Capitalism might be making us evil

A study by 2 German economists finds that markets make people more likely to betray their own moral codes.

By Jason Notte May 16, 2013 7:19AM
CEO (copyright Digital Vision/Getty Images)It's just some non-MBA's quack theory that the market strips away all humanity and transforms people into commodities and resources rather than sentient beings whose welfare must be taken into account. There's no quantitative truth to that, right?

Well, maybe just the research of a couple of German economists.

According to a release from the universities of Bamberg and Bonn, a study by economists Armin Falk and Nora Szech released in the journal Science found that markets erode people's morality and help them make decisions that look outright awful without the thin veil of commerce. In short, capitalism makes us do some not-so-nice things.

Of course, shoppers who went out and bought clothes at retailers tied to the deaths of more than 1,100 textile workers in Bangladesh and who buy jeans that CNN says have caused whole rivers in China to turn blue already know this. But the study's key question -- would you let a mouse be killed in exchange for 10 euros? -- presented the theory in far starker terms.

In the first control group of several hundred subjects, 46% agreed to let the mice die.

Then the researchers upped the stakes by putting more people in a market environment, where rights to trade the lives of the mice were bought and sold. In that context, 72% of the people involved were willing to trade the lives of mice for money -- but for far less than 10 euros.

When the study complicated that market even further by adding more levels of traders, roughly 76% of people in the study would kill mice for even lower prices.

"This logic is a general characteristic of markets," Falk says in a press release. "If I don't buy or sell now, someone else will."

Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel said roughly as much about capitalism's open markets in an excerpt from his book "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets," published by The Atlantic. He warns that America is in danger of becoming a "market society, a way of life in which market values and market reasoning reach into every sphere of life."

Sandel uses the example of a woman who earned $10,000 for having a company's Web address tattooed on her forehead and then used the money to help pay for her son's education. The problem with being able to buy and sell everything, he says, is that we devalue the things we are buying and selling.

While the German economists insist that not all markets are evil, they further posit that not all elements of human existence should be subject to forces of the market. If we're willing to kill mice for money, they imply, we may not be so hesitant to let soldiers, factory workers or other people die so that we might gain. As the researchers wrote: "We as a society have to think about where markets are appropriate and where they are not."

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May 16, 2013 8:48AM

No, capitalism does not make us evil; but evil people skew the better qualities of capitalism.

May 16, 2013 8:46AM
Communism, Capitalism, Socialism are not evil. The people whom we put in charge is where the evil comes from. 
May 16, 2013 8:38AM
Capitalism is absolutely not perfect, but I'll take my chances as opposed to Socialism.  We've seen what happens there too.  Choose your poison.
May 16, 2013 7:50AM
People were Evil long before they knew what Capitalism was and is. Bogus Capitalism just allowed folks to kick Evil up to a new Level. Now we see the Majority of folks, justifying anything and everything under Sun all under the praise of the almighty Dollar and or the currency of your choice. Dam the overseas Slave Labor and their plight. Dam the Environment. It's all about the moment, not a worry that living for the moment, will destroy your future and your kids kids, future. We Reap what we Sow, and right now, things are not looking so good for the future of the World. 
May 16, 2013 8:56AM
Gee so the Germans think that Capitalism turns people evil, sure not like that system they had between 1933-1945 called Socialism. Now that was one of the most humane societies that ever exisited, along with the Communist in Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, those guys are just a barrel of laughts.
May 16, 2013 8:55AM
I take my chances with capitalism over socialism any day. With capitalism you have choses, with socialism you are forced to conform.
May 16, 2013 9:06AM
It's not capitalism that's the problem, but the "human factor", which among many other things includes GREED.
May 16, 2013 8:59AM
Were not our forefathers capitalists?  Were they evil also?  Or maybe it's not capitalism, but rather those that glorify the dollar more than they do their own integrity.
May 16, 2013 9:01AM
Wow, can articles and "studies" get any STUPIDER?! Capitalism gives everyone an opportunity to CHOOSE what they want to do for a living and how hard they want to work. Socialism, Communism, Marxism, etc creates a limited number of elites in power and CONTROLS the masses. Hmmm, I think I'll go with Capitalism. 
May 16, 2013 8:48AM
Hmmmm, lots of moving parts in this discussion.   One of which is philanthropy.   I wonder how much of that comes out of non capitalist countries.   That's right ..... almost none.
May 16, 2013 8:55AM
So the measure is how many mice we're willing to kill?  Could they have found something other than a pest to determine how 'evil' we might be?  People are motivated to kill mice all the time.  My supermarket sells mice killing tools.  How about are we willing to kill the human spirit for the sake of the 'collective'?  is it no surprise that neo-Marxist MSN is running this story?
May 16, 2013 9:08AM
UNREAL: MSNBC is writing an article "Does Capitalism make us Evil?" in the midst of the conversion  and collapse of our economic system as we move towards socialism. I have an answer for you MSNBC. Get rid of capitalism and our industrialized economy that has been our hallmark since we began. Then you and all your buddies can join the rest of the unemployed, move into government owned housing, have the same house and car (if you are lucky) as everyone else, and live on a subsidized government income and do nothing to contribute to society. THEN I want to her what you have to say about how horrid capitalism is. I want to hear you rip our way of life, free enterprise, democratic society run by people and businesses when you are immersed in an oppresive disempowering government system. Oh, wait. You won't be able to say much of anything without government approval. Keep talking about how 'bad' we have it, until we don't have it anymore. Newsflash: I'd rather have our economic system (when it is unrestricted and able to grow and function without the restraints big government has put on it, rendering it disabled), with the occasional corrupt CEO, the golden parachutes, and all the other problems than come with it, than ANY other system; socialism, Marxism, communism--YOU have no idea how good you have had shut the $^ up and, do your JOB while you still have one and report some NEWS instead of bashing the system we have (had). Better yet, take on the President's REAL job, since he doesn't seem interested in doing it and come up with ways to improve our system, instead of 'changing' it..
May 16, 2013 8:57AM
Greed is what gives the perception of evil, but if spending my money how i want to spend my money is greedy so be it.  I am better at delegating money than the US Government.  If the government could prove they were not misappropriating our tax dollars and our welfare state was managed to weed out the losers I would pay more taxes without hesitation.

May 16, 2013 9:08AM
evil is evil!!!! if your an honest person life is good.
May 16, 2013 9:00AM
Sooo......Communism sets you free? So when the "collective" has their foot on my neck and a hand on my wallet(because I want to keep what I've earned)....that's a good thing?.....and here I always thought that "Democrats" and their Communist handlers are the bad! must not have grown up here. Stop your sniveling and grow a pair, if you can find time between hand-wringing and waiting for a hand out....:o)..... I almost forgot FREE unicorns and rainbows for all you "fellow travelers".
May 16, 2013 8:54AM
Unchecked capitalism does have this effect, but governments have the power to shape markets according to what we consider moral.  Create markets for pollution vouchers, create limits on how badly workers can be treated, what can and cannot be sold etc.  Capitalism itself is not evil. 

Some of these things have to be carefully considered though.  It may seem immoral to allow prostitution, but if the alternative is that the women in question starve to death or suffer much more than the morality is not so clear. 

For the most part people should be left alone to decide what they want to buy and sell when it comes to themselves and their own well being.  Even drugs should be fought by information campaigns and not with law enforcement. 

Where regulation is most needed is when uninformed choices can result in widescale disaster that affects society as a whole, such as issues regarding pollution and global warming. 

It's sad if a person hurts themselves with a bad choice, but it costs infinite effort to try to forcibly prevent people from making them.  The more you try to force them, the more effort they put into defying you.  In contrast, people learning on their own and from mistakes of others costs society nothing and is much more effective.

May 16, 2013 9:28AM
The only way for capitalism and free enterprise to truly remain "free" it must maintain a benevolent character with a commitment to improving the larger society. When it loses a benevolent character it becomes "greed enterprise" with a completely self-centered motivation. Such an attitude ends up destroying the very society which allowed it to flourish.
May 16, 2013 8:52AM
We live in a fallen world, capitalism is no more evil than anything else.  It comes down to the individual and CHOICES.  No one has ever been able to challenge bible prophecy and it has and is unfolding before your very eyes.
May 16, 2013 9:14AM
Capitalism does not make anyone evil.  Nor does a gun just go off on its own and kill someone.  It is in our nature to be good or bad.  It is a decision that each one of us makes.  It isn't pretty but it is human.
May 16, 2013 8:56AM
Capitalism when allowed to work properly without government interference elevates people by giving them opportunities to better themselves and succeed and it rewards hard work, risk taking and personal responsibility.   The problem is there are now far to many people unwilling to work hard and take risks and unwilling to take personal responsibly.  They have become conditioned to taking hand outs from Big Daddy Government and have been brainwashed (especially our children) into thinking that those who have become successful within the confines of the system some how did so by taking from those who haven't.   Capitalism is under assault but socialism and communism have been shown through out history to not work. 
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