A new study into the effects of markets on moral values has found that people are more likely to authorise killing animals when operating within bilateral market-like conditions. Participants were given the option to either receive no money and to save the life of a laboratory mouse, or to earn money and accept the killing of the mouse. The results show a clear link between markets and eroded moral values.
Mouse picture from Shutterstock
Researchers from the Center for Economics and Neuroscience at the University of Bonn in Germany asked volunteers whether they would forego 10 Euros in profit to save the life of a healthy mouse.
For the experiment, subjects were informed about the process of how the mice would be killed: “The mouse is gassed. The gas flows slowly into the hermetically sealed cage. The gas leads to breathing arrest. At the point at which the mouse is not visibly breathing anymore, it remains in the cage for another 10 minutes. It will then be removed.”
The study was not a simulation: the lives of real mice were determined by the experiment, with those that were spared given comfortable living conditions for the duration of their lifespans (approval for the study was given by the Ethics Committee of the University of Bonn).
While participants were reluctant to kill the mice for personal profit, the introduction of market-like conditions dramatically increased the proportion willing to see the creature killed in exchange for the money — and the process made them feel less bad about it. The justification "if I don't do it, someone else will" seems to apply.
We have shown that markets reduce moral concerns. Additional support comes from self-reported feelings of bad conscience. In case a subject decided to kill a mouse he was asked about feelings of bad conscience on a seven point Likert scale. Traders in the bilateral market express significantly lower feelings of bad conscience than subjects in the individual condition.
The researchers compare this 'Mouse Paradigm' to universal objections over forced child labor: "Many people express objections against child labor and other forms of exploitation of the workforce. At the same time, they seem to ignore their moral standards when acting as market participants, searching and buying the cheapest electronics, fashion, or food, and thereby consciously or subconsciously creating the undesired negative consequences to which they generally object."
The report concludes that society needs to think about where markets are appropriate—and where they are not.
Morals and Markets [sciencemag.org]