Selling Kidneys August 5, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.
Tags: libertarians and markets in body parts, Selling body parts, selling kidneys
Recently a man was arrested for arranging to sell body parts—specifically kidneys—and libertarians have been questioning why this is illegal.
Libertarians argue that people should be free to buy and sell what they want in a free market. As long as both parties consent to the transaction, a free market is satisfying preferences and efficiently allocating resources.
The argument against selling a kidney is that disadvantaged people participating in such a market are not genuinely free. They would prefer not to sell their kidney but, because they need money, they feel added pressure to sell their kidney—in other words, their situation is excessively coercive.
Moreover, body parts are central to a person’s bodily integrity and thus should not be commodified. It is, some will argue, inappropriate to have markets that sell something so central to what it means to be a person.
I’m not convinced by these arguments. I agree that we don’t want poor people (or anyone else) to be coerced into selling body parts. But this can be dealt with by rules that govern the market. We can devise regulations that make sure sellers are rational, know the risks, and are not subject to threats. Moreover, given the scarcity of organs, it is likely that selling a kidney will save a life. Coercion is a harm but it ought to be weighed against the fact that a life will be saved. Why should avoiding coercion, especially if the chances of it can be mitigated by regulations, be weighed more heavily than saving a life?
As to bodily integrity, well it seems to me this is a non-sequitur. After all, we allow people to sell blood even though blood is central to one’s bodily integrity. The real issue here is the fact that, even though we have two kidneys, one of which is not necessary in a healthy person, there is a non-trivial chance that a kidney seller may acquire kidney disease in their remaining kidney. Kidney sellers are putting themselves at risk.
But even this strikes me as unpersuasive. People routinely take much greater risks for little profit—driving a car for instance. As long as the real risks are captured in the price of the kidney, I’m not sure I see a reason to forbid the practice.
I suppose slippery slope considerations apply here. We would not want a world in which poor people become organ donors for the rich. But there are principled reasons for thinking there is no slippery slope. Kidneys are unique in that we have two and need only one. Most other body parts are not so dispensable.
We should not allow people to sacrifice their life prospects by selling body parts. But it is not obvious that (most) kidney sellers would be sacrificing life prospects.
So I say let the sales begin.
I never agree with libertarians. What is the world coming to?
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