Evidence Can Sway People’s Moral Beliefs

Three professors study repugnant markets.

What can turn a “repugnant market”—an area of commerce that people find morally objectionable—into an acceptable one? In the case of selling human organs, it might be the availability of information that explains the advantages of such sales.

Three professors have studied the factors that might make people abandon their moral objections to organ selling, as well as other transactions in repugnant markets. They include Mario Macis, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland; Julio Elias, a professor of economics at Universidad del CEMA in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Nicola Lacetera, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in Ontario.

“People may find the sale of organs less offensive after they have considered data about factors such as waiting lists, those who die while waiting for a transplant, and the savings in long-term medical care that can result from transplants," Macis explains in the Carey School’s Changing Business journal.

Some people's moral beliefs can be changed by evidence.

The researchers conducted an online survey of about 3,400 U.S. residents. Members of a control group were asked whether they would approve of payments for organs. Just under 52 percent said yes. The same question was posed to members of a second group after they read a 500-word text about the social and economic consequences of the U.S. organ shortage. Of this group, more than 71 percent said they would approve of organ sales. “This told us that some people’s moral beliefs can be changed by evidence. Their attitudes don’t necessarily reflect immutable values,” says Macis.

The paper calls attention to the shortage of organs, mostly kidneys, available for transplant: While 120,000 people in the U.S. are on waiting lists for organs, only 29,000 transplants are performed every year, and 10,000 people die or become too ill for an operation. The authors cite other researchers who have projected that a compensation of US$15,000 to $30,000 could stimulate enough sales to bridge the gap between the low supply of organs and the high demand. Additionally, patients who receive new kidneys save about $250,000 in dialysis treatments. While most organs are donated by the patient’s family members, Macis says,“ having a system of payments for organs from unrelated people could dramatically increase the supply.”

The researchers plan at least two follow-up studies. One would examine whether those who find organ sales objectionable might be influenced by emotion and poignancy—for instance, if they view videos about a candidate waiting for transplant or an impoverished person hoping to raise cash. Another study would focus on why nearly 30 percent of the people still opposed organ sales after reading information about the impact of organ shortages.

The co-authors presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association last January in Boston. The paper, “Sacred Values? The Effect of Information on Attitudes toward Payments for Human Organs,” was published in May 2015 in the American Economic Review.