something else (valuable and important, say). It would obviously be better if our shared understanding of sex as a “gift” were resilient against use of money.

Pragmatic commodification theory is a theory that doesn’t just describe some facts, but is also itself something that reinforces the social construction that use of money means “commodification.” And if we’re commodification theorists, we should not want any reinforcement of frames that threaten our shared understanding of sex and blood as a gift. So my meta-commodification theory tells us that we ought not be commodification theorists for fear of promoting the “commodification” of sex and blood and a whole host of other things besides.


Reply by Natalie Gold

I would like to thank Peter for his extremely generous commentary. His distinction between a shared-meaning maker and a shared-meaning taker is a helpful way to think about these things. In the same way that individuals in competitive markets are price-takers, in situations with a large number of people where power and influence are evenly distributed, then we are shared-meaning takers. However, in situations with small numbers of people, or where power and influence are concentrated in a small number of people, then those people can be shared-meaning makers. That explains why Margaret Radin’s domino analogy breaks down: commodification can be avoided in situations where we are shared-meaning makers.

Then, in response to my paper, Peter turns the debate on its head and asks why we don’t see ‘giftification’, given that gift exchanges such as blood donation occur within a wider system involving payments elsewhere. In the paper, I gave some reasons why it is easier to displace shared valuations with use value than vice versa, which I won’t repeat here. But I want to pick up on the observation that most goods and services are what Anderson would call ‘mixed goods’, which are partially commodified. Items that are given from one person to another will be traded elsewhere, and people work for money but their motivations are not financial all the way down.

Theorists like Elizabeth Anderson and Margaret Radin worry that use value crowds out other important modes of valuation. I suggested in the paper that it is helpful to couch this concern in the language of reasons, since reasons are grounded in considerations about value. Then the worry becomes that people will do something ‘for the money’, which leads to talk of motivations.

It is clear that people sometimes do things because they are intrinsically motivated, even though they are being paid. For instance, most philosophers choose their jobs because they enjoy doing philosophy. People also do things for pro-social reasons, to promote the wellbeing of others. This can be the wellbeing of other individuals, or of groups or collectives; arguably it could also include upholding social standards or principles. In some professions, people may be pro-socially motivated even though they are being paid, for instance Peter’s nurses or career firefighters who also volunteer. I have argued elsewhere that pro-social motivations can be crowded out by a similar mechanism to intrinsic ones.

However, I don’t think it is helpful to think of these as ‘gifts’ or subject to ‘giftification’. Philosophers aren’t giving a gift, they’re intrinsically motivated. Volunteer firefighters aren’t giving a gift, they’re pro-socially motivated. The value people put on these activities does not depend on shared valuations. Finding philosophy fun doesn’t depend on anyone else having the same view of the enterprise, nor do some types of pro-social motivation: helping others can be intrinsically rewarding or welfare improving. No-one is claiming that there is a spillover effect, where one person being paid will crowd out the way that others value these activities. Some people in the academy become demotivated and only do philosophy as work, but we don’t think that crowds out the intrinsic motivation of others.

When we ask why these motivations are not usually crowded out by being paid a salary, the explanation will start with the recognition that most jobs do not pay a piece-rate. Therefore we can separate out the decision to enter a profession (and the payment that generally occurs in the background, a regular deposit of money into a bank account) from the everyday decisions that people make as a part of their jobs.

However, these sort of cases present a different problem.  If people are intrinsically or pro-socially motivated, then they may put in more hours than they are being paid for. Peter suggests that philosophy and nursing are gifts, he says he doesn’t care that the people doing these things are paid. But we should care that they are paid—and paid fairly. This is particularly a problem for ‘caring labour’, which is usually intrinsically motivated and often done by women. So it worries me when the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, says that the National Health Service is ‘powered by love’. If we rely on the power of love, to the exclusion of fair wages, then that’s exploitative.

Exploitation can also involve intrinsically motivated rather than caring labour. For instance, on the party circuit, paid party promoters recruit models to go to restaurants and clubs, in order to attract high-spending men. All the models get is a free dinner, which they tend to need because they don’t have very much money. Then they stay out all night in high heels. The promoters make a lot of money from the recruitment. However, the models don’t want to be paid because they want to regard the evening as leisure, not work.

Relying on people’s intrinsic or pro-social motivations can be a form of exploitation, exploiting their desire to do something that is individually or socially meaningful.

Now there may be other ways to compensate for time and effort than hard cash. The late Ken Taylor once pointed out to me that, in the US, National Public Radio gives thank-you gifts like badges to donors. Peter points out that, in Germany, people get paid €25 towards time and effort for giving blood. This is also how payment for participant in experiments used to be regarded, as compensation for expenses incurred and explicitly not as payment for effort. I think attitudes are changing, especially with the increasing use of MTurk and other online worker platforms, where it is clear participants are doing the experiment for wages. But it is clear that we distinguish work that is done for wages from other types of efforts that have their own appropriate forms of compensation, which often have a lower cash value than wages.

Further, even when there is no payment, there are very few ‘pure gifts’; gifts can create expectations of reciprocal exchange. For example, as a student, I used to babysit. I’d read the motivation crowding literature and I had a similar attitude to the models: I liked playing with the kids and putting them to bed, and then I got to do my own work. So I refused to be paid. But when you do something like that, you take the transaction out of the domain of the market and into the domain of reciprocity, potentially creating obligations or the feeling of obligation. Sometimes people don’t want that. Another example that comes to mind is a friend whose sister asked her to help with moving house. She felt obliged to spend a day doing that though she would rather have paid for a mover, which would not have been appreciated, and she felt it was an imposition.

This ties back into a point that Peter made right at the start of his comments: that commodification theorists have a particular normative view of markets and commodification, where something becoming commodified is a bad thing. However, one shouldn’t always assume that relying on market values is a negative thing. The situation is much more complicated than that.

2 Replies to “PPE Discussion: Natalie Gold “The limits of commodification arguments”

  1. The case of donation of organs, from live donors and from dead donors, is also interesting. The case is like that of blood donation in that after the initial donation, there is a market in the items. As far as I know, efforts are made by the organ donor business as a whole to keep some of the details out of public view, like how many organs wind up not being transplanted. Some of these may be usable for research, others may just wind up as medical waste. Some organs may just wind up missing a plane connection or whatever. But if you think your dead relative’s heart might not actually be transplanted, you may be disinclined to permit its removal.

  2. That’s really interesting. But it seems like there are two different things going on. One is obscuring the role of cash transfers in the system because of issues related to commodification, which I argued affects the way people value the donation. Another is suppressing information about the chances that the organ is used in a successful transplant. That could be considered as a part of a standard cost-benefit analysis: If the aim of (allowing) donation is to give someone a transplant and, if you think that the probability of a transplanted organ getting to a donor is less than one, then that makes it less likely that the benefits of removal will outweigh the costs. So it might change the valuation of the option, but not change why you value the option.

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