Do Markets Erode Moral Values? People Ignore Their Own Moral Standa...

You loathe cruelty to animals, such as gestation crates.

But when you're in the supermarket with a limited food budget, comparing packages of pork

don't you pick the "best value"? You don't even think about the role gestation crates play in producing the most meat at the cheapest cost.

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,... Thus, markets reduce moral concerns.

Prof. Dr. Armin Falk from the University of Bonn and Prof. Dr. Nora Szech from the University of Bamberg, both economists, have shown in an experiment that markets erode moral concerns. In comparison to non-market decisions, moral standards are significantly lower if people participate in markets.

"Our results show that market participants violate their own moral standards," says Prof. Falk.

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.

... subjects may justify their behavior by stressing that their impact on outcomes is negligible. "This logic is a general characteristic of markets," says Prof. Falk. Excuses or justifications appeal to the saying, "If I don't buy or sell now, someone else will." [emphasis mine]

I might also add that the setting in which buying and selling occurs protects participants from seeing or hearing the morally reprehensible aspect. Markets are uniform, abstracted from nature, distant.

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Another part of that is many of us grew up on family farms and killing was part of farming. We grew up wallowing in the entrails, blood, and chickens with heads cut off and thought nothing of it. We helped in the harvest and enjoyed the fried chicken dinner or the pork roast or beef steak.  

We live in different times now. Killing takes place far away from the consumer and we don't know the conditions under which our meats are born, raised, and butchered. 

I lived in Alaska for two years and went hunting, trapping and fishing with Indian native women. We always took the eyes of the creature as we thanked it for giving us food. An entirely different value system than on the family farm or at the supermarket. 

Seeing that photo of the pig in a "gestation crate" is terribly revolting ... not the picture, but the process. As much as I hate seeing that picture, we need to see what the animals suffer in the process of providing food to our tables.  Vegetarianism becomes a viable option for a devout carnivore. 

No surprises here. I recently heard a woman interviewed on NPR who was coming out of one of the stores implicated as doing business with the company in Bangladesh where the building collapsed. Her response to the information was that they (the company) needed to do a better job of controlling those kinds of problems. Apparently though, she was not the slightest bit culpable as a consumer. Go figure. 

But on the other hand, her attitude was somewhat understandable. While corporations do have a responsibility, it is hard as a consumer to control labor practices, as boycotting or wise purchasing decisions does not seem to end the problem. 

I don't buy a lot of clothes, but I know full well that when I do buy something, that the labor or environmental circumstances in which they were produced are often hidden from me. So what should I do? Go without?

I once looked up some fair trade clothing online, and found a t-shirt for about $80. Seriously? Even if that does reflect an actual fair price (providing that it was not a scam that plays of conscientious consumers), who can afford that? Not me! 

It seems that human behavior (which is what economics is) is a tangled web from which there is no escape. 

It also seems to me that economic theory is just a way of legitimizing organized crime. 

Dallas, the buying public needs to stand up and take responsibility for working conditions of those who provide us goods and services. Many years ago Older Women's League did a project on a $2.00 blouse and what it cost the women who made those blouses. It was a staggering learning event. OWL did the research and found out the truth about working conditions and living situations for those who made our garments, and we did a campaign to inform the public. We were able to raise awareness of immoral and unethical practices. We wrote articles for newspapers, radio and TV, we boycotted stores that carried these products, and we did a unit at public schools, which the teachers and principles liked.
One day, the mayor of Spokane asked me how many OWL members we had. I responded, "Three." The city council had been discussing us and thought we were legion.

What an interesting lesson on the power of highly motivated activists. On the other hand there are so many competing companies making blouses, I doubt all of that work focused on one company in Spokane made much of a ripple on overseas garment worker protection. Perhaps today one could post videos on what was learned to reach a broader consumer base.

Good for you Joan. Thanks for sharing. : )


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