What Do We Learn from Market Design? On the Moral Foundations of Repugnance

Nicolas Brisset

Table of Contents


In this paper we try to show how the social and political acceptance of Roth, Ünver and Sönmez’s market design for kidney exchange provides some explanation of the rejection of market logic. We address three hypotheses generally cited as potential causes of the rejection of the market for certain goods: (I) the corrupting nature of money, (II) the idea that the market as such would be rejected, and (III) the assumption that the basis for market rejection would be the dominance it would lead to between seller and buyer. The example of the device developed by Roth, Ünver and Sönmez (2004, 2005, 2007) regarding the matching of organs from living donors suggests a fourth hypothesis: the market rejection of organs appears to be based not on the existence of potential domination but on the fact that this market presupposes such domination. In other words, economic vulnerability appears to be a prerequisite for the organ trade: no vulnerability, no market.

First Lines

The idea of limits to commercial logic is the basis of a broad and interdisciplinary research field. The case of the distribution of organs taken from living donors is emblematic of the kind of issue broadly discussed in this field. An important part of the work – whether in economics (Becker and Elìas 2007; Kaserman and Barnett 1991), sociology (Steiner 2010a and b; Cohen 2003; Radin 1996) or philosophy (Radin 1996; Taylor 2005; Satz 2012; Grant 2012; Sandel 2012) – considers the social rejection of an organ market partly from a normative perspective. There is one exception: Alvin Roth. As an economist and an engineer (Roth 2002), Roth does not consider rejection of the market as an ethical problem, but rather as a fact with which we must work:

My point is that people find some transactions repugnant. That’s a reason to treat other people’s intuitions about repugnant transactions with respect, even if they don’t raise or lower their hands at the same moment we do.
Seeing himself primarily as an engineer, he accepts this market repugnance, and makes sure he provides an alternative efficient matching device:

As market designers, my colleagues and I are often faced with constraints. […] Sometimes constraints can be removed ; sometimes, it looks more promising to work around them.

Based on this principle, Roth, Sönmez and Ünver (2004, 2005) have developed matching structures to increase the number of organ transplants from living persons, without undermining the almost general prohibition on organ markets…


  • Introduction
  • 1 -RSU’s matching devices
  • 2 -Does money matter ?
  • 3 -Repugnance and markets
  • 4 -Repugnance and coercion
  • 5 -Vulnerability as a necessary condition
  • Conclusion


JEL Codes: B41, D47, D64, A14

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