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Coercion and Corruption

March 23, 2012

A couple years ago I wrote an essay on “coercion” and “corruption” as two basic objections to the commercialization of academic research. It was published in an edited volume. I adopted the distinction between coercion and corruption from a paper by the political theorist Michael Sandel, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” (Sandel has a book of the same title coming out soon.) Here’s the basic argument, with a few thoughts on how it applies to university politics:

Coercion occurs when economic inequality forces people to buy or sell things they otherwise wouldn’t. Those with more money can shape agendas and outcomes to their advantage. Those with less money may do things out of economic need rather than voluntary choice. That’s one reason most countries ban or regulate payment for sex, surrogate pregnancy, and human body parts, among other things. People who accept money in exchange for these things often do so out of necessity, and in that sense, they are coerced.

Coercion arguments show how collaborations between universities and businesses often create unequal power relations within the university. When some colleges and departments – usually business, engineering, applied sciences – have close ties to major corporations, they easily acquire more influence on campus than others. Other departments may be forced to accept conditions and policies they otherwise wouldn’t. More generally, many public universities today are subject to coercion, because the decline in public funding creates economic pressure to find money elsewhere. Corporations are happy to oblige, usually with subtle or not-so-subtle strings attached.

A key limitation of coercion arguments is that they have little to say when fair bargaining conditions allow people to freely sell things that others think should never be sold. For many people, a regulated market in sexual services or human kidneys — complete with measures to ensure informed consent and equal access  — would still be morally wrong. Or consider scientists with generous public funding, who freely design research projects to maximize their commercial potential (as many increasingly do) — something may still be wrong, despite the absence of coercion. That’s where the corruption argument comes in.

Corruption results from morally or culturally inappropriate exchanges of goods and services. Society can be understood in terms of different spheres of activity – politics, commerce, science, education, art, and so on – and justice depends on provisional boundaries between them. Money is the most common threat to such boundaries, because money can be exchanged for so many things. Most people agree that it’s wrong to buy a baby, sell a term paper, or judge art by its market price. But money is not the only source of inappropriate exchanges: it’s also wrong to trade a baby for a car, or raise a student’s grade in exchange for mowing the lawn.

None of this means that money is evil or that it shouldn’t play a role in education, politics, or art. After all, someone has to pay the bills. University faculty need to be paid an appropriate salary, but their research and teaching should be evaluated according to professional standards, not personal preferences or commercial potential. In this sense, faculty are paid to do research and teaching; they are not paid for research and teaching.

As I wrote before, our campus policy on digital signs includes a ban on commercial messages. Why? It’s probably not because people feel coerced by such messages. A stock ticker that displays corporate logos doesn’t force anyone to buy products or stock from those corporations. And broadcasting corporate recruitment ads doesn’t force anyone to apply for a particular job. But commercial messages corrupt the learning and research environment of the university. They ask people to consider what’s worth buying rather than what’s worth knowing. Universities require a commitment to fair and open inquiry, which is threatened when those in charge seem to be promoting particular economic or political interests.

A key difficulty with corruption arguments is that people don’t always agree on what counts as corruption. Some people think prostitution is fine as long as it’s safe and voluntary, others do not. Some people are bothered by corporate logos on university buildings, others are not.

Coping with such disagreements isn’t easy, because they involve conflicts over the basic meaning and purpose of the activities in question. But that’s why we have institutions and practices of self-government. In universities these include various committees and councils and the faculty senate. They’re never perfect, but we could probably make better use of them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    March 23, 2012 5:28 PM

    Your concepts of coercion and corruption were interesting. Given your analysis, I wonder why America arrests women (the coerced, the victims of an unfair trade) for prostitution rather than focusing on their customers. My guess is that our society (as well as most others) identifies with the interests of the coercer rather than those of the coercee.

  2. Ben Hoyt permalink
    March 26, 2012 11:09 PM

    Something occurred to me when I read your explanation of the distinction between coercion and corruption. It may be a bit out of left field—and it may be out of Skinner—but I recalled the renaissance era view of corruption. Corruption occurred when a person put their own private interests ahead of the public good. This bred factionalism and ultimately would cause the death of the polity, or at least sew seeds of anomie and ultimately allow tyranny to grow.

    Now, obviously renaissance era political communities are not modern universities, but there are some similarities. At least, the idealistic side of me wants there to be. The students and teachers at a university, I think, desire a union of shared sacrifice and do not envision their relationship in simple business terms. Learning is not easy, but I choose to go to college and take it seriously because I value education and ways of thinking about thinking more than the rubber stamp degree I might earn at the University of Phoenix. Teachers, at least in our society, might make more money as headwaiters or stockbrokers, but choose to teach and continue their research because, I would guess, there is something more to the profession than “callous cash payment” (to drop in some Marx). Both parties become indignant when they think the other is looking out for interests other than learning. Education is not simply vocational training, and the art of teaching is not comparable to hewing wood and drawing water. Neither party wants to believe that the other is there because they are both seeking to maximize their personal profit potential or minimize their work-load. Above all, we do not want a learning environment, as Mencken described the university of his era, where: “the search for truth has to be subordinated to the safeguarding of railway bonds and electric light stocks,” and run by administrators “who have no more respect for scholarship and than an ice-wagon driver has for beautiful letters.”

    Great timing, by the way, I just finished Sandel’s book on justice.

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