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Why is it Wrong to Sell Your Body? Understanding Liberals’ vs. Conservatives’ Moral Objections to Bodily Markets

Why is it Wrong to Sell Your Body? Understanding Liberals’ vs. Conservatives’ Moral Objections to Bodily Markets

Stijn M.J. van Osselaer and Shreyans Goenka

Policymakers around the world debate how commercial bodily markets (e.g., prostitution, commercial surrogacy, trade of kidneys, blood plasma, sperm, ovum, and hair) should be regulated. For example, New York state lawmakers are debating whether to decriminalize prostitution while lawmakers in the Netherlands are considering increasing restrictions on prostitution. A new Journal of Marketing study aims to understand why people object to these markets and how those objections differ for liberals and conservatives. Our research finds that both liberals and conservatives consider bodily markets to be morally wrong; however, they do so for different reasons.

Specifically, we show that liberals consider bodily markets to be wrong because they can be exploitative. That is, liberals believe that the commercialization of these markets can cause harm to vulnerable people and magnify the entrenched inequality in society. They think that bodily markets can become another means for rich buyers to exploit poor sellers, causing the latter systematic physical, psychological, and economic harm.

In contrast, we show that conservatives consider bodily markets to be wrong because they violate the sanctity of the human body. That is, conservatives believe that the commercialization of these markets places a monetary value on the human body and reduces it to any other commodity. They believe that the inherent sanctity of the divinely created human body is diminished or corrupted when it is bought or sold.

We conducted five studies to examine liberals’ and conservatives’ moral attitudes towards bodily markets and how sociopolitical leaders use the different moral objections to persuade their respective audiences. For example, we analyze church sermons to examine how pastors talk about prostitution. We find that relatively conservative pastors tend to emphasize how prostitution violates the sanctity of the human body. Contrastingly, relatively liberal pastors tend to emphasize how prostitution can lead to the exploitation of sellers. 

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We also show:

  • How the different moral objections impact the persuasiveness of marketing campaigns designed to influence consumer advocacy. Specifically, liberals were more likely to sign a petition against prostitution when it highlighted exploitation concerns. However, conservatives were more likely to sign a petition against prostitution when it highlighted violation of sanctity concerns.

  • How the different moral objections impact the persuasiveness of marketing campaigns designed to increase support towards these markets and to solicit donations. Specifically, liberals were more likely to donate to a campaign to legalize commercial surrogacy when the donation appeal assuaged exploitation concerns. In contrast, conservatives were more likely to donate to a campaign in favor of legalizing commercial surrogacy when the donation appeal assuaged violation of sanctity concerns.

  • How liberals and conservatives support different regulatory laws to govern these markets. Liberals support laws that punish the buyers in these markets. On the other hand, conservatives support laws that punish both the buyers and sellers of bodily products.

Overall, our research sheds light on why liberals and conservatives object differently to commercial bodily markets. Consequently, our findings can help policymakers and advocacy groups anticipate reactions to regulatory laws, policy changes, and advocacy actions involving bodily markets.

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From: Shreyans Goenka and Stijn M.J. van Osselaer, “Why is it Wrong to Sell Your Body? Understanding Liberals’ vs. Conservatives’ Moral Objections to Bodily Markets,” Journal of Marketing.

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Stijn M.J. van Osselaer is SC Johnson Professor of Marketing, Cornell University, USA.

Shreyans Goenka is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Virginia Tech, USA.