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Amazon’s Influence on Literature

photograph of Amazon package with Smile logo upside down

According to Amazon lore, Jeff Bezos abandoned a cushy hedge fund job after reading The Remains of the Day, Kuzuo Ishiguro’s melancholy tale of wasted energy and missed opportunities. The young entrepreneur was so moved by the novel that he committed to a life of “regret minimization,” and struck out on his own to start a small online bookstore. Bezos’ then-wife claims that he didn’t pick up Ishiguro until after he started Amazon, but it still makes for a potent founding myth. Though Amazon’s virtual marketplace now offers far more than books, the nascent mega-corporation was influenced by literature on a fundamental level, and perhaps, for better or for worse, it has come to influence literature in turn.

Mark McGurl, a literary critic who teaches at Stanford, traces the influence of Amazon on the fiction marketplace in his new book, Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon. McGurl sees Amazon as a black hole with an inescapable gravitational pull, sucking everything from highbrow metafiction to niche erotica into its dark maw. He makes the bold claim that “The rise of Amazon is the most significant novelty in recent literary history, representing an attempt to reforge contemporary literary life as an adjunct to online retail.” Every book is neatly codified by genre (often incorrectly) and plugged into Amazon’s labyrinthine algorithm, where they become commodities rather than texts. “As a lit­erary institution,” he writes, Amazon “is the obverse of the writing program, facilitating commerce in the raw.” In other words, online retailers nakedly prioritize the market over artistic individuality, which ultimately homogenizes the literary landscape. McGurl acknowledges that Amazon has democratized self-publishing, in-so-far as it’s possible for Amazon to democratize anything. Through Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year to authors around the globe, and though few writers make enough to support themselves through the platform, we have never been more inundated with things to read.

McGurl’s argument does have some weak spots. For example, Kyle Chaka objects that McGurl “doesn’t present any evidence that Amazon’s algorithm incentivizes novelists like Knausgaard or Ben Lerner to write in a certain style, or that it even accounts for their popularity, relative to other, lesser-known contemporary novelists.” If the argument is that Amazon has changed every aspect of literary production, shouldn’t we be able to see that impact in the style and form of bestselling novels? McGurl also oversimplifies the broad range of stories that Amazon promotes. He believes that all commodified fiction can be categorized in one of two ways. A story is an “epic” if it takes a cosmic perspective on life, uplifts the human spirit, and creates (in McGurl’s words) a sense of “cultural integration.” Alternatively, “romance” stories involve interpersonal drama, intimate worlds, and soothe us rather than puff us up. These categories flatten the diverse array of fiction published by Amazon and its subsidiaries, and how can we be sure that the company created our desire to be soothed or aggrandized? They’ve certainly profited off such desires, but there isn’t evidence that we’re increasingly relying on these narrative models or that Amazon alone is driving that change.

Amazon certainly is a problem for literature, but as Chaka points out, the problem has more to do with business than genre trends. Amazon’s low prices endanger small bookstores and the traditional publishing houses that stock their shelves. When negotiating contracts with independent publishers in the early 2000’s, Bezos advised his company to “approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle.” This predatory attitude towards traditional marketplaces has hardly changed, and does affect the literary landscape in tangible ways. Whether the democratization of online publishing has come at the expense of traditional publishing is difficult to say, and it’s even more difficult to determine whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing, given how extremely homogeneous the publishing industry is.

Beyond the publishing industry, it might be said that Amazon poses an existential threat to writers. When so much content is available online, and millions of writers are forced to compete for the public’s attention and money, is there a point in writing at all? Parul Sehgal notes “a certain miasma of shame that emanates from much contemporary fiction,” even fiction produced by successful and well-known authors, and wonders if this despair arises from the online marketplace Amazon has created. Given the general mood of self-doubt and ennui, it’s worth celebrating how many people continue to be creative without hope of material reward. Amazon can hardly take credit for the vast output of such writers, but if Amazon has altered the way we approach and consume fiction, they certainly haven’t crushed the creative impulse.

Rent Crisis Responses

photograph of "Rent Strike" poster

While unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket due to COVID-19, many are left with no ability to pay their rent. Despite states issuing moratoriums on evictions, some landlords have ignored these directives and proceeded to evict tenants anyway. When challenged with the illegality of their actions, a number of landlords have antagonized tenants in other ways such as shutting off their power.

