Money and morality

If everything has a price, does nothing have a value?

All money tends to corrupt, and absolute money corrupts absolutely.  This is an ancient message.  You can find it in the Bible ("the love of money is the root of all evil"), in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers and Renaissance moralists, and more recently in the Occupy movement that set up camp last year outside St Paul's Cathedral.  This Wednesday, the cathedral was packed for a rather more sedate explanation of the same ideas featuring the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.

Sandel, currently plugging his new book What Money Can't Buy, has been difficult to avoid in recent days.  His central thesis is twofold.  Firstly, when you put a price on something you alter its intrinsic properties, and this can be morally corrosive.  Secondly, the past few decades have seen a market economy replaced by a "market society" in which "everything is up for sale".  Markets, he says, "are not neutral instruments, they crowd out values worth caring about" - values like altruism, human dignity and the common good.  As a result we have seen a great hollowing-out of communality and public political discourse.

He asks such questions as: is it right to create a market in blood, rather than rely on altruistic donors?  Should unhealthy people be given financial incentives to adopt healthier lifestyles?  Should school pupils be "bribed" to read books or achieve higher marks?  To all these questions Wednesday's audience answered an emphatic "no", which suggests that Sandel is, at least in terms of public opinion, pushing at an open door.  

This may explain the tremendous popularity he now enjoys.  (The Guardian described him the other day as "currently the most effective communicator of ideas in English" and suggested that his latest book "should be the bedside companion of every Miliband aide".)  The free market "experiment" of the past few decades has led to rising inequality and an economic disaster, the only beneficiaries of which would seem to be a handful of already wealthy bankers.  We should not be surprised if Sandel's deeply traditional complaints about the corrosive effect of money on the human soul find a ready echo, especially when voiced in a cathedral whose history and location give it a somewhat ambiguous relationship with wealth.

The idea that money has destroyed all vestige of civic virtue was hackneyed already in Roman times.  For all Sandel's current vogue on the progressive Left, his message is inherently a conservative one, in that it implicitly looks back to a Golden Age before money ruined everything.  Another way of saying this is that there's nothing new about the "market society".

One of Sandel's examples relates to privately-run prisons in California in which convicts with sufficient means can upgrade to a better cell.  This was standard practice in 18th century London.  Also popular in the 18th century was the "tontine", a form of gambling in which a group of people pooled their resources and the last one left alive collected the jackpot: not too dissimilar, in essence, from the market in third-party life insurance that Sandel criticises today.

But then to talk about the 18th century is to realise just how much more thoroughgoing the marketisation of society used to be.  From the horrors of the slave-trade and the near-slavery of indentured labour, to the open purchase of Parliamentary seats through "rotten boroughs", almost everything was up for sale.  Commissions in the British army and civil service appointments were bought, rather than given on merit, well into the 19th century.  What we think of as basic public services such as policing and the upkeep of roads were wholly private or at best put out to tender. And it's unlikely to be a coincidence that prostitution in the 18th century was vastly more extensive and exploitative than anything seen today.  

The present-day "market society", for all its deficiencies, is a pale shadow of the ruthless and money-driven world of two or three centuries ago.  Sandel is squeamish about students hiring out their foreheads to advertisers or paying homeless people to stand all day in queues so that a richer and busier person can get into Congressional hearings.  There used to be an actual trade in human beings.  Things aren't likely to get that bad again, however badly things go in Greece.

At least when something has a price it shows that someone puts a value on it.  Not charging for goods or services can lead to problems of a different order.   The BBC's Stephanie Flanders, taking part in the debate at St Paul's, pointed out that in the age of the internet, many goods and services which would in the past have been paid for are available for free.  The thought struck me that perhaps not charging for a service, or expecting things to be free, can be at least as morally corrupting of basic goods as Sandel believes money is.  

If people expect to, and can, receive their news and entertainment for free, why should they pay for it?  And how can the producers make an honest living?  The Bank of England's Andrew Bailey contends that free banking distorts the market, is less transparent and leads to poorer service to consumers. It is at least an arguable case.  And as regards to "free" internet services like Google and Facebook, it has well been said that the non-paying users are not the customers, but are themselves the product.

Is money the source of the problems Sandel identifies, or rather a convenient scapegoat for human beings who can't bear too much reality?  You can't buy a friend, he points out, because if you know you've paid someone to be nice to you it ceases to be a "real" friendship.  Has he never noticed that rich people tend to have more "friends" than poor ones?  Sandel also raised the example of a professionally written wedding speech.  Would the bride and groom feel quite the same way, he wondered, if they knew that the best man had spent $150 dollars on buying a speech rather than investing his heart and soul by writing it personally?  Perhaps not, but it's not obvious to me why the payment of money in itself is corrupting.  

The problem, surely - if there is a problem - is that the speech is not the best man's own; not that he has paid for it.  I rather doubt that the newlyweds would be happier to learn that the best man had found the speech on a website and simply downloaded it for free.

An American poster from the 19th century. Credit: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad