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Of Mice and Markets
Some goods, such as widgets, are freely bought and sold in markets without protest, whereas others, such as indulgences, are not. Some mice that have been bred for use in laboratory experiments turn out to be surplus to requirements and are subsequently sacrificed. Falk and Szech (p. 707) studied the effect that marketplace negotiation has had on experimental subjects' willingness to pay for the upkeep of these surplus mice. Individuals were willing to pay much more to save the mice, but market-like exchanges lowered these prices.
The possibility that market interaction may erode moral values is a long-standing, but controversial, hypothesis in the social sciences, ethics, and philosophy. To date, empirical evidence on decay of moral values through market interaction has been scarce. We present controlled experimental evidence on how market interaction changes how human subjects value harm and damage done to third parties. In the experiment, subjects decide between either saving the life of a mouse or receiving money. We compare individual decisions to those made in a bilateral and a multilateral market. In both markets, the willingness to kill the mouse is substantially higher than in individual decisions. Furthermore, in the multilateral market, prices for life deteriorate tremendously. In contrast, for morally neutral consumption choices, differences between institutions are small.