How Much for Amnesty?

I was writing an opinion column for my campus newspaper near the end of my undergraduate studies when the civil suit against OJ Simpson was settled. I remember writing about the results, frustrated in a less-than articulate way about the fact that the life of a person had been reduced to money. In more recent history, I remember the U.S. offering to pay restitution for civilian casualties during the endless war in which we are currently engaged. I remember scoffing at both instances for exactly the same reason: how can anyone possibly think that a human life can be reduced to a financial sum as “restitution?”

When I was involved in a car accident last summer, the insurance of the person at fault included a hefty sum of “pain and suffering” restitution in the settlement. I complained to the insurance adjuster. All I wanted was the reimbursement for expenses resulting from the accident, costs that I would not have otherwise incurred. Whatever “pain and suffering” I had experienced could not by quantified by a figure, and any money received for it, whatever it may have been, wouldn’t have made it go away. Wouldn’t even have made me feel better about it. So, what’s the point? It’s punitive and powerless.

This weekend I listened to an outstanding lecture in the 2009 series of Reith Lectures on the BBC. The title of the lecture was Markets and Morals, and it was given by professor Michael Sandel. He talked about ridiculous American tendencies, such as paying students for school attendance. A fascinating case he discussed was that of an Israeli daycare center that began imposing a fine on parents who picked up their children late. The rate of parents who were late increased after the fine was imposed, because they began seeing their tardiness no longer as a lack of courtesy, but as a privilege for which they were paying. I experienced something similar in college: on a certain semester in which I had a night class, I began seeing the cost a $10 parking citation as paying for the privilege of parking closer to class. The point is that we can’t monetize morality and ethics. Think about it: how many drivers slow down because of a speeding citation? There’s no real stigma attached to the offense, it’s only something we pay for, and then we move forward. After all, it’s only money. We can always make more.

I think there’s something important to be said here, something beyond a rant against free market capitalism and crucifying how it connects with health care and education. I think the larger issue at hand is that we have, as Sandel theorizes, permitted our morality to be reduced to money, our virtue to dollar signs. This is why court cases go in favor of the person with the most expensive attorney. This is why elections go, among other reasons, to the candidate who can pay for the most airtime. This is why greed has run amok and created a culture of power-mongering, a culture that de-humanizes each of us by reducing our value to what we have and what we can produce.

This is a culture of “retail therapy” as a quick emotional fix.

I’m no economist, and I’m not attempting to advance an economical paradigm shift to rectify the issue. I’m presenting the opinion that when a society submits to the base desire to quantify ethics by what one can afford in lieu of remorse or, to use a more spiritual phrase, repentance, then we’ve drifted into what I fear may be an irreparable state of moral chaos.

In future lectures, Sandel promises to incorporate spirituality into a proposed solution. I’m anxious to hear his conclusions. In all likelihood, however, I am accepting of the fact that, whomever proposes whatever, little will ultimately change in the entrenched American tradition of being able to purchase anything, tangible or otherwise. Because, while it is true that it is only money, it is also true that money has become the god of our society.

On a good day, I’ll find my pessimism misplaced.

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