The Generalized Market Failures Approach


The market failures approach to business ethics has recently garnered substantial critical attention (see, e.g., Cohen and Peterson 2019; Moriarty 2020; Steinberg 2017; Hsieh 2017; von Kriegstein 2016; Smith 2018; Endorfer and Larue 2022; Singer 2018). Though precursors of this view can be found in the literature (e.g., McMahon 1981; Friedman 1970), it was Joseph Heath (2004, 2006, 2014, 2023) who developed the approach and gave it its name. The market failures approach (henceforth: MFA) is concerned with the ethical obligations of managers of firms (Heath 2014, 69). Roughly, it holds that managers ought not to conduct their businesses in a way that exploits market failures. “Market failure” is a technical term, meaning any failure of the conditions of the first fundamental welfare theorem, sometimes called the “Pareto conditions” (see Arrow 1951). The theorem states that if the Pareto conditions hold, then the market equilibrium will use society’s scarce resources efficiently, meaning that no one could be made better-off without making anyone else worse off. Efficiency, according to Heath (2014, chapter 7), is the implicit morality of the market. We coordinate much of our shared activity using markets, Heath claims, because of their ability to produce efficient results. Markets are good forms of social organization, according to Heath, because they are the best way to promote our values given empirical facts about the frailties of human psychology and the informational constraints that we face. As such, managers ought not compromise the very conditions that justify a market economy by profiting from breakdowns in the market’s efficiency. Managers are permitted to maximize profits, so long as they do not violate the market’s norm of efficiency in so doing. This is because the fundamental justification for the profit motive is that it is necessary for the operation of the price system which is essential to the efficiency properties of markets. In this paper, I will argue that the MFA is more general than even Heath himself claims. The MFA describes the professional obligations of managers, but the view I develop, the generalized market failures approach, describes the obligations of all market participants. Since efficiency is the implicit morality of the market, it binds not just managers, but all market participants, including consumers, investors and workers. Market participants are permitted to maximize the benefit they gain from market interactions, as long as they do so in a way that does not take advantage of any market failures. Generalizing the MFA in this way has three benefits: first, we gain a unified understanding of the ethics of non-managerial market roles; second, we will develop an even better understanding of the duties of managers; finally, it gives us the resources to respond to some familiar objections to the MFA found in the literature. In the next section, I will further motivate the MFA and explain how this motivation can be easily generalized to other market roles. Importantly, one can avoid benefiting from a market failure in two distinct ways: by avoiding transactions that exploit market failures or by transacting in such markets and then remediating the harm done, by compensating those negatively affected by the market failure. This section concludes by discussing how the remediation duties are to be split between the transacting parties and how to identify the parties to whom compensation is owed. In section 3, I use the tools of the generalized MFA to develop a unified ethics of consumption, investment and labor, respectively. This is the basis of a grand abductive argument for the generalized MFA. The view is strongly supported by the fact that it provides attractive and unifying explanations of our obligations in domains as variegated as carbon offsetting, CEO compensation, the reparations white Americans owe to black Americans and occupational licensure. Section 4 briefly concludes.



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Paul Forrester
Yale University (PhD)

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