Is Anything Beyond Price?
If something is beyond price this means that a rational human being would not accept anything in exchange for that thing, be it physical or immaterial. Unfortunately there is a vast diversity of opinion amongst the people that we might consider rational. It would be easy to claim these were due to differences of circumstance and experience, but that would leave us as attempting to deal with a concept of price that is objective. The price a person is willing to pay for something is not based upon some abstract concept of worth. Instead, on many levels they consider things such as supply, production costs and other means of acquiring the product. This, combined with their previous experience of price will lead them to a conclusion about how much such a thing is worth to them.
The price of something does not have to be pecuniary. The welfare of others, as well as philosophical principles or other incentives can be offered in return for some service or object. It is easy to conceive of things that a person might not be willing to give up for any amount of money, but this does not mean that they are priceless. If someone has formed a psychological attachment to relatives or friends they may be willing to give up almost anything to prevent certain unpleasant punishments being inflicted on them.
Those physical objects that a museum might describe as priceless are not truly beyond price. For example, the Louvre might refuse to sell the Mona Lisa for £500 million. While this might be regarded as a price for which any painting should be sold the negative publicity and drop in admission figures, along with displeasure by the artistic community would mean that this might not be sufficient. If instead Bill Gates were to sell his portion of Microsoft, and offer $30 billion I would be most surprised if the sale were not to go through. The complicating factor of law might interfere in this instance however, as the French government blocks the sale. This wouldn’t indicate that the Mona Lisa was beyond price, only that its sale was prevented by other measures. In this instance Isaiah Berlin would probably say that the liberty to buy is not compromised, only the physical ability, so one cannot speak of the object as being priceless.
Certain abstract commodities are rarely traded for with money usually. Countries negotiating a peace treaty may not accept the terms as defined by their opponent for money, instead the price would be a say in how the treaty is formulated. While one could say that this means that the treaty as the opponent defines it is beyond price, as it is changed by the price, this is not so. The country might be willing to allow even this if another nation were to pledge military and economic help if those terms were agreed upon.
One entity set for which it is difficult to argue against pricelessness is that of things which change the very nature of the being that is given them up. The most prominent example of this is death. Most rewards that can be given for giving up something assume the ability of the person to accept the reward having given up whatever it is that is being released. Death certainly prevents an individual from spending money, or enjoying any of those material pleasures that could be obtained with sufficient money. The only possible things that someone might accept in return for their own death would be things that are beneficial to others or beliefs that the individual cares about. A Darwinian view would certainly allow this, as the “purpose” of an organism’s life using that view is to propagate its genes. If an animal’s breeding life has finished then this would be used as a justification as to why it might perform some activity that leads to its death, but protects its descendants. Suicide bombers, and other people prepared to die for their faith may seem like a logical counterexample to this point, but they are not making the same calculation. Instead they expect a heavenly reward rather than the blank oblivion most atheists would expect.
People who are prepared to die for their beliefs, who do not believe in reward for their actions seem to be the most problematic category. From a compassionless view it would seem that they are being illogical, but as humans we can see why people might do such things. They may wish to make their point very strongly, to make themselves “immortal” by dying in a glorious manner, or just to save several lives at the cost of their own. It is likely that people consider this to be important because of the views that they have acquired in their life, whether they are moral or philosophical.
To conclude this essay we may say that it seems that to most people there are few things that are beyond price. The price that may be required to make someone do something, or sacrifice something need not necessarily be a monetary one, and different people will desire different prices. Nevertheless some people may hold some things to be beyond price.