On June 1st, many courts have reopened and are now processing a backlog of evictions which threatens an estimated 20 million Americans to be evicted by September 1st. As service workers are among the hardest hit from job losses caused by the pandemic, some landlords have even asked tenants to provide a full year’s worth of rent payments in advance, evoking an ironic punishment for their being in a particularly vulnerable position.

The rent crisis that the country is experiencing has strained already tense relationships between landlords and tenants who have been voicing their frustrations online, expressing anxiety about how to navigate an unprecedented situation.

“But Landlords Have Bills Too”

One of the most common reactions to the current crisis has been to argue that while it is true that tenants are struggling, landlords are also in financially precarious situations because “they also have bills to pay.” This points to the fact that at least some landlords do not own all their houses, but are still in the process of paying the mortgage. The implication of this line of reasoning is that one should not manifest empathy towards tenants exclusively because landlords are also experiencing financial insecurity. It is factually true that landlords have mortgages to pay, but the argument in support of the “bills” argument paints only half of the picture. The fact that landlords have mortgages means that they cannot afford to pay for the house they purchased in full. Hence the mortgage, and the debt. In an ideal world, one would never want to buy what one cannot afford; no one enjoys being in debt. Yet a middle-class individual often does not have any other choice than buying property with a mortgage. This is all the more sensible when it comes to buying one’s first home. Having a shelter — a place to rest and protect oneself — is a vital necessity for survival. But the same cannot be said of a second house. Such a purchase represents an investment, one whose profit goes on top of what one makes with their own job. No one is required to make such investments. But if it is correct that buying a second house is an investment, then there is a competing response to the “landlords also have bills” argument: landlords may have made a poor investment. That is, they bought a property that they did not have to buy, that they could not afford to buy in full, nor as a mortgage. Investments carry profit margins as well as risks.

“Don’t Rent What You Cannot Afford”

One could respond by saying that if it is true that landlords should not purchase property they cannot afford, then tenants should not rent apartments that they cannot afford. But their situations are markedly different. As workers, tenants utilize their labor to gain the financial resources so that their rent can be paid for. And if it wasn’t for the raising unemployment due to the pandemic, tenants would continue to pay their rent we usual. It could be argued that instead landlords were never really able to afford their second houses by relying only on their financial resources. Proof of that is that landlords do not employ their own labor in order to pay for their second house. They rely on the labor of the tenants who rent their property in order to pay for it. If that wasn’t the case, they would not need to rent the property at all. But they do need to rent it in order to be able to pay it off.

But the necessity of renting should also be taken in consideration. If one moves to a new city for a job, for example, one must find a place to rent. And this problem cannot be obviated by renting in an affordable place or by working remotely. Affordable apartments are harder to find in cities that provide job opportunities, and working remotely is not always possible. Even for international workers, some visas for example (like the J-1) have a residency requirement. So while it is necessary to rent an apartment to live in, it is not necessary to buy a second house.

“But Landlords Provide Essential Housing”

Another argument is that landlords face an unjustified backlash because, after all, by renting properties they are providing essential housing. But this line of reasoning is incoherent by its own lights. To start, there is a difference between providing housing and commodifying housing. Usually it is not the landlord who builds the rented property but the construction company. Thus, technically, it is the construction company that provides the house, the landlord instead commodifies it — meaning, the landlord turns the property into a source of profit.

Let’s also pause on the term “essential.” Something is essential for someone when the lack of it endangers their survival. In this sense, oxygen is essential. Likewise, water and food are essential because one cannot survive without those. Going even further, some believe that healthcare is essential because without proper access to medical care, one may not survive. A shelter is also essential in the sense that without it, survival is at least made more challenging. Thus, landlords are correct in arguing that housing is essential but precisely because housing is essential, this would seem a point against housing being commodified. This of course is not to advocate that canceling rent would be the default solution. As some have pointed out, the issue of how to protect renters is complex and no solution is immune from problems. The point is more that it is not obvious that renters can afford their apartment less than landlords can afford their second houses. Given that renters have lower incomes and less financial stability than landlords, their ability to nevertheless be able to pay for their housing, which is often more than half of their income, should speak in favor, and not against, their being financially responsible.

This analysis should not lead to a confrontational attitude towards landlords, but rather it should be viewed as an opportunity to reflect on yet another issue that the current coronavirus pandemic has forcefully made even more evident. In a world where rents and housing prices exceed personal budgets, the need of more affordable housing is not simply a problem for the future but one that urgently demands our attention.

