The Political Ethics of Price Gouging and Spiking

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Michael Sandel, a spellbinding philosopher from Harvard University, presents political ethical questions that could be answered in three different ways: welfare, freedom, and virtue. Within the first chapter of “Doing the Right Thing”, Sandel illustrates what doing the right thing means through different case studies related to justice that are both real life and hypothetical examples.

  1. Sandel references the topic of price gouging that occurred after Hurricane Charlie to illustrate the disagreement between those who gain and those who lose. Price gouging is a tactic that occurs when business owners raise the prices of necessary goods and services, drastically, that is deemed unjust and immoral. Many believe that this action should be illegal, but other citizens believe this violates the typical free market conditions.
  2. Sandel discusses the similarities between welfare, freedom, and virtue. Because price gouging happens in a time of need, it can be seen as immoral to increase prices. On the other hand, in welfare, it positively affects the party who is taking part in price gouging. With regards to virtue, this happens when a place is in a state of emergency, and business owners take advantage of this exploitation, indicating a form of greed.
  3. Sandel utilizes the Purple Heart example to question virtue and honor that are undeniable. The Purple Heart is a medal given to soldiers who have endured physical injury, an intentional result of an attack. Due to specific rules, many believe that PTSD should not be eligible to receive this award because “traumatic stress disorders are not intentionally caused by enemy action, and they are difficult to diagnose objectively” (Sandel 10). On the other hand, they cannot fault soldiers for having PTSD, so others believe this sacrifice is just as important.
  4. Harvard University philosopher, Sandel, describes the 2008-2009 economic meltdown and how Americans dealt with it. Because of the status of the company and economy, taxpayers had to bailout the corporate executives and the failures they caused. The discussion of justice and when it is due became a major topic after reports stated that the money was put towards bonuses for people, one of the main reasons for the economic crash.
  5. Next, in this section, Sandel explores the way we think about justice: welfare, virtue, and freedom. It is often a case-by-case situation, but it depends on the situation that justice is distributed.Sandel tries to come to terms with what is acceptable and what is not, to limit the disagreement between each distribution of justice.
  6. Sandel introduces the runaway trolley hypothetical situation that presents an issue as to whether or not the conductor should kill many people or make the quick decision to switch tracks to kill fewer people. This decision seems makes the most sense in comparison to pushing a heavier man off of a bridge onto the tracks to make the train come to a halt. Sandel aims to engage the reader in reflective equilibrium, comparing considered convictions as to whether one should sacrifice fewer lives for many lives.
  7. While in commission, an officer was faced with a very difficult decision that ended up being life or death because he had the final vote as to whether or not the goat herders should be killed or spared life. The other officers were fearful that if they spared the goat herders life, they would inform the Taliban. Because Officer Luttrell felt it was immoral, he let the goat herders free, resulting in the death of him comrades. Unlike the trolley situation, this cannot be compared because in the trolley situation, the conductor knew the outcome, but Luttrell did not know whether or not the goat herders would report to the Taliban, so he listened to his Christian instincts. 8) Finally, Sandel discusses what happens when one has to deal with moral questions that are often difficult and controversial. There are many issues in the world that we, as citizens, have to decipher as to whether the situation is morally correct. Sandel wrote this book to try and discuss the moral dilemmas that are often too hard to conclude because when confronted about the morality of a situation, we may rethink our decision, and sometimes change our answer.

Sandel’s argument about price gouging has continued to be an emotional and controversial topic. Because both parties benefit off of price gouging, but only one-party benefits financially, it is either seen as selfish and unjust or necessary and just. This issue hits home for me and my family because during Hurricane Katrina, both of my parents were living in New Orleans, LA. During this time, price gouging was a huge issue because many local stores were increasing their prices immediately. For example, a case of water that may have normally cost $10 would now cost $80. Despite the circumstance, I believe that price gouging should be illegal across the nation. During Hurricane Katrina, both of my parents were without a job because they were forced to evacuate for numerous days. Because of this, many citizens were without income or are struggling to support themselves and their family. On the other hand, without price gouging, it would encourage hoarding within the consumer. “These “just-in-case” purchases — an extra loaf of bread or perhaps filling up both cars with gas — exacerbate a shortage. In contrast, doubling the price will make customers think twice about buying another gallon of milk, for example, thus leaving supply for those who didn’t arrive at dawn” (The hard truth about ‘price gouging’ and disasters, 2018). This makes me think of justice because price spikes are upsetting, especially when your life has been turned upside down by a natural disaster. But anger by the public does not justify being able to interfere with the free market.

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