Misplaced Paternalism and other Mistakes in the Debate over Kidney Sales

Bioethics 31 (3):190-198 (2017)
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Erik Malmqvist defends the prohibition on kidney sales as a justifiable measure to protect individuals from harms they have not autonomously chosen. This appeal to ‘group soft paternalism’ requires that three conditions be met. It must be shown that some vendors will be harmed, that some will be subject to undue pressure to vend, and that we cannot feasibly distinguish between the autonomous and the non-autonomous. I argue that Malmqvist fails to demonstrate that any of these conditions are likely to obtain. His argument involves two common errors. First, he, like many, proceeds on a mistaken understanding of how to assess harm. What matters is not the balance of costs and benefits of vending, but a comparison of potential vendors’ welfare across two possible courses of action. Second, Malmqvist's concerns about third-party pressure are predicated on an empirically unrealistic understanding of the operation of a regulated market. A widely underappreciated fact is that kidney sales will be relatively rare, and most who try to vend will be unable to. Because pressure on another to vend will not result in the desired outcome, few will exert it.



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Luke Semrau
Georgetown University

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