Commodification and Exploitation in Egg Donation

image of ovarian follicles

Egg donation is a form of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in which a woman donates eggs to equip another woman to conceive a child. The process of egg donation usually involves in vitro fertilization technology, as the eggs undergo fertilization in a laboratory, or alternatively, the unfertilized egg can be frozen and stored to be used at a later time. Regulated according to guidelines set by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, this form of ART has gained momentum in the US and around the world since the first child was born from egg donation in Australia in 1983. In the US today, egg donation accounts for about 18% of IVF births.

While the allowance of compensation for egg donors varies by the country, egg donors in the US are compensated up to $8,000 on average for the retrieval of eggs. While egg donation is a sought-after fix for those unable to conceive and stands to provide real benefits to donors and recipients alike, this form of IVF can be a sensitive subject as it raises a number of medical ethics questions.

A common concern raised by medical ethicists regarding egg donation is the type of consent obtained in the process of donating eggs. Although most donor recruiting agencies cite altruism and reliability as the most desirable qualities in a donor, the incentive of monetary compensation could hinder a donor’s capacity to make coherent and informed decisions. Studies have shown that donors motivated by financial incentives suffer more emotional trauma from the process and have a higher probability of regretting their decision than women who express altruistic motivations. In part to avoid risking the commodification of motherhood, nations such as the UK and Australia have ruled any form of monetary compensation to the egg donor to be illegal.

However, Lori Andrews (1992) notes that more often than not, “when society suggests that a certain activity should be done for altruism rather than money, it is generally a woman’s activity.” In agreement with Andrews, sociologist Anna Curtis argues, in her 2010 article Giving ‘Til It Hurts: Egg Donation and the Costs of Altruism, that women should be sufficiently compensated if egg donation is to remain legal in the US, due to the health risks the procedure poses, the emotional strain a donor is subjected to by donating an egg, and the time spent going through and recovering from the procedure.

Due to the technical and invasive nature of egg donation, donors may lack a complete understanding of all the potential short-term as well as long-term risks associated with donating eggs. Curtis also argues that the donors’ emotional investment can cause them to downplay the risks of the procedure. Curtis’ research suggests that not only did donors experience joy over a successful donation, but they also felt guilty when the procedure failed. When Curtis questioned donors regarding their knowledge of health risks associated with egg donation, she found that the women claimed to give “little or no thought to the possible short- or long-term risks involved in donating, despite their ability to list many of these very risks,” demonstrating that even if the donors are aware of the risks, they may not seriously consider the likelihood of these risks affecting them in the future, possibly because of their emotional investment in the egg donation process.

Furthermore, egg donation is a costly process — not only in terms of the emotional and physical strain put on the donor, but also in terms of the financial expenses for the recipient. The inequality of access to ART means that reproductive technology is a viable option exclusively to the wealthy. The feasibility of egg donation must therefore be analyzed recognizing that there may be a large demographic of infertile individuals who would choose ART to conceive a child had they the financial means, but are not able to so due to the high cost of reproductive technology.

The eugenic commodification of egg donors is an additional ethical concern regarding egg donation. Advertisements directed towards egg donors usually depict specific racial, physical, and intellectual characteristics as desirable, making it clear that the agencies are recruiting a certain type of woman whether it be based on ethnicity, height, or even scores obtained on standardized tests. This emphasis on eugenics perpetuates the commodification and exploitation of women’s bodies, reducing the female body to a product with reproductive value.

With these ethical concerns in mind, infertility specialists, agencies that recruit egg donors, as well as recipients of the donated egg must consider the multifaceted implications of egg donation when assessing regulations regarding egg donation. By doing so, individuals and agencies alike can make equitable and informed decisions concerning the emotional, physical, and monetary costs of egg donation to both the donors and the recipients.

The DOJ vs. NACAC: Autonomy and Paternalism in Higher Ed

black and white photograph of graduation

Last month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) voted to remove three provisions from their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. These changes will now allow schools to offer early-decisions applicants special considerations like priority housing and advanced course registration. Schools are also now allowed to “poach” students already committed to other institutions. And, finally, the May 1st National Candidates’ Reply deadline will no longer mark the end of the admissions process, as schools can continue to recruit into the summer. Together, these changes threaten to drastically alter the college recruitment landscape, and it’s unclear whether those changes will be positive or even who the beneficiaries might be.

