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A Worthy Distinction

A correspondent wrote to ask me the following question:

Isn’t there something more intrinsic to the worker [beyond or apart from the value to his or her employer of his or her hourly output] in relation to the job that could be used to determine the appropriate wage?

My answer, of course, is no.

This answer does not mean that I believe that the worker as a person is “worth” whatever hourly wage he or she fetches.  A person’s ethical worth or moral worth or intrinsic worth – or a person’s value to his or her family, friends, and neighbors – is completely different from the market value of whatever it is he or she produces while on the job.  Endless confusion is promoted by the fact that the term “worth” is used, in one setting, to describe traits that are emphatically non-economic and non-market while, in another setting, that term is used to describe the economic or market value of whatever it is that he or she produces as an employee.

Suppose that Mother Teresa, just before the end of her long and very worthy life, decided that she’d like to record some rock songs.  So suppose further that she arranged for a recording studio to record her singing some of her own rock compositions.  Finally suppose – quite realistically – that the general public just didn’t like her recordings as much as they like, say, the Beatles’ recording of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or Michael Jackson’s recording of “Thriller.”

The amount of money that Mother Teresa would have earned from her rock recordings would be far less than the Fab Four earned from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and that Michael Jackson raked in from his recording of “Thriller.”

Would anyone conclude from this fact that Mother Teresa, as a human being, is worth less than John, Paul, George, and Ringo?  Or less worthy than is Michael Jackson?  Would anyone suppose that an economist who explained why the Beatles and Jackson earned more from their musical recordings than did Mother Teresa believes, thereby, that Mother Teresa is less intrinsically worthy than are the Beatles and Michael Jackson?  Would anyone think that your, my, and nearly every other human being’s refusal to pay as much for Mother Teresa’s recordings as we pay for recordings by the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and other popular musical acts is a sign that we regard Mother Teresa to be a second-class human being?  Most importantly, would anyone believe that we have a moral obligation to arbitrarily increase the amounts of money we each pay for Mother Teresa’s recordings just because we believe that her non-economic (“intrinsic”) worth as a human being is at least equal to, and likely greater than, that of successful rock musicians?