Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Ethics, Morality, and Markets

SOC 18N

Markets are inescapably entangled with questions of right and wrong. What counts as a fair price or a fair wage? Should people be able to sell their organs? Do companies have a responsibility to make sure algorithmic decisions don’t perpetuate racism and misogyny? Even when market exchange seems coldly rational, it still embodies normative ideas about the right ways to value objects and people and to determine who gets what. In this seminar, we will study markets as social institutions permeated with moral meaning. We will explore how powerful actors work to institutionalize certain understandings of good and bad; unpack how particular moral visions materially benefit some groups of people more so than others; examine the ways people draw on notions of fairness to justify and contest the market’s distribution of resources and opportunities; and consider who has agency to build markets according to different normative ideals. Most course readings are empirical research, so we will also critically discuss how social scientists use data and methods to build evidence about the way the world works.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Barbara Kiviat

"This class is largely about how different people think about what it means for markets and economic behavior to be moral and fair—a topic I find endlessly fascinating. In my own research, I study the moral beliefs that underpin the 'big data' economy we all increasingly live in, as companies capture previously unheard-of amounts of personal information in order to individualize their treatment of consumers.

"Given what I study, I’m very excited to be moving to Silicon Valley and starting a job at Stanford this fall. (I’ll be navigating campus for the first time right along with you!) Before I went to grad school, I worked as a journalist for about 10 years, mostly in New York City at Time magazine, where I wrote about business and economics. In that job I was constantly talking to executives and other business people, as well as covering major economic events, such as the 2007-2008 financial crisis. I often draw on these experiences in the classroom, in order to connect what we’re talking about theoretically with what happens in the real world."