Market Exchange, Self-Interest, and the Common Good: Financial Crisis and Moral Economy

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2010


The financial crisis of 2008–2009 presents us with the opportunity to not only understand what has happened in the markets but also to reflect on the purpose of the marketplace. Drawing from expert economic analyses, we first assess the central lesson of the crisis—the failure of self-regulation by rational self-interest to moderate externalized risk in financial markets. Second, we ask the philosophical question occasioned by the crisis concerning the moral meaning of economic activity: Is market exchange solely for the sake of self-interest? Reflecting on the poetry of Kahlil Gibran and engaging with the recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, we turn our attention from political economy to moral economy: the relationships among market exchange, self-interest, and the common good—and, in particular, the prior conditions of market exchange and their moral significance for the present crisis.