Morals and Markets

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Slides for this module (draft)

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to for-profit prisons, auctioning admission to elite universities, or selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay? 
Prof. Michael Sandel takes up one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Isn’t there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets? 


Please answer the following questions before proceeding.

Questionnaire 6.1

In the following videos Prof. Armin Falk talks about morality and its malleability (we are different people in different situations). What is the role of insitutions (and in particular markets) in shaping/eroding human morality? Here is how they tested.

Prof. Armin Falk discusses what are the mechanisms that tempt people to behave immorally. Is it delegation of responsibility?

And a final comment

In case you are interested you can watch the entire Panel Discussion here.

Questionnaire 6.2

Discussion: A recent article (The moral machine experiment) published in 2018 in Nature finds that many of the moral principles that guide a driver’s decisions vary by country. For example, in a scenario in which some combination of pedestrians and passengers will die in a collision, people from relatively prosperous countries with strong institutions were less likely to spare a pedestrian who stepped into traffic illegally. The survey, called the Moral Machine, laid out 13 scenarios in which someone’s death was inevitable. Respondents were asked to choose who to spare in situations that involved a mix of variables: young or old, rich or poor, more people or fewer.



  • Markets are the best way to allocate resources. But, sometimes they produce negative externalities for third parties (e.g. pollution, child labor)
  • Markets affect what we consider right and wrong (morality, norms, culture, values)  and may erode moral values. 
  • Morality is malleable: moral values are endogenous to institutional setting.

Suggested movie for tonight: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)



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