When People Ignore Their Own Moral Standards

A recent study examined how people’s moral behavior is shaped by market forces. This experiment is of particular interest to vegans and advocates of veganism. You will soon see why.

A press release about the study begins:
Many people express objections against child labor, exploitation of the workforce or meat production involving cruelty against animals. At the same time, however, people ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, searching for the cheapest electronics, fashion or food. Thus, markets reduce moral concerns. This is the main result of an experiment conducted by economists from the Universities of Bonn and Bamberg. The results are presented in the latest issue of the renowned journal ‘Science’.” [emphasis added]
Here is an outline of how the experiment was conducted, as I understand it. Researchers split participants into three groups:
  1. One group was offered 10 Euros to let the mouse be killed; or they could refuse the money and let the mouse live
  2. Another group was allowed to sell a mouse to someone else who would kill the mouse (in this way they could get more or less than 10 Euros); or they could refuse to sell the mouse and keep the mouse alive
  3. The third group was allowed to sell the mouse to any number of willing buyers who would kill the mouse
Now, there are some details I’d like to share about the experiment and the mice before we move on to the study results. These raise questions about how we can study real moral issues in an ethical way. I’ll let your mind ponder on that without commentary. Here are the mice details: The mice were lab mice bred for another experiment. They were healthy but not suitable for the first experiment and thus the mice were scheduled for euthanasia. Participants in this study about moral behavior and markets were shown a video of the euthanizing process that would be used to kill the mice. From what I understand about this economics study, the mice who were “saved” by study participants were in fact actually saved. The number of study participants who refused to accept the money or participate in market trades equaled the number of mice who were purchased from the lab and were given safe permanent homes.

But that number was relatively small. Of the 124 participants in the first group, 46 percent accepted the money and allowed a mouse to be killed. In the second group 72 percent of the sellers were willing to have the mouse killed in exchange for money. In the third group, 76 percent of sellers in this third group chose to accept the money despite the fact that it resulted in a mouse-killing.
They tested these results against a more morally neutral commodity, coupons. That is, they performed this same experiment but instead of using mice, they used coupons. Participants could keep or sell their coupon. They found that people’s behavior did not shift as much when engaged in the choice to sell this morally neutral commodity as it did when offered the choice to sell mice. The researchers concluded that market interaction lowers moral values as compared to individual actions.
In the views of many philosophers, politicians, and economists this study didn’t teach us anything new, it simply provided more empirical evidence that economic markets can erode moral behavior. And the study raises other important questions, too.

It’s worth noting (and perhaps worth exploring in future studies) that in all the above scenarios, the amount of money was relatively small (under 20 Euros) indicating the relative ease with which people may exchange life for money. Furthermore, not only were more people willing to actively engage in selling their mice to a group of buyers/killers (than people willing to accept an offer to buy/kill their mice)… but also, this group of sellers received less money than the first group!

It appears that they perceived that the animals’ lives had less value when the animal had an obvious ”market value” with many active buyers trying to negotiate a deal than when the animal was simply an animal in their care with only one low-pressure offer. Clearly, the value of animals’ lives changes depending on whether or not the animal is viewed as a commodity. This isn’t merely the difference between viewing an animal as a pet or as a meal, this is more fundamentally about the difference between an animal with a price tag on his or her head versus an animal without a price tag attached. It doesn’t appear related to the species of the animal, his or her health, the animal’s ability to produce something useful for humans, tradition or culture, taste or fashion preferences, or any other reason. It was merely the price tag hung by market forces.

This study brings into question the ability of consumers to effect social change through ethical consumerism, specifically boycotts like veganism. One wonders if even people with strong morals struggle with maintaining those morals in amoral markets, perhaps there is no market solution to animal cruelty. Or perhaps the solution is wildly different than the one many vegans imagine. Either way, if we want a vegan world we need to do more than just be vegan ourselves.

Details about the study were gleaned from these sources:
This post was cross-posted at Vegan Soapbox

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