Bad employers and Anderson’s pluralist theory of value

thelastoutpost_hd_332.jpgSay what you will about the Ferengi, at least they don’t question your motives when you ask about wages

National Observer has an interesting article about a woman, Taylor Byrnes, whose job interview with a food delivery company was cancelled because she asked a basic question about compensation. The company, which runs a food delivery service called “Skip the Dishes”,  explained that the question showed that Byrnes’s “priorities are not in sync” with theirs. In a followup email intended to clarify their position, a company representative wrote that prospective employees are expected to be “proven self-starters” with “intrinsic motivation” to pursue the company’s goals without regard for compensation.

Philosophers like Karl Polanyi and Michael Sandel have written about the norms of the market economy encroaching on other areas of social life and leading to a market society. But this story shows the spillover going in the other direction, with equally troubling results. The prospective employee was disqualified because she was acting under market norms, approaching the company in the manner of a worker selling her labour in a market economy. Under these norms, simple questions about the terms of the exchange between employer and employee are routine. However, the company unreasonably expects its engagement with the labour market to be conducted under some set of non-market norms — norms that are appropriate in a voluntary association, for example, or an athletic club, or a group of friends.

This example helps to clarify what’s bad about the encroachment of market values on the rest of society, because it shows that these norms are not bad in themselves; in fact the company wronged Byrnes precisely because it refused to apply market norms in its interaction with a prospective employee. As Elizabeth Anderson has argued:

To argue that the market has limits is to acknowledge that is also has its proper place in human life. A wide range of goods are properly regarded as pure commodities…. It is beneficial not only to have these goods, but to be able to procure them freely through the anonymous, unencumbered channels the market provides. The difficult task for modern societies is to reap the advantages of the market while keeping its activities confined to the goods proper to it.*

The illegitimate encroachment of market norms and the illegitimate encroachment of non-market norms are two sides of a more general problem. Neither set of norms is globally valid, for all spheres of relations. The realization of different important values requires the observance of different norms, and applying a set of norms beyond the sphere of relations in which it is valid threatens those values.

*The quotation is from pages 166-167 of Value in Ethics and Economics, at the end of a chapter adapted from her paper “The Ethical Limitations of the Market”, which concludes with a slightly different version of this quotation.


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