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Some things can’t be sold, but is Páirc Uí Chaoimh one of them?

Unthinkable: If SuperValu Páirc is not to your taste, what about Supermac’s University of Galway?

Stadium re-branding, re-naming controversy. Illustration: Paul Scott/The Irish Times

First the re-branders came for Lansdowne Road, then they came for Páirc Uí Chaoimh. What next? AAA Funeral Homes Croak It Park?

Is nothing sacred, the people of Cork asked, as word leaked out in recent days of plans to rename the county’s GAA ground SuperValu Páirc. Growing outrage has led to talks on a compromise between Cork GAA and the proposed new sponsor.

But what exactly is wrong with a sporting body flogging off the naming rights to its stadium?

You may find the idea distasteful, but explaining why it is immoral is not as simple as you might think. That’s according to American philosophers Jason Brennan and Peter M Jaworski who wrote an influential book, Markets Without Limits, almost a decade ago, arguing that concerns about the “corrupting” effect of commodification were exaggerated.


The pair throw down a challenge to those who recoil at the Aviva Stadium name-change, or who believe that giving blood would be morally tainted should donors get paid. Their central theory is that, if you can do something for free, you should be able to do it for money too.

Claims that something of value is being sullied by a price tag are described by the pair as symbolic or “semiotic”. Imagine someone leaving cash on the pillow of a romantic partner to show appreciation after sex. It’s the symbolism of the act that’s potentially problematic but there is no moral principle at stake, according to Brennan and Jaworski.

Does their argument hold up? The Irish Times turned to University of Galway law lecturer John Danaher who has examined the ethics of commodification as part of his research on new technology – he also runs a lively intellectual blog called Philosophical Disquisitions. Danaher answers the questions as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Are things necessarily corrupted by putting a price tag on them?

“It really depends on what the thing is ... Obviously lots of buildings are named after the people that paid for them and we don’t bat an eyelid at it. Trump has Trump Tower, Rockefeller has Rockefeller Plaza and so on. But some buildings have a broader social and public significance.

“To take the Páirc Uí Chaoimh example: that stadium was named after Pádraig Ó Caoimh in honour of his achievements and contribution to the GAA. That came on top of the fact that GAA has, or had, a proud tradition of amateurism and non-commercialisation. So people – rightfully in my view – saw the naming of the stadium as an honour, not a commodity. Turning around and saying that you can buy the naming rights disrupts that view and eliminates the honour.

“Whether putting a price on something is bad in other contexts is a bigger question. Sometimes it is not. For example, if you pay people to recycle their rubbish, rather than doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, or for fear of penalty, you may well get more net recycling. That could be a net gain, all things considered.”

Do Brennan and Jaworski underestimate the value of symbolism?

“Symbols are undoubtedly important ... That said, to defend Brennan and Jaworski for a minute, the meaning – and consequently the value – attached to a symbol isn’t necessarily fixed across all times and places. We might think that paying someone to mourn at our parent’s funeral is bizarre and crass: an insult, rather than an honour, to their legacy. But not everyone sees it the same way.

“Professional mourners were common in Ancient Rome and have a long history in Chinese culture. Brennan and Jaworski’s point is that if symbols don’t have fixed meaning, and if sometimes changing the meaning of the symbol would lead to better outcomes, maybe we should focus on changing the meaning rather than treating it as fixed and immutable.

“For example, some people might find the idea of paying someone for a kidney donation crass and insulting but if doing so led to more people getting donations, and fewer people on dialysis, maybe we should just get at it.”

Is there a case for excluding certain areas of social activity from commodification, such as sport or education?

“Yes, especially if those areas of life are areas in which honour and achievement are important. But we have to be realistic as well: the boat has long sailed on the commodification of sport and education. Universities already enter into sponsorship deals with commercial enterprises and business people.”

How would you feel about your own institution being renamed Supermac’s University of Galway?

“I have nothing against Supermac’s but naming a public educational institution after a commercial enterprise would be a misstep in my view. This is for two main reasons.

“First, I like to think of universities as custodians and pioneers of human knowledge ... To name a university after a commercial enterprise would send the wrong message about the function they perform, and tie them to a local and ephemeral commercial context.

“Second, by associating themselves with particular businesses and, indeed, individuals and families, universities render themselves hostages to fortune in the debate at symbolic meanings. Think of the controversies in recent years at the Berkeley Library and Schrödinger Theatre in Trinity College, or the David Hume Tower in Edinburgh ... Boring, generic names are more likely to stand the test of time and this is what universities should do.”