Bad news for fans of organ markets

Michael Cook
11 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Controversy continues to rage over whether or not to establish a market in organs to shorten steadily growing waiting lists. One objection is that applying a market model will result in exploitation and moral corruption.

Two German economists have published in Science the results of an economic experiment which supports the pessimistic side of the argument.

Armin Falk, of the University of Bonn, and Nora Szech, of the University of Bamberg, claim that in comparison to non-market decisions, people's moral standards are significantly lower if they participate in markets.

In a number of different experiments, several hundred subjects were confronted with the moral decision between receiving a monetary amount and killing a laboratory mouse versus saving the life of a mouse and foregoing the monetary amount.

The animals involved in the study were "surplus mice", which had been raised in laboratories outside Germany and were no longer needed for research. Without the experiment, they would have all been killed. If a subject decided to save a mouse, the experimenters bought the animal and housed it in a healthy environment for the rest of its life.

Falk and Szech found that a significantly higher number of participants in their experiments were willing to accept the killing of a mouse in market conditions. "In markets, people face several mechanisms that may lower their feelings of guilt and responsibility," says 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.

In addition, in markets with many buyers and sellers, subjects may justify their behavior by stressing that their impact on outcomes is negligible. "If I don't buy or sell now, someone else will."

This is certain to provoke heated disagreement, especially in the US, where devotion to the market economy approaches religious fervour in some circles. However, Falk and Szech stress that they recognise the benefits of markets; they simply want to show that markets do tend to erode moral standards. They also acknowledge that the alternative, a command economy or a totalitarian system, does not produce more ethical outcomes.