Mario Macis, PhD, together with Vikram Chib, PhD and Jeffrey Kahn, PhD, MPH were awarded funding by the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics program for their project titled “Altruism, Ethics and Markets: A Behavioral and Neuroscientific Experimental Study.” This is an experimental study at the intersection of ethics, economics and neuroscience that addresses controversial economic transactions, such as receiving financial compensation for organ donation. The research team will create an experimental laboratory setting that reproduces several of the features of organ donation, and will study the ethical and economic implications of different institutional regimes of procurement. By measuring neural activity (through fMRI) and behavior, this study will provide insight into how altruism, the desire for economic gain, and the tolerance for physical pain interact to produce outcomes. The study will also consider how those interactions depend on institutional arrangements and will examine the neural mechanisms associated with people’s preferences.


Dr. Macis answers our questions.


Explain the different scenarios in which participants can “donate” in this experiment.


Participants are presented with three scenarios. In the first two scenarios, in exchange for a physical cost (i.e., pain from an electric shock), participants will have the possibility to earn some money for a charity of their choice (“pure altruism”), or for both a charity and themselves (“paid altruism”). In the third scenario, participants are given the opportunity to transfer a certain amount of their endowment as a payment to another person who agrees to take a given shock, and a charity receives a given sum of money (“market”).


What will the results tell you about organ donation?


This experimental paradigm is meant to provide a tractable laboratory experiment that simulates the physical costs associated with the act of organ donation. By varying the amounts of money offered and the magnitudes of the electrical shocks, and observing the individuals’ choices, we will generate a rich dataset that will allow us to estimate and characterize individual preferences and describe how altruism, the desire for economic gain, and the tolerance for physical pain interact to produce outcomes (i.e., donations). Although there are many important questions concerning organ donations that cannot be studied in the abstract, there are several issues related to organ donation that can only be studied in the lab, because compensation for donation is not allowed in the United States. Moreover, even in a context where payments are allowed, manipulating certain aspects of the actual organ donation decision would be difficult, whereas such manipulations can be done in the lab. In the context of our research, even if donor compensation were permitted, manipulating the amount of pain associated with donating an organ would be impossible to do in the field. In the laboratory, instead, both monetary and physical costs can be imposed and manipulated, to model the costs and trade-offs experienced by donors.


What can neuroscience and fMRIs tell us about altruism and morals?


Our outcome variables include behavioral decisions, psychological effects, and neurological responses. The field of neuroscience has advanced tremendously in the past decade, and methods from this science can be fruitfully applied to learn about the biological mechanisms behind preferences and behavioral responses to different institutional arrangements, which are virtually unexplored.


In your view, what role do morals play in economic decisions on an individual level?


Ethical considerations play an important role in shaping individual attitudes toward policy solutions to many social problems. In modern societies, including capitalistic countries that generally rely on the price system to guide individuals’ and firms’ consumption and investment decisions, several economic transactions are prohibited due to ethical concerns. For example, although monetary compensation to living donors could potentially increase the supply of organs thereby improving the life expectancy and the quality of life of many patients, payments are prohibited because of ethical concerns. These concerns include the risk of undue influence on decision-making, exploitation of the participants, and the possibility that payments might cloud donors’ ability to fully assess or appreciate risks. Other transactions that are often prohibited mainly on moral grounds include the exchange of sex for money, gestational surrogacy, and same-sex marriage. What these transactions have in common is that the parties would be willing to transact, but third parties disapprove and wish to prevent them (economics Nobel Prize winner Alvin Roth defined these as “repugnant transactions”). One reason why studying these attitudes is important is that prohibition has cost for the parties involved and often for society more broadly, as exemplified by the shortage of organs for transplantation.


How can a study like this, using these methods, inform future economic or regulatory policy decisions surrounding morally controversial transactions?


In spite of the extensive literature and vigorous public debates on the ethical and economic reasons for and against payments, large knowledge gaps exist, and important conclusions about what society ought to do rest on untested assumptions. Moreover, the neurobiology that underlies these behaviors is virtually unexplored. These knowledge gaps are likely due to the lack of interdisciplinary work, which is required by the complex nature of these issues.



For more information about the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics and all nine funded projects, and for free registration to our upcoming symposium (January 24, 2017; 2:00pm – 5:00pm; Feinstone Hall, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health


See Also: Would you Donate Your Kidney for $1,000?

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