Commodification, Control, and the Contractualisation of the Human Body

T.T. Arvind, Aisling McMahon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter puts the philosophical debate on commodification in the context of the legal concept of commodities. In law, commodification is intrinsically connected with contractualisation, through which contract acquires a central role in structuring social relations. This link between contractualisation and commodification has two consequences. Firstly, it gives its objects a legal value, turning them into objects capable of being traded through market transactions and placing the focus on their commodity-value rather than social perceptions of their intrinsic worth. Secondly, in a commodified conception of contracts, the standing of people in their relations with each other is understood in terms of the characteristics of the contractual transactions linking them—their conformity with the parties’ agreement, their fitness for the purposes to which they are applied, etc. This excludes values and evaluative positions other than the contractual values of autonomy and self-ordering. Through an analysis of the impact of patent law on areas ranging from the patenting of isolated genes to access to medicines, we show that commodification affects more domains and has deeper effects than generally assumed. Commodification directs the legal system’s focus towards facilitating the creation of contractual frameworks of self-ordering, and towards insulating law from the broader dimensions of the value of human life, well-being, and different forms of human striving. We argue that the study of commodification must evolve beyond focusing on the limits of markets, and must also focus on the limits of contracts—which are generally modelled on an exchange framework as a way of conceiving relations and on private frameworks of regulation—their aetiology, and on devising ways of ameliorating such limitations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Limits of the Market
Subtitle of host publicationInterdisciplinary perspectives
EditorsElodie Bertrand, Marie-Xavière Catto, Alicia Mornington
PublisherMare & Martin
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 31 Oct 2019

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