a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Markets and meaning – thinking about their relation

The category of „meaning“ is not one that analytically-minded folks working on public policy and PPE issues use very often. And yet, it is one that I could not stop thinking about for quite a while. I mean by it, very broadly, the kinds of projects that individuals pursue, in which certain values are realized – love, beauty, truth, or whatever, in whatever interpretation individuals chose. A quote from a text about professionalism, by historian Thomas L. Haskel, captures an unease that I had had about markets, and the economic way of thinking about them, for a long time: “Where would liberation stop if the entire social universe was given over to competing selves, none acknowledging any standard higher than his or her own desires?”[1]

Of course, if you asked them directly, no philosopher or social scientist would agree with such a picture – and yet, isn’t that the implicit picture that is communicated by so many models about markets? And hasn’t market-thinking, via the rational choice methodology, infested large swaths of the social sciences?

In what follows, I propose a few – very preliminary – reflections about the relation between markets and meaning.

  • Certain forms of unbridledcapitalism do indeed force individuals, especially those at the lower echelons of society, to focus on little else than their own desires – desires in the sense of basic needs that need to be fulfilled! Such a life full of drudgery leaves little time for activities that can be experienced as meaningful, such as spending time with loved ones, or pursuing personal, artistic or political projects. Even those who are not as disadvantaged, are, in such societies, often caught in a treadmill of “keeping up with the Jones” that makes the pursuit of meaningful projects difficult.
  • Bridled, socially embedded capitalism, in contrast, might provide broad parts of the population with sufficient time and money to pursue such projects. The society one could here imagine is one in which the market, with its pressures, is only one sphere of life, while there are many others (families, civil society associations, sports clubs, music groups, NGOs, etc.) in which individuals do things that are meaningful to them. Importantly, in such spaces individuals can experience social cooperation, without the competition that markets almost always bring.
  • Couldmarkets themselves also be places in which meaningful activities can be pursued? That is hard to imagine if they are places of perfect, atomistic competition, as is often assumed in economic models. But real-life markets can be much more varied, especially in societies in which capitalism is strictly regulated. For example, various forms of artisan life (e.g. instrument makers, artistic potters, etc.) can also find niches there. Individuals may not be able to gain huge fortunes, but may still find enough clients to survive, and can thus dedicate their work life to the pursuit of such forms of meaningful work. Competitive pressures may exist, but may be sufficiently damped down to also allow for certain forms of cooperation, for example in professional associations.
  • Such well-regulated markets could also help bring individuals with different projects together. For, I take it, any talk about “meaning” has to start from the assumption that in pluralistic societies, individuals give very different answersto the question of what gives meaning to their lives. Moreover, for something to be meaningful, it needs to be voluntarily endorsed, which mitigates against attempts to somehow “create” meaning for individuals by political measures. Instead, what politics can do is to create spaces andopportunities for meaningful activities, both outside of, and maybe sometimes also within, markets. Individuals who have shared visions of meaning can then find each other, and cooperate and interact to pursue their projects.
  • But, importantly, meaning can only find a place in markets if individuals bring it there. This is a very different understanding of human nature than one in which human beings just follow incentives, or orders, or react to pressures.[2]Instead, humans need to be understood as agentswho relate to certain values, who can choose meaningful projects and pursue them, even under pressure (up to a point, at least). For example, aspiring writers would not give up their artistic ideals and simply write what promises to sell best, but would instead persist until they find agents or publishers who share their ideals and publish their manuscripts. Engineers would insist on finding jobs in which their ideas about how to build good machines would be honored, instead of “fudging it” for the sake of earning money, etc.
  • Individuals who pursue projects that are meaningful to them are not necessarily morally betterthan individuals who pursue exclusively their material welfare. They might be just as negligent when it comes to adverse effects on third parties, or might even think that their project justify violating the rights of others. And yet, taking meaning into account changes the perspective on markets in ways that I take to be interesting and relevant from a normative perspective. For example, we can ask whose projects can be meaningfully pursued, and which groups face obstacles trying to do so. We can ask which projects in a society should indeed be pursued in markets, and which ones in other social spaces, and what difference that makes. Last but not least, I take it that we get a more realistic picture of human motivation, which might have interesting implications for the feasibility of more just (or otherwise more normatively desirable) institutions.

[1] Haskel, Thomas L. “Professionalism versus Capitalism: R.H. Tawney, Emile Durkheim, and C.S. Peirce on the Disinterestedness of Professional Communities,” in: Haskell, Thomas L. (ed.). The Authority of Experts. Studies in History and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 180-225, 184.


[2] Could some individuals find meaning in simply reacting to orders or pressures or incentives? While there may be some cases in which individuals decide to follow, e.g., a religious leader, it seems unlikely – and worth questioning – if something like that happens in the context of a capitalist economy, where it is likely to be a case of the exploitation of artificially created and maintained beliefs (e.g. in the sheer “greatness” of a company that individuals are supposed to see as meaning-creating).

Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



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1 Comment

  1. Michiel T.

    So the leading moral guideline for markets and social spaces should be whether there are no adverse effects on third parties or anyone’s rights violated? I very much like how the pursuit of meaning in social practices is challenged in this article. However, under the terms described by consequentialism (such as the non-harm principle) the relevance of arts and sciences could equal efforts for goals such as ‘having a Ferrari in front of your house at the age of 40’. All with all, doesn’t the consequentialist reasoning that is at play here too much enforces an “anything goes” approach to meaning? In the first place, how does considering markets as proper means for self-determination affect the very substance of life goals?

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