How markets allow people to violate their moral codes

Here's a press-release describing a paywalled paper in Science magazine, written by a pair of University of Bonn Economists. They conducted an experiment that showed how markets diffused responsibility for actions that ended up violating individual moral codes, so that people did things in market contexts that they had previously described as immoral when done individually.

"To study immoral outcomes, we studied whether people are willing to harm a third party in exchange to receiving money. Harming others in an intentional and unjustified way is typically considered unethical," says Prof. Falk. The animals involved in the study were so-called "surplus mice", raised in laboratories outside Germany. These mice are no longer needed for research purposes. Without the experiment, they would have all been killed. As a consequence of the study many hundreds of young mice that would otherwise all have died were saved. If a subject decided to save a mouse, the experimenters bought the animal. The saved mice are perfectly healthy and live under best possible lab conditions and medical care.

A subgroup of subjects decided between life and money in a non-market decision context (individual condition). This condition allows for eliciting moral standards held by individuals. The condition was compared to two market conditions in which either only one buyer and one seller (bilateral market) or a larger number of buyers and sellers (multilateral market) could trade with each other. If a market offer was accepted a trade was completed, resulting in the death of a mouse. Compared to the individual condition, a significantly higher number of subjects were willing to accept the killing of a mouse in both market conditions. This is the main result of the study. Thus markets result in an erosion of moral values. "In markets, people face several mechanisms that may lower their feelings of guilt and responsibility," explains Nora Szech. In market situations, people focus on competition and profits rather than on moral concerns. Guilt can be shared with other traders. In addition, people see that others violate moral norms as well.

"If I don't buy or sell, someone else will."

Markets Erode Moral Values (via Reddit)


      1. Some fraction of the people reading your comment will miss (or deliberately ignore) the intended irony of it, yet still agree with it, as they ARE anti-market fundamentalists.

        So to unpick this cobweb of sarcasm: if you are in favour of markets where they have social utility, but also restraining/replacing them in specific areas where they can’t work (e.g. healthcare, monopolies) then I agree entirely with you.

    1. Duh.  But maybe this is just clear and dense enough that a couple Randians might choke on it a little.

      1. For Randians money is in practicality morality.  They will not be bothered by this.

  1. I imagine there’s some overlap with the way that people can equally accept unethical/distasteful things when they’re compartmentalized. 

  2.  this simple experiment does little in the way to prove marxism is a credible political ideology beneficial to a society as a whole. There are so many things wrong with marxism, just as many if not more than our current form of capitalism, which is also quite flawed.

    1. Did I miss the part where somebody other than you mentioned Marx, much less alleged that this experiment was relevant to him?

      1. When you live in a polarized world any threat to your beliefs needs to be immediately addressed.

        1.  I almost responded, then realized the thread was a joke. I’m not a marxist, but I do think that marxism was/is an interesting economic philosophy.

          However, I don’t have a problem at all with destroying mice or rats.

  3. Is that really Markets? Yes, it is, but that seems like anything where you have more people. More people spread the blame and allow the ‘everyone else is doing it’ excuse.  Who doesn’t remember doing something in a group that they’re ashamed of now?

    I was also certainly willing to accept the deaths of lab rats in college, even though I would never deliberately just kill a pet rat.

    1. Precisely, and also I (like anyone) would wish that every cockroach could have his own butler, jacuzzi, 24-hour gym and personal trainer, yacht, etc, so long as no one else was disadvantaged by this.

      In reality we have to allocate limited resources, which is the sole point of economics.

      Would you kill a mouse if it was the only creature in the world and it cost you nothing to keep it alive? Of course not.

      Would you kill a mouse if by doing so you could extend your daughter’s life by one second? You’d grab a mallet…

          1. Yeah, but the second-last’s just irrational because if a mouse was the only creature in the world, you wouldn’t be around to kill it.

        1. Lost me on the irrationality of that last paragraph hypothetical.  Do you mean the premise somehow makes no sense? Or his the assertion of “your” response (ie, grabbing a mallet) is not one you think is rational? Did your head really spin?

  4. The interesting thing is that a Walton family member likely wouldn’t kill a mouse for $5, but they will happily live off the backs of modern day human slaves.

  5. It’s a universal street, going both ways. Consider this responding post from a BB in regards to a titanium bicycle fork made in China known for catastrophic failures.

