Adam Smith on the morality of financial compensation

I have a new article on the shortage of human organs. Regular readers will be familiar with my views so I won’t go into the details but I was especially pleased with the conclusion examining moral objections to organ selling.

Adam Smith noted that in his time there were “some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution.” As examples, Smith lists acting, opera singing and dancing. Today the list strikes us as peculiar, perhaps even foolish. What could possibly make opera singing admirable when done for free but despicable when done for pay?

And yet, however peculiar the views of Adam Smith’s contemporaries were on financial compensation for opera singers we can an at least say this in their favor–no one ever died because of a shortage of singers.

Addendum: I learned of the Smith quote from a wonderful paper on prostitution by Martha Nussbaum, Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services. I can’t find the paper online but it is reprinted in Liberty for Women which has a number of other excellent papers.


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