Economic accounts for repugnance: reduction, romance, and rationality

Peter Cserne (University of Aberdeen)


In the recent decade, the economic discourse on repugnance has become rich and dense. This paper identifies some characteristic ways economists combine conceptual, empirical, and normative arguments, and engage with philosophical, political, and legal perspectives, in order to map repugnance into their epistemic frame in a reductive or parsimonious way: as “moral” preferences, moral externalities, or merit goods. Overall, mainstream economics, while conceptualising human behaviour in terms of preferences and costs and interactions in terms of exchange, they tend to focus on prudential reasons in terms of “market failures” and bracket out moral reasons of justice and rights. It is both an interesting analytical exercise and an important public policy question how and to what extent law and economics accounts for repugnance in transactions.
Economic accounts concern two broad questions: the rationalisation of moral sentiments (do raw emotions, gut feelings and visceral reactions of repugnance track valid reasons for not engaging in or condemning certain (trans)actions?) and institutional design (how to institute or regulate of markets in response to reasonable objections). In any sophisticated economic analysis, theoretical and practical engagement with “repugnance”, or rational critique and policy proposals will interact.
If repugnance expresses valid practical reasons for regulating or limiting markets, our institutions should acknowledge and express these. If attitudes of repugnance are not rationalisable in the sense of instrumental or moral values, we should disregard or eventually counteract or reduce them. In some other contexts, especially when the sentiments of repugnance correspond to instrumental reasons and responsive to incentives, they can also be harnessed, i.e., institutional design should rely on them to support or supplement formal legal rules.
More specifically, the paper will focus on a special case of repugnance: commodification, i.e. when the sale of goods or services for money meets societal disapproval. Here, I distinguish three substantive stances, combining conceptual and methodological commitments into analytical frameworks: (1) institutional design for commodification, (2) rationalisation of anti-commodification sentiments, and (3) subversion or debunking of such sentiments as “romance” (anti-anti-commodification). Correspondingly, these stances to (1) work around [commodification]; (2) make sense of [anti-commodification]; and (3) explain away [anti-anti-commodification] people’s moral sentiments of repugnance.

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