NACAC’s move to strike these provisions was motivated by a two-year inquiry by the Department of Justice into antitrust claims. The prohibition on universities offering incentives to early-decision students and wooing already-committed recruits was deemed anti-competitive and a restraint of trade. NACAC was given a straightforward ultimatum: strike the provisions or engage in a legal battle whose only likely outcome would be being dissolved by court order.

As Jim Jump suggests, the DOJ appears to see NACAC as a “cartel” — coordinating behavior, fixing prices, and cooperating so as to insulate themselves from risk. From the DOJ’s point of view, NACAC is merely acting in the best interests of institutions, and prevents students from getting the best economic deal possible on their education. By prohibiting certain kinds of recruiting and incentives, NACAC limits competition between institutions for the industry’s gain and students’ loss.

The DOJ’s perspective is purely economic: The price of attending college has been increasing eight times faster than wages. Demand for education is at an all-time high, the need for student services is ever-increasing, and state-funding hasn’t been responsive to growing student numbers and institutions’ swelling size. Rather than increase government subsidy of higher education, the hope is that increasing competition between providers may drive costs down for consumers. The DOJ’s position is simple: “when colleges have to compete more openly, students will benefit.”

In response to these allegations, NACAC supporters claim that the rules are designed to safeguard students’ autonomy. By prohibiting institutions from poaching or offering better early-decision incentives, NACAC’s provisions shield impressionable high-schoolers from manipulation and coercion. Should colleges be permitted to offer priority housing or advanced course registration to early applicants, over-stressed teenagers will only be more likely to make their college choices prematurely. Should universities be allowed to court newly-matriculated students only just adjusting to college life, susceptible youths will always be swayed by the promise of greener pastures. In the end, these paternalistic measures are intended merely to preserve the possibility of effective student agency.

But, to many, treating prospective college students as vulnerable on the one hand, and competent and self-sufficient on the other, seems disingenuous. The average student debt is $38,000; if applicants are old enough to incur such large financial burdens, then surely they are old enough to navigate the difficult choices between competing financial and educational offers. As consumers of such high-priced and valuable goods, it should not be within others’ purview to doubt the truth, rationality, or sincerity of prospective students’ expressed preferences.

What the DOJ ruling may be missing, however, is the particular value for sale that makes the marketplace for colleges unique. As DePauw’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Robert Andrews, argues, “There are real drawbacks to making your educational decisions like you would make your purchasing decisions around less-intricate commodities.” By reducing a college education to a simple dollar amount, we ignore the larger value a college education and the formative role it can play in students’ lives. It’s difficult to accurately assess in retrospect, (and certainly predict beforehand,) the meaning “an undergraduate education and the developmental experiences that occur when 18-22 year-olds live and learn on a college campus” will have, as well as all the factors that made that experience possible. As such, relative cost should perhaps not be billed as the crucial factor. Unfortunately, Andrews argues, striking these NACAC guidelines, prioritizes the wrong thing:

“Students may be enticed by larger scholarship and financial aid packages and choose a school they had previously ruled out for very valid reasons, (i.e. size, academic offerings, availability of student services, etc.) thus putting their successful educational experience in serious jeopardy. Will saving $5,000 more per year mean anything if it takes a student 5-6 years to graduate when they could have made it out in 4 at the “previous” institution?”

At bottom, the disagreement between the DOJ and NACAC centers on whether consumers know best their own interests. In particular, the question is whether NACAC is better-positioned to anticipate students’ needs than the students themselves. Folk wisdom claims that “You cannot harm someone by giving them an option,” and we must decide whether prospective college students represent a vulnerable population that needs to be protected from choice. Is the very possibility of new financial and educational incentives enough to undermine and override students’ true preferences? Does a policy of general prohibition on financial incentives support or frustrate those core preferences?

As of yet, whether the removal of NACAC’s guidelines will deliver positive or negative consequences for students, institutions, and higher education in general can’t be seen. Prophecies are in no short supply, and college administrators are desperately trying to anticipate how the new “Wild West” will play out.

Surrogacy in New York

photograph of pregnant torso

There are many ways to make a family. The intimate bonds of commitment and affection that make a family unit are grounded in a wide variety of ways: in biological relation, in choice, in shared experience, etc. Family bonds across generations are manifested between parent and child, but even these bonds vary in how they are grounded. Societies and our medical technology has developed in ways to support the variety of ways that parents can have children – currently there are ways to have a child through adoption, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy, and advancements are being made in artificial wombs that would open up further methods of bringing children into the world. The diversity of methods for having children benefit potential parents for whom cis-hetero fertilization is not possible or desirable. Single parents, LGBT couples, and cis-hetero couples with fertility concerns are all aided by this variety of methods. 

So, the medical technologies and social policies that support individuals’ decisions to become parents, and thereby positively respect autonomy of these people. However, as with many developments and advancements that can be costly, there are justice considerations that arise: who is benefitting from the development, and who is placed at risk? Gestational surrogacy has recently been debated along these lines, for while the opportunity to have a child via surrogate benefits many potential parents, the risk and burden of gestation is adopted by someone else. To be a surrogate, a person agrees to take on the responsibilities of pregnancy and gestation for a potential parent with the understanding that parental rights and responsibilities after the birth of the child will belong to the person seeking the surrogate, not the person who gestates the child. The morality of compensating someone to take on this burden with their time and body raises questions for feminists and economic ethicists alike. 

Recently, New York State failed to pass a bill that would make compensated gestational surrogacy legal. Currently, in New York, only altruistic surrogacy is legal and surrogacy contracts are unenforceable. Surrogates cannot receive a fee or compensation, and the success of the arrangement is due solely to the integrity of the parties involved. 

New York is one of two states that currently ban compensated gestational surrogacy outright. In 1992, a gestational surrogate in New Jersey sued to keep parental rights over her biological child. In the wake of that suit, New Jersey, Michigan and New York passed bills banning gestational surrogacy. New Jersey reversed the ban last year, leaving New York and Michigan remaining. (Though it is important to note the variety of restrictions and protections that exist across America, sometimes at the county-by-county level.) 

However, the proposed bill — allowing gestational surrogates to be compensated for bearing a child without intending to bear the rights and responsibilities of parenthood — did not succeed during this legislative session. Democratic representatives were concerned that compensated surrogacy presents a slippery slope to commodifying women’s bodies and the bill did not garner sufficient support. “We must ensure that the health and welfare of women who enter into these arrangements are protected, and that reproductive surrogacy does not become commercialized,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Some feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, have been vocal opponents of gestational surrogacy. These opponents are concerned about the exploitation of people from marginalized and vulnerable groups and putting the bodies of individuals from such group to use for gestation. The monetary incentive to put one’s body through pregnancy presses on the economically vulnerable in an unjust way, they claim, and their case is strengthened by the state of surrogacy in Cambodia, Thailand, and India. In India, for example, some surrogates are forced to live in special homes and have no health insurance beyond the pregnancy, and no guarantee of payment.

Other feminists, as well as infertility advocates and LGBT groups, have been advocating in favor of changing the New York law. Governor Cuomo criticized the failure of support behind the bill, emphasizing the protections for the surrogates included that were meant to safeguard against exploitation. With all of these safeguards, Cuomo questioned how much the lawmakers were respecting the autonomy of those that would choose to be surrogates: “I say, how about a woman’s right to choose, which we just argued for Roe v. Wade?” Cuomo said. “But in this state we say the woman must have an attorney, the woman must have a health counselor, the transaction will be supervised under the Department of Health, the woman can’t be in dire economic conditions, but you still believe the woman is not competent to make that decision.” 

Thus the division between protecting vulnerable groups (economically disadvantaged and individuals with uteruses) and advocating for individuals to be able to take on risks consensually came down in favor of protection in New York this month. Both sides emphasized that this will be an ongoing conversation.

The Decriminalization of Prostitution and the Commodification of Sex

close-up photograph of red signal light

Democratic lawmakers in New York State have moved to decriminalize sex work, making it legal to engage in the consensual sale of sex. Massachusetts, Maine, and other states have similar laws already in force, but the New York bill will release those in prison for acts that are no longer illegal as well.  

Practically speaking, making sex work illegal has not created safe environments for many people living in the US. When an activity is illegal, it pressures the participants into anonymity and makes it harder for them to receive care and support when harm results from participating in the activity. For sex work, this can mean theft, sexual assault, harassment, exploitation, rape, and worse.

For example, rape and gonorrhea dropped significantly in Rhode Island in the decade following decriminalization of indoor prostitution (as a journalist for Vox reported in 2015: “there was a 31 percent decrease in rape offenses and 39 percent fewer cases of female gonorrhea — and no extraordinary drop in other kinds of crime, suggesting the reduction in rape offenses was not representative of a broader crime drop or better policing across the board.”

Opponents of decriminalization generally object on the basis of the moral standing of sex work, claiming sex work can be categorized as exploitation or commodification.

To argue that sex work is exploitative, one has to establish that it takes advantage of a vulnerability that should be protected, or *not* taken advantage of. This argument points to empirical trends of who engages in sex work (typically members of disadvantaged groups) and the rate of unfortunate side effects or corollaries of engaging in sex work (typically the harms listed above). This line of argument suggests that people ought to be protected from engaging in sex work similarly to how we should be protected from other unfortunate work environments – “sweat shops”, etc.

However, advocates for decriminalizing sex work point out that many people choose to engage with the variety of jobs that qualify as sex work. Further, the risk and negative correlations are greatly reduced when the threat of being subject to the criminal justice system is removed through decriminalization, as the Rhode Island example suggests. Further, this argument can be interpreted as stripping sex workers of their agency, characterizing sex workers in a way that undermines their ability to make their own choices about what to do with their bodies.

Some take issue with sex work even while conceiving of sex workers as free and autonomous people in control of their decisions. The concern here is that sex is not the sort of thing that should be a job or for sale. In short, sex work commodifies something of moral value.

Commodification refers to the moral wrong involved with treating something only in the domain of marketplace norms. In other words, the standards for how something should be treated become understood economically, which is inappropriate given the nature of the object. When we engage with products, it is typically appropriate to treat them as commodities: Norms of the marketplace are maximization norms. The economic marketplace is competitive and if you can get a good deal on something that benefits you, that is not only permissible but the system supports it. If I have a book and am willing to sell it for a certain price, but someone offers me much more for it, according to the norms that constitute the economic domain I get to take that better offer and benefit myself. If I choose to let them know they can save some cash and let them have it for the price I originally envision, I’m being a nice person, surely, acting beneficently. But no economic standards demand this as long as parties act freely and consensually.

A prime example of commodification is slavery – where human beings are treated as products on the marketplace. Clearly there are more norms than economic that apply to how we should treat people. Thus, even if there are willing parties on both ends of an economic transaction, it is not right to buy or sell a person.

Recently in bioethics more complicated questions related to commodification have become relevant. When having a child with a surrogate, parents exchange money for the surrogate mothers’ services. The pregnancy is something that a person can provide in exchange for money, and thus using a person’s body in a sense is treated as a commodity in the market. In New Jersey, surrogacy agreements where the surrogate is compensated are illegal, and in 27 countries compensated surrogacy is illegal (the legal standing of “altruistic surrogacy” varies). Similarly, exchanging money for organs, like kidneys, is criticized as objectionable commodification. The values associated with the human body and medicine, say some, extend beyond the free exchange of goods and services in an economic market.   

To restate, what’s happening with commodification is that you are using norms (namely, marketplace norms) that are inappropriate for the circumstances (typically because they are insufficient, there are more principles or standards that you ought to be governed by than the rather austere marketplace norms). Marketplace norms say that what you ought to do is get as much as you can for yourself. You pursue your own best interests, and as long as the other party consents, you get to exact benefits. Commodification happens when the value of a good or service is reduced to its mere economic worth despite its greater social significance. For example, you shouldn’t approach family interactions using only marketplace norms – there are additional (moral usually) norms you should attend to. There is something of value missing or being disrespected if the only reason families interact is for goods and services exchanged ($20 for showing up to Sunday dinner, if not supported by some kind of relationship, begins to look less like a family relationship for these sorts of reasons).

To take a biomedical example, the doctor-patient relationship comes with extra norms and rules beyond those established by the marketplace. There are often extra protections and responsibilities that come with inhabiting a particular role that means that it would be wrong to treat a patient as merely a person in an economic exchange. There is something going wrong, we think, if a doctor barters with a patient over the cost of revealing lab results, for instance. The nature of the relationship should be based on providing care, which supersedes the doctor’s economic standing as seeking financial benefit.

When critics of bills that decriminalize sex work take moral issue with buying and selling sex, often it is in these terms. Sexual relationships, one could say, should not be solely subject to norms of economics. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that sexuality is intricately, intimately, and inextricably involved in the economy. Also, workers use their bodies to earn a living in myriad ways that don’t raise a commodification objection – consider manual labor.

Whether opponents consider sex work to be exploitative or commodifying, attending to the wishes of those who actually occupy the professions and respecting their autonomy is an important ethical imperative. In addition to this, the empirical evidence that negative correlations of sex work dramatically reduce when decriminalization occurs have important implications if finding a sensible way forward.