    “I had one once, rode it once and it flexed so much it scared the hell out of me and I sold it on ebay right away. Buyer beware on this fork

    Dangerous fork, right? But hey, expensive as hell too! Buyer beware, but I doubt he wrote that in the Ebay description…

  6. I was a Undergraduate Philosophy Major with a concentration in Ethics and Logic. Began a business career shortly after College (now 30 yrs in) and was immediately struck by the tension between between organizational goals and individual ethics. If business people are honest with themselves they will admit that this crops up all the time. Sadly very few are honest with themselves- even fewer are brave enough to do anything about it. I also would argue that the gap between individual moral standards and business goals/outcomes has significantly worsened over the last 3 decades.

  7. It sounds like people don’t value the lives of mice very much. Queue jokes about performing fellatio for money. Sounds like a victory for the ethics of utilitarianism over slaughtering mice… What are you gonna do? Send thugs to bully people and take them away from their families when they choose an outcome some slight majority of people don’t like? 

    1. Actually that doesn’t show the opposite at all.  That study shows that priming people raised in a capitalist society with “phrases relating to markets and trade” increases the trust of those individuals towards counterparties.

      It has everything to do with people’s perceptions of the trustworthiness of a counterparty and nothing to do with the actual ethics of people involved in market interactions.  The counterparties could unethically exploit that trust, for example, and that would support both studies simultaneously.

  8. The fundamental flaw in this whole study is it assumed that killing mice are some how immoral.  I’d stick a mouse on a stick and fry it over a hot fire if people actually liked eating mice.  This study doesn’t show what the title suggest.
    If you think so you should reconsider your education economics and ethics.

    1. You’re forgetting there was  a control group. Responses differed between the control group and the test groups.

  9. Society as a whole shows this quite merrily.  The trick is, the more distant and obscured the unpalatable outcomes, the easier it is for people to ignore their guilt, shame or accountability.

    So fraudsters – in the UK, say, benefits cheats – suck money out of a social welfare system, probably causing school breakfast programs for hungry poor kids to be limited, but since they’re not faced with those kids, and the negative outcomes of their actions are so diffuse, they go ahead and pull as much as they can from the system.

    Same with tax cheats.  Fine, no-one wants to see money disappear, and probably few people actually believe government can spend it well, but nonetheless that’s our chosen mechanism for supporting society.

    I could easily pay 20% less tax, but I’d be uncomfortable knowing that grannies in Newcastle die in the winter because they can’t afford to heat their property.

    And we all have lovely smartphones (including me), laden with precious metals from semi-war-zones, and I bet many of our married partners have diamonds with little knowledge of their ugly source.

    We’re a fucking horrible lot, really.

  10. Considering that there are so many thousands or millions of mice in the same condition, considering that there are so many of thousands or millions of bigger concerns than saving laboratory mice…I don’t see the choice as an ethical one. It is rational, based on limited resources, to deny saving the mouse.

    Consider an experiment in which one must choose whether to breed mice for cancer research (as the only option) or not. That really is the genesis of the problem, after all. Most would have little problem with pumping the mice full of cancer to save human lives – without a thought as to what happens to the mice after.

    There seems little value in saving a particular mouse simply because it is thrust before you.

    Imagine being faced with a homeless man. If you don’t give him $5, he will go hungry. Suddenly this man, like the mouse in the experiment, is your personal responsibility. Maybe you can’t afford to support feeding this man for the rest of his life. Maybe you give him $5, though you can’t afford to do that everyday. Then you are presented with the same choice tomorrow. At what point does it become unethical to deny responsibility for the actions of someone else? Saving 1 mouse and not all the rest is like feeding a man for one day and letting him starve thereafter. Not a terribly ethical action.

    It’s simply the psychology of guilt that causes people to save the mice in a 1-1 scenario. Attributing it to ethics unjustifiably flatters the subjects, and more relevantly those conducting the study.

  11. First, they failed to establish a causal connection with actual markets. They just showed some correlation with their artificial simulations and didn’t even properly explore alternative explanations (for example maybe the cause is not markets, maybe it’s people informing and communicating between each other etc). 

    Second, they didn’t prove the values were “eroded” nor “moral”, maybe they were just unrealistically overvalued at first and later when they were confronted with more information the valuations came closer to reality. (Btw this is just an example of an alternative explanation, just by proving it false one does not prove the original claim)

    Third, their statistics don’t take into account the researchers themselves. This is very similar to the myth or fallacy that markets can be “regulated” form the “outside”. In fact, there is no “outside” – even the “regulators” (qua regulators) are participants in the markets.

    (yes I’ve read the whole paper)

  12. Since the original article is behind a paywall, could someone please summarize what this experiment consisted